The contentious politics surrounding school choice and competition have produced deep divisions within minority communities and strained traditional alliances of civil rights groups, education organizations, and Democrats.
The National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, has adopted resolutions opposing both vouchers and charter schools. “We want to fix the public schools first,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the director of the organization’s Washington bureau.
In contrast, the National Urban League opposes vouchers but wholeheartedly supports charters. Hugh B. Price, the organization’s president, has even proposed converting all urban schools to charters, saying he wants to “liberate them from the stifling central-office bureaucracy and give them the latitude to operate the way independent secular schools do.”
And both groups have local affiliates that disagree with their positions. Last year, Willie Breazell, the former head of the Colorado Springs, Colo., branch of the NAACP, claimed that the national leadership had pressured him to resign after he published a column in a local newspaper endorsing vouchers. In Florida, T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, has been a vocal supporter of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s statewide voucher program.
“There is a disconnect between those who are called the leadership of the community and the reality of the community,” Mr. Fair maintained. “There are a lot of folks who feel the same way that we feel, but are afraid to take the risk.”
Mr. Price says he tries using the example of such rebellious affiliates as leverage to get defenders of the status quo to change their ways. “What I endeavor to do is use the specter of vouchers as a bludgeon to say to public education, ‘You’d better get your act together because some of your very old friends, like the heads of some of our affiliates, are going south on you,’” he said.
Hispanic groups are torn as well. Many of the local affiliates of the National Council of La Raza—an umbrella organization of about 240 community-based organizations—operate charter schools, and, in Milwaukee, a local affiliate is the sponsor of one of the private schools participating in the voucher program.
But while the organization has endorsed the idea of charters, “with vouchers, it’s a slightly touchier issue,” said Charles Kamasaki, the vice president of La Raza. Though some polls show the strongest support for vouchers coming from Hispanics and African-Americans, he said, Latinos in California have voted 2-to-1 against voucher initiatives. And while many Hispanics are themselves products of Roman Catholic schools, the vast majority of Hispanic youngsters now attend public schools.
Mr. Kamasaki attributes some of the support for vouchers among Hispanics to deep frustration with the current system. “I think there’s very significant frustration with the public schools,” he said. “So there’s some sense that we need to hit these folks over the side of the head with a 2-by-4, that the establishment takes us for granted.”
A task force convened by La Raza to consider the voucher issue has recommended a position Mr. Kamasaki characterizes as “largely opposing vouchers, but leaving the door open.”
If nothing else, the message to public educators should be clear: Just because someone is black or Hispanic or a registered Democrat, don’t assume he’ll share your views on choice.
Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore recalled in a recent speech that in 1996, when he came out in support of school choice, “as a Democrat and an African-American mayor, I was considered a maverick, or worse, for expressing that idea.”
“No longer,” he told the audience at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, based in New York City. “A groundswell of support for choice is rising all over the nation, including from some unlikely quarters.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Minority Communities Divided Over Charters, Vouchers