School Choice Programs Snowball
The movement has grown among African American Democrats, many of whom believe school choice is the new civil rights struggle. "School choice has become a bipartisan principle," said Greg Forster, senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis.
The Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey, which represents more than 600 African American churches, is engaged in a drawn-out battle to pass a tax-credit scholarship program. Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education for New Jersey Kids, said there is "very visible outrage among black leadership, particularly clergy" over efforts within the Democratic Party to block educational choice.
In Florida, black churches and pastors are also actively backing school choice programs, while the John McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program provides private-school tuition vouchers to 20,000 students with special needs.
More than 34,000 low-income students benefit from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which gives tax credits to businesses that fund scholarships. Two-thirds of recipients are black or Hispanic. The program had received 33,000 new applications, and 9,000 students were on the waiting list.
"Through these two scholarships, it's now possible for private schools in the low-income, African American, and Hispanic communities to become viable," said Doug Tuthill, a former teachers' union president. He now heads Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit that administers the tax credits. "We've seen an explosion of these schools that normally wouldn't make it financially," he said. "Increasingly, black churches and black community groups are able to create their own schools, and they're sustainable."
H. K. Matthews, a Florida pastor, is another champion of the state's school choice programs. Former president of the Pensacola Council of Ministers, Matthews was jailed repeatedly in the 1960s for staging civil rights demonstrations. He said his desire is not to take monies away from public schools.
"We have to face reality," said Matthews. "I've seen too many children who have come out of school choice and have nothing but positive stories." At the voucher-backed private schools in Florida, "I have seen what I would call deliverance."
Choice Results Disputed
As with most public-policy issues, both sides in the school choice debate use research to bolster their case. Last March, the Friedman Foundation released a report summarizing ten empirical studies of school voucher programs. Nine found that vouchers "improve student outcomes" for all or some of the students. None reported a negative impact.
And last year, the Department of Education's research institute found that participation in D.C.'s voucher program "raised a student's probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points, from 70 percent to 82 percent, based on parent reports."
Meanwhile, a report this summer from the pro-public education group Center on Education Policy found that long-term studies of publicly funded voucher programs have "generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers."
Education historian Diane Ravitch has noted that "20 years after the initiation of vouchers in Milwaukee and a decade after the program's expansion to include religious schools, there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools left behind."