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Back to school for vouchers?

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Then the numbers of nuns in teaching orders plummeted just as federal and state regulations were putting new costs on schools. Parish schools had to hire laypeople, buy costly insurance and meet new codes. The costs made it impossible for Catholic schools to keep charging little or nothing for an education.

In the 1970s and '80s, back to school for most Catholic children no longer meant parish school but public school.

In the past 20 years, families have become increasingly dissatisfied with what public schools are offering.

Today's parents often feel forced to choose between public schools that were ineffective and private schools that were unaffordable. For Catholics with large families, it is worse. The home schooling movement has grown as many parents discovered that the only way to provide a sound education is to do it themselves.

But in inner-city neighborhoods, where poverty and single parent rates are high, home schooling is often impossible - and public schools are much worse.

Classrooms are often high-stress exercises in controlling society's roughest characters in humanity's most undisciplined age groups. Students with the best intentions can easily come under the influence of peers who value 1,000 things above their education.

Meanwhile, in the school-voucher movement, a bright spot briefly flickered for poor parents, only to be snuffed out. School-voucher programs were conceived to give poor families access to some of the piles of taxpayer money confiscated for education.

Some of the biggest battles over vouchers were fought in Florida, after Jeb Bush became governor in 1999. His Opportunity Scholarship Program would give families a tuition credit to help them attend private schools.

But, in a fight that pitted powerful teacher unions against poverty-level parents who want a chance to help their children get a better education, the Democratic Party was firmly and immovably on the side of the teacher unions. That meant black politicians were, too.

Respected political activist U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., has always been against vouchers, arguing that federal money should be spent improving schools.

But Meek is older now, and in a reflective mood. Earlier this month, she told the St. Petersburg Times, "I spent a great part of my life trying to strengthen minority children and minority families. To get a scholarship like this would be very helpful to some of these children."

Meek's support is crucial to pro-voucher forces in Florida. Florida lawmaker Terry Fields is another black Democrat who has opposed vouchers throughout his career.

Until last year.

Meek's support may be "the catalyst ... to start a dialogue," he said. He points to Duval County where "there are 11 'F' schools, and all 11 of those 'F' schools are in the African-American community."

He said it's time to "get out of our comfortable boxes and do what's best for our kids."

Meek and Fields are part of a growing trend in Florida.

State Rep. Betty Reed and other black lawmakers backed a pro-vouchers bill.

State Sen. Al Lawson expects more black politicians to begin backing vouchers. The black community is frustrated by extremely low graduation rates among black students and black ministers are now more likely to promote vouchers.

"Lawson himself voted against establishment of the tax-credit voucher in 2001," said the St. Petersburg Times, "But in 2006 he was the lone black senator to vote for the voucher amendment and in the spring, he spoke in front of thousands of minority kids and parents at a pro-voucher rally in Tallahassee."

Vouchers are still a long way off - even in Florida. In 2006, the state senate failed by a single vote to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot aimed at protecting vouchers after the Florida Supreme Court found them unconstitutional.

But it is telling that, after Hurricane Katrina displaced students on the Gulf Coast, the federal government now operates the largest voucher program in the United States.

Black lawmakers in Florida are starting to recognize that inner city schools have become a disaster as destructive as Katrina. We hope the rest of America will rally around them some day soon.

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