Policy Review Banner

Free At Last

Friday, November 1, 1996

A powerful grass-roots movement is slowly gathering force that may transform the politics of American education. Its human face is not white but black; its resources few but its determination strong. And its goal is freedom. Although most black political leaders still actively oppose vouchers and charter schools, their constituents are growing increasingly angry at the public schools' disastrous record of teaching black children. As a result, black parents, pastors, local officials, and civil-rights leaders are beginning to embrace school vouchers, charter schools, and other reforms that offer alternatives to dismal public schools.

          These African Americans believe that academic achievement is the key to their economic independence. They want schools that involve them in their children's education while imposing high standards and strict discipline, and they reject the notion that poverty somehow renders parents less interested in their children's academic well-being. As their numbers swell, teachers unions will find it increasingly difficult to hold back reforms that offer black children a better chance.

Standards, discipline, and parental involvement are pulling black parents toward school choice


          This new movement is already spreading throughout the country. In Cleveland, African Americans like councilwoman Fannie Lewis, school principals Lydia Harris and Sister Hasina Renee, and school-board member Genevieve Mitchell led the fight for a new state law that provides vouchers this fall for 2,000 low-income children. Lewis, Harris, Renee, and Mitchell vigorously supported Republican governor George Voinovich as he moved his voucher proposal through the state legislature. Lewis recruited 300 citizens in her neighborhood of Hough, the site of race riots in 1968, to travel to Columbus to lobby for the scholarship program. Last fall, when the governor's staff organized a press conference to announce the signing of the bill, jubilant black students and their parents packed the hallways and aisles.

          In fact, support for vouchers in Cleveland was so strong that nearly 6,300 students, almost all of them black, applied for only 2,000 slots, which were filled by lottery. By mid-September of this year, 1,410 of the students had enrolled in a religious school. Councilwoman Lewis, a mother and 46-year Cleveland resident, attributes this flight to public schools' dismal educational record and indifference to parents. "The quality of public schools in Hough is poor," she says. "The roofs leak and the schools sometimes lack books, chairs, and other materials. Of the more than $7,000 spent on each child in the Cleveland public schools, only a fraction goes to classroom education." Thanks to vouchers, this fall Lewis was able to open her own community school, the Hough-Brooks Academy for Higher Learning -- a nonsectarian school run by a community board with a curriculum emphasizing the arts and cultural awareness. Lewis hopes this will "force school officials to pay more attention to parents' concerns and to provide safer and better schools."

          In Milwaukee, as Dan McGroarty has shown in his new book, Break These Chains, blacks have been the principal supporters of two Wisconsin voucher programs. "The battle for Parental Choice," McGroarty writes, "began in the church basements and meeting halls of Milwaukee's Near North Side," a poor neighborhood where only 48 percent of adults hold a job. "From the start, the Milwaukee proponents' language was appropriated from the civil-rights movement. Their rhetoric was more redolent of Martin Luther King Jr. than the free-market pronouncements favored by conservative voucher proponents."

          The engineer of Milwaukee's first voucher plan, which was limited to nonsectarian schools, was Annette "Polly" Williams, a black Democratic state representative from the Near North Side. Having fought the school system a dozen years earlier for busing her daughter to a bad public school, Williams was familiar with the Milwaukee education establishment's indifference to the needs of low-income black families. "The system is the system. It doesn't care. It doesn't feel," Williams told McGroarty. "The way I saw it, [it] is preparing our children for slavery. Look at the situation: Drop out by 10th grade, get into the street life. When you should be walking across the stage getting a diploma, you're standing in front of a judge wearing chains."

          Committed to breaking up the system for the sake of the young black children in her community, Williams gradually mobilized her army of mothers and grandmothers, most of whom were on welfare, and all of whom were determined to "do right by their children." Aware of her army's powerful impact on lawmakers, she convinced the chairman of the state assembly's urban-education committee to hold a public hearing on her school-choice plan on the morning of February 23, 1990. The three-hour-long hearing, which attracted 200 low-income minority parents and children, prompted the committee to approve her proposal. Soon thereafter, it passed the assembly and the senate and was signed into law by Republican governor Tommy Thompson.

          Throughout the endeavor, only one local newspaper captured Williams's crusade in a concise and accurate way: Community Journal, whose editor, Mikel Holt, is yet another fan of school choice. As for Milwaukee's mainstream dailies, McGroarty notes, "they attacked Williams repeatedly. One went as far as portraying her in a cartoon as a stick-up artist pointing a pistol at a public-school teacher."

