Educational Freedom: A Civil Rights Issue

Published November 1, 1999

When he presented his choice-based education policy proposals to a national forum of more than 5,000 black Baptist delegates in Tampa, Florida, GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes knew he wasn’t preaching to the choir. Black Americans traditionally have supported Democrat candidates and have been strong defenders of the public school system. Nevertheless, Forbes’ speech was interrupted several times by applause, and afterwards he received endorsements from a number of the black leaders present.

“His platforms embrace some of the same concerns we have,” said the Rev. Charles W. Noble of Shiloh Baptist Church in Newark, Ohio, speaking with Tampa Tribune reporter Mark Silva. “I’m sure as his campaign progresses, you’ll see a large number of African-Americans coming aboard.”

Three great civil rights issues already have been fought and won, said Forbes in his September 9 speech: Ending slavery, ending racial segregation, and establishing voting rights for all Americans. But the United States still needs to make progress on a fourth issue that will be “the next great civil rights battleground of the 21st century:” Expanding educational freedom and economic opportunity for every American.

“No mother in America should be forced to send her child to a lousy school,” Forbes declared, noting that too often progress in education reform is stymied by “all those lobbyists and special interest groups who selfishly defend the status quo.”

“Not long ago, certain politicians stood in the school house door to keep children out of good schools,” said Forbes, conjuring up 1950s images of Alabama Governor George Wallace and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus blocking black students from all-white schools. Then Forbes likened those images to more current ones, of President Bill Clinton and Senator Edward M. Kennedy rejecting voucher legislation that would allow black students in the District of Columbia to attend better schools.

Today, “when we do not have another minute to waste in getting children a decent education,” said the 52-year-old Forbes, “we find Big Government politicians standing in the school house door to keep children trapped in dangerous, failing schools.”

“Real school choice means public schools and private schools, charter schools and Baptist schools, home schools and parochial schools,” said Forbes, making it clear that his idea of educational freedom was not the carefully tailored Clinton definition that included only public schools. Parents should have a range of options available to them–tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts, opportunity scholarships or vouchers–“whatever it takes to set these kids free.”

There are children all around the world who need our care, admitted Forbes, “but there are children right here in America who need to learn to read.”