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Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Black Parents at Heart of Tug of War

Black Parents at Heart of Tug of War

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As a single parent who works as a hairstylist at a Long Island J.C. Penney store, Georgette Collazo has to struggle to give her daughter, Perrisha, a private school education. Ms. Collazo scrimps and saves to pay the roughly $3,500 tuition bill at the pre-K-8 Allen Christian School here.

"It's worth it because here they're really concerned," she said as she picked up her daughter from the school one recent afternoon. "They let the kids know you can't just stop. You have to reach a higher goal."

And what if she could get a government voucher to pay part of the bill?

"I sure could use it," she answered.

Ms. Collazo's practical--rather than political--reply echoes the views of plenty of other African-American parents, judging from recent polls on school choice and a flood of applications for voucher-style scholarships offered by private donors in a growing number of cities. Their sentiments have helped set up a tug of war for the hearts and minds of black parents on the issue of vouchers.

On one side are a few prominent African-Americans like the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic U.S. congressman from New York and the founder of the Allen Christian School, who have joined conservatives in arguing that vouchers are needed to help poor, desperate families escape failing public schools. On the other are such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the liberal People for the American Way Foundation, which are spreading the word that vouchers are a hollow promise.

Both sides are working through black churches and religious groups, and both are framing the issue as one of civil rights.

"Thus far, the face of vouchers has been conservative, Republican--people who are viewed with a level of suspicion in regards to what their real agenda is," Mr. Flake said in his offices at Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, two blocks from his school. "I think what is happening now is persons like myself are forcing African-Americans to have to at least begin debating the issue."

The Gospel of Choice

Straddling the mostly black, middle-class neighborhoods of St. Albans and Jamaica, the community served by Mr. Flake's church is a testament to the pastor's ability to make things happen. Aside from the neatly kept homes, the church, with its congregation of about 11,000, seems responsible for just about every area of the neighborhood that isn't in a state of decay.

All told, Mr. Flake says, his church owns real estate worth about $50 million, including a 2,500-seat cathedral, senior citizens' housing, three strips of renovated business spaces, a medical clinic that's under construction, and the school, which he founded in 1982.

Unlike the chain-link fencing that wraps around the neighborhood's two public schools, a low, wrought-iron fence, trimmed hedges, and short, decorative trees surround the brown-brick Allen Christian School.

On an outside wall, a small plaque proclaims, "This building was made possible by the sacrifices of people in the community. Please no graffiti," and, indeed, the structure is free of marks.

The school's 482 students, who wear yellow-and-green plaid uniforms, are taught to say "excuse me" before interrupting adults, and visits from the pastor prompt a chorus of "Good morning, Reverend Flake!" at each classroom.

"The biggest problem in schools now is the ability to manage behavior," said the 53-year-old Mr. Flake. "You just cannot educate in chaos."

Critics of Mr. Flake's pro-voucher stance often point to the fact that his church runs a school, and would, therefore, have something to gain from publicly financed tuition aid to parents. But Mr. Flake says most of the students who attend Allen Christian School are from middle-income families and would not qualify for the kind of means-tested programs he favors. Instead, he sees his school as an example of the potential of a community's self-determination, and when he talks about vouchers to other clergymen, he urges them to start their own schools.

"One of our greatest evangelistic tools is that we built a school," he said. "People respond to that."

Many also seem to be responding to the message he's preaching on school choice since he left Congress last November. Although he says he still occasionally gets disinvited by local groups upset with his stance on vouchers, he's spoken to dozens of black church and community organizations from Boston to Los Angeles since stepping down after 11 years in the U.S. House.

When he speaks about vouchers, Mr. Flake eschews much of the arcane terminology of education policymakers in favor of blunt language. He talks of the "educational genocide" he contends is being inflicted on black Americans through poor schools.

"The Reverend Flake does a great job of getting an audience of black people to listen," said Annette Polly Williams, the black Democratic state legislator who shepherded in the 1990 Milwaukee voucher law, whose expansion to religious schools was upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court this month.

"What he has is credibility and believability," she said, "because he's already demonstrated he wants to address the needs of people in the community."

