School choice pioneer Howard Fuller always asks the same question whenever he speaks to black audiences in poor neighbor-hoods: "Are there any crazy parents here?"
"They're the ones with the nerve to go up to the school and ask, 'What's happening to my child?' " says the former superintendent for Milwaukee schools, now an advocate of vouchers and other school choices.
That question - whether poor children are getting a decent education - is redefining school politics in the United States. Where parents answer no, many are now lobbying hard for alternatives to public school - and in the process straining the political alliance between blacks and the Democratic-leaning education establishment, one of the most enduring partnerships of the past half century.
From local school boards to national civil-rights groups to the Democratic Party itself, signs of fissure are appearing everywhere over school-choice issues.
But the drama now playing out is particularly serious for African-Americans and liberal Democrats, who stood shoulder to shoulder on civil rights but could fall out over how to raise student achievement. Consider the following:
*The strongest demand for public-school alternatives is coming from nonwhite families and public-school parents whose children are achieving at or below average, according to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released last month.
*A local chapter of the Urban League has come out in support of vouchers, a first for the organization. T. Willard Fair, leader of the Urban League of Greater Miami, is opposing a lawsuit against Florida's new voucher program. The NAACP, on the other hand, is one of the parties suing to stop vouchers. "Vouchers allow us to have access to educational opportunity," says Mr. Fair. "Why should a kid be forced to go to a school where it is obvious that the school is not preparing him or her to be competitive?"
*Sanctions can be sharp for black leaders who break with the traditional line. Willie Breazell, former head of the Colorado Springs, Colo., branch of the NAACP, says the national leadership forced him to resign after he published a column in a local paper endorsing vouchers.
*Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young says he's taking his case for a limited voucher program directly to the NAACP. This month, he told a NAACP conference in Tallahassee, Fla., that failing schools need the challenge of competition.
"My wife is a school teacher. My mother was a school teacher... I believe in public schools," he said in a phone interview. "But I also believe that huge monopolies require competition to shake them loose. Poor people really need some power against the public-education system."
The debate, of course, is not confined to the black community. The battle continues to rage in far-flung communities, as in Washington, over whether vouchers give poor children, especially minorities, an exit from failing schools, or whether they are an evil that will destroy public education.
So far, the general public is deeply divided. When asked whether to improve existing public schools or fund vouchers for private or church-related schools, 71 percent opt to improve existing schools. Still, support for a voucher option moved up from 45 percent in 1994 to 51 percent last month.
Support for the idea, though, now stands at about 70 percent in minority families - and is perhaps linked to the stark fact the black and Hispanic student achievement is still well below national norms.
When Dr. Fuller took over Milwaukee public schools in 1991, fewer than 1 in 4 black students could read or do math at grade level. In response, an unlikely coalition of businesses and low-income black parents lobbied for and won the first school-choice plan.
Since then, Cleveland launched a similar program for low-income students in 1995. Florida began implementing the first statewide voucher plan this month, and leading GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush is urging a similar plan.
"If [school officials] know that not only the child, but also the money could leave [the school], the discussion changes," says Fuller, now a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "Suddenly, poor children have value. Money talks. It sends a message."
In a speech on Monday, Urban League president Hugh Price cautioned "those who preside over public education" not to take African-American support for granted, or vouchers to children in failing schools will gain momentum. "As a policy option, I don't want to see vouchers," he added in an interview. "But strategically, we can use public support for vouchers to flog teachers unions and public schools'' to improve student performance.
For the two leading teachers unions, which both figure among top Democratic campaign contributors and provided more delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1996 than any other group, vouchers are still a no-compromise issue. And the Clinton administration has threatened to veto any voucher bill in Congress.
But a new report by the Washington-based Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights chides the Department of Education for failure to enforce laws that target US aid to poor children.
"It has been an article of faith that Democrats are joined at the hip with the teachers unions.... It's coming down to an adults versus kids issue, and that's why this is such a difficult problem for minorities and labor within the Democratic Party," says Phyllis McClure, a civil rights activist and consultant on the commission report.
More information about student achievement has helped change minds in the African-American community, says Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. "People can see where there has not been progress, and it's breaking down traditional positions."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society