School voucher campaign raises objections
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
A national group that promotes school vouchers has targeted Florida and the Washington, D.C., area for a television and radio campaign designed to put a human face -- especially an African-American face -- on school choice.
The group, the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, has been running ads in Florida since late August, featuring Floridians like Pensacola mom Tracy Richardson. Since the 1999-2000 school year, Richardson has used a publicly funded school voucher to send her daughter Khaliah to a private school.
"We want to show people who benefits from these programs," said Kaleem Caire, president of the non-profit BAEO group. "A lot of African-Americans, teachers unions and others have characterized the movement as a right-wing, white male movement. That's not true."
Or is it?
The non-profit BAEO receives funding from groups like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. All were founded by whites, and all are devoted to conservative causes.
"They are trying to put a face on it, but it's not a truthful face," said Andre Hornsby, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators in Washington. "It's the same conservative groups again; they're putting a ton of money behind this group (BAEO).
"Again and again the public has rejected this stuff; now they're trying this way to sell it."
Debate over the campaign, which will cost between $1-million and $3-million, reveals some of the tensions in the African-American community over vouchers, and differences of opinion about how to best increase achievement among black students.
And the very existence of the media campaign is a classic example of the strange-bedfellows alliances formed among school choice advocates, which include both conservative white billionaires and some black educators and activists.
To Hornsby, BAEO members are "allowing themselves to be used."
"If they were interested in improving educational opportunities for African-American children, but it didn't include vouchers, would these groups be giving them (BAEO) money?" Hornsby asked. "I don't think so."
But BAEO president Caire sees the funding issue as an unfair criticism.
Vouchers and school choice, he says, are key strategies for improving educational options for African-American children, who continue to lag in achievement.
"You can't fight a multimillion dollars teachers union campaign against vouchers with chicken dinners and car washes," Caire said. "We have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests."
Tracy Richardson laughs at the notion that she might be the face of school choice in Florida.
"I haven't even seen the ads," she said. The television ads being run by BAEO are targeted in Florida's major media markets: Jacksonville, Miami-Dade, Orlando, Tallahassee and the Tampa Bay area. The single mom lives in Pensacola, so she and her daughter haven't seen the ads.
Plenty of Floridians have.
Her story is one to stir the hearts of liberals and conservatives alike.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Richardson searched to find the perfect school for her daughter Khaliah, who was struggling in a crowded public school classroom.
Richardson's version of a happy ending gets a little complicated. It's where the conservatives and liberals part company.
She was one of the first parents in Florida to take a publicly funded voucher and use it to pay tuition at a private school. Khaliah was zoned for a Pensacola school deemed a failure by the state -- the same school Richardson attended as a child. Now Khaliah, 10, attends the Montessori Elementary School, where there are fewer kids and the teachers have more time for her.
"It works for Khaliah," Richardson said. "She is one of those children who does not want to pay attention. She needs that one-on-one attention, and now she's getting it."
Richardson said she is convinced her daughter is doing better academically. She and the other Pensacola children taking vouchers take the state's FCAT test, but the results are not made public, so there is no clear way of quantifying their academic progress.
As many voucher advocates do, Richardson insists she holds no animosity toward the public schools. In fact, she expects that when her daughter is high school age, Khaliah will return to the public schools.
Vouchers critics have long warned that they are promoted by rich, conservative whites who want to undermine the public schools.
The liberal group People for the American Way released a report last week outlining the backgrounds of some of the conservative groups that support BAEO. The report concludes that "the current public relations and legislative focus on poor children does not alter right-wing voucher proponents' long-term goal of broader-based voucher systems that would irreparably harm public education."
Still, for Florida's Opportunity Scholarship program, as well as voucher programs in Cleveland and in Milwaukee -- the hotbeds of publicly funded vouchers -- vouchers are used primarily by African-American parents like Richardson.
A report released last week by the RAND research group concluded that small "voucher programs suggest that African-American students may receive a modest achievement benefit after one or two years in the programs. Children of other racial groups in voucher schools have shown no consistent evidence of academic benefit or harm."
That's a message voucher supporters want to spread, especially since they have failed to get enough public support to approve voucher measures -- most recently in Michigan and California. The strategy is to shift the debate from abstract constitutional issues and funding, to one that shows low-income moms and smiling children who benefit from vouchers.
"Obviously it's important to mobilize public opinion," said voucher advocate and Stanford University professor Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Florida is probably the most important state in terms of school choice."
If funding for a media campaign is limited, why focus on Florida? The state already has more school choice options than most.
Caire said his organization is concerned about losing what has been gained.
"Florida is the only place where these options are plentiful," Caire said. "But they're constantly under attack. There's a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of racial tension in Florida over the last election. We don't want to lose ground."
Except for a court challenge -- which could derail the program entirely -- Florida's voucher program seems to be on firm footing, at least given the state's current political climate. The leadership in the House, the Senate and the Governor's Mansion are all Republicans supportive of vouchers and school choice.
But next year is an election year.
The ads running in the Washington, D.C., area are aimed at parents and the public, but also at lawmakers. BAEO hopes to win over the same groups in Florida because parents vote and lawmakers can make or break vouchers in Florida.
If the funding permits, Caire said, he would like to have BAEO radio and television ads still running in Florida in 2002. (The ads will go off the air during the holiday season because of the expense and holiday distractions).
But he said BAEO has no intentions of taking sides in the re-election campaign of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the person most responsible for the state's embrace of school vouchers.
"We're not going to try to get involved in the election," Caire said. "That's not why we're doing this."
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