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Va. African Americans split in battle for school choice

By Fredrick Kunkle
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.

"It's unfortunate that these children are being used by persons who want to undermine the public schools," Marsh said. "These young people, when they get older, they will understand that public education is the answer."

The bill passed the House 54-45 but died in a Senate committee with Marsh and two other Democratic members of the Legislative Black Caucus - Sens. Yvonne B. Miller (Norfolk) and L. Louise Lucas (Portsmouth) - joining the party-line vote, 9-6, against it. Supporters say they intend to resume the fight next year.

The school choice movement has been around at least since 1955, when Noble Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea in an essay.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has introduced legislation in Congress to revive the District's voucher program two years after President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress began phasing it out. That has triggered a split between Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who supported killing the program, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who favors its revival.

Supporters believe everyone should have an option that only the wealthiest have now, and that opening public schools to competition would strengthen them. But opponents, led by teachers unions, say such programs would further weaken public schools by siphoning away funding and the most motivated students. Others argue that using public funds for tuition at religious schools violates the separation of church and state, although the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2002.

This year, Del. Jimmie Massie, a white Republican from Richmond's suburbs, sponsored a bill that would have given businesses a 70 percent tax credit for contributing to scholarships for low-income students. Only children whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunches - a four-person household earning no more than $40,793 - would have been eligible. Similar programs have appeared in seven states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill's nonpartisan fiscal impact statement says such a program could reduce public educational costs because the state would no longer be paying for children who left public schools for private institutions.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) strongly backed the bill, as did the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation. Del. Algie T. Howell Jr., an African American Democrat from Norfolk, is a co-sponsor.

"As Dr. King once said, 'The time is always right to do what is right,' " said Howell, who attended a segregated, single-room school and led a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Norfolk.

But the Virginia Education Association, Virginia PTA, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia School Boards Association and the Legislative Black Caucus, except for Howell, were opposed, saying the state should restore public school funds before granting tax breaks to corporations to send children to private school.

And even some supporters of school choice had questions about how Massie's bill would be put into effect, not to mention its supporters' motives.

"There is always a suspicion when Republicans come into the community," said the Rev. Dwayne Whitehead, the African American pastor of the World Overcomers Family Church in Richmond's East End. Whitehead said he supports school choice but has concerns about how children would be selected for scholarshps.

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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