Race to Reform

Like Wendell Maddox, African Americans and Latinos increasingly support vouchers as a viable alternative to schools that fail them. Opponents say minorities are being used as pawns in an ideological battle.

WENDELL MADDOX IS a longtime supporter and consumer of the Minneapolis public school system. After graduating from Central High School in 1961, Maddox saw five of his children through the district's public schools. But he isn't certain he wants his sixth child to follow in their footsteps. Like many African American parents, Maddox, who is a two-year member of the state Board of Education, has lost confidence in public schools and wants to see some working alternatives by the time his 3-month-old son is ready to enroll.

Last spring, the results of a national poll conducted by the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies found that a majority of African American and Latino parents support vouchers that theoretically would give parents greater leeway in choosing a school for their children. Given that the drop-out rate for students of color is nearly quadruple that of whites (who are more evenly divided on the voucher issue), the poll results aren't surprising. They've added a racial element to the debate over whether vouchers give students who have been ill served by the public schools a viable alternative or make them pawns of religious and political conservatives.

Vouchers have been good for the political fortunes of Republican governors such as Arne Carlson and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson. Carlson, for instance, last week was tabbed to rebut President Clinton's radio address on the issue. Carlson has consistently cited the poor performance of many minority and low-income students in the public schools. After two years of battling the state Legislature, Carlson was able to push through a precedent-setting bill of tax credits and deductions that allows a tiny portion of public monies to go to private schools, most of it in the form of textbooks and transportation. "We're spending $11,000 per child in the Minneapolis school system," argues Carlson spokesperson Tim Sullivan. "This is enough to send a child through Breck or Blake, but instead, a disproportionate number of children are failing." Adds Maddox, "Vouchers would benefit families that typically don't have the resources. And most of those families are minorities. The public schools in affluent neighborhoods are essentially private schools."

But Carol Johnson, the superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools, where minorities comprise 62 percent of the student body, contends that the reality of private-school vouchers is messier than the rhetorical promises they hold. "There is a concern about genuine access and accountability," she says, noting that public schools must provide equal opportunities for all students. By contrast, "private schools have specific criteria that limit access." Johnson, who is African American, believes the voucher debate "may be confusing for families who feel that if they were in place, it would immediately give their children access to private schools."

"Low-income parents do have fewer options, but vouchers won't solve that," says Joe Nathan, public policy analyst for the Humphrey Institute. "Even if vouchers allow a student to be able to afford tuition, private schools give admission tests to screen out students." Not only would vouchers leech public schools of the best and the brightest, says Nathan, they wouldn't fix the problems plaguing public schools. "We need to improve achievement, and this is best done by researching how to improve teaching."

In Ohio and Wisconsin, courts have struck down vouchers. Ironically, the legal battles have been similar to the struggle over the racial integration of schools in the early '60s, when segregationists tried to use vouchers to preserve the status quo, often deploying the same buzzwords as current voucher proponents, such as "freedom of choice."

Johnson and Nathan maintain that even without vouchers, both minority and white families don't lack for school choices in Minnesota. Johnson cites the mix in Minneapolis of neighborhood schools and various specialty programs. She also notes that Minnesota has an open enrollment policy and has encouraged charter schools. Nathan, who has three children in the St. Paul public schools, has written extensively about charter schools and sees them as the best hope for school reform. "Unlike both private and public schools, charters are accountable for student performance," he explains. "If the kids aren't learning, the school won't get its funding." He believes the non sectarian nature of charter schools is another advantage.

Regardless of these arguments, voucher proponents will continue to enjoy ample minority support so long as the current system fails to meet their needs. "Vouchers will not address all our woes," Maddox concedes, "but they will certainly help. There's been a lot of speculation around change, but the fact is, the system is broken and needs to be fixed."

 
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