In a Feb. 26 New York Times commentary, Emory University visiting professor Michael Leo Owens argued that blacks increasingly support school vouchers despite opposition from black politicians.
A few days later, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, on cue, stepped forward to demonstrate how intellectually bankrupt his opposition to school choice is. Jackson warns blacks not to be swayed by radio and television ads touting the success of vouchers.
The Black Alliance for Educational Options, founded in August 2000, hit the ground running with commercials presenting the stories of minority parents who have benefited from school choice. Parents with children in rotten schools are asking a question Martin Luther King Jr. asked in a speech at Montgomery, Ala., when blacks were told they must be patient about gaining their civil rights: "How long?" How long must blacks wait? He concluded, "not long . . . however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again."
The answer from Rev. Jackson, ironically, is that parents today should wait until the public schools are repaired, although he doesn’t answer how long the timeline should be.
Rev. Jackson does ask one very good question: "Why does the voucher proposition persist?" After all, it has gone down to defeat in numerous state ballot initiatives. Predictably, Rev. Jackson blames "rich conservative proponents" for continuing to push the issue. He then adds, "public funds should not be used to underwrite rich people sending their children to private schools."
Data suggest that this is not happening. It is desperate people, the type who formerly would seek help from Jackson and his organization, who are demanding school choice. Surely an old civil rights leader like Rev. Jackson would recognize that people fighting for a just cause don’t easily give up.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund did win the 1954 Brown case, but that was only after battling in the courts for decades when victory was uncertain and opposition was often violent. As education historian Diane Ravitch recently noted about the continued demand for school choice: "Losing an election by more than two to one does not discourage [school choice supporters]--no more than it would have discouraged civil rights leaders to lose a state or local referendum on segregation laws in the 1950s."
Rev. Jackson performs several sleights of hand, most blatantly when he writes that the organizations supporting vouchers opposed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Of course, few if any of the organizations existed then.
And, increasingly, prominent liberals are coming out in support of school choice. Liberal sociologist Christopher Jencks of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government argued as early as 1970 that inner-city blacks should be given education vouchers. Other supporters of vouchers include former Clinton administration official Robert Reich, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Henry Levin of Columbia Teachers College, and BAEO board members former six-term Rep. Floyd H. Flake, D-N.Y., State Rep. Dwight Evans, D-PA, and Willie Breazell (who was ousted as head of the NAACP in Colorado when he announced he supported school choice).
Even Andrew Young, another former King protégé, has come out in support of school vouchers. And former Vice President Al Gore famously admitted that, "If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing . . . I might be for vouchers, too."
It has been said that generals prepare for the last war, often failing to adapt to new circumstances. Rev. Jackson remains stuck in history, so busy fighting demons from the past that he is willing to handicap black children today. Prof. Owens of Emory University is right: Urban America supports vouchers, despite what its leaders say. The argument that we must "save" the public schools, even at the cost of losing another generation of children to educational mediocrity, is increasingly losing traction, especially when someone like Jackson, who sent his son Jesse Jr. to the ritzy prep school St. Albans in Washington, D.C., forwards it.
Rev. Jackson’s effort to keep children in failing schools will be as futile as George Wallace standing in the doorway of public schools blocking black children from entering. History has not been kind to the segregationists, just as it may be rude to people like Rev. Jackson as he tries to block children from leaving failing public schools.
Casey J. Lartigue is an education policy analyst in the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute .