The Right's 'School Choice' Scheme
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In Pennsylvania, some of these funds are going to schools using texts from A Beka Book, Bob Jones University Press, and other fundamentalist curricula. [See sidebar]. Some of the private schools now receiving students through this funding have testified to the legislature in support of vouchers and bussed students to the state capitol for rallies in support of SB-1. One of the pro-voucher schools was featured on the Glenn Beck Show in 2011, with a parent representative celebrating the school’s promotion of "biblical principles" and the "flight of public school students to private schools" to escape secularism and socialism. This same academy takes its students on field trips to the Creation Science Museum south of Cincinnati, where exhibits show dinosaurs and people living on earth together.
Pennsylvania is one of 37 states that have strict constitutional prohibitions against using public money for religious schools, and specifically disallows appropriations to educational institutions "not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth." The corporations’ education tax credit, however, is not the obvious violation of state law that a school voucher program would be. Florida’s constitution also disallows using public funds for religious schools, but in November, Floridians will be voting on an initiative that could eliminate the prohibition.
Promoting Vouchers to Latino and African American Leaders
By the time of Dick DeVos’ 2002 Heritage Foundation speech, strategists had already begun trying to rebrand vouchers, which have a racist history. Following federal efforts to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Southern states devised a "private school plan" to defend segregation by leaving public schools and taking the money with them. Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge advanced a constitutional amendment that could have allowed the privatization of the state’s entire public school system. "In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would receive grants to attend private, segregated schools."
More recently, voucher supporters recognized the need to reinvent the movement by obscuring its White, conservative support base and cultivating the support of Latino and African-American leaders as the face of the movement. These leaders have valid complaints about inequality in public education and the failure of public schools to provide quality education to low income Black and Latino children. Having their parents support vouchers--and charters--in the name of improving education is a potent political force.
The most prominent among these leaders is Howard Fuller, the former Black Nationalist who brought vouchers to the Milwaukee school system when he led it in the early 1990s. In August 2000, he launched the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Its major funders included John Walton and the Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, which also funded Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, founded in 1995. These funders, as People for the American Way commented in an extensive report on the group, are "better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families."
The conservatives had found their standard bearer. BAEO immediately launched a massive media campaign in support of vouchers in Washington, D.C. The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that the BAEO spent over $4.3 million on print and television ads. By 2002, BAEO had 33 chapters. And today, about one quarter of Milwaukee’s students use vouchers to attend private, often religious schools.
According to school choice supporter Hubert Morken’s extensive histories of the programs, outreach to key African American Democrats in various parts of the country was the product of carefully cultivated relationships with free-market think tanks and organizations like the Pennsylvania Family Institute and REACH Alliance. Particularly important for recruiting supporters in these ranks is the former Congressman, Rev. Floyd Flake, a BAEO leader. Flake is the longtime senior pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, one of the largest churches in New York. In 1999, Flake introduced George W. Bush to an audience at the Manhattan Institute and described the future president as his "compatriot in the politics to change public education in the United States." In 2000, Flake became head of the charter schools division of Edison Schools, at that time the largest for-profit school management company in the country.