The Choice is Theirs

School vouchers, a key to the conservative education agenda, has reached a crossroads. Several months ago, during the initial consideration of President Bush's education legislation the school voucher provision was removed from the bill, angering many conservatives. Since that time, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on a major school voucher case and a right-wing-supported Black organization has ratcheted up its unprecedented pro-voucher advertising blitz within Black communities.

Over the past few years, school voucher supporters and opponents have gotten in the habit of trucking out studies favorable to their point of view. According to the latest report by the federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO) it appears that claims by school voucher advocates -- that private school vouchers improve student performance -- cannot be verified. According to Church & State magazine, the report "School Vouchers: Publicly Funded Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee," surveyed the existing body of research on voucher programs in both cities and found "that research does not show that voucher students improved on standardized test scores."

During the past few years, conservatives have used a multi-pronged approach to win support for vouchers. There have been several well-funded -- but failed -- state ballot initiatives; scholarship programs have been set up by right-wing philanthropists and foundations to draw students away from the public schools; and during the past year, a high-profile pro-voucher advertising campaign was directed primarily at inner-city Black communities.

This summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Cleveland case will be a critical juncture for voucher advocates. While the Supremes ponder this decision, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) will continue to take its pro-voucher message to Black communities.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options

Mid-November marked the one-year anniversary of the largest and longest-running pro-school vouchers advertising campaign in history. The campaign, organized by BAEO to keep vouchers alive within the Black community, is supported by a number of conservative organizations.

According to its website, "BAEO arose from the Symposium on Options for African Americans, sponsored in 1999 and 2000 by Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin." Howard Fuller, the organization's founder, is a former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools and a professor of education at Marquette University. Fuller's Institute at Marquette also played a key-founding role.

Those early meetings aimed to tap into a perceived interest "among Black parents in expanding the educational options available to their children. They drew an intergenerational group of more than 500 Black parents, students, community leaders, educators, and policy makers from across America. It provided attendees with information on educational options and a forum for discussion and understanding."

Human Events, the conservative weekly, described BAEO's mission a bit more colorfully: "The sociopathic education establishment, responsible for the massive failure to educate inner-city children around the country, lives in fear. School choice may have suffered at the ballot box in several states in November, but it still looms large, and, with the big boost given the issue by President Bush, support continues to grow. Among black Americans, the concept is already rather popular, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options plans to make it more so."

According to a new report titled "Community Voice or Captive of the Right? -- A Closer Look at the Black Alliance for Educational Options," released in early December by People for the American Way, BAEO and "its ad campaign are just the latest tactical tools of a handful of wealthy right-wing foundations and individuals that have funded the school voucher movement for decades."

People for the American Way's President Ralph G. Neas pointed out that: "If you look closely at the money behind the message, you find it is coming from some foundations and individuals with an extreme agenda. These foundations are pushing vouchers even though there is no good evidence that they will improve education. If these foundations really cared about African-American children, they would be spending their money to help push for smaller classes, expanded funding for Title I and other approaches that can truly make a difference for minority students."

Counting on the Supremes

In late September, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of the school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. The six-year-old program "provides state aid for private school tuition to some 4,000 students from low-income families," writes Mark Walsh in Education Week on the Web.

The Court's November 9th deadline for voucher proponents to file briefs brought an avalanche of arguments from voucher supporters. Then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Milwaukee Democratic Mayor John O. Norquist, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and voucher godfather Milton Friedman all submitted pro-voucher arguments. Friedman's brief argued that the Cleveland program, which allows parent to use voucher money for religious schools, doesn't violate the Constitution "because parents are making independent choices to send their children to such schools."

Walsh reports that "Charles Fried, a Harvard University law school professor and a solicitor general under President Reagan, co-wrote the brief filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of voucher families. Both C. Boyden Gray, a White House counsel under the first President Bush, and Edwin Meese III, a White House aide and attorney general under President Reagan, have also helped draft pro-voucher briefs." It is expected that solicitor general Ted Olsen will argue the case at the Court on behalf of voucher supporters.

Opponents of vouchers, including the National Education Association, the Ohio Education Association, and civil liberties organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed their briefs in mid-December.

The Supreme Court's decision to take on school vouchers came ten months after two well-financed ballot initiatives were soundly defeated by voters in Michigan and California. Despite these defeats, conservative foundations and philanthropists continue to provide extensive financial support for voucher programs. Mediatransparency.org reports that the Milwaukee, WI-based Bradley Foundation, for years one of the most consistent ideological and financial backers of school vouchers, "is offering $20 million over five years in low interest loans to charter and private schools in Milwaukee, trying to build up enough private educational institutions to further subvert the local public schools."

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision in July 2002. With the legislative battle over school vouchers on hold, and no statewide initiatives pending, advocates on both sides of the voucher divide agree on the significance of the Supreme Court's final decision.

"This is the most important educational-opportunity case since Brown v. Board of Education," said Clint Bolick, a vice president of the Institute for Justice, a conservative pro-voucher legal group based in Washington that's been involved in several high-profile voucher cases. "If the court upholds this program, it will vindicate at last the promise of equal educational opportunities."

On the other side of the voucher divide, Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the National Education Association, is the lead lawyer opposing the Cleveland program in court. Chanin also described the voucher case as one of the most important education issues in decades: "We're going to do everything we can," to convince the justices not to open the door to more government aid to religious institutions.

Meanwhile, the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities will continue its ad campaign. In a recent issue of the Heartland Foundation's monthly School Reform News, Barato L. Britt enthusiastically reported that BAEO continues to grow new chapters. With chapters already established in Milwaukee, New York, Denver, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia, the organization expects to open several new branches in the near future.

Despite recent electoral setbacks, BAEO's Howard Fuller told the Washington Post that he was optimistic. "Rather than be discouraged," he said, "I am more encouraged to fight for choice for poor students." The Supreme Court has become the arbiter since state-based voucher initiatives don't appear to be a winning option, Congress is divided on the issue, and lower Courts have generally ruled against vouchers. As with Election 2000, the Supreme Court's decision could be the final word.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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