At times, Black people, like any group battered and oppressed by the state, may celebrate any perception of forward motion. Folks scour social media pages to see who has what appointment, what political power is being amassed, and what Black person has been newly elected.

Although, I strongly believe in the need for more representation and more political action, unfortunately, too often, having Black people in positions of power, especially politicians, does not necessarily further the educational causes of Black children in America. Last week, I wrote about a local legislatorwho worked to ensure other people’s children have the same opportunities as he did growing up. But, for many politicians, including Black ones, consistency about the choices that their constituents’ children and their own children have is always elusive.

Although, this article by Michael Leo Owens was written 15 long years ago, it could have been written yesterday.

Owens states that Black students’ achievement in schools should have a strong and direct positive correlation with the increase in Black political power. Although, it is remarkably clear that Black people remain under-represented in America’s legislative bodies, those who are in these positions, too often side against the most disenfranchised of their constituencies.

I believe that an increase in Black and Brown political power should usher in unprecedented levels of Black and Brown academic achievement. It hasn’t. The NAACP’s stance against charter schools and the right to school choice for millions of poor Black parents starkly symbolizes how Black political influence is too often Black political cowardice and hypocrisy. Owens remarks that:

…we are desperate for decent education for our children. And people in my generation and those younger doubt the ability of black government leaders to influence public education policies in ways that would benefit our children. Our support for vouchers is essentially a critique of politicians’ ineffectiveness.

In the post-civil rights era, the number of blacks sharing power and responsibility for urban public education has grown dramatically. From 1977 to 1999, the number of black elected officials with influence over public education in cities (mayors, council members, school board members and superintendents) more than doubled, to 5,815 from 2,724…

The educational achievement of black children and the overall quality of urban public schools have failed to improve significantly.

I predict that if vouchers are funded, Black families will flock to them. It is not that they believe that they are the cure-all, but it reflects Black communities’ desperation for better educational opportunities for their children. Those who strongly oppose vouchers—especially Black politicians and policy influencers—are usually the same people who wouldn’t sacrifice their own children for the good of the poor. It is for this reason that Black parents will typically ignore those cautioning against vouchers. Just as Black folks braved the cautions about what lied north and west when they participated in the Great Migration, Black folks know that hope is captured in moving forward, not standing still.

The truth is as much as Black families need more school options, vouchers will be harmful in some ways, especially, if the US Department of Education fails to regulate them and continues to decline its responsibility to hold all schools receiving public dollars accountable for outcomes—-especially for those who continue to suffer the greatest educational inequities.

Michael concludes with acknowledging the limitations of a voucher system in improving the overall educational justice that has been diverted from our communities.

My generation knows that vouchers have serious limitations. We recognize that no voucher program can save a failing public system. Poorly funded vouchers don’t offer much of a chance for poor children to enroll in expensive alternative schools… And vouchers can’t end the resistance of many suburban schools to black enrollment.

But they offer the only hope available to many poor students trapped in the nation’s worst schools. For a limited number of children, they may make a crucial difference. That possibility is enough for black parents to take a chance.

Owens’s reflections about poor Black people’s perspectives about vouchers reminds me of Pauli Murray’s poem about hope:

Hope is a crushed stalk

Between clenched fingers

Hope is a bird’s wing

Broken by a stone.

Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —

A word whispered with the wind,

A dream of forty acres and a mule,

A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,

A name and place for one’s children

And children’s children at last . . .

Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Read Owens’s entire article here.


  1. Why many respected black leaders oppose school vouchers but promote school reform.

    I would like to start this essay by pointing out that 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 ordinarly black folks opposed it, and his moral example and thoughtful explainations 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.

    Five reasons most 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.

    Comments, please.


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