Equity & Diversity

Minority Parents Quietly Embrace School Choice

By Karla Scoon Reid — December 05, 2001 15 min read
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After all, the most typical advocates of wide-open school choice are conservative Republicans and libertarians; the staunchest opponents tend to be Democratic and liberal, and can usually count on blacks and Hispanics as political allies.

But in cities where tuition vouchers, charter schools, and large-scale private scholarships are available, such options have proved popular and are quietly attracting more minority parents. People of color are now emerging as vocal and visible leaders in the school choice movement, and parents are increasingly listening to their messages.

School choice, its advocates say, can no longer be dismissed as a white, conservative movement that takes advantage of unwitting minority families.

“It’s easy to make the complaint if all of the folks leading the school choice movement are white, and all of the complainants are black,” said T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, which operates a charter school. “Now, you’ve got people on the other side who are credible, who are legitimate, who have a history of being concerned, and have no economic or political interest that is obvious.”

Proponents of school choice have yet to sway large numbers of parents of any racial or ethnic background into their camp. About 90 percent of America’s students attend public schools. Polls and surveys on school choice often yield conflicting results. And voters in California and Michigan soundly defeated voucher initiatives last year.

Warren S. Simmons

Yet there’s a strong undercurrent of support for alternatives from African-Americans and Latinos who have gravitated toward school choice—from charter schools, which are considered a less radical step, to publicly financed vouchers that pay for tuition at private schools. Many minority parents are impatient at what they see as the plodding pace of school reform; they’re concerned that their own children won’t benefit from long-term improvements to the current public school system.

Some national education-watchers believe that minority parents’ growing interest in school choice demands greater attention.

“This new movement from communities of color and low-income parents is certainly a threat to leaders in public education,” said Warren S. Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in Providence, R.I. “If these parents opt out, who is the constituency in these urban areas?”

Signs of ‘Restlessness’

In Dayton, a total of 6,000 students are expected to be enrolled in charter schools in that southwestern Ohio city by next fall. About 1,000 more Milwaukee students are using state-financed vouchers to attend private schools this year, bringing the total number of students using vouchers to 10,700. The private, New York City-based Children’s Scholarship Fund received 1.25 million applicants for 40,000 scholarships to attend private schools in 1999.

What do those number mean?

“It’s a sign of the restlessness with the state of play in public schools,” acknowledged Hugh B. Price, the president of the New York City-based National Urban League and an opponent of publicly financed vouchers for private schooling. “I understand the restlessness of people.”

That sign has yet to be addressed by the leadership of civil rights organizations, politicians, and teachers’ unions, argues Terry M. Moe, the author of Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public.

Hugh B. Price

“Their own constituents—poor people and minorities—are the ones in the worst schools and the biggest supporters of school choice,” Mr. Moe asserted, citing his research that found that high percentages of African- Americans, Hispanics, and low-income people backed vouchers. “Under normal circumstances, they would support their constituents.”

Mr. Moe added that the teachers’ unions, whose interests are rooted in the current system, seem to be the key obstacle to advancing the dialogue about school choice in political and civil rights organizations.

But John H. Jackson, the national education director for the Baltimore, Md.-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said its members want high-quality education in their neighborhoods, not an unstable “corporate movement,” as he calls the push for choice.

Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, also disputed Mr. Moe’s contention. He pointed to the overwhelming support the union received from minority voters in its successful efforts last year to defeat the voucher proposals on the statewide ballots in California and Michigan.

“We’re not out of touch,” Mr. Chase declared. “According to the votes, we’re not out of touch. Those are the facts.”

‘It's a sign of the restlessness with the state of play in public schools.’

While Mr. Moe conceded that the unions were unlikely to change their positions on vouchers, he said that in the case of civil rights groups, older leaders would be replaced by a younger generation more supportive of such options.

In fact, new organizations have emerged during the past year to take up the charge for minority parents who support a wide range of choices in education. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, which reports a membership of 1,000 people and 23 chapters across the country, was founded in Milwaukee last year to push for school choice and public school improvement.

Kaleem Caire, the president of BAEO, which is now located in Washington, said that his organization’s base is growing while the NAACP’s base is aging. BAEO launched a national advertising campaign this year promoting the benefits of vouchers and charter schools. (“Black Alliance Weighs in With Pro-Voucher Campaign,” May 30, 2001.)

“If black folks sit on the sidelines of the school reform effort,” Mr. Caire said, “we’re going to be left behind again.”

Similarly, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, which was formed this year, hopes to help Hispanics gain access to vouchers, charter schools, and magnet schools to improve students’ academic achievement.

Robert B. Aguirre, who is a board member of the San Antonio Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation, which provides privately financed vouchers for children living in that city, founded the Hispanic council. The new organization must also be concerned about the quality of public education, he said, since most Hispanic children attend public schools.

Still, Mr. Aguirre, a local businessman, added that the focus of the Hispanic council is clear: “We’re not concerned about the system. We’re concerned about the kids.”

