February 20 2009
President Barack Obama inauguration as the 44th president of the United States has changed the way many Americans view race and politics. Among other things, Obama's election unequivocally demonstrates that in America, any man or woman can be elected to our nation's highest office regardless of race.
Black Americans have many reasons for optimism: The U.S. now has a vibrant black entrepreneurial and professional class whose members play leading roles throughout society.
The proportion of blacks with college degrees continues to rise; more than a million young African-Americans have advanced degrees. A growing black middle class spans the inner-city to the suburbs.
Half of black families own their own homes. Yet big problems remain: Too many of our neighborhoods remain segregated. Social pathologies continue to plague inner-city communities.
Despite enormous resilience as slaves - fighting to learn, hold their families together, and help each other - too many African-Americans today have grown distressingly dependent on government programs.
Our education system has been one of the greatest barriers to black advancement, but today can also be seen as a great opportunity.
The promise of Brown v. Board of Education was to open every school house door to minorities. But many schools remain off-limits for too many black families today. The single most important step that we could take to promote full equality for all Americans would be to ensure that all children benefit from a quality education, and that requires giving parents more options and control over where their children go to school.
Of course, talking about school choice runs against the conventional wisdom of much of the black leadership, which defends the public schools. However, our children's future is too important to avoid uncomfortable truths.
It's time that black leaders recognize that today, sadly, the American public schools are still a principle problem facing black families. While we should not give up on public schools, we must act rather than just complain. That means promoting choice in education.
School choice can come in many forms. For instance, in Washington, D.C. the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund helps parents send their children to private school. The Fund has helped nearly 7,000 children over the last 15 years. Some 90 percent of the Fund's high school graduates have gone on to college.
There also can be choice within public schools, a process pioneered in East Harlem. Schools remain government-financed and run, but succeed or fail depending upon parents' willingness to enroll their children in them. Schools have increased autonomy, enabling good teachers and administrators to flourish.
Tuition tax credits allow parents to keep more of their own money and send their children to private schools. This process invigorates competition with the public system and reduces the number of children in public schools, cutting government costs.
Vouchers represent the most powerful form of school choice, where parents can use the money that would have been spent on their child at their local public school to enroll in any school of their choice.
The Friedman Foundation reports that today, 14 states run 23 different choice programs. Some are narrowly targeted while others are broader in scope. But all enable parents to break free of the public school monopoly that has failed so many children.
The federal government also has a role to play: in 2003, Congress approved elementary school vouchers of up to $7,500 as part of the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act. Nearly 2,000 children benefited during the 2007-2008 school year.
Democrats leading the federal government need to recommit to this program, which serves as a lifeline for many of the poorest families in our nation's capital. In doing so, they would be joining a growing group of Democrats across the nation who have embraced school choice as a mechanism for empowering parents and truly bringing reform to our schools.
Democrats in Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have backed existing programs, while Democrats in Maryland and New Jersey have advocated new initiatives.
Even with school choice it is hard for children to escape troubled families, crumbling neighborhoods, and struggling cities. But in general "choice kids" do better than public school students and their parents get more involved in their kids' education.
One of the most exciting findings of researchers is that making the educational system more competitive benefits all students. For instance, researchers Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute studied one of Florida's choice programs and concluded that:
"Contrary to the hypothesis that school choice harms students who remain in public schools, this study finds that students eligible for vouchers who remained in the public schools made greater academic improvements as their school choices increased."
This should not surprise us, since competition is essential to our economic system, operating as a force to drive down prices while expanding options and promoting innovation.
Choice initiatives force the public schools to better serve their students - all of them. The benefits are particularly significant for minorities, who typically enjoy the fewest alternatives.
Black America is doing better, but not well enough. Our most important challenge is to ensure that African-American children not only have an opportunity to get a good education, but have the ability to take advantage of that opportunity.
Educational choice and competition offer the best strategy for completing the process that Brown v. Board of Education started.