IT IS A PICTURE OF JOY AND JUBILATION. Rosa-Linda Demore-Brown, an enormous smile lighting up her face, holds out her arms to embrace Roberta Kitchen, who is rushing toward her in a blur of elation and relief.
The picture of the two black women, who are members of Cleveland Parents for School Choice, was taken by Associated Press photographer Ron Schwane on the day the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision upholding the constitutionality of the Ohio school voucher program. It appeared the following day in newspapers around the country, including The Washington Post, which ran it across three columns on Page 1. As well it should have, for Demore-Brown and Kitchen exemplify the struggle for black civil rights at the start of the 21st century.
Republicans and conservatives were latecomers to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and they have paid the political price for their tardiness. To this day, the great majority of black voters are Democrats and black electoral clout is invariably leveraged to advance liberal political goals. But the civil-rights battleground has changed from the era when Jim Crow and racist sheriffs were the enemy. Today there is no struggle in which more is at stake for black America than the struggle for school choice. And this time it is not Republicans and conservatives who are on the wrong side of the fight.
No one is more victimized by the failures of America's government-run school system than the children of the urban poor, and those children are usually black. Stuck disproportionately in schools that don't work, blocked from the escape hatch of private or parochial school, black children routinely perform far below average in every subject. Sixty-three percent of black 4th-graders, for example, cannot read. The average black high school senior is about as well educated as the average white middle school student. There are many ways to ruin someone's life, but few are as effective as ignorance. And ignorance, by and large, is what public schooling guarantees for children from America's poorest and blackest neighborhoods.
Most American parents take school choice for granted. They either choose to live in neighborhoods with decent public schools or they choose to shoulder the financial sacrifice of paying for private school. Among those who know the government schools best -- the men and women who teach in them -- large numbers choose something better for their own kids. In Chicago and Philadelphia, 36 percent of public school teachers enroll their children in private schools. In Cleveland, 38 percent do. In Boston, 45 percent.
The idea behind vouchers is uncomplicated: to extend the power of choice to parents who would otherwise have none and thereby dignify their children with the equality to which they are entitled as Americans. If anyone should be avid for vouchers, it is liberals and Democrats, who trumpet their concern for the poor and who claim to care deeply about civil rights. And yet it is liberals and Democrats who most vehemently inveigh against vouchers. The reason, of course, is that teachers unions want to crush school choice -- like all monopolies, they detest competition -- and what the politically powerful teachers unions want, the left generally tries to give them.
There are a few honorable exceptions. The Rev. Floyd Flake, a prominent New York pastor and former Democratic member of Congress, is a passionate supporter of school choice. Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, is another voucher supporter. So is Joseph Califano, who was Jimmy Carter's secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
For a while, the most prominent honorable exception was former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who created a great stir when he came out in favor of vouchers in 2000. At the time, he promoted them as a "sane approach to giving poor kids a better education." No longer. Today Reich is running for governor of Massachusetts, and he has recanted his support for vouchers. For him as for most Democratic politicians, it is more important to genuflect to the teachers unions than to rescue black children from lousy public schools.
Rosa-Linda Demore-Brown, Roberta Kitchen, and countless parents like them are as desperate as black parents in Topeka and Little Rock were a half-century ago. Back then it was segregationist governors who stood in schoolhouse doorways and vowed to keep black kids trapped in wretched schools. Today it is liberals and Democrats who stop at nothing to preserve educational inequality.
By contrast, it is conservatives and Republicans who have become the new civil rights champions, taking on all comers in the battle for school choice. What the NAACP and the ACLU were in the 1950s, the Institute for Justice and the Landmark Legal Foundation are today -- the defenders of the weak and the discriminated-against, who find racial injustice unbearable and are resolved to make it right.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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