A former superintendent in the Houston public school system, Paige has long been at the forefront of the movement to increase educational options for underprivileged students. The reason for his support is straightforward: "Any efficiency expert would say the wider the choice, the better the efficiency. The same thing goes for educational systems. What motivation do public school administrators have for improvement without competition? But if parents can take their children somewhere else to learn, now administrators are going to get off their butts and make sure things are done right."
A 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 70 percent of American blacks under the age of 35 support vouchers. For many of these families, vouchers offer the only way out of urban school systems.
"It's a disheartening situation," says Paige, who criticizes our so-called civil rights leaders - the Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons and Eleanor Norton Holmes - for opposing school vouchers. "It's an issue of the politics being more important to them then the impact it's having on the children."
Paige isn't surprised that black Americans overwhelmingly support school vouchers. "African-Americans are smart! Don't underestimate the interest in African-American and Hispanic mothers about their children, regardless of their economic status. For them it has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with making things better for their children. ... If I can take extraordinary measures and experiment with new ways to save the life of a child I'm going to do that."
The same goes for D.C. mayor, Anthony Williams, who has absorbed heaps of scorn for abandoning his opposition to vouchers and backing the D.C. pilot program. Critics accused Williams of selling out to the Bush administration. Williams offered a more honest assessment: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We've been doing the same thing over and over in terms of our approach to education in this country and we need a new approach which is geared toward increasing educational options. Why should we continue to have segregated lousy schools for the poor? People should have a choice as to where they get their education."
Providing children with a decent education is something we can do to haul our society along. We may not be able to end all inequality; but we can, as individuals, demand that our underprivileged children have options when it comes to the single greatest instrument of empowerment - education. This is the rather straightforward goal of men like Secretary Paige and Mayor Williams. And it is the next great battleground in the fight for social equality.