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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.

As the measure moved through the state capitol, public and private school educators who serve the same populations followed the debate from different perspectives.

Gregory Muzik, principal of Mary Munford Elementary School, a K-12 public school where about one in three students is black, said using tax credits for private schools is unjust, especially because Virginia has failed to adequately fund its schools for years.

"It would be like someone said I should have public money to join the Country Club of Virginia," Muzik said.

Across town, meanwhile, Kenneth W. Soistman, principal of All Saints Catholic School, said the proposal could mean the difference in survival for the small K-8 school, which almost closed its doors last year because of a drop in enrollment.

As the economy shed jobs, some parents, many of whom earn their living as mechanics, gardeners and other blue-collar trades, had no choice but to withdraw their children.

"I met them and shed tears with them," Soistman said. "Our numbers are down, and we lose children simply because of finances."

This year, All Saints has 112 students, or a little more than half its usual enrollment. At least 92 percent are black, and half cannot afford the $5,000 tuition without aid.

Hoping to win support for school choice, All Saints invited Sen. Donald McEachin, a young African American Democrat who also represents Richmond, to visit. McEachin, who is considering a run for statewide office, said he was impressed by the school but unwavering in his opposition the tax-credit bill.

"Assuming this proposal rescues children, as a policy maker I can't craft a plan that only rescues some children," McEachin said. "At the end of the day, we have decided in this country that that there ought to be an educational system that's the school system of last resort, and that's the public school system. It's got to educate everybody."

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