The chronic failure of public schools to notably improve dismal test scores and high dropout rates of black children has made it clear to many black citizens of good will that there has got to be a better way.
Polls show black support for school choice. For example, in a poll done last year in New Jersey by the Rutgers-Eagleton Center at Rutgers University, 54 percent of blacks expressed support for school vouchers compared to 36 percent of whites.
Growing grass roots support among blacks for education alternatives surely influenced the Obama administration’s agreement, this past week, to ongoing support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The administration opposes the program and would have been perfectly happy to see its funding spigot turned off.
This is a modest program, with federal funds available now for 1,615 scholarships for kids in DC’s public schools to attend private schools. Its existence and potential for growth was at stake, with House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Joseph Lieberman carried the ball for it. The new agreement will allow it to continue, with a small provision for 85 new scholarships.
But this makes even more perplexing recent incidents where Republican state legislators have turned their backs on the education hopes of blacks.
Republicans in Pennsylvania can change the political landscape of their state by helping black aspirations for education freedom. But in a state that some analysts see as conceivably swinging into the Republican column, Republicans are blowing it.
The Pennsylvania state Senate passed a bill last year that would make vouchers available to kids in the worst 5% of public schools.
The public schools serving blacks kids in cities like Philadelphia are disasters. I know from my own survey of pastors in local churches there that hopes for this voucher initiative have been high.
Yet, by all indication it’s not going to happen.
The state House, controlled by Republicans, has been sitting on the bill. With no action before the end of the session on June 30 it will be dead.
There is talk of an alternative scholarship bill financed through tax credits. But the most optimistic estimate I have heard is that the scholarship would be worth less than half what the voucher would pay and therefore insufficient on its own to pay full tuition in a private church school.
Courageous leadership by Republicans could have captured black hearts and minds in Pennsylvania’s cities that might have paved a path to a new black relationship with Republicans.
But sadly, fear of union power rather than leadership and courage seems to be motivating these legislators.
In 2010, a similar disappointment occurred in Illinois.
In a genuine breakthrough, a black Democrat in the Illinois state Senate, Rev. James Meeks, who happens to also be the pastor of Chicago’s largest Baptist congregation, introduced a school voucher bill.
The bill passed the Illinois senate and then died in the state House, with only 25 of 48 Republicans supporting it. It fell 12 votes short of the 60 it needed to pass.
This is not an across the board indictment of Republicans. Two Republican governors – Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana – have spearheaded passage of school voucher programs in their states.
In a new Gallup poll, only 29 percent, an all time low, express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in our public schools.
The Republican Party is supposed to be the party of freedom and limited government. No where are these principles more needed than in education, and no community needs it more than blacks.
At a time when our country and our poor communities are hurting so badly, any failure of leadership by those in the party of Lincoln is inexcusable.
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