School Choice & Charters

Black Congressman Backs Private School Voucher Measure

By David J. Hoff — March 19, 1997 | Corrected: February 24, 2019 4 min read

Corrected: 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.

Washington

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Full-Time Virtual Schools: Still Growing, Still Struggling, Still Resisting Oversight
Nearly 500,000 students now attend full-time online and blended schools, says a new report from the National Education Policy Center.
6 min read
Student attending class from a remote location.
E+
School Choice & Charters Opinion Is Hybrid Home Schooling the Future of Education?
Rick Hess speaks with Mike McShane about hybrid home schooling, which combines the best of home schooling and traditional schooling.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters Oklahoma Charter Schools Granted Local Tax Revenue in 'Seismic' Settlement
A groundbreaking settlement will fundamentally change the way charter schools are funded in Oklahoma, despite vehement opposition.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
School Choice & Charters COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear
The pandemic is driving legislators' interest in mechanisms like education savings accounts, but the growth may not be straightforward.
8 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 12 at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address to state lawmakers on Jan. 12. She's pushing a major school choice expansion.
Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP