Critics of vouchers often portray their proponents as white conservatives bent on transforming public schools into open markets, exploiting them to make profits to the detriment of poor black children.
But the complexion of the school choice debate is getting a makeover.
Dorothy Smith, a 57-year-old African-American mother and grandmother in Milwaukee, certainly doesn’t fit that description. Yet she appears in a $1.3 million television campaign being run on stations in Washington, praising her city’s voucher program.
Three of her adopted children, a foster child, and five grandchildren use public funds to attend private schools, where she says the children have bloomed academically.
Ms. Smith’s message and those of other parents in the commercials were paid for by the Milwaukee-based Black Alliance for Educational Options. The group is dedicated to conveying what it is says are grassroots African-Americans’ positive feelings about vouchers, throwing a new twist into a debate that has mostly featured policymakers, lawmakers, researchers, and teachers’ unions.
In the process, however, BAEO has angered some educators and leading civil rights organizations.
“We’re tired of being stepped on by our own people and everybody else,” declared Kaleem Caire, the executive director of BAEO, which has more than 1,000 members and 20 chapters. “We’re tired of people selling us an empty bag of dreams.”
‘Battling With Facts’
The brainchild of former Milwaukee schools Superintendent Howard L. Fuller, the alliance began as a response to one of Mr. Fuller’s own challenges.
An African-American who is a longtime supporter of school choice, Mr. Fuller recalled that while attending a meeting about vouchers where most of the participants were white, he wondered aloud who would get more black people involved in the issue.
“Since I opened my mouth,” he said, “I had to do it.”
After he held several meetings with African-Americans from various political backgrounds and different generations in 1999, the alliance was formed the following year. In addition to vouchers, it champions charter schools, private scholarships, and home schooling.
Only African-Americans were invited to attend the initial meetings because, Mr. Fuller said, blacks felt the need to speak candidly among themselves. In fact, the organization’s 29-member board is made up only of African-Americans, including Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell; Cory Booker, a member of the Newark, N.J., City Council; and the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, the president of Edison Charter Schools and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Our objective is to change the face of this movement—to battle out here for our people with the facts,” said Mr. Fuller, now a professor of education at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Choice is widespread in America unless you’re poor.”
The alliance has received much of its financial support from foundations led largely by white benefactors, such as Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, who pioneered the discussion of vouchers in the mid-1950s.
Mr. Caire pointed out that the organization does not agree with all the positions of the foundations that support it, adding that donors do not dictate its mission.
‘Smoke and Mirrors’?
Critics of private school choice decry the alliance as a splinter group that is against public education. They describe its supporters as naive people who are being used by their financial backers. Others point to the defeat of voucher initiatives in California and Michigan last November and to President Bush’s failure to win inclusion of vouchers in the education plan now moving through Congress as signs that the issue is dead.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” said Andre J. Hornsby, the president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, a Washington-based membership organization. “Black people can be gullible. [Vouchers] are not doing anything.”
But leaders of the alliance, along with Ms. Smith, vehemently dispute those allegations. They continue to preach the gospel of parent empowerment in the face of staunch opposition to publicly financed vouchers from such leading civil rights groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.
“Look at the facts. Look at my children. I have the proof,” Ms. Smith argued in an interview from her Milwaukee home. “I’m nobody’s pawn, and my children aren’t either.”
Added Richard C. Enlow, the vice president of programs and public relations for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, which supports the alliance: “The alliance is representing parents in urban areas who have thus far gone largely voiceless in this debate.”
After making its public debut last August, the alliance took its message to the airwaves and newspapers almost immediately. Its Washington television campaign and print advertisements, running in major newspapers such as The Washington Post, are filled with earnest-looking, hard-working African-American parents extolling the virtues of vouchers and the marked improvements their children are making in the classroom.
The television blitz likely will expand to other cities this year. The organization plans to move its headquarters to an office on Capitol Hill this coming fall to be closer to national policymakers.
Black parents reaching out to other black parents represent a significant factor in spreading the word about educational choice, said Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a nonprofit parent-information organization. Parents are desperate for options, she argued, adding that telephone calls to her office have tripled since the ads have been broadcast.
“Parents run away from the perception that someone other than African-Americans is saving their children,” said Ms. Walden-Ford, a member of the BAEO board of directors and the mother of two children who attend charter schools in Washington. “We want to say we’re doing something ourselves.”
The alliance is a tool to carry forward the school choice movement that had already arisen in the black community—especially among young African-Americans, said Robert Holland, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank that supports school choice.
A poll of people of all races taken last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington that focuses on black issues, found that about 57 percent of the African-Americans surveyed supported vouchers, compared with 49 percent of all of those surveyed. For African-Americans under age 35, the proportion approving of vouchers climbed to 75 percent.
Taj A. Brown, 22, a senior at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and a co-chairman of the NAACP’s national education committee, said he understands why a growing number of young African-Americans may support vouchers. “We become so frustrated that we want anything that seems like it might work,” he said. “What we have right now is nothing.”
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said in a recent interview that the Black Alliance for Educational Options represents a small group of people who “genuinely believe that they will be able to help to empower students if they give them vouchers.”
Although the NAACP supports privately financed vouchers, Mr. Mfume said that publicly funded programs pull dollars away from public schools and create more questions than answers. “We need to look at all students,” he said. “We don’t have the right to leave any children behind.”
Emphasizing that vouchers are simply one segment of the alliance’s efforts, Mr. Caire, whose children attend Milwaukee public schools, stressed that the group is not out to “voucherize” everyone.
“They’re painting us as victims,” Mr. Caire said of his organization’s critics. “Do you think we’re not capable of holding and developing our own agenda?”
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Black Alliance Weighs in With Pro-Voucher Campaign