          Having survived a grueling round of constitutional scrutiny, the program generated so much support that in September 1994, 750 mostly low-income blacks rallied for its expansion. This time, a new generation of African-American educators joined Williams in the battle. They included Zakiya Courtney, then principal of the Urban Day School and now the director of a grass-roots group called Parents for School Choice; Brother Bob Smith, the principal of the outstanding inner-city school Messmer High; and Howard Fuller, then superintendent of Milwaukee public schools. Last year, the school board and the teachers unions mailed 3,000 videotapes attacking Fuller's stance on choice, calling it an attempt to scale back or completely cut educational programs. The unions succeeded in establishing an anti-reform majority on the board of education, which prompted Fuller's resignation.

          But according to a February 1995 report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 95 percent of African Americans polled in Milwaukee support school choice, and 70 percent believe that students in private and religious schools get a better education than students in the Milwaukee public schools. Finally ceding to their constituents' demands, the Wisconsin legislature last year expanded the program to include religious schools, increased the number of vouchers from 1,500 to 15,000, and eliminated restrictions on the number of choice students in participating schools. In response, voucher opponents immediately and successfully sought an injunction from the courts and have, so far, blocked the plan's implementation.

          The parents, however, are equally determined. In February 1996, for instance, Courtney filled nine buses with 500 mostly black parents and children to attend a rally at the capitol, in Madison. There they voiced their enthusiasm for the newly enacted plan, which was being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. After a tie vote, the court sent the case back to trial court, where Dane County Circuit Judge Paul Higginbotham refused to lift the injunction blocking religious schools' participation in the program. "The state cannot do indirectly what it can't do directly," he said.

          Higginbotham did allow the state to issue up to 15,000 vouchers for private nonreligious schools. But Courtney and Milwaukee's parents eagerly await the day the court will grant them complete authority over the upbringing of their children -- including the freedom to send them to a religious school. Meanwhile, 4,500 low-income Milwaukee students are going to religious schools this year with privately financed vouchers -- thanks to the generosity of the Bradley Foundation and 1,040 private donors who gave more than $4 million to help the students hurt by Higginbotham's decision.

          In Florida, T. Willard Fair, the president and chief executive officer of the liberal Urban League of Miami, and the Reverend R.B. Holmes, a black Baptist pastor from Tallahassee, are the principal supporters of a new charter school law enacted in April. The Florida plan allows any creative educator to open a school, free of the red tape that binds most public schools (such as teacher certification and state-imposed standards). Fair formed a partnership with Jeb Bush, the conservative Republican candidate for governor in 1994, to advance the legislation. Fair described public schools as "too regulated, entrenched in bureaucracy, with overcrowded classrooms, out-of-control children, and teachers who are not held accountable due to too much union interference." And so he created Florida's first charter school, whose student body is almost entirely low-income and African-American.

          Similarly, Holmes opened the C.K. Steele-Leroy Collins charter middle school, with a student body that is 75 percent black. His school is modeled after a Christian academy he created five years ago, which he describes as a school that "all people, [whether] black, white, rich, or poor want to send their kids to." To Holmes, charter schools mean "freedom to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, respect, responsibility, and entrepreneurship all in one--without the bureaucratic strings attached." A 1995 survey by the Foundation for Florida's Future found that Florida's black citizens supported school choice and charter schools by 68 percent and 63 percent, respectively.

          In California, voucher supporters include Anyam Palmer, the principal of the Afrocentric Marcus Garvey School in South Central Los Angeles, who views "the present school system [as] the vehicle that puts us on welfare, in prison, and leaves us illiterate. . . . School choice is the only way out of this vicious cycle." "Public education is not working for most minority citizens in the inner city," says Bishop George D. McKinney Jr. of San Diego, who has set up a school at St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ. Testifying for vouchers last year before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, McKinney faulted public schools for "low expectations . . . of minority students" and "the systematic tracking of minority students toward nonacademic programs." A recent survey of South Central's residents by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture found that 77 percent of minorities supported vouchers.

          Californians may not win the right to vouchers in the near future, but an innovative charter-school law, passed in 1992, offers blacks a close alternative. According to the Hudson Institute, the California plan gives "charter petitioners the right to seek significant autonomy from local board control [and provides] a blanket waiver from most state laws and regulations." Jonathan Williams, the black principal of the Accelerated School, in South Central Los Angeles, says that a charter-school system offers "more freedom, choice, and responsibility." Accelerated's student body comprises 50 percent blacks and 50 percent Hispanics; a majority of students belong to low or low-moderate income groups.

