Monday, June 01, 2009

School Choice Is the New Civil Rights Struggle

A word of support from the president could transform local politics on the issue.

Getting arrested doesn't normally bolster a politician's credibility. But when South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford told me recently that he saw the inside of a jail cell 73 times, he did so to make a point. As a youth, Mr. Ford cut his political teeth in tumultuous 1960s civil-rights protests.

Today this black Democrat says the new civil-rights struggle is about the quality of instruction in public schools, and that to receive a decent education African-Americans need school choice. He wants the president's help. "We need choice like Obama has. He can send his kids to any school he wants."

Mr. Ford was once like many Democrats on education -- a reliable vote against reforms that would upend the system. But over the past three and a half years he's studied how school choice works and he's now advocating tax credits and scholarships that parents can spend on public or private schools.

He's not alone. Three other prominent black Democrats in South Carolina have publicly challenged party orthodoxy. In 2006 State Rep. Harold Mitchell Jr. crossed party lines to endorse Republican Karen Floyd for state education superintendent. "We have to try something different," he told me at the time. That same year, Curtis Brantley defeated a state representative in a primary fought over education reform. And last year, Ennis Bryant ran (unsuccessfully) against an anti-school-choice state representative in a primary.

These men are the most visible part of a movement joining black Democrats and political conservatives in a common cause. In recent years, school-choice candidates (black and white) have taken the seats of more than half a dozen antichoice legislators, and there have been two mass rallies for school choice at the state capitol that included black leaders.

Charter and private schools geared toward impoverished black children also are cropping up, and no wonder. There are about 700,000 students in public schools in South Carolina, more than a third of whom -- 247,000 -- are in schools considered to be failing based on test scores. Nearly 60% of the kids in these failing schools -- about 146,000 -- are African-American. Blacks make up about 39% of public-school students.

In March, a Pulse Opinion Research poll of 1,000 black voters in the state reported that 53% agreed that school choice would improve public education (28% disagreed). Support for school-choice legislation increased to 61% when Mr. Ford's name was attached to it.

Two years ago, legislation that would have created education tax credits failed in the House by a handful of votes and could pass today with the support of just a few more members. Meanwhile, Mr. Ford estimates that he is now just two votes shy in the state Senate of passing legislation that would create scholarships for poor children, and education tax credits for all parents, that would be equal to half of what the state spends per-student in each district. When Mr. Ford announced his bill in March, he held a press conference in the capitol that forced work on the House floor to come to a standstill as lawmakers made their way out to hear him thunder, "I don't give a damn about the money. I'm doing this for the kids."

The danger for Democrats still opposed to school choice is that Mr. Ford represents widespread frustration among black voters who see Mr. Obama in the White House and now expect real change to occur in their communities. Black voters could come to support conservative education policies (if not GOP candidates).

Typically, school-choice fights involve Republicans and a handful of Democrats pushing vouchers for a limited number of poor kids in inner cities. That's fine as far as it goes. But, as is evident in Washington, D.C., it doesn't go far. With just a few thousand families receiving vouchers, congressional Democrats are confident that they can kill the school-choice program in D.C. without provoking a voter backlash.

In South Carolina, however, the tax credits on the table would go to middle-class and poor parents alike and would align the interests of the vast majority of voters with those of poor families. If such tax credits take root, they will create a coalition between black Democrats and Republicans and be nearly impossible to trim back, let alone repeal.

That coalition is already starting to form. Mr. Ford is finding a ready ally in Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who has spent the past six years pushing for school choice. The governor has already enacted charter-school legislation, created choice at the prekindergarten level, and has twice pushed for tax credits. School choice is a top goal of his in his final two years in office.

South Carolina doesn't have powerful education unions that can derail reforms, so Democrats are scrambling for alternatives. Jim Rex, the state school superintendent, is pushing to give parents more choices within the public system -- such as magnet schools and single-gender programs. He has also revamped the state's standardized tests. But Democrats are late to the game and parents are growing impatient for progress.

"[Mr.] Obama knows the right thing to do," Mr. Ford told me, noting that just a few words from the president praising education tax credits would likely swing the state senators he needs to pass his legislation. But will the president do it?


Money and the Schools: More isn't better

Brace yourself, because there's good news on education -- and in New Jersey of all places. On Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court let stand a 2008 law replacing a judge-made funding formula that had been in place since the 1980s. Under the old formula, created by the 1981 Abbott decision, 31 of the state's poor school districts received the lion's share of state education funding. Funding in these so-called "Abbott districts" has been exceeding $17,000 per student, well above the state average of $13,500.

Test scores have improved among younger students, but University of Arkansas professor Gary Ritter says education reformers had hoped for better results in earlier years of the program given that urban districts like Camden are now spending more than rich suburbs. Derrell Bradford of Excellence in Education for Everyone says scores at the lower grades look better because testing has been dumbed down, and he attributes any improvement to the fact that Abbott students can use vouchers for preschool. By any measurement, Abbott students still lag behind those in districts spending far less per student.

New Jersey taxpayers pay the highest property taxes in the country -- $7,000 on average -- to fund their own schools, and then they pay state income taxes to further fund Abbott districts. Under the new law, state funds will be sent automatically to wherever the needy kids are, even if they attend suburban schools. The real reform would be to let parents decide which schools deserve their kids and allow the funding to follow. But at least we've had one more object lesson that more money doesn't mean better schools.


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