Charter School Push

As such groups add a new voice to school choice advocacy, some civil rights organizations and community leaders are helping to establish charter schools for minority students. Some school choice advocates say this trend shows that they are warming to education alternatives.

For example, several local affiliates of the National Urban League operate charter schools. NEA affiliates, with support from the national organization, run a handful of charter schools, which are independently operated public schools.

‘This new movement from communities of color and low-income parents is a threat to leaders in public education.’

The Washington-based National Council of La Raza, which advocates on behalf of Hispanics, has raised $10 million to create and support 50 charter schools nationwide that will be aimed at Latinos. (“Hispanic Group Quietly Initiates Big Charter Push,” Nov. 21, 2001.)

And the ASPIRA Association, a national organization based in Washington devoted to the education and leadership development of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, has five charter schools and plans to open more.

“We’re definitely not abandoning our work with traditional public schools,” said Ariana Quiñones, the education director for La Raza. “But we do think that sometimes you do need an option that is more readily available.”

‘Leaving Door Open’

Johnny Villamil-Casanova, the executive vice president of ASPIRA, said his organization has worked for 35 years trying to improve public schools by providing students with mentors and tutors and by training parents to run for school board seats. He described running charter schools as a natural extension of that effort, not a departure.

But while support for charter schools in such quarters is growing, most of the groups involved are wary about government- financed vouchers, at least for now.

Mr. Price of the Urban League opposes the use of public money for private schooling because of what he sees as a lack of accountability.

Although La Raza is opposed to vouchers in their current form because they often do not cover the entire cost of tuition, Ms. Quiñones characterized the group’s voucher position as “leaving the door open for discussion.” ASPIRA has no official position on vouchers.

The emergence of the national black and Hispanic organizations pressing for school choice—and now the National Council of La Raza’s charter school effort—show the development of a school choice movement independent of the established minority leadership, said Howard L. Fuller. He is a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools and one of the first prominent African-American proponents of vouchers and charter schools.

“The ‘leadership’ is saying one thing, but under that, there’s a movement of people coming to a different opinion,” according to Mr. Fuller, the president of BAEO’s board of directors. “Over time, it reaches the leadership.”

‘You've got the minority community beginning to emerge on this issue.’

Yet school choice proponents who attempt to show the diversity of the movement often cite the same names of African-American supporters: Mr. Fuller, Mr. Fair of the Urban League in Miami, and Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat and Pennsylvania state representative.

“It’s absolutely a select few” African-Americans, said Michael Watson, a vice president of Children First America, a Bentonville, Ark.- based organization that offers private school scholarships to needy students nationwide.

“But there’s a crack in the door and that crack is going to widen,” he said. “You’ve got the minority community beginning to emerge on this issue.”

Both Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that supports school choice, and Mr. Fuller said they see a change in the minority community based on reactions at their own speaking engagements.

Ten years ago, Ms. Allen said, she was booed at a National Council of La Raza event. Now, people at least listen to Ms. Allen and Mr. Fuller at such gatherings.

What Ms. Allen describes as the myth that a “bunch of white, public-education-hating people with horns” are pushing school choice is finally being exposed, she said.

“Little by little, they’re introduced to people who don’t have horns,” she added.

Mixed Messages

Recent public-opinion surveys about charter schools and vouchers yield varying results, making it difficult to determine with precision the prevailing mood about school choice among minorities.

A 1999 survey of 1,200 adults by Public Agenda, a New York City-based, nonprofit opinion- research group, found that 68 percent of African-Americans and 65 percent of Hispanics “strongly favor” or “somewhat favor” government-financed vouchers.

A National School Boards Association-sponsored survey of about 1,211 adults this past May found that 41 percent of the African-Americans polled “strongly oppose” vouchers, while 19 percent “strongly favor” them.

The National Urban League’s “State of Black America Survey for 2001" found that 58 percent of the 800 black adults polled said that education tax dollars should be used solely for public schools. But 52 percent of the respondents favored the creation of charter schools.

Generation Gap

Meanwhile, a generation gap seems to be emerging among African- Americans when it comes to opinions about school choice.

A poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on black issues, found that about 57 percent of the African-Americans surveyed supported vouchers, compared with 49 percent of all of those surveyed of any race. For African-Americans under age 35, however, the proportion approving of vouchers climbed to 75 percent. The center did not survey Hispanics.

A generation gap seems to be emerging among African-Americans when it comes to opinions about school choice.

“It’s not like black parents or Hispanic parents have some philosophical preference for alternative types of education settings,” said David A. Bositis, a senior political analyst for the center. “It’s rather how satisfied they are with local public schools.”

Older African-Americans are more pro-government and suspicious of the conservatives who back school choice, Mr. Bositis pointed out.

Mr. Jackson of the NAACP said the younger African-American generation did not grow up in a time when black people couldn’t eat at certain restaurants because of their race and were barred in many states from attending public schools with whites.