          Williams believes charter schools are the solution to the educational crisis. "With charters you can keep the system public and free, while instilling stronger accountability," he contends. Without union pressure and handouts, "I feel like a professional instead of a wage earner." Williams's school sits in a gang-infested neighborhood. "It is not unusual for us to hear gun fights, and notice the residues of drug abuse around the school grounds," he says. But with a low student-to-teacher ratio, lots of parental involvement, and zero tolerance toward violence and drugs, Williams avoids the problems that incapacitate many public schools every year.

          In Michigan, the TEACH Michigan Education Fund reports that black educators have launched one out of every three Michigan charter schools. According to Bryan Taylor, the fund's executive director, "5,000 applicants applied for 330 spots when the first charter school came to Detroit; African-American educators led most of them." In Michigan, where charter schools are called "public-school academies," the law allows any individual or group to develop a charter and to seek sponsorship from a variety of entities such as the board of a state public university. The program's key supporters include black leaders like the Reverend Ned Adams Jr., an official of the Council of Baptist Pastors, which assists member churches in Detroit interested in starting charter schools; and Larry Patrick, the former president of the Detroit Board of Education and an avid advocate "for parents having as many choices as possible for the education of their children."

          Another black charter-school fan is Freya Rivers. The frustrated former Lansing public-school teacher now serves as district superintendent, full-time language-arts teacher, and part-time janitor and nurse. Her school, the Sanfoka Shule charter school in Lansing, targets at-risk elementary school students. In the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, she said, "I have two students who were [in special education in traditional Lansing public schools]. They couldn't even write their names or recognize any words. . . . I use the same methods to teach them that I use with the other students. Now both of them are writing sentences." In fact, 85 percent of the first- and second-graders Sanfoka received from Lansing public schools were illiterate; now all are able to read.

          In Texas, ardent African-American voucher promoters include Democratic state representative Glenn Lewis, the former general counsel for the Tarrant County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and his liberal legislative colleague Ron Wilson. Fueled by support from a growing number of black churches, including the Reverend Raymond Bryant's Union Center African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Conroe, the leaders foresee a strong chance to enact school choice in their state next year. A 1995 Texas Poll showed black support for vouchers at 59 percent, and a growing number of church groups, ministers, and community groups also believe vouchers are the next step. Says Michael Williams, a black conservative and former assistant education secretary in the Bush administration, "The [African-American] community looks to choice as the vehicle to reclaim control over the learning of the next generation of African-American scholars and leaders." Allan Parker, the president of the Texas Justice Foundation, whose group has convened a citizens' task force to investigate why Texas minority students fare worse than whites on the state's achievement tests, works closely with these leaders in promoting school choice.

          All of these low-income parents and community leaders seek the same opportunities for their children that middle- and upper-income black parents enjoy. "I don't think African-American parents are any different than other parents," says Michigan's Larry Patrick. "All they want is quality education for their children. Wealthy parents, like the president, can make this choice; poor ones cannot. . . . Most African-American leaders [seem to] practice choice in their own lives and support [it] on a personal level." Denis Doyle, a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation, notes that black teachers are twice as likely as other black parents to send their children to a private school, and 30 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members with children send their children to private schools. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of blacks possess the means to exercise this option.

          Perhaps this is why a poll by the left-leaning Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in April 1996 reveals that African Americans favor school choice more strongly than the general population. Support registers highest among women (51 percent), parents (61 percent), and younger African Americans (64 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds, 61 percent among 26- to 35-year-olds). These numbers are particularly telling when you consider that only 18 percent of blacks support the devolving of power from the federal government to the state and local levels. Says Brian Jones, the president of the Center for New Black Leadership, they reflect "a stalwart trend towards reclaiming the power of parents."

          With respect to charter schools, the Hudson Institute's Educational Excellence Network recently reported similar positive conclusions. The report finds a high level of satisfaction with charter schools among most students, and cites the schools' clear academic expectations, safety, individualized instruction, committed teachers, and familial atmosphere. Hudson found that 63 percent of the students attending charter schools nationwide belong to a racial minority -- including 19 percent who are African-American--and that 55 percent are poor.

          What drives African Americans toward choice and charter schools? Standards, discipline, and parental involvement are the three core reasons.

