Let’s Do What’s Best for the Child: an interview with J.C. Watts Jr.

Published August 1, 2000

“We have to come to the table minus our egos and minus these ideological frames of mind that we get into and say, ‘Let’s do what’s best for the child.’ There’s a seat at the table for anybody who wants to make sure that my child goes to a school every day that’s safe and that provides a good education.”

As a role model for black Americans, 42-year-old U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts Jr. has few peers, with his rise from a poor community in Oklahoma to the marbled hilltop of power in Washington DC, where he holds the fourth-highest leadership position in the U.S. House of Representatives, House Republican Conference Chairman.

Married, with five children, Watts is a former college football star who led his University of Oklahoma team to consecutive Big Eight Championships and Orange Bowl victories in 1980 and 1981. For six years, he was starting quarterback for Ottawa and Toronto in the Canadian Football League before returning to Oklahoma, where he now is Associate Pastor of the Sunnylane Baptist Church.

The guidance and education of the young are issues of major concern to Congressman Watts. His first position with the Sunnylane Church was Youth Minister, and for the past several years he has been a committed spokesperson for such groups as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and various anti-drug campaigns in Oklahoma and across the country. He also is a leader for the Orphan Foundation of America.

Not everyone can follow in Watts’ footsteps to become a quarterback in professional football or a national political leader. And beyond those, there is another step Watts took that is proving extraordinarily difficult for black Americans to take: Vote Republican.

The black community’s hesitancy to vote Republican doesn’t surprise Watts, who himself struggled with the decision for nine years before joining the GOP in 1989. He simply had come to the conclusion that he agreed more often with Republican solutions than those proposed by Democrats.

Watts points out that many black Americans are socially conservative, they overwhelmingly favor school choice, and they support federal funding of faith-based organizations to help combat drugs and gangs, the two principal scourges of youth after poor education. But when the black community goes to the ballot box, they overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, who generally oppose solutions that support personal responsibility and faith.

This discrepancy is particularly acute when it comes to school choice. For example, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported last year that 60 percent of African-Americans in the general public favor school choice. Support for school choice among nonwhites rose from just 42 percent in 1996 to 70 percent in 1999, according to Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls.

As House Republican Leader, school choice is a key issue for Congressman Watts with the approach of the November elections. He spoke recently from Washington with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did your interest in school choice develop?

Watts: The most important tool that we can give our children is a good education. I think we do have an uneven playing field in many respects, but I don’t think we ever have any chance of leveling that playing field unless we make sure that every child in America–despite their skin color, despite what part of town they grew up in, despite what kind of home life they had, despite what their economic status might be–goes to a venue of learning every single day that is safe and that will teach them how to read and write, do the arithmetic, and, today, have the computer skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace that we are in. Education is the key tool in making sure that the playing field is level and giving our children the opportunity to compete globally.

I grew up in a family in a poor community that understood the importance of education and the importance of going to school every day. Not only did we go to school; we were expected to act civilized once we got there. Although my parents did not have formal education, it was important to them that their children went to school and got an education. When I was growing up, education did not mean going to college, it meant finishing high school.

I read once where Frederick Douglas said, “Some people know the importance of education because they have it. I knew the importance of education because I didn’t have it.” That one statement helped me to realize what my father was saying, what he meant when he said, “You need to get you a good education.” He knew the importance of education because he didn’t have it, not because he had it.

During the time that I have spent in public service, education has always been out in the forefront. I’ve done a lot of work and asked a lot of questions in this area. I’ve visited some of these parochial schools and I have just been astounded with the results that they get. And, at most of them, I was even more fascinated with what they were able to achieve with poor minority children compared to the public schools.

We have School A over here, a public school, where 70 percent of the students have failing test scores, and we have School B over there, a private school, where 90 percent of the poor children have passing test scores. All of a sudden, you start asking, “If School B is graduating 90 or 95 percent of its students while School A is graduating 40 or 50 percent, why is it that we can’t use School B?” And the answer you get is, “They hang a cross in School B. They’re associated with some religious denomination–Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist–and we can’t use religious schools.”

In my opinion, it borders on being unconstitutional to say that parents don’t have the right to send their child to a school, public or private, that works for their child.

Clowes: Your views on this issue put you at odds with other African-American leaders and groups like the NAACP who oppose school vouchers. What do you see as the major differences in philosophy that lead to such a major difference in public policy viewpoints?

Watts: I think it’s probably just tradition or habit. I think we have to look at new models for dealing with old problems. We’ve got to look at new models of governing, whether it’s with education or with Social Security. In fact, I’m at odds with most of the black leadership over personalized investment accounts for Social Security. But I’m willing to look at new ways of dealing with old problems.

