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Va. African Americans split in battle for school choice

Virginia's Senate Finance Committee voted along party lines in February to kill a measure that would have given businesses tax credits to fund private school tuition for needy students. The measure, which the House of Delegates had approved, has divided the African American community along generational, and possibly class, lines.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 7:28 PM

RICHMOND - Latrina Hite cuts up fruit for the children's morning snack at Precious Blessing Academy. She fixes their lunch. She mops bathrooms, bleaches doorknobs to kill germs and helps students with homework in after-school care.

All of this she does because she cannot otherwise afford to send two children and a grandchild to a tiny private school founded 12 years ago in an abandoned chicken hatchery in one of the city's rougher neighborhoods.

The tuition is $85 a week. But for Hite - and for her daughter Jameria, who almost dropped out of public school after giving birth to a child when she was 14 years old - the academy offers something as invaluable as freedom: an escape from the troubled public school in her district.

Precious Blessing Academy sent a delegation of schoolchildren to the Virginia General Assembly last week to support a bill giving businesses a huge tax break for funding poor children's tuition. They were stunned that one of their opponents was a hero of Virginia's civil rights movement: Sen. Henry L. Marsh, a powerful black Democrat who represents their Richmond district. He said the proposal would perhaps help only a few students and strip money for public education.

"We studied black history all school year. They all knew the things he did to get civil rights for us," said the Rev. Lois C. Bias, a onetime Black Panther Party member who transformed the former Pocoshock Chicken Hatchery into a Christian academy in 1998. "I'm so grateful to him. That's what makes it so hard. But to these young people, they see him as the enemy."

In Virginia, and elsewhere, the debate over school choice and voucher-like programs has split the African American community along generational, and perhaps, class lines. In the District, the mayor and council chairman - both African Americans - are at odds over vouchers. And the topic drew attention after last month's jailing in Ohio of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who admitted tampering with records so that her daughters could attend a better school outside her district. Thousands have asked the governor to pardon her, and some compared the mother to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

On one side are black elders who remember when school choice meant no choice at all because of state-mandated segregation. Many also remember how vouchers were given to white children to attend private academies during "Massive Resistance," when Virginia closed its public schools rather than desegregate as ordered under the Supreme Court's Brown v. The Board of Education decision. Opponents argue that school choice might re-segregate the schools, this time by class and ability.

But on the other side is a younger generation of single parents and working-class black families who are looking for any way out of the state's most troubled schools in places like Norfolk, Petersburg and its capital. Even if it's difficult to rescue all schoolchildren, an effort should be made to save some, they argue.

"This is the 21st century. Go look at the areas where the schoolchildren are trapped and look what the color of their skin is," said Alberta Wilson of Chesapeake, an African American who founded a scholarship organization to help children attend private schools.

And so the struggle has led to scenes like the one in Virginia's legislature last week when Jameera, 18, and 16 classmates - all African American and all neatly attired in navy blue school uniforms - spoke up for school choice, only to be shot down. Riding home on their church bus, they wept in frustration not only at having lost, but because Marsh had lectured them that their best hope lay in the public schools.

"I think Senator Marsh is stuck in the past," said Carlesa Carter-Bias, an 18-year-old Precious Blessing Academy graduate who now attends Virginia Commonwealth University.

Marsh, a Howard University law graduate who handled more than 50 cases filed against school boards in the battle against Massive Resistance, said he hasn't given a second thought about his vote that helped kill the bill.


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