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Urban League Report Assails Vouchers, 'Basics'

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Public support of private schools through tax credits and vouchers would do little to increase educational opportunities for black students--yet public-school programs may be no more than "enforced mediocrity" for black and other minority students, contends a paper commissioned by the National Urban League for its seventh annual "State of Black America" address.

Bernard C. Watson, the author of "Public Education: A Search for Sanity and Humanity" and president of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, said in the report that private schools are geared "primarily toward the academic and college-preparatory tracks" and do not provide the range of educational choices that is available in public schools. For that reason, he wrote, private schools should not be considered a desirable option for less-affluent black families who favor broad curriculum offerings for their children.

On the other hand, Mr. Watson said, there should be concern over the "back-to-basics" push in the states and "demands for more restricted curriculum" in the public schools because such movements stifle "the human spirit and natural curiosity," which he termed essential elements for critical thinking.

Mr. Watson's paper on education is one of eight papers commissioned by the National Urban League and is contained in the 322-page annual report on issues affecting black Americans. Other topics include employment and economic patterns, the status of black teen-agers, religion, black political conservatism, and the media.

In releasing the report last week, John E. Jacob, who replaced Vernon E. Jordan this month as president of the league, criticized policies of the Reagan Administration that he said are undercutting the economic and civil-rights gains of black Americans and serving to alienate them from their government.

Mr. Jacob singled out the Internal Revenue Service's recent decision to grant tax-exempt status to educational organizations that refuse to adopt non-discriminatory policies as "the most blatant" of the Administration's anti-civil-rights policies, and called it an attempt to ''dismantle the process of desegregating America."

"In 1981," Mr. Jacob said, "an Administration from which blacks and minorities are virtually absent took a number of negative steps in civil rights. From its backtracking in desegregating schools to its de-emphasis of civil-rights enforcement to its attack on affirmative action, the Administration created a feeling among many blacks that they were forgotten people."

The report notes, in a paper on economic trends, that black youths make up an increasing proportion of the youth population and will "probably continue to be concentrated in areas with limited job opportunities." It concludes that the Administration's current policies will not help narrow the gap between black and other workers, but will only "reduce opportunities for the disadvantaged to become prepared to make a productive contribution to society."

In remarks on the league's recommendations for education, Mr. Jacob urged that efforts to adopt voucher systems for the schools "be opposed at every level, and that the Congress enact federal guidelines--if responsibility for educational programs is shifted to the states--to insure that the original intent of the programs is fulfilled."

The league further recommended that federal resources "continue to be targeted to provide quality educational opportunities for the disadvantaged," and that federal funds continue to support Head Start programs throughout the country.

Mr. Watson suggested in his paper that many black students--at least those who could afford the tuition--would likely be denied admission to private schools anyway, because such schools are not required to accept all applicants.

Mr. Watson described the increase of minority students enrolled in private schools as a "class phenomenon," and warned that schools in urban areas--where most blacks, other minorities, and the poor live--could become the "repository of those who have few, if any educational options," a group he called "the powerless."

Although the public schools must also be regarded critically, Mr. Watson said, they remain the only option if the children of poor blacks and other minorities are to receive an education. He warned, however, that public support for urban public schools would be drastically reduced if vouchers and tax-credit initiatives were adopted.

The results of recent national achievement tests point to improvement in the performance of black students, but, according to Mr. Watson, there is evidence that "emphasis on basic and limited curricula may be leading to a decline in performance on higher-order intellectual skills such as problem-solving."

The "mechanistic" and narrow approaches to instruction offered in the public schools, he said, deprive minority students of the opportunity to excel because they "are being marched lock-step through curricular offerings based on behavioristic models of learning which are appropriate only for the most elementary kinds of learning."

"I believe what parents of poor and minority students want, and desperately need, is a sense of sanity in their schools," Mr. Watson wrote.

However, the turmoil many urban school systems are facing--such as teachers' strikes and violence--only disillusion parents and alienate them from teachers and administrators, according to Mr. Watson.

In spite of those barriers, Mr. Watson argued, black parents should commit themselves to improving the educational quality of the schools their children attend; should support and develop public-policy initiatives through effective lobbying; should generate new ideas; and should promote excellence and achievement.

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