Columns » John Brummett

A new civil rights struggle in LR?

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Giving poor children vouchers from public money to attend private, parochial or charter schools — could that possibly be the new civil rights struggle in American education?

Is this a movement that will put conservative ideology on the right side of history, where, alas, it was not the first time?

And will Little Rock again provide one of the famous battlegrounds?

There are conservatives answering "yes" to all of those questions.

First, here is the case for "school choice," as the voucher movement's advocates seek to brand it: Kids will learn if instilled with an education ethic and put in a positive environment, which are precisely the advantages so widely denied them in the regular public schools in the inner cities and poor areas.

Children will be better off if they, or their parents, get more choices, provided by scholarship money from public and/or private sources. Those choices would in-clude a more abundant array of charter schools with myriad specialties like performing arts and foreign language immersion.

Liberal groups, tending to stand with teacher unions and traditional public education, would be on the wrong side of history this time, you see.

This is a case that sometimes implies that the failure of our regular public schools is so abject that we need to give up on them, not work to reform them. That leads to a suspicion among traditional educators that the voucher movement is, in its logical conclusion, about privatizing education altogether, a frightful notion to those interested in universal and equitable opportunity.

So now the conservative Heritage Foundation is moving into historic Little Rock, international symbol at Central High of the first civil rights struggle in education, to try to advance this new paradigm.

This is mostly about one African-American woman, Virginia Walden Ford, a native of Little Rock. The daughter of public educators, she was among the second wave of integration of Central High in Little Rock, where she graduated in 1969.

In the 1990s, living as a divorced mother of three in the deprived and deadly southeastern section of Washington, D. C., she saw her youngest son saved from the drug culture by an acquaintance who paid to send him to a Catholic school. So she made advocacy for school choice, and for funding from Congress for scholarships in D.C., her life's work.

Now, months from her 60th birthday, she has come home to Little Rock. She has bought a house near her mother in the shadow of the state fairgrounds in south-central Little Rock.

On Monday, she had breakfast with me moments before the Heritage Foundation, where she is a fellow, put on a school-choice conference at the Statehouse Convention Center featuring her and Rod Paige, the African-American former education secretary under George W. Bush.

Ford tells me we will be seeing and hearing from her as she, with "facilitation" from the Heritage Foundation, endeavors in Little Rock, and in Arkansas, to repeat her 15-year obsession — and success — in D.C.

I told Ford that I hoped her efforts would be about providing new models for regular public schools to emulate, not about replacing regular public schools.

Ford assured me she shared those sentiments, but she made this clear: The first thing, and the primary thing, indeed the only thing, is not saving any existing school building or any adults' turf, but making sure every parent has a wider choice and every child a better opportunity.

The idea is for choice to make regular public schools better, but for choice never to go away from some sort of declared victory at a finish line. Still, Ford and her conservative allies will fall short politically and educationally if they fail to make clear — if, in fact, they don't truly believe — that the rescue and reform of universal and equitable public education, of traditional public schools, is the ultimate goal, indeed the point.

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