School Choice Ruling Sends Struggling Black Kids to the Head of the Class, by Mary Katherine Ascik

Black Americans won a significant victory when the Supreme Court recently ruled that a Cleveland school vouchers program created to help children escape from substandard schools was constitutional.

The Ohio state legislature established the Ohio Pilot Scholarship Program in 1995 as a direct response to the failure of the Cleveland public school system. According to USA Today, public schools in Cleveland “fell short on every state standard for minimum acceptable performance in the mid-1990s.” Students in the program receive scholarships to attend participating local private or suburban public schools. Parents can, alternatively, keep their children in local public schools but receive a grant for tutoring.

Cleveland’s voucher program gives priority to students from low-income families who have no other choice than public schools. Sixty percent of current scholarship recipients are African-American.

Parent see school vouchers as a welcome alternative. Cleveland parent Joyce Thompson, whose daughter receives vouchers, explains: “I went to Cleveland public schools. My mom had no choice… My baby sister went to [private school]… Then she went to college. Now she’s a school teacher. I want that kind of future for my own daughter.”

Ms. Thompson is not alone in her support. A poll commissioned by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that 77 percent of African-Americans in Ohio support the Cleveland voucher program. Nationwide, a 1999 poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found 60 percent of blacks support school vouchers, up from 48 percent in 1998.

It’s not hard to discover why vouchers are so popular. Blacks students are being left behind by our public educational system. According to statistics on black achievement from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 62 percent of black fourth graders, 68 percent of black eighth graders and 70 percent of black twelfth graders in public schools performed below a “basic” level in math in 2000. Just five percent of black fourth and eighth graders and two percent of black twelfth graders in public schools performed at or above a “proficient” level in math, and no black students performed at an “advanced” level.

Similarly, black public school students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades have average national scores in math, science and U.S. history scores that are below the “basic” level for each grade. Seventy percent of black twelfth graders perform below a “basic” level in mathematics; 79 percent perform below a “basic” level in science and 81 percent perform below a “basic” level in U.S. history. These statistics are disgraceful, and they show that our society is failing black children.

Vouchers are providing children with a way out of failing public schools by giving parents the opportunity to send their kids to private schools where student achievement is higher. Private school students consistently outscore their public school counterparts in reading, writing, mathematics, science, U.S. history, geography and civics.

Providing black children who are trapped in substandard inner-city public schools with an alternative is having a profound impact. Cato Institute Director of Education and Child Policy Darcy Olsen notes: “If black students across the nation had the same scores as black students in private schools, the national black/white achievement gap would shrink from 33 points to 13 points.” Her claim is backed up by results. Black students enrolled in a New York City voucher program for at least a year had average test scores 7.6 percentile points higher than counterparts who had never attended private school. Children in Milwaukee’s voucher program, in which 62.4 percent of scholarship recipients are African-American, gained “11 normal curve equivalent (NCE) points in math and six NCE points in reading over a four year period,” according to Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay P. Greene.

Our children have been left behind by failing public schools for long enough. The Supreme Court’s decision removes the blockade that members of the powerful public education establishment have erected, and gives parents the opportunity to give their children the quality education they ought to be receiving.

(Mary Katherine Ascik is a research associate for the African-American leadership network Project 21. She can be reached at [email protected].)

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