Va. African Americans split in battle for school choice

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

IN RICHMOND Latrina Hite cuts up fruit for the children's morning snack at Precious Blessing Academy. She fixes their lunch. She mops restrooms, 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 the tiny private school founded 12 years ago in an abandoned chicken hatchery in one of this 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 - the academy offers something invaluable: an escape from the troubled public school in her district.

Precious Blessing Academy sent a delegation of schoolchildren to the Virginia General Assembly this month 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 III, a powerful black Democrat who represents their Richmond district. He said that the proposal would likely help only a few students while stripping money from 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 voucherlike programs has split the African American community along generational, and perhaps class, lines. In Washington, the mayor and the D.C. Council chairman - both African Americans - are at odds over vouchers. And in Ohio, the topic drew attention after last month's jailing of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who admitted tampering with records so her daughters could attend a better school outside their district. Thousands have asked the governor to pardon her, and some have compared her 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" in the late 1950s and early '60s, when Virginia closed some public schools rather than desegregate as ordered under the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Opponents argue that school choice might resegregate the schools, this time by class and ability.

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

"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.

Young voices for choice

The struggle has led to scenes like the one in Virginia's legislature about two weeks ago, when Jameria, 18, and 16 classmates - all African American and all neatly attired in navy 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 also because Marsh had told them that their best hope lay in the public schools.

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