Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Difficulty of Choosing Choice
December 20, 1999
The battle for fairness through school choice, insists Kurt Schmoke, is "the emerging new civil rights battle for the millennium. Some say that school choice is elitist, or even racist. The truth is that black low-income children are among the prime victims of the nation's failing public schools" (Baltimore Sun). "If you're in an underachieving school," declares Andrew Young, "then you have the right to seek a voucher to go to a school where you can be guaranteed some level of achievement" (Atlanta Journal Constitution). "I support vouchers," says Floyd Flake. "There must be some opportunity for alternatives for those parents whose children are locked into a system they cannot escape" (Newshour—PBS).
What do Schmoke, Young and Flake have in common besides their support for school choice? They're black. They're Democrats. And they're all former elected office holders. (Schmoke and Young were mayors of Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively. Flake was a U.S. congressman from New York.) They have another thing in common. Their vocal and outspoken public support for school choice emerged only after they had decided to leave office or had already left.
Black public officials supporting school choice may seem surprising, but it shouldn't. Blacks are most sympathetic to the idea of vouchers (62% in recent polls and even higher among parents with school-aged children!), while those most opposed tend to be more affluent white suburbanites. One might think that the favorable view on school choice by black citizens, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, would be reflected among Democratic black public officials and traditional civil rights organizations. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Every single member of the Congressional Black Caucus opposes school choice and no prominent black mayor supports it. The NAACP stands radically opposed to it and regularly joins the ACLU, the teachers unions and assorted church-state separatists (overwhelmingly white) in court litigation against school choice. Meanwhile black parents are in the street singing "We Shall Overcome" protesting the NAACP's opposition.
Why do black public officials ignore the voice of a majority of the black community? Why aren't their views articulated in a public forum by their elected representatives? Are we to believe that not even one member of the Congressional Black Caucus or one prominent black mayor secretly shares the conviction of Schmoke, Young or Flake?
The sad fact is that on this issue African-American politicians simply do not represent the views of their constituents. Why? Because when it comes to educational public policy, the most powerful groups are those with vested interests in the current educational system—the teachers unions. And it isn't a matter of white, or black or brown—but of green! African-American politicians are overwhelmingly Democratic and the teachers unions have bought their way into the Democratic Party. It's not a matter of race or a matter of principle; it's old-fashioned hardball politics.
In 1996 the National Education Association fielded 405 delegates at the Democratic national convention, more than any state except California. The union that year invested 186 million dollars in political contests to ensure that Democratic politicians toe the line and to prevent black Democrats from turning traitor like Schmoke, Young and Flake have done. For those interested in re-election, to defend school choice is the kiss of death. The NEA will no longer deliver the cash and workers to support a re-election campaign, and the party will ensure that pro-union candidates run against them and that federal funds to their cities and districts become harder to get. This is why on the issue of school choice it's much easier to speak the truth to power once out of office.
—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
Center for Public Justice
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”