The Black Divide on School Choice

I’ve been reading the debate between our own Andrew Coulson and Rev. Joseph Darby with interest, not least because it is an extreme rarity to find an opponent of school choice with the courage and good faith to engage in such a public debate on the topic.

That said, something Rev. Darby wrote in his response caught my attention because of its parallels with the modern fight over school choice:

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Too little is said about an uncomfortable contemporary truth: the irony is that the opponents of school choice across this country include affluent African-Americans who see good private schools as a threat to their public schools, their livelihoods, and their political and economic power.

There is a class divide in the African American community. If you take a look at the economics of urban areas, you will find that schools provide a large percentage of good middle and upper-middle class jobs for African Americans. If you look at the polling data, it is low-income blacks who are most supportive of school choice. And yet black elected officials are overwhelmingly opposed to choice.

And if you look at the black leadership class that runs our cities and failing public schools, you will find that many send their children to schools other than those in which they teach or those in the city they lead. I hold up as the most prominent example our first black president, Barrack Obama, who opposes private school choice policies and yet has always sent his own children to private schools.

Rev. Darby suggests, “a mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students.” If this is indeed true then the greatest damage has already been done to public schools by the likes of President Obama and other parents with the means to choose private schools for their children.

Why do Rev. Darby and other government school advocates not excoriate President Obama and other school choice opponents who patronize private education? Why are Rev. Darby and others not working assiduously to ban private schools altogether?

Why, in the final analysis, does Rev. Darby’s logic hold for the poor but not for the wealthy?

Below the fold I have more on these claims.

The self-interest-driven divisions among urban African Americans are real and serious. Much of the following comes from a great paper written by Patrick McGuinn, professor of political science at Drew University.

Marion Orr, in “The Challenge of Reform in Baltimore,” notes that “because a significant proportion of the school system’s employment base is African-American workers, the interplay between race and jobs hinders reform efforts. The school bureaucracy is an employment regime for blacks …”

Similarly, Jeffrey Henig recognizes in “The Color of School Reform,” that “there is a kind of ‘holy communion’ between prominent black clergy and the members of their churches whose livelihood is schooling and for whom the school system is a source of wages, professional development, and economic advancement.”

Paul Hill and Mary Beth Celio note in Fixing Urban Schools, “the public school systems have become the principal employers of African-American and immigrant middle class professionals in big cities.” And Julian Bond, as chairman of the NAACP, admitted that “the black teacher class is solidly entrenched in the African-American community and that teacher unions occupy an important political position in the black community.”

So it should come as no surprise to find that Terry Moe finds in his survey work that 79% of the inner city poor support vouchers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on African American issues, found that black leaders are wildly out of step with their constituency on this issue, with Black elected officials 70 percent opposed to vouchers while “in the black population, there was what can accurately be described as overwhelming support for vouchers (approximately 70 percent) in the three youngest age cohorts” under age 50.

It’s far past time we recognize that black public opinion and interests are not monolithic.