Black Congressman Backs Private School Voucher Measure

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Voucher advocates have found a new spokesman in the House of Representatives from an unlikely place: the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Floyd H. Flake, D-N.Y., one of 37 members of the coalition of African-American Democrats, last week announced that he had co-sponsored a bill that would create federal K-12 scholarships as part of a broader plan to spark economic development in depressed areas.

"Can we justify another generation of young people being unable to function in society?" Mr. Flake said at a news conference announcing his support for the proposed American Community Renewal Act, which would provide vouchers that impoverished children could redeem at private schools, including religious ones.

Mr. Flake's action breaks traditional party loyalties, but it also may signal the future of the school choice debate, political analysts say.

Choice proponents say Rep. Flake may be able to persuade other black elected officials to shift away from the Democratic Party's long-standing opposition to public funding for private schooling. The pro-voucher forces attribute that opposition in large part to the influence of political giving by teachers' unions.

Mr. Flake said last week in an interview that other members of the black caucus may decide to follow his lead.

Minority Backing

Throughout inner cities, black and other minority groups are opening private schools, like the one created by the African Methodist Episcopal church Mr. Flake pastors in the Queens borough of New York City.

Once politicians see those schools as an integral ingredient of solving economic problems in their districts and realize the political gains that can be made by supporting them, "they may move with us," Mr. Flake said.

The strategy mirrors the ones used in Milwaukee and Cleveland, the two cities with the biggest experiments in private school choice. Proponents of the state-financed vouchers there have created programs for impoverished, mostly minority communities, promising parents a ticket out of troubled public schools. ("Judge Overturns Expanded Wis. Voucher Plan," Jan. 22, 1997, and "Battle Waged Over Vouchers in Cleveland," Feb. 19, 1997.)

As a result, members of minorities--traditionally Democrats--are more likely than whites to support voucher programs, backers say.

For example, 95 percent of blacks polled in Milwaukee--the site of the nation's oldest voucher experiment--support school choice, according to Nina Shokraii, the director of outreach for the Institute for Justice, the Washington-based legal-advocacy group that represents Milwaukee parents in the continuing court fight over the voucher program there.

Other polls suggest that African-Americans are more likely than the general population to support choice, Ms. Shokraii said.

"As soon as the old New Deal, civil rights coalition begins to change its mind about vouchers, all opposition will crumble away," said Denis P. Doyle, a voucher promoter who runs a policy-research firm in Chevy Chase, Md. "The dam is being breached. I think it will be hard to resist the process."

But voucher opponents are not so sure the defection by Mr. Flake will signal their defeat.

"The battle is going to go on, and it's going to pop up in different ways," said Gerald D. Morris, the legislative director for the American Federation of Teachers. "What the public wants is for kids to really learn something, and they want safe schools. It's not a significant portion that wants vouchers."

Hurdle in the Senate

School choice has been a staple in congressional debates in recent years, but only recently, under Republican leadership, have any of those plans come close to passage.

Vouchers, or scholarships, became part of the community-redevelopment legislation introduced last year by Republican Reps. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and James M. Talent of Missouri. No Democrats in the House signed on to the bill.

This year, two longtime choice proponents--Sens. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn.--are backing companion legislation in the Senate.

Now, Mr. Flake and another urban Democrat, Rep. Thomas M. Barrett of Milwaukee, have joined with the mostly GOP coalition.

Even with support from Mr. Flake and Mr. Barrett, choice proponents still must escape the procedural hurdle in the Senate, where a 41-member voting block can indefinitely postpone a final vote on legislation.

Last year, a minority of senators--almost all of them Democrats--blocked an appropriations bill for the District of Columbia because it would have created a choice experiment for schoolchildren. ("D.C. Voucher Proposal Ties Up Spending Bill," March 6, 1996.)

While Mr. Morris of the AFT is not certain the Senate could sustain a filibuster on a choice bill such as the one introduced last week, even Republicans acknowledge that it won't be easy to pass their plan. "We're in a very difficult situation, and it's not going to be easy to get out of it," Mr. Talent said.

But Mr. Watts, who is African-American but has never joined the Congressional Black Caucus because he disagrees with its opposition to private school choice, among other stands, says the sponsors will refuse to remove the choice provisions of the redevelopment bill. The measure also calls for tax breaks, housing incentives, and drug-abuse-prevention programs.

"The people in the communities say: 'No, don't take [choice] out. We want it,'" Mr. Watts said. "People are very supportive of this idea."

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This article incorrectly reported that U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Barrett, D-Wis., is a co-sponsor of a bill that would create federally funded school vouchers for depressed areas. Mr. Barrett does not support the bill.

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