Amid reports that the gap is widening between white and black student achievement, the push for school choice is gaining new momentum, especially among inner-city minority families.
Perhaps lending further impetus to the choice movement, a study released this week shows that African-American students who switched from public to private schools have made significant improvement in standardized test scores.
The new study coincides with the launch of a national coalition of black educators, ministers, politicians, and parents who are calling for more education options for low-income families.
"We are here today to declare war on the disparity in education achievement, particularly as it applies to our children," says Howard Fuller, a former public-school superintendent in Milwaukee, who heads the Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO). "This is unacceptable. It is un-American, and we will no longer tolerate it. Choice is widespread in America, unless you are poor."
The issue of vouchers, or providing taxpayer subsidies to families to choose an alternative public or private school for their children, is one of the most explosive in American education. It has been especially divisive within the African-American community.
Most public-opinion polls show strong support for vouchers among minority families. But mainstream black organizations, such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, have consistently opposed vouchers or tuition tax credits, saying they threaten the viability of the nation's public-school system.
Nor is that opposition just on the surface. When BAEO board member Willie Braezell spoke out in favor of a voucher experiment for poor children, he was ousted as head of the NAACP chapter in Colorado Springs, Colo., by the national leadership.
The civil rights establishment and teachers unions are the most vocal critics of vouchers. In the view of civil rights groups, vouchers are reminiscent of the desegregation era, when some whites argued in favor of such credits so they could remove their children from newly integrated public schools. Teachers unions say vouchers drain resources from public schools and pose a threat to collective bargaining rights.
"Vouchers are a big reason we're so involved in this year's election," says Beverly Clyburn, a high school teacher in Allendale, S.C., and a delegate to this month's Democratic National Convention. (Teachers unions were the largest organization represented at the convention.)
"You can improve public schools or you can provide vouchers to compete with public schools, but you can't do both well," Ms. Clyburn adds.
Three publicly funded voucher programs are currently under way in the US - in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and, most recently, the State of Florida. School vouchers are on the November ballot in Michigan and in California.
In addition, more than 60 privately funded scholarship programs support choice options for poor parents. Illinois provides a $500 parental tax credit for out-of-pocket education expenses, including private-school tuition. Arizona allows a $500 credit to donors of scholarship funds used to offset children's private-school tuition expenses.
Reports have been mixed on how well such programs have improved student achievement. Critics have argued that any achievement gains by students in voucher programs could be attributed to things other than school quality - such as motivation or family background.
But Harvard University's two-year examination of programs in New York, the District of Columbia, and Dayton, Ohio, comes closer than any previous study to the ideal of a scientific experiment. Students in the Harvard study, selected for tuition scholarships on the basis of a lottery, are essentially representative of those low-income African-Americans who want a better option for their children.
In all three cities, Harvard researchers found, African-American students who switched to private schools scored 6 percentile points higher on achievement tests than their public-school classmates. That gain amounts to about one-third of the achievement gap between white and black students, researchers say. There were no statistically significant gains for students from other ethnic groups.
"Those results were a surprise to all of us," says Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University who directed evaluations of the Dayton and Washington programs. "We had expected to find either positive results for all groups or for none."
The evaluation team had no explanation for these results, but researchers say the data offer some clues. African-American parents reported dramatic changes along three lines: improved school-parent communication, fewer discipline problems at school, and more homework.
"If the trend line observed over the first two years continues,... the black-white test gap could be eliminated ... for black students who use a voucher to switch from public to private schools," the report concludes.
Such promise may only intensify the debate over vouchers versus improving public schools.
For now, though, "it's absolutely clear there is high support for vouchers in the African-American community," says Mr. Fuller. Some recent polls put support for vouchers among African-American families as high as 83 percent.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society