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School Choice & Charters

Two New National Groups To Push for Voucher Programs

By Caroline Hendrie — May 26, 2004 3 min read
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On a date chosen for its symbolism, veteran voucher litigator Clint Bolick last week announced the launch of two national organizations that will press for more publicly financed programs that help parents pay for private schooling.

Depicting voucher proponents as “heirs to the battle for Brown v. Board of Education,” Mr. Bolick chose May 17—the 50th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down racially segregated public schools—to unveil the Alliance for School Choice and its lobbying arm, Advocates for School Choice. The timing was sharply criticized by voucher opponents.

“For the first time, the school choice movement will have the ability to go toe to toe with the defenders of the educational status quo,” Mr. Bolick, the president and general counsel of both organizations, said at a news conference here. “David has just gotten a little stronger in the fight against Goliath.”

The new, Phoenix-based nonprofit groups will focus exclusively on promoting and protecting programs that provide vouchers, tax credits, or other public funding of private schooling for disadvantaged students, Mr. Bolick said.

Pointing to the National Education Association as “the single most powerful and reactionary force against school choice in any form,” Mr. Bolick said that in many places, “you have the teachers’ union blocking the schoolhouse door” for voucher programs.

An official from the 2.7 million-member teachers’ union responded last week by saying that “the most significant opposition to vouchers comes not from the NEA but from parents themselves.” He also called the timing of the groups’ unveiling “ironic and appalling.”

“It flies in the face of all reality and experience—the claim that this will authentically help disadvantaged students,” said union spokesman Michael Pons.

The new groups result from a reorganization of three other pro-voucher groups: the American Education Reform Council and the American Education Reform Foundation, both based in Milwaukee, and the Austin, Texas-based Children First America. With a budget this year of $4.5 million, the new groups drew their initial funding from those organizations and are now seeking further funding from foundations and individuals, a spokeswoman said.

The boards of directors of both groups are chaired by William E. Oberndorf, a San Francisco philanthropist who was a co- founder of the American Education Reform Council, and include John Walton, a son of Wal-Mart founder Sam M. Walton. The Walton Family Foundation, based in Bentonville, Ark., has been a prominent donor to school choice groups nationally, including Children First America.

‘Sacred Promise’

Even one leading school choice advocate associated with the new groups questioned the strategy of casting private school choice as a civil rights issue.

Howard L. Fuller, a member of the board of Advocates for School Choice, suggested that the voucher movement needs to establish legitimacy on its own, and not through association with past struggles.

“Why get into a debate about who can attach themselves to the civil rights movement? That’s an unfortunate discussion,” said Mr. Fuller, a former Milwaukee schools superintendent who is now a professor at Marquette University in that city. “In order for a movement that is affecting primarily black people to be effective, I don’t think it needs to be attached to a movement that occurred years and years ago.” (“Choice Option of U.S. Law Used, Report Finds,” May 19, 2004.)

Still, the message at last week’s announcement was that voucher proponents were carrying on the fight to fulfill, as Mr. Bolick put it, “the sacred promise of equal educational opportunities.”

Before taking the helm of the two new groups, Mr. Bolick was a co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Washington that has played a leading role in advancing the voucher cause in court.

“This battle,” he said, “is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Underscoring that point at the event was the leader of a parent group that successfully campaigned for a new voucher program in the District of Columbia.

“Before Brown, people fought to keep us out of good schools,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of the Washington- based D.C. Parents for School Choice.

“Today,” she said, “too many people are fighting to keep us trapped in bad schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Two New National Groups To Push for Voucher Programs

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