Rising in the Polls

Polls suggest Mr. Flake's gospel is winning some converts. Last summer, 62 percent of blacks responding to a nationwide survey by the professional education group Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup organization supported using public money to help pay for private school tuition. ("Poll Finds Growing Support for School Choice," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Those results came just weeks after a survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that studies African-American issues, showed that black support for vouchers had increased to 57 percent, up from 46 percent the year before.

And last month, The Washington Post polled residents of the nation's capital as Congress debated a voucher plan to offer scholarships to about 2,000 of the city's public school students. Although 60 percent of black respondents voiced support, President Clinton vetoed the bill.

"What you are seeing now is a response to the unrealized hopes and expectations of the public system in most urban communities," Mr. Flake said. "I don't think the average educator understands the pain that the urban community is suffering because of this lack of education.

"And because they don't seem to understand it, they have a tendency to offer window dressing solutions, and the parents in essence are saying, 'We won't accept that any longer.'"

In some communities, the recent rhetoric in support of vouchers has translated into political action.

In Detroit, a group of mostly black members of the clergy helped parents and other community leaders form the Detroit Partnership for Parental Choice, which is organizing to get a question on the fall 2000 state ballot that would change the Michigan Constitution to allow parents to use public funds at religious schools.

"I don't know about the Christian right, but I am an African-American progressive Democrat, and I support school choice," said Anita Nelam, a spokeswoman for the effort.

'Don't Be Fooled'

But Mr. Flake's preaching also faces well-organized opposition. Last spring, the NAACP, based in Baltimore, and People for the American Way, located in Washington, launched a "Partners for Public Education" initiative to drum up community support for improving public schools as an alternative to vouchers.

Along with the African-American Ministers Leadership Council, a group the People for American Way Foundation helped pull together, the opponents have held forums in cities nationwide, including major events in Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

"We understand why many parents might want vouchers; they want what's best for their children," said Rhonda Boozer, the NAACP's coordinator for the effort. "But this, we believe, would be at the expense of the majority."

Based on such forums, organizers maintain that they don't see widespread grassroots support for vouchers.

"The Reverend Flake gets a good response where he goes, and we get a good response where we go," said Carole Shields, the president of the People for the American Way Foundation. "And the outcome of the polls depends on how you frame the questions."

But even some voucher opponents agree that the debate becomes more complicated when a former Democratic congressman, who has supported such liberal causes as affirmative action, weighs in as strongly as Mr. Flake has.

"[Mr. Flake] is living where he lives, and he sees the struggle there that his members and their kids face every day, so I do not want to question that," said Lee Berg, a staff member at the National Education Association. "But the bottom line is that a lot of the people who support vouchers are not concerned about making public education better; they're interested in the end of public education as we know it."

Too often the issue is presented as a choice between vouchers and the status quo, argues Mr. Berg, an ordained Baptist minister who is a community organizer for the nea's Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education.

As for what Mr. Berg says is a more viable alternative to vouchers, he points to the public-school-improvement plan drafted this winter by a group called the Milwaukee Minority Ministers Alliance and presented in April to the school board of the 104,000-student Milwaukee district. The group's wish list included a nurse at every elementary school, class-size reductions, an end to social promotion, and keeping school buildings open after hours so students have a place to study.

"If we put as much resources and intellect into solving the problems in our public schools as we put into what I call 'the Pat Robertson paradigm,' then we'd take a tremendous step," said the Rev. Rolen Womack, a member of the alliance.

Mr. Womack's opinions were shaped, he says, by his experience with Wisconsin's state-financed voucher program for Milwaukee, which he says hasn't yielded significant improvements in the performance of its public school students.

In a move that buoyed voucher advocates, the state supreme court ruled this month that the program can expand from 1,500 students to 15,000 and can include religious schools for the first time. ("Court Allows Vouchers in Milwaukee," June 17, 1997.)

Mr. Womack argues that even if all the new voucher recipients can find a private school to attend, "you will still have 80,000 or more students in the public schools, where you'll have the same problems, but with a significant decrease in resources."

But Mr. Flake has a different take on the expansion.

"If an airplane crashes, you don't take the position that there are no survivors," he said. "You try to save as many people as you can."

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 1,14-15

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