Blacks, Like Jews, Finding Vouchers Divisive: Lawmakers Tout Public School Plan, but Grassroots Seek Choice

Using a name that conjures up the crisis days of the Great Depression, the
Congressional Black Caucus announced plans this week for what it called a
Public Schools Emergency Recovery Program — a $10 billion plan to address
the failure of public schools in low-income areas.

The black lawmakers describe their plan as a response to the inadequate
education proposals of the major-party presidential candidates, George W.
Bush and Al Gore. In conversation, they also say their program has another,
equally important target: the growing support among their own
African-American constituents for government-funded school vouchers, which
would allow parents to use public funds to pay for private schools.

“We all feel the pressure,” Rep. Major Owens, a Brooklyn Democrat and
chairman of the black lawmakers’ school-reform task force, told the
Forward. “The call for vouchers within the black community is a mushrooming
problem. Discontent and fear that nothing will change have been growing for
a decade. People are looking for easy answers. But with vouchers, things
could get worse.”

The debate in the black community is similar to — and, indeed, overlaps —
the debate about school vouchers taking place in the Jewish community. In
both communities, the debate raises a complex mix of social-justice and
economic issues. Both communities frame the issues in terms of survival,
although the survival under discussion is cultural among Jews, and economic
among blacks.

Mr. Owens, like most opponents of vouchers, makes two basic arguments:
First, they will drain funds from the public schools. Second, private
schools do not have nearly enough places to accommodate all the students
who need better schools.

“If you want to experiment with vouchers, they should be completely funded
with private money,” Mr. Owens said. “You don’t tear down one area in order
to experiment in another.”

“It will take 10 or 20 years to develop an alternative school system. It
would need a bureaucracy, and it would have all the problems of the public
school system,” he said.

Instead of vouchers, the Congressional Black Caucus is calling for an
emergency $10 billion allocation to improve public schools, mainly through
increased funding of successful programs. The funds, to be distributed
locally, would be targeted to curriculum and teacher improvement,
infrastructure and equipment, and family support services. There are
provisions for performance evaluation and the involvement of non-profit
institutions and private corporations “with an exceptional track record.”

According to Mr. Owens, the growing support for vouchers in the black
community comes from the desperation of parents who must deal with failing
public schools. That, he said, makes them “open to alternatives like
vouchers when they’re promoted by people like former Congressman Floyd
Flake.” Mr. Flake is pastor of the 12,000-member Cathedral of the Allen
A.M.E. Church in Queens, which runs its own day school, the Allen Christian
School. Mr. Flake also works for Edison Schools Inc., a private corporation
that takes over and administers failing public schools.

“Floyd Flake has large church schools that will get a bonus through
vouchers,” Mr. Owens said. “Large numbers of people who run religious
schools will benefit from vouchers.”

Mr. Flake was unavailable for comment. Aides said he was on an extended
Edison Schools retreat.

Some opponents of vouchers argue that money interests, like those of Edison
Schools, are a major factor behind the growing political support for
vouchers. In part, they say, the private sector sees education as a
potentially vast source of profit, should schools become privatized to a
significant degree. “Walmart and Amway are putting up money for private
voucher programs, but they want to get their hands on federal dollars,” Nat
LaCoeur, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers,
told the Forward.

Advocates of vouchers tend to base their case on market concerns, but not
because of corporate profit and loss. “Healthy competition will shake up
the public school system,” Sol Stern, former fellow at the conservative
Manhattan Institute and longtime critic of the city’s public schools, told
the Forward. “We have to figure out what small private and religious
schools do that makes them more effective.”

“If we give parents an option, the public schools will have to compete,”
said Murray Friedman, director of Temple University’s Feinstein Center for
American-Jewish History and Philadelphia regional director of the American
Jewish Committee. “Maybe the market will help improve the product. American
cars had to improve to compete with the Japanese. Milton Friedman wrote
about this decades ago in `Capitalism and Freedom.’ The Jewish community is
so anti-capitalist. That’s the tradition I grew up with. The wicked
`Kepitalists’ ground down the working man. Most Jews I know are still
liberal left, but the Jewish community has prospered through mercantile
traditions.”

Interestingly, Mr. Owens’ central Brooklyn district includes Crown Heights,
with its large population of Orthodox Jews, most of whom send their
children to private religious schools at considerable expense. Many have
become outspoken advocates of school vouchers.

Mr. Owens argues that government programs exist to relieve the religious
schools’ financial woes. “The government already provides many kinds of aid
for religious schools, such as construction funds and computer hook-ups,
without getting into public money for religious education,” he said. “We’ve
moved off dead center on this issue and support all schools, but not a
voucher system.”

While Orthodox Jews have long advocated public funds for religious schools,
many of the more recent, non-orthodox advocates of school vouchers base
their position on the need for greater social justice. In addition, growing
concern to preserve Jewish identity has increased the demand for day
schools. With that comes greater openness to government money.

“School vouchers affect Jews as an American minority,” Barry Shrage,
president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said.
“Students are flooding into our day schools, and vouchers are the only hope
we have for significantly reducing costs. But we don’t want a deeply
divided society. We want vastly improved education for everyone. As Jews,
we’re concerned with social justice.”

Mr. Shrage said he is not staking out a position in the debate. “For one
Jewish leader to weigh in on vouchers will only muddy the waters,” he said.
Rather, he is calling for “a serious public dialogue within the Jewish
community.” But when asked whether he supports universal vouchers, which
would be available to all parents, or limited vouchers, which would go only
to low-income parents and/or students attending failing schools, he
answered, “My bias is to fix schools for the most disadvantaged.”

For the majority of Jews and Jewish organizations, a strict separation of
church and state has always required opposition to public funding of
religious schools. But on this issue, too, some dissent can be heard.

“The question of church-state relations was behind the positions Jews took
in the forties, fifties, and sixties — and rightly so. But there have been
many changes since then,” said Mr. Friedman of the American Jewish
Committee.

Indeed, Mr. Friedman suggests that society could use an added dose of
religious influence today. Like many of the political conservatives with
whom he is identified, he sees religion as an antidote to a 1960s legacy of
violence and drugs. “Vouchers provide the opportunity to use the energy of
religion to deal with deep-rooted problems,” he said.

Amy Gutmann, professor of political theory at Princeton University, points
to economist Milton Friedman as the one responsible for “getting the
voucher ball rolling in this country.” But she rejects Mr. Friedman’s
model: The “market model,” she wrote in a recent article for Dissent
magazine, “is based on the idea that `he who pays the piper picks the
tune.’ But democratic citizens, not parents, pay the piper. If their tune
is that schools should serve public purposes, then the market model
collapses into a defense of democratic control of publicly funded schools.”

Ms. Gutmann told the Forward, “Support for public education is the last
bastion for true democracy. A lot of people recognize that to give up on it
is to give up on democracy.”

Vouchers, Ms. Gutmann said, “are no solution at all. There isn’t any
evidence of education improvement. But we do have programs that suggest
lower class size and charter schools in inner city systems are more
promising. We are making progress, but one reason it’s not more progress is
that there’s not enough political support for improving public schools.”

When asked what parents who have children in failing schools should do in
the short run, Ms. Gutmann said, “I believe every parent has to do what’s
best for his or her own children, and at the same time fight politically as
a citizen for everyone’s kids.”

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