By Michael Leo Owens
New York Times - February 26, 2002

ATLANTA -- Urban black America favors school vouchers, but its leaders don't. Vouchers transfer authority over the use of a portion of government education funds from bureaucrats to parents, who then may use their grants to send their children to the schools, secular or religious, they believe will best educate their kids.

But we must be honest. If the Supreme Court rules in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the Cleveland voucher program is constitutional, the decision will help some families, but it will not expand the educational opportunities of all black children. Even so, such a result is likely to increase black support for vouchers. It will also show how far out of touch the black governmental class is with its black constituency.

A 1999 survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, found that 68 percent of blacks favor vouchers. A similar poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, showed that the percentage of blacks supporting school vouchers rose to 60 percent in 1999 from 48 percent in 1996.

Support is particularly strong among people in my age group, those between 26 and 35. And support exists broadly among women and men, liberals and conservatives, the poor and the prosperous.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found, however, that 69 percent of black federal, state and local elected officials do not support a voucher plan like Cleveland's. They do not believe that public schools are failing our children. Amazingly, almost three-fifths of black politicians rate their local public schools as excellent or good, while by nearly the same percentage other black adults rate their public schools as poor to fair.

Why do I and other African Americans support vouchers over the advice of black politicians? At the most basic level, we are desperate for decent education for our children. And people in my generation and those younger doubt the ability of black government leaders to influence public education policies in ways that would benefit our children. Our support for vouchers is essentially a critique of politicians' ineffectiveness.

In the post-civil rights era, the number of blacks sharing power and responsibility for urban public education has grown dramatically. From 1977 to 1999, the number of black elected officials with influence over public education in cities (mayors, council members, school board members and superintendents) more than doubled, to 5,815 from 2,724.

Increased black representation in urban public education has had positive symbolic effects. There are more black voices in local education policymaking and more black teachers serving as role models. Nevertheless, the substantive benefits of black electoral representation have been limited. The educational achievement of black children and the overall quality of urban public schools have failed to improve significantly.

Consider the case of Atlanta. Since 1973, the mayors and public school superintendents of Atlanta have all been African American and its school board has had black majorities. The city council likewise has had black majorities for more than 20 years. In 2000, blacks made up 78 percent of the Atlanta system's central office administrators, 95 percent of its school principals and 82 percent of its teachers.

Unfortunately, black bureaucratic enfranchisement has yet to affect black educational achievement. Test scores in the elementary schools in Atlanta's black neighborhoods are substantially worse than scores in public schools located in majority white neighborhoods.

This is very disheartening, for it suggests that even in a city of black electoral empowerment and black wealth, black children have a tough time learning and performing well. This is why so many black parents ignore the counsel of black politicians on how to improve education.

My generation knows that vouchers have serious limitations. We recognize that no voucher program can save a failing public system. Poorly funded vouchers don't offer much of a chance for poor children to enroll in expensive alternative schools. Vouchers can't ensure parental involvement in education. And vouchers can't end the resistance of many suburban schools to black enrollment.

But they offer the only hope available to many poor students trapped in the nation's worst schools. For a limited number of children, they may make a crucial difference. That possibility is enough for black parents to take a chance.

Michael Leo Owens is visiting assistant professor of political science at Emory University.