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CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, Black parents like school choice too

So now it’s Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates’ turn to be pilloried for sending a child to a private high school.

“That story sounds familiar,” said my very astute wife, a product of Chicago public schools.

It should sound familiar, and not only in Chicago.

It has become a grand tradition in journalism and politics to uncover a high-profile official who is responsible for public schools, yet — oops! — puts their own offspring in a private school.

Confronted with the evidence, Davis Gates has confirmed reports that, despite her stated opposition to the allocation of public funds to pay for private schools, she and her husband send the oldest of their three children to a Catholic high school.

As a fellow parent, I sympathize. Besides, she’s hardly alone. In Chicago, I recall how former President Barack Obama, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s education secretary, among others, all had their wrists similarly slapped in public for putting their children in private schools.

And let’s not pick only on the politicians. Increasingly, I find evidence of Black folks, including my own family, friends and neighbors, who look favorably on the idea, including Black teachers.

Studies dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution in the 1980s, various university and think tank studies discovered sizable percentages of public school teachers also were sending their own children to private schools.

In Chicago, for example, a 2004 Fordham Institute study found that 39 percent of Chicago’s public school teachers sent their children to private schools, compared with a national average of 12 percent of all children who were educated privately.

But to paraphrase Harry Truman, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the classroom. Or the union hall.

I have always been sympathetic to teachers unions, since I appreciate education as the most effective anti-poverty program I know, if — and this is a big “if” — the schools have adequate resources.

The Chicago Teachers Union, like others, opposes vouchers because they threaten to remove students and drain resources from public schools. But Davis Gates is even harshly critical of the six-year-old Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which is struggling to survive as the Illinois General Assembly hasn’t decided whether to extend its funding.

Davis Gates, like so many other activists looking to rally their troops, knows how to stand the heat and raise some of her own. But it didn’t help matters when she said on social media last year that “school choice was actually the choice of racists. It was created to avoid integrating schools with Black children.”

Yes, there is some historical truth in that, yet its lack of context makes critical race theory sound mild. In short, white racism is by no means the primary motive behind the school choice movement.

I’ll never forget how, when a privately funded voucher program was launched in Washington, a few years back, the line of eager and desperate parents, most of them Black, stretched around the block.

Small wonder. Parents, teachers, political leaders and voters need to lower the rancor and build bridges of dialogue.

One of the luxuries of being a journalist is how it compels me to look at both sides of issues as thorny as this one. It helped me to stand back and see why vouchers so often have been denounced and dismissed.

Democrats, bless their hearts, have been just about as stubborn on this issue as their donkey mascot in failing to listen to their own constituents, many of whom like the idea.

Vouchers, which already are available in some districts around the country, can grant parents the freedom they too often have been denied — the freedom to shop around and choose for themselves where their education dollar can best be spent.

Let freedom ring!

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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