This is a little outside the realm of education, but it makes my point: Why is it that the black leadership is not willing to look at personalized investment accounts in Social Security when you consider the life expectancy of black men? The government says that you’re going to get your Social Security at 65, but statistics say that while white men have a life expectancy of 72, black men have a life expectancy of only 64.9. Now when your numbers say that I’m going to die at 64.9, it means that I’m going to pay into a system for 45 years and then I’m not going to get any benefits out of it. When I die, the government is going to get my money instead of my wife and children.

Clowes: Because you don’t have any title to your Social Security money the way it’s set up now?

Watts: That’s my point. It’s the same way in education. When we lock ourselves into the special interests of Washington DC, and not the children, then the children are going to get cheated or the parents are going to get cheated. The responsibility of the teachers’ unions is to look out for the teachers. That’s why they call them a teachers’ union. When I was a football player, I was in a players’ union and they looked out for the players. They didn’t care about the owners and they didn’t care about the fans. Their responsibility was to look after the players.

It’s the same with the teachers’ unions. Their responsibility is to look out for the teachers–not the students, not the parents, not the school board–but the teachers.

Now, you can’t blame them for that. But our concern should be: “What’s best for the end user?” The end user is the parent and the student, not the teachers, and not the school buildings. The product and service should be what is best for mom and dad and their children, not the teachers. If that means taking a child out of a bad public school and placing that child in a good public school, I have no problem with that. But I also have no problem with saying, “Let that parent take their child from this bad public school and enroll that child in a good private school, or even a private, faith-based school.”

It’s amazing to me that any time we want to talk about helping poor people, we throw up the issue of separation of church and state. I am a Baptist. For years, we have been giving government money in the form of Medicare dollars to Baptist hospitals and to hospitals associated with other denominations. We give Pell grants to Oklahoma Baptist University. We’ve been giving Pell grants and scholarships and loans to students that go to religious schools for years. But it’s only when we talk about helping poor children in education that we hear an argument about the separation of church and state.

Clowes: The black community supports school choice but also provides solid support to Democrats, who strongly oppose school choice. What are your views on this situation?

Watts: Most black people don’t think alike, they just vote alike. As proponents of parental choice, we have to ask ourselves, “Why is it that most black people who are for parental choice would not support a candidate who supports parental choice?” Why is it that they will agree with me on principle but not vote for me as a candidate?

In many respects, I think it has a lot to do with the way that we present our ideas. As a conference chairman, one of the things that I’ve done over the last 18 months is to work very hard on changing how we communicate, how we say things.

For example, I hardly ever talk about “vouchers,” but I talk a lot about “parental choice” because people understand that much better. If you talk about vouchers, people will ask “What’s a voucher?” and you explain how they work. But when you talk about “parental choice,” people know that you’re talking about giving parents a choice of where they send their child to school.

There’s a saying in this business that if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

The research that I’ve done shows that it does make a difference how we say it and how we present it to the American people. Republicans often talk about legislation in terms of the process, the way it works. But most folks–black or white–don’t understand the process.

When Democrats go the floor of the House to talk about a bill, they talk in terms of benefits. They talk in layman’s terms. When Republicans go to the floor of the House, they talk analytically. Most folks–again, black or white–don’t understand what the CBO is, or the GAO, or an omnibus budget package. But that’s what Republicans talk about.

If you take people who are totally ignorant about the school choice issue, I guarantee you they’d have a much better chance understanding what “parental choice” is as opposed to what “vouchers” are, because “parental choice” describes the benefits of the idea.

Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers about education issues?

Watts: I think we all agree on how critical education is, but it has become too politicized. I would hope that we all would have enough moxie to look beyond the Republican-Democrat labels, and come to the table and say, “What is it that we need to be doing to make sure that our children go to a venue of learning every single day that is safe, that teaches them how to read, write, do the arithmetic, and have the computer skills necessary to compete in this global marketplace?”

We have to come to the table minus our egos and minus these ideological frames of mind that we get into and say, “Let’s do what’s best for the child.” There’s a seat at the table for anybody who wants to make sure that my child goes to a school every day that’s safe and that provides a good education.

This debate will go on for some time, but I do think it’s time to look at new ways of dealing with old problems. There are good public schools and there are good private schools. We have to be open to allowing all good schools to be in the mix to compete.

For more information . . .

about Congressman J.C. Watts Jr. and his views on the importance of education, visit his Web site at http://www.house.gov/watts/.