Blacks Leaders on a Mission for Parent Power

Published May 1, 2000

More than 300 African-Americans from 26 states gathered in Milwaukee recently for an annual conference that is building a national movement for school choice and outlining reforms necessary to enhance educational options for low-income minority children across the United States. Participants, whose numbers were up almost two-fold over last year, were urged to focus their efforts on children and not be distracted by differences over specific reforms, such as charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, public-private partnerships, or private scholarships.

“Unify around our children, but without a uniform approach–it’s all good as long as it works for our children,” said Marquette University professor Howard L. Fuller, who organized the March 3-5 conference on “Expanding and Enhancing Educational Options for African-Americans. “Any time we put all our eggs in one basket, we’re in trouble,” he warned.

African-Americans no longer are willing to accept that poverty and dysfunctional families are the reasons black children cannot learn. Black parents are demanding that their children be taught to read, write, compute, analyze, and think.

“If we do that, our children won’t need classes in self-esteem,” Fuller told the educators, clergy, elected officials, and school choice activists gathered at the conference.

“We’re going to build a movement and we’re not asking anybody’s permission,” he declared, a sentiment shared by the participants. While their numbers were still small, they were reminded that the civil rights movement in the 1950s started with a small number of people, too. At one time, there were only four students sitting at that lunch counter.

“You don’t need many people to fight, you just need someone who is committed,” said Raymond Jackson of Chicago’s ATop Academy College Preparatory.

While many educators recognize the failures of urban education, particularly for African-American students, their solution is to call for more of the same: more money, more programs, more teachers, and smaller classes. Fuller pointed out those reforms have produced little improvement in school performance. The solution, he said, is not the insanity of carrying out the same reform over and over again and expecting a different result, but to empower poor parents to make the same kinds of educational choices that better-off parents are making–choosing better schools for their children.

“The power to make educational choices is widespread, long-standing, and highly valued–by those who have it,” said Fuller. For example, one-third of Milwaukee teachers choose private schools for their children, while only 6 percent of African-American parents can afford that option.

Parental choice is not a new or untested idea, as critics claim. “All that is new is that a small number of low-income parents finally have won power that middle- and upper-income parents long have taken for granted,” said Fuller. “This is a debate about power, not a debate about vouchers.”

School vouchers generate such emotion and opposition not because there’s a constitutional question, but because those who now have control over education spending don’t want to give up that power to parents, explained Fuller. That’s why even the smallest step toward school choice is challenged.

Fuller offered these new guiding principles for educational reform:

Excellent Schools: Success depends on student achievement and on creating excellent schools, both public and private.

Redefine “Public”: A public school need not be authorized by a school board nor managed only by a public agency. What makes a school public is whether it serves a public purpose. Private schools serve the same public purpose as government-operated schools.

Empower Parents: The poorest parents must be empowered to make educational choices for their children.

“Empowering low-income parents of color to choose where their children go to school is inextricably linked to the broader issues of self-determination and empowerment that are central to African-Americans and the future health of American cities,” said Fuller

The Rev. Eddie Edwards of Detroit agreed. “We need our city to change at the school level,” he said.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.