Lower the Lifeboats, Now! Public Schools are Sinking, by Phyllis Berry Myers

Inner-city public schools are like a sinking ship, and the children on board need to be rescued before it’s too late. Their schools are sinking fast and educational opportunities are being lost. Roofs leak. Boilers are busted. Science and computer labs, if they even exist, are out of date. Classrooms are crowded. Drug and violence are commonplace. Dropout rates are high; expectations and standards are low.

Inner-city parents, many of whom are low-income, are tired of waiting for others to save their children from failing schools. They pushing for and beginning to adopt all kinds of innovative strategies to turn around decrepit, bureaucratic school systems — suing schools for failure to educate, starting charter schools, halting forced busing, and clamoring for more neighborhood schools in order to foster greater parental and community involvement. Many are opting out of the public schools altogether, with home schooling and applications for private school scholarships or tuition vouchers at record numbers.

It is the growing support for school vouchers that has the political and public education establishments in a snit.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment, particularly the teachers’ unions, condescendingly pooh-pooh inner-city parents’ support for school vouchers. They accuse poor parents of not having enough sense to know what’s best for their own children and imply they are dupes of sinister forces out to destroy public schools.

Washington, D.C.’s public school system is a good example. The woes of the schools in the nation’s capital and its educational leadership typify urban school systems throughout the country.

School voucher proponents say it is only fair for poor parents to have the same right as affluent ones to choose the best education for their children. They also believe competition will force reform of public schools and say that at the least, vouchers ought to be tried. The voucher plan has, however, drawn fire from some D.C. leaders who say they haven’t asked for it and don’t want it forced on them. With D.C. in fiscal disarray, those same leaders and residents are fearful of a protracted battle over school vouchers disrupting desperately needed funding.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, opposes the D.C. school voucher plan. Senate Democrats, led by Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, threatened a filibuster. President Clinton vowed to veto any private school choice legislation landing on his desk.

This has not stopped House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas from holding hearings this year on his District of Columbia Student Scholarship Act. This would provide 2,000 D.C. students with means-tested tuition supplements that could be used in public or private schools. Students whose family incomes are below the poverty line would receive a scholarship up to $3,200. Students with family incomes above the poverty line but below 185 percent of the poverty level would receive the lesser of 75 percent of tuition or $2,400. Students receiving tutoring assistance can receive up to $500.

The political stakes are high. School choice advocates know if they win D.C. they have effectively won in every other urban school district in the U.S., likely court challenges notwithstanding.

New political coalitions are also forming around this issue. Republican leaders in Congress who have long championed the D.C. and other school plans are now being joined by former Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Floyd Flake (D-NY), Rep. William Lipinski (D-IL) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). For once, the GOP has an issue that resonates with a majority of black voters and which most believe will have a positive, substantive impact on their lives and the lives of their children.

And polls back up the Republicans. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focusing on issues of black concern, show support for vouchers among black voters (a majority of support coming from low-income households and younger voters) rose 10 percentage points from last year to 57%. The figure was 87% among blacks age 26 to 35.

D.C.’s hapless school system cannot be harmed and more. Perhaps this perceived threat of vouchers and the loss of 2,000 students leaving immediately and the prospect of thousands more signing up on waiting lists will be a wake-up call to those charged with reforming, improving and administering the District of Columbia’s schools. In the long run, maybe the District can produce excellent schools.

In the meantime, we need to lower the lifeboats and save as many children in D.C. and in every low-income community, as fast as we can.

(Phyllis Berry Myers, a member of the Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21, is president of Black America’s PAC’s National Center for Leadership Training and Recruitment.)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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