“We need to link with our historical past to change the institutions,” he said, rather than forsake the public system.

Less Committed?

While agreeing that the struggles of previous generations should be honored, some stress that the social landscape is different today.

African-American parents in their late 20s and early 30s are simply seeking the best education possible for their children, said Vernard T. Gant, the director of urban school services for the Association of Christian Schools International, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group representing 3,800 religious schools.

Younger blacks are less committed to institutions and systems, he said, which is why they often are more accepting of educational options outside the public schools.

Mr. Gant, who formerly ran private schools in Birmingham, Ala., noted that there is a history of black families sending their children to private schools. His mother, for example, sent Mr. Gant and his four brothers to a Lutheran school in Mobile until the family could afford to move to the suburbs and attend public schools there.

But in some quarters, if African-Americans don’t see school choice through “the lenses of the past,” said Mr. Fair of the Urban League in Miami, others in the community believe they have “sold out.” Blacks who are receptive to school choice may be silenced and ostracized, he said, and meanwhile have no options for their children.

“There has been a paradigm shift, emotionally and psychologically,” Mr. Fair said of the sentiment in favor of school choice. “We can’t afford to play around.”

Impatient With Waiting

Most parents have been waiting patiently for better schools in their communities, but to no avail, Mr. Simmons of the Annenberg Institute said. Individual schools have achieved innovation and success, he said, yet “we’re not creating communities of successful schools.”

“Most people are unwilling to sacrifice their children to support their ideology,” Mr. Simmons warned.

It is that impatience that has driven more African-Americans and Hispanics to view school choice as a way to improve their children’s educational opportunities, many observers say.

‘What I really want is for black folks to take the public schools back and not leave the public schools.’

While there must be a multipronged approach to improving education, Ms. Quiñones of La Raza said, “some communities’ needs are so great, parents aren’t willing to wait.”

But Mr. Jackson of the NAACP countered that parents must wait for education reform, especially in the absence of proven alternatives. Rather than support vouchers, the NAACP launched a national campaign last month that will work to end racial inequities in public schools, colleges, and universities.

In a related effort, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators last week announced legislative strategies to target the achievement gap between minority students and their white classmates.

And Shirley Igo, the president of the National PTA, cautioned that parents must ensure that exercising choice “doesn’t negatively impact on the 90 percent of children in public schools.”

That may be a difficult responsibility for parents to fulfill in some communities, such as the nation’s capital, which has seen tremendous growth in charter school enrollment.

“I think the schools in D.C. are in such horrendous shape I could never begrudge a parent for trying to make the right decision for their child,” said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of the District of Columbia school board.

While she believes Washington’s schools will improve, that will only happen if the community supports public schools, she said.

“We absolutely have an overarching duty to support public education, but I don’t think it’s just an African-American thing or a Jewish thing,” Ms. Cafritz said. “Every single group has benefited from it. As a nation, we cannot splinter that commitment.”

For some African-Americans, as urban districts struggle to reach their children, charter schools and vouchers are “in the meantime” solutions, said Imani Bazzell, a parent coordinator with African-Americans for Accountability in Education, a community group in Champaign, Ill. Those who are disillusioned with public education, she said, often decide that they will create their own schools.

“But I’m real nervous about the bedfellows,” Ms. Bazzell, the mother of three public school children, said, alluding to the political conservatives and corporate leaders who support school choice. “What I really want is for black folks to take the public schools back and not leave the public schools.”

The Choice Challenge

Striking a precarious balance between providing parents with viable education alternatives while continuing to support a struggling school system consumes the Rev. Vanessa Oliver Ward.

Ms. Ward and her husband, the Rev. Daryl Ward, lead the Omega Baptist Church, one of the largest African-American churches in Dayton.

Three years ago, the church “adopted” a public elementary school, where members of the congregation volunteer their time as tutors and mentors. The church also ran an after-school program for students.

‘I could never begrudge a parent for trying to make the right decision for their child.’

Then, last year, Ms. Ward helped open a charter school for middle school students, although the church membership favored starting a private religious elementary school. Currently, 150 students, including one of her children, attend the school, which is housed in the church. Her other children attend a private school.

Ms. Ward admitted that opening the Omega School of Excellence has been a “major challenge” because many of the church’s 4,000 members are public school employees. The tension was palpable in the city as the district’s enrollment decreased by about 4,700 children since 1996, and charter schools attracted more students, she said.

Still, the 19-year-old church’s young congregation was willing to try something new.

While Ms. Ward is the charter school’s director, her congregation continues to play a visible role in the school district. This fall, an Omega Baptist Church member was part of a slate of successful “reform- minded” candidates that was elected to Dayton’s school board.

“We felt such urgency that we had to address the issue of our children not being educated,” Ms. Ward said about starting the charter school. “We have to find a solution.

“But at the same time, you have to support the public school district.”

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Minority Parents Quietly Embrace School Choice


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