The following was written by Paul Ruffins in response to multiple Citizen Ed pieces that challenged black leaders for not supporting school choice. We appreciate hearing from a variety of black voices in this forum, and we thank Mr. Ruffins for allowing us to publish his insights. Mr. Ruffins the Director Workforce Academics at Southeast Ministry DC. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Washington CityPaper and Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
It is perfectly reasonable, even admirable , for leaders to disagree with the people they claim to represent. That’s called leadership. Many people became leaders exactly because they have a more informed vision, or a deeper knowledge of history than the average person. For example, Dr. King was against the war in Vietnam while many black citizens and WWII vets still supported the conflict. President Obama supported gay marriage while many ordinary black folks opposed it, and his moral example and thoughtful explanations helped change and open their minds.
As a person who has worked for both the NAACP, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, I have had many opportunities to hear black leaders, such as the late Julian Bond, explain exactly why they oppose school vouchers. Please note: I am not trying to express my own opinion about school reform, but rather, I am trying to do an honest job of communicating why most of the black leaders and elected officials I worked for opposed vouchers.
What follows is five reasons black leaders and officials oppose school voucher plans:
The first is historical. The idea of school vouchers was first widely advocated in the late 1950’s, specifically as a way to oppose school integration after the 1954 Brown decision. Virginia, completely closed down several public school districts for months rather than integrate them. Then, on January 9, 1956 voters approved the Gray Plan to fund school vouchers which would be used to fund segregated white private academies.
The second is Constitutional. The U.S. constitution forbids the government from establishing or directly supporting religious organizations. Well, the places where conservative politicians promoted vouchers most vigorously were almost always “failing center cities” like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or Detroit, where the only private schools that a poor person could possibly afford with a voucher were Catholic schools. Relatively few African American are Catholic. (The government does help to indirectly support many religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals, but those institutions are not allowed to discriminate in hiring or proselytize among their patients the way religious schools can.)
The third is financial. In general, the conservatives who advocate for school vouchers are also generally opposed to increased public school funding, while most African American leaders have traditionally supported greater school funding across the board. Black leaders have often pointed out that citizens in upper-middle class areas have never supported taking tax money away from public schools to use for private school vouchers, no matter whether they were Republican or Democratic.
The forth reason is political. It’s fair to say that in general, the politicians who most vigorously advocate for school vouchers were almost always conservatives. (One rare liberal exception is Kevin Chavous, formerly of the DC City Council.) Black politicians are rightfully suspicious of people like Ronald Regan (or current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) who claim(ed) to be terribly concerned with the fate of black children “trapped in failing schools,” but want to shred the rest of the safety net that supports so many black families. Many black leaders suspect that voucher supporters are less concerned with educating black children than dismantling the teacher’s union.
The fifth is economic. Public school systems are huge economic engines that are often among the largest and least discriminatory employers in any city. Municipal employees such as teachers, bus drivers, and social workers make up the backbone of the black middle class. Therefore, it is reasonable for many Black leaders to oppose white politicians who want to divert funds from public institutions that black communities can control, into private institutions such as Catholic schools that don’t answer to the public. Black elected officials feel that many of the ideas that conservatives have promoted to be in the “interest of black children and youth,” such as school vouchers and a sub-minimum wage, always seem to involve dismantling intuitions, like public schools, government jobs, and unions, that employ or sustain black parents.
These are the historical reasons that many African American leaders oppose school vouchers.
However, many Black leaders have been at the forefront of recent movements for school reform and school choice.
School vouchers are just one small possible element of school reform and school choice. In fact, in the whole nation the leaders who have been at the forefront to school reform are the last three African American mayors of Washington, D.C., where 48% percent of students are enrolled in new public charter schools, and where the traditional public schools have been posting significant gains in reading and math. Black educators and union members were also deeply involved in helping to develop the common core curriculum, a non-partisan, state-based approach to curriculum reform based on thinking and reasoning rather than rote memory and repetition.