A new class-action lawsuit here underscores the depth of support among black and Hispanic parents nationwide for a favorite cause of the conservative movement: publicly financed vouchers to send children to private or parochial schools.
“It is only natural that African Americans and Hispanics would sign on,” said Joe Rogers, a conservative black lawyer who helped organized the suit. “They are among the most affected by public education in this country.”
Recruited at black churches and Spanish grocery stores, nearly 3,500 mothers and fathers of public school students had joined the case by the time Rogers closed the rolls of plaintiffs last month. “If we had kept going, we would have had 10,000 plaintiffs,” the lawyer maintained.
Indeed, two national polls this year indicate that blacks favor vouchers more than whites. In a Gallup poll in the summer for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education association, 72 percent of black respondents favored vouchers, while the general population split evenly on the issue, with 48 percent for vouchers and 48 percent against them.
In a second survey, support for vouchers ranged from 65 percent of Hispanic respondents to 56 percent of blacks to 47 percent of whites. The poll was conducted in the spring for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington group that specializes in research on black issues.
“It’s common sense - the poorest people want help,” said Janie Perry, administrator of the Watch-Care Academy, one of two all-black private schools that opened here recently. “Minority children are the ones doing the worst in public schools. But parents have no money for alternatives.”
Although court challenges are legion, voucher proposals are being prepared in about half of the nation’s 50 states. They run the gamut from bills in state legislatures to proposals for state constitutional amendments to initiatives by local school boards.
Only a handful of voucher programs have been established. The nation’s two largest, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, serve low-income, largely black and Hispanic children.
The program in Cleveland covers 3,000 children and the Milwaukee program, launched in 1990 and widely considered the ground-breaking effort, covers 15,000. Reading and math scores have improved for children participating in both programs. Last summer, Harvard University researchers surveyed parents of children receiving vouchers in Cleveland and reported that two-thirds were “very satisfied” with the program.
In the black community and in civil rights organizations, vouchers appear to be deepening a generational and an income divide between the older, more affluent leadership and the younger, more impoverished rank and file. Last summer, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People voted to oppose vouchers.
But, in the poll for the Joint Center, vouchers for private and parochial education were supported by 86 percent of black respondents from 26 to 35 years old. In contrast, only 19 percent of blacks 65 and older supported vouchers. The greatest support for vouchers came from poor blacks - 70 percent of those earning less that $15,000 advocate such a system. In contrast, support dwindled to about 50 percent among those making over $35,000.
Undaunted, the NAACP, along with teachers’ unions and Democratic politicians, have led anti-voucher rallies around the nation. They argue that vouchers will drain public funds and the best students from public schools.
“Instead of abandoning our schools, we should continue to support proven reform efforts,” President Clinton warned in September before the Senate voted to block a voucher experiment for the District of Columbia.
But some Democrats are breaking ranks. Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, supported the attempt to create the voucher program in Washington.