          Joyce Watkins, a resident of Chicago's West Side and a mother of seven, wants higher academic standards and eagerly hopes her city will adopt some form of school choice soon. "Where I'm from," she says, "public education offers leftovers. It means getting lost in the cracks." What frustrates Watkins the most is public-school teachers' lack of interest in her children's academic achievement. "They come home without homework sometimes," she laments. "The quality of education is really low. . . . I often wonder if teachers and school counselors even know my children's names, since they are too busy disciplining unruly students." Watkins would prefer sending her children to Providence St. Mel, a Catholic school in her neighborhood, even though she belongs to a different Christian denomination. "If they gave us more choices, more kids would go to school, stay in school, and graduate to college. . . . You would also see the crime rate go down because the kids would be in class, not on the streets. . . . That's where the opportunity lies."

          Gloria Grayson, a mother in Milwaukee whose two daughters now attend a private school, abhors the absence of strict disciplinary guidelines in public schools. "They were not learning. Classes were large and pupil-to-teacher ratios were high," she says. "The children were afraid and could not concentrate because they had to deal with their undisciplined peers rather than listen and learn in class. Teachers were not able or did not try to maintain adequate control over their classes. As a result, classes progressed slowly. Teachers and administrators had nothing but excuses for the poor education my children were receiving. The . . . schools are filled with drugs and violence. They graduate drug dealers. At best, children leave those schools not with a diploma, but with battle scars."

          Grayson and Watkins join other parents and educators in blaming the education system's lack of interest in their concerns. After all, as Cleveland councilwoman Fannie Lewis notes, "parents have little influence over education policy. The school board often will go into executive session to shut out community attendance at its meetings." Texas legislator Glenn Lewis, whose constituents show their anger by picketing outside school-board meetings, concurs. He considers choice a means to provide parents with more leverage over the school boards and "an opportunity to improve public schools . . . because so long as they are guaranteed our parents' dollars, they have no incentives to listen." According to a poll by the Center for Education Reform, 61 percent of blacks say "the quality of their public school could be improved a great deal," compared with 44 percent of the general population.

          To find those key ingredients of a good education, black parents often gravitate towards religious education. As Fannie Lewis observes, "in most instances [the parents'] decisions have nothing to do with religion. They want their children in a safe environment with strong disciplinary standards where they can get a good education." Sectarian schools constitute 85 percent of all private schools; of that share, more than half are Catholic. Others include religious schools run by Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Muslims. These schools, especially in urban areas, enroll growing numbers of ethnic minority students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). NCEA also reports that in the last 20 years, the minority percentages have more than doubled in all Catholic schools, from 10.8 percent in 1970-71 to 23.5 percent in 1992-93.

          Bob Smith, the veteran superintendent of Milwaukee's Messmer High School, a Catholic school, attests to these facts. "Catholic schools have been known for high-quality education since the black migration from the South. For many years, next to public schools, they were the only safe haven for blacks in the segregation era." He proudly cites the St. Benedict the Moor School, known today as the Urban Day School, as an example. The black all-male boarding school boasts a number of high-profile alumni, including Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz musician; Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago; and Redd Foxx, the comedian and television star. Catholic schools are popular with parents, Smith says, because they are "safe havens against drugs, violence, and uncaring teachers."

          A forthcoming study in the Journal of Labor Economics supports the believers in religious schooling by revealing that those most likely to benefit from a Catholic-school education are minorities, many of whom are not Catholic, who attend big-city schools. The paper's author, University of Chicago economist Derek Neal, observes that "in the urban minority sample, Catholic schooling dramatically increases the probability of high school graduation . . . [and increases] college graduation rates." According to Neal, that translates into future wage gains. Among the study's sample of urban blacks and Hispanics, the probability of graduating from high school rises from 62 percent to at least 88 percent when the public-school students are placed in a Catholic secondary school. "For urban whites," he continues, "the effects are . . . always smaller in magnitude. In fact, [their] estimated wage gain from Catholic schooling is not statistically different." Neal concludes that "urban minority students benefit most from access to Catholic schools because their local public-school alternatives are poor."

          Perhaps this explains why New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently urged educators to use the city's Catholic schools as a "guide" to reforms. He noted in a Wall Street Journal article in 1995 that the city's Catholic and public schools enroll about the same proportion of students with multiple risk factors, but that Catholic schools have a dropout rate of 0.1 percent, compared with 18 percent in the public schools. Giuliani also observed that, despite popular belief, Catholic schools have expulsion rates of only 2 percent. The mayor has recently proposed a measure allowing students performing in the bottom 5 percent to attend religious schools.

