Who Vouches for Vouchers?

If you happened upon the newspaper, radio, and television ads last year, you might have assumed they were the work of a conservative organization. After all, they spotlighted black students and their parents touting an idea close to the hearts of many Republicans: government-funded vouchers for tuition at private and parochial schools. The tagline for the multimillion-dollar ad campaign, however, was this: "Parental school choice is widespread -- unless you're poor."

The sponsor of these ads is a controversial group called the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Founded in August of 2000, BAEO supports vouchers along with other education options for low-income parents, such as charter schools and home schooling. