Leading black ministers in Florida are ramping up criticism of the NAACP for supporting a lawsuit that seeks to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program.
The Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, became the latest to do so, suggesting during a “radio rally” in Tampa Bay today that the esteemed civil rights organization was stuck in the past.
“While they’re fighting the old fight of integration versus segregation, our children are falling through the cracks. And in this issue, I believe they’re on the wrong side,” said Sykes, former president of the NAACP branch in St. Petersburg. “So at this point, we’re out here to advocate for and inform our African-American community that this (school choice) is something they need to support. Because while everyone is fighting on the top levels, it’s our children that’s at stake.”
At issue is the lawsuit filed last August by the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association, the Florida branch of the NAACP and other groups. It argues the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students is akin to the state’s first K-12 voucher program, which the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2006. Both sides are awaiting a ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds on whether the plaintiffs have standing to continue.
The scholarship program is administered by non-profits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post. This year, the program serves 70,000 students statewide, including more than 20,000 black students.
Sykes was president of the local NAACP until last summer, when state NAACP officials forced his ouster after he appeared at a rally opposing the lawsuit. He did not criticize the NAACP or note his ties during that event, but did not hold back today.
“Groups like the NAACP, as sad as it is to say, they fought for desegregation because they believed that the quality of education of black children would be increased. However, the statistics show it’s gone in the opposite direction,” Sykes said. “And now they are struggling with the idea of the same people they fought for having the choice to take their business elsewhere. Any restaurant, any bank, any institution that does not offer you the services that you need, you have the right to move. But they’re telling us, sort of like the Pharaoh said, ‘I’m not going to let your people go.’ ”
Three other Tampa Bay pastors joined Sykes on gospel station WRXB – Rev. Alfred Johnson of Tampa, Rev. Robert Ward of St. Petersburg, and Rev. Frank Peterman Jr., a former Democratic state representive from St. Petersburg. Also on the air: Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, a former president of the teachers union in Pinellas County, which includes the city of St. Petersburg.
Ward said public schools in Florida have improved in recent years, but educating low-income students is “a monumental task … they cannot do this job alone.”
Johnson said school choice is among the elements that can spur a renaissance in black communities.
“Let these men and women rise who have the truest interest of these kids at heart, who understand those kids and who have the skill set to bring to those children what is necessary to elevate,” Johnson said. “Now the question is, are we going to back up programs like Step Up? Or do we sit back and allow a bureaucracy or certain elements of the NAACP or the teachers union, are we going to allow them to rob us of this amazing opportunity? To rob our children of this amazing choice opportunity?”
The comments Thursday echoed those made in recent months by other influential faith leaders in Florida. In February, Jacksonville Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin said on his radio show he was “surprised and highly disappointed” with the NAACP’s involvement in the suit. Similar sentiment was expressed last week during another radio rally that featured Tallahassee minister Lamar Simmons.
The rallies have been sponsored by the Save Our Scholarships Coalition.