School choice and charter schools are becoming the civil-rights movement of the 1990s.

          Furthermore, a recent report by Jay Greene of the University of Houston and Paul Peterson of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government fortifies the supporters of choice. This study demonstrates, for the first time, that students participating in the Milwaukee choice experiment, 70 percent of whom are African American, made major academic improvements compared with a control group in public schools. In fact, after three years, the gap between the test scores of whites and minorities narrowed by 33 to 50 percent.

          Despite the growing black support for vouchers, the civil-rights establishment and most black leaders in Congress and state legislatures remain steadfastly opposed. Their explanations range from fears of losing their best students to private schools (so-called creaming) and segregation to concerns that private schools will soak up public funds. Jessica Butler, a spokesperson for the Greater Harrisburg branch of the NAACP, exclaims "tuition vouchers are just the latest scheme for abandoning our public schools." Michael Myers, the president and executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, says, "School choice is a gimmick. There is no such thing as school choice for children who don't have a choice," since private schools get to select the types of students they like.

          Militant opposition to choice may also stem from the influence of large, monied teachers unions, which see any choice outside the public schools as a threat to their monopoly. Teachers unions adamantly opposed a small school-choice plan tagged to Congress's District of Columbia appropriations bill last fall. After it passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives, the plan died in the Senate, despite the support of local leaders like Franklin Smith, the city's schools superintendent, and Mayor Marion Barry. Throughout the proceedings, District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Congressional Black Caucus sided with the unions and refused to endorse school choice for the city's neediest children. Explaining her reasons for opposing the modest school choice proposal, Norton told the Washington Post on November 3, 1995, "It's not about money, it's about the strong feeling in the District that District schools are where most of the children are going to be, so we need to spend money fixing up our schools."

          "School choice creams the public schools of their best students, and robs them of their much needed funds for educating the needy kids left behind," explains Daniel E. Katz, legal counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Choice also raises the specter of segregation." But as Cleveland's Lydia Harris, principal of one of the nation's best private schools, can attest, this description is inaccurate. In World magazine, she recently said, "There's no cream on my crop until we put it there. It's a myth that we take discipline problems and throw them out of school. It's the other way around. I get the kids the public schools can't handle." And she does all this at a per-pupil cost one-seventh that of Cleveland public schools.

          "Choice is just a subterfuge for segregation, like it was in the South," says Felmers Chaney, the head of the Milwaukee NAACP, which joined the lawsuit against the initial Milwaukee school-choice plan as lead plaintiff. "Taken as a whole, expanded [school choice] will deny African Americans equal educational opportunity," asserted Chaney in a recent brief against the expanded Milwaukee school-choice plan. To many of its black critics, the NAACP seems more concerned with integration than with quality education for black children. Even so, opponents of vouchers need only examine the work of the late James Coleman, of the University of Chicago, which shows not only that poor black youngsters fare better in religious schools than in public schools, but also that a child is more likely to attend school with a child of another race in the private sector than in the public sector. As for the Milwaukee plan, the NAACP ought to take a look at the high level of integration in Milwaukee private schools in comparison to its public schools.

          Some critics argue that the education establishment opposes school choice for a very basic reason: self-preservation. "Perhaps one of the strongest reasons why the civil-rights establishment opposes choice is economic," says Brian Jones. "They strongly feel that competition and privatization will leave them out in the cold." Public schools employ a large portion of the African-American professional community; some of them may view school choice and charter schools as programs designed to rob them of tenured jobs. To convince public-school employees that market forces will provide jobs for the best teachers and administrators from these public schools is next to impossible. Of course, as Milwaukee's Zakiya Courtney points, the number of kids in the school system won't shrink. "This won't impact the teachers," she says. "It will only affect the pencil pushers."

          Will saving jobs justify depriving innocent children of a quality education? To answer this question, these leaders ought to talk to students and their parents, visit the neighborhood private schools these children could go to, and perform a cost-benefit analysis of the savings associated with sending children to these schools. "Once you do this, you can't help but become a believer in school choice," says Messmer's Smith.

          School choice is the civil-rights movement of the 1990s. Says Milwaukee's Polly Williams, "I am one of those people who is supposed to be very stupid because I am black, I live in the inner city, I am poor, and I raised my children in a single parent home. Well, those are lies. The only thing different about us is that we have been deprived of resources and access. When you empower parents like me, there is a major difference. We become responsible for our own lives. . . . We want to be empowered, and that is what the choice program has done."