(From National Journal Magazine, October 18, 2008)
By KELLY PETTY
Minority voters have long favored the Democratic Party's push for increased federal funding for public schools. But over the past few years, some of these voters have embraced the conservative-backed idea of private-school vouchers for low-income students.
Pro-voucher voters among racial minorities overwhelmingly support Barack Obama, but they are baffled by the Democratic nominee's opposition to vouchers. They also say they are frustrated that Democratic leaders appear to be more concerned about keeping the peace with teachers unions — which adamantly oppose vouchers — than about finding alternatives that could advance desperately needed education reforms for minority students.
Obama's "change" message has attracted millions of minorities, particularly African-Americans. Yet he cannot afford to lose minorities who are demanding greater school choice for their children.
In February, Obama seemed open to the idea of private-school vouchers. In an editorial board meeting with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he was asked about his opposition to Wisconsin's voucher program. If he saw more proof that vouchers are successful, Obama said, he would "not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn…. You do what works for the kids."
But at the American Federation of Teachers convention this year, Obama repeated his attack against spending government money to help low-income students attend private schools. He criticized John McCain's school-choice reform as "using public money for private-school vouchers," and he called instead for overhauling public schools.
The blogosphere has been buzzing over Obama's perspective on vouchers. Pro-voucher blogs praise the Democratic nominee for showing some willingness to consider vouchers as a viable alternative. Some critics, meanwhile, say that Obama flip-flopped in the Milwaukee interview, and some argue that the interview did not indicate a shift toward vouchers.
Roland Martin, a black talk-radio host and a contributor to CNN, is an Obama supporter who has slammed the candidate and other Democrats for their stance. "Obama's opposition is right along the lines of the National Education Association, and the teachers union is a reliable and powerful Democratic ally," Martin wrote. "But this is one time where he should have opposed [teachers unions] and made it clear that vouchers can force school districts, administrators, and teachers to shape up or see their students ship out."
The statistics on minority students show that too many are indeed quitting the education system on their own. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2006 nearly 11 percent of African-American students between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of school — almost double the rate for white students. The dropout rate among Hispanics was 22 percent.
Higher dropout rates also mean higher unemployment: In 2006, more than half of all African-American dropouts and more than one-third of Hispanic dropouts were not in the labor force.
Public opinion polls also show solid support for school vouchers among minority parents. Sixty-five percent of adult African-Americans and 63 percent of adult Hispanics favor the use of vouchers, according to a national survey conducted earlier this year under the auspices of the journal Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. In the survey, more than half of minority adults gave higher marks to their local police than their public schools.
"There is no doubt that on this issue, McCain has it right and Obama has it wrong," Martin wrote. "The fundamental problem with the voucher debate is that it is always seen as an either/or proposition. For Republicans, it is the panacea to all the educational woes, and that is nonsensical. For Democrats, it is something that will destroy public education, and that too is a bunch of crap."
A small faction of minority voters supports the Republican Party, which, they say, advocates true education reform. Virginia Walden Ford, a former Democrat who has been a Republican for 30 years, is a fierce advocate of school vouchers in Washington. To her, the GOP has long been the champion of the voucher approach, and she sees McCain as the nominee who will continue the fight. Obama "supports the status quo, and we've tried that," Ford says. "To take away options from parents takes away hope from parents."
Ford is not alone. Such prominent black conservatives as author John McWhorter and Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., have spoken against what they say is the Democratic Party's hostility toward school vouchers. Author Shelby Steele has said that liberal Democrats give in to the philosophy of victimization and that "a schism is developing between black American leadership and black American people."
Like most leaders in his party, Obama argues that voucher-based initiatives fund mostly faith-based schools, violating separation of church and state. But faith-based institutions may participate in voucher programs as a result of the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the Court ruled that students may study at any private or public school as long as aid is awarded directly to the parent or guardian and not the school.
Critics argue that voucher programs drain funding that could be used to reform and improve public schools. But Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, counters that under voucher programs state aid allotted to public schools (on a per pupil basis) would move with the student regardless of whether he or she attends a public or private school. "It's really no different than any other change of school," he said. "You want the money to follow the child."
Ford notes that Congress allocated $26 million in funding for the D.C. public school system under a compromise bill creating that city's first voucher program in 2003. Half of the money went to the public schools for teacher development and other initiatives, and the other half went toward expanding charter schools.
Over the years, the deep ties between Democrats and teachers unions have translated into legislation favoring teachers, most memorably the storied fight for collective-bargaining rights in the 1960s. But with increased support for school choice and private vouchers, unions are beginning to lose some of their influence. Support for school choice is growing slowly but steadily among Democratic leaders. Though only a handful in Congress support private or voucher-based school choice, many, including Obama, favor expanded public school options such as publicly funded charters and merit pay for teachers.
The political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, based in New York City, has urged party leaders to expand alternative education reforms. "Democrats downplay the problem and offer solutions that seemingly do not come close to solving the problem, and without much urgency," said Joe Williams, the PAC's executive director.
Williams admits that among his membership — which includes parents, activists, teachers, and administrators who have served on charter school boards — vouchers are controversial. He says he understands that Democratic politicians have a hard time balancing the needs of constituents with the demands of teachers unions. "So many Democrats owe their starts as politicians to teachers unions," he said.
But John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, disagrees. "We do not control the De
mocratic Party," he asserted. The NEA and Obama have formed a strong relationship, he said, adding that as president, Obama would emphasize the importance of parent involvement in improving public education.
For now, teachers unions are not likely to part ways with Obama, said John Samples, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government. The unions have a choice between Obama and "more of the same," he said, and the unions fundamentally agree with Obama's overall message.
Still, Obama has an opportunity to forge a new path on education reform, according to Samples, who contends that the Democrat's push for charter schools and merit pay is an attempt to provide competition in publicly funded urban schools.
The bottom line is that most Americans believe that Obama can do more than McCain to fix public schools. Polls show that Obama leads McCain on the issue of public school reform, and that Americans believe that Democrats are generally more interested than Republicans in improving public education. Moreover, more than half of Americans oppose using tax dollars for voucher programs that allow parents to send their children to private schools.
Although Obama has an overall edge over McCain on education reform, he still has a job of selling his education ideas to many minority voters.