Backlash Against Choice Plans Emerges Among Minorities

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Hunt Valley, Md--Many of the advocates for minority children meeting here this month said they were deeply skeptical about the consequences of current proposals to expand school "choice."

The idea of allowing parents to choose which school their children will attend is in direct opposition to the philosophy of the National Conference on Educating Black Children, said Al Tony Gilmore, a human- and civil-rights specialist with the National Education Association. That philosophy, he argued, is "that all children are educable, regardless of race, color, creed, but particularly regardless of class."

Parental choice "has the potential for being the most devastating issue that we as black people have ever had to deal with," Mr. Gilmore said during one of two workshops he led on the issue. "I am not optimistic at all that the poor black child will benefit at all from what we call 'choice."'

The n.e.a. has not taken an official position on choice but will do so at its conference in Washington next month, a spokesman said.

Although some participants urged that specific choice proposals be evaluated according to their particular merits, a majority opposed the overall concept, according to informal polls taken in each session.

The remarks of choice opponents attending the conference reflected what seems to be an emerging backlash among minority leaders and8advocates against the choice movement, which has enjoyed a considerable boost in momentum this year.

Several of the participants here indicated that they considered choice to be an extension of the Reagan Administration's conservative education agenda, which included the use of public funds to subsidize private education. But the skepticism also extends to plans that are limited solely to public schools, as demonstrated by minority opposition to "controlled choice" plans in such districts as Boston and Little Rock.

Mr. Gilmore suggested that choice programs would discriminate against children of poor parents who are not well informed about the school system, and that black stuel10ldents might not be welcome in schools they chose to attend.

"You have a choice to apply, and that's it," he said.

Rita Walters, a member of the Los Angeles school board, agreed, calling choice a "cruel hoax."

"This is not for black people," she said.

Workshop participants recommended a set of steps to take in opposition to choice, including working to elect politicians sensitive to black concerns; writing letters to newspaper editors; working to inform parents about choice; and monitoring the legislatures and county governments in states considering choice plans.

Some participants, however, advocated discussing guidelines and4equity provisions that would make choice programs acceptable to minorities, rather than condemning the idea outright.

"It is up to us as members of this organization and other organizations to find ways that black children will have a better choice for education," said Harold Fisher, chairman of the American Federation of Teachers' Black Caucus.

"We do oppose any suggestion that choice will mean vouchers or any of those heinous kinds of segregation," he added.

In 1986, the a.f.t. adopted a policy stating that the union "remains open to the discussion of choice options within the public-school system if such options fulfill the educational conditions, goals, and outcomes duly established by states and local communities."--ab & ws

Vol. 08, Issue 39

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