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Vouchers can't help if black parents won't
By BILL MAXWELL
Published August 16, 2007
An increasing number of black lawmakers in Florida find themselves strapped with a dilemma: They can continue to support public schools as the academic performance of black children annually falls below that of every other ethnic group, or they can dump public schools in favor of unproven private schools that accept vouchers.
Vouchers are tax dollars used directly or indirectly to pay for students in public schools to attend private schools.
This dilemma arrived in earnest in 1999. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who showed contempt for public schools, capitalized on black parents' wariness over their children's abysmal performance in public schools by touting the virtues of private schools and denouncing the problems of public schools.
Many black parents saw their children as victims in a cycle of academic failure caused by the public schools. Anxious and desperate, these parents and black legislators began to believe that public schools were so bad that any alternative was better.
Bush and his allies successfully demonized public schools and implemented a system, using a high-stakes standardized test exclusively, to rate public schools with letter grades from A to F, the ulterior motive being the establishment of a state-funded voucher program.
Initially, the overwhelming majority of black lawmakers opposed vouchers. Seven years later, however, many are changing their minds.
Like all dilemmas, this one has produced wrongheaded thinking. In this instance, the wrongheaded thinking involves the responsibilities of the primary stakeholders - black parents and their children - in the education process per se.
Explaining why he now supports vouchers, state Rep. Terry Fields, a black Democrat from Jacksonville, told the St. Petersburg Times: "In Duval County there are 11 'F' schools, and all 11 of those 'F' schools are in the African-American community. We're in a place in time where we have to be creative and get out of our comfortable boxes and do what's best for the kids."
Fields, along with others of similar mind, can't see the damning irony of his words. If the failing schools are in the black community, the black community shares essential responsibility for the schools' poor performance.
He ignores the fact that the black community and its schools lack social capital, that incalculable trait that motivates parents and other residents to pitch in to make their children's schools conducive to effective learning and academic success. Such people will wash cars, bake cookies, barbecue ribs, fry fish and write checks to help their schools. For their children to attend a fundamental school, they eagerly will sign a contract committing themselves to service and effective parenting.
What were Fields and other black adults doing while those 11 Jacksonville schools were failing? I agree with Fields that the time has come to "be creative" and "do what's best for the kids."
Are vouchers and private schools best for the kids?
Mary Brown, Pinellas School Board chairman, thinks not: "I understand parents' frustration with their children not learning in public schools, but I believe if we want public education to work the way it is supposed to work, two major things must happen: Parents must demand top performance from our schools and top performance from their children. In other words, school systems must make some major changes to meet the needs of 21st century classrooms and engage students in activities that will challenge them. Parents must stop trying to be their children's friends and start being parents and demand appropriate behavior and high expectations for respect and performance in school.
"Vouchers are a promise to parents to help children perform better and increase their learning capabilities. But who determines if the education received is real or is merely perceived to be better? I can't say if the education students receive in schools supported by vouchers is better or not. I simply know if the standards for compliance are not the same, how do we determine if the education received is better? I do know that every dollar taken to support a voucher is a dollar taken from the education of a public school student."
Research indicates that private schools may outperform public schools when they select a critical mass of motivated students with supportive parents. Merely giving vouchers to low-performing students, who lack family support, is nothing more than transferring a culture of failure to a different environment.
To desperate black parents who have accepted the perceived superiority of private schools and vouchers as an article of faith, Mary Brown offers a two-word bit of wisdom: caveat emptor.