Va. African Americans split in battle for school choice

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; C01

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.

"I think Senator Marsh is stuck in the past," said Carlesa Carter-Bias, an 18-year-old Precious Blessing Academy graduate who 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 to 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 House passed the bill 54 to 45, but it died in a Senate committee where Marsh and two other Democratic members of the Legislative Black Caucus - Sens. Yvonne B. Miller (Norfolk) and L. Louise Lucas (Portsmouth) - joined a party-line vote, 9 to 6, against it. Supporters said 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 A. 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.

The sides' arguments

Supporters say they believe that 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 weaken public schools by siphoning away funding and the most motivated students.

Others say 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. James P. Massie III, 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 making 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 in Virginia because the state would no longer be paying for children who leave 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., a black 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 once led a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Norfolk.

But the Virginia Education Association, Virginia PTA, Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Virginia School Boards Association and Legislative Black Caucus (except Howell) opposed the bill. The state, they said, should restore public school funds before granting tax breaks to corporations to send children to private school.

Motives questioned

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, pastor of World Overcomers Christian Ministries in Richmond's East End. Whitehead, who is black, said he supports school choice but has concerns about how children would be selected for scholarshps.

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

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

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

Across town, 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 last year because of a drop in enrollment.

As the economy shed jobs, some parents, many of whom earn their living as mechanics or gardeners and in 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, a little more than half of its former 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. A. Donald McEachin, an 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 to the tax-credit bill.

"Assuming this proposal rescues children, as a policymaker 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 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."

One of McEachin's children is attending a public high school. Another is in private school.

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