Thanks to President George W. Bush's early morning arm-twisting and a blatant Republican disregard for Congressional rules (with a 15-minute vote taking more than three hours while Republican leadership pressured dissenting members of Congress to change their vote) we have a new Medicare system that may either cut drug bills in half or push more senior citizens into bankruptcy. While those political maneuverings garnered headlines, another initiative to use taxpayer dollars for a school voucher experiment in Washington, D.C., was relegated to the sidelines.
To be sure, the D.C. initiative remained on the table as Congress recessed for Thanksgiving. Still, most expect the $13 million initiative, which will provide taxpayer-supported grants of up to $7,500 to at least 1,700 low-income D.C. students, to pass. It is part of a $328 million federal appropriation to the District, and it has become a hotly debated matter among D.C. politicians, with the mayor and head of the school board supporting vouchers, and D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton opposing them.
The dialogue among urban parents around the nation about vouchers is at least as interesting as the conversation among politicians. Many African Americans support public education and the adequate funding of public schools. But parents who have to deal with low-quality public schools greet voucher programs with the same enthusiasm that someone burning in hellfire greets a cup of ice. Worn out by their battles to improve public schools, frustrated by school bureaucracies that seem nonresponsive, and unwilling to keep their children in environments where they can't learn, some activist parents have embraced alternatives - charter schools, vouchers and privatization - as a salvation for their children.
From where I sit, the public schools have never been adequately funded and when they are, some of the issues related to their quality will abate. I also feel that vouchers and charter schools do a fair amount of "creaming," providing options to the most activist parents and leaving many parents and children behind. I support public schools, but I understand why so many parents are open to the notion of vouchers. And I suspect that the voucher issue is a wedge issue for African Americans, especially from a generational perspective.
Some studies indicate that African Americans under age 35 are more likely to support vouchers than those who are older. It makes sense. Many under 35 have children and direct contact with the public schools. Some policy analysts, like myself, have neither chick nor child, and are dealing solely with educational theory. The response from young parents - "public schools should be strengthened in the long run, but in the short run I have to educate my child." Still, those who are open to vouchers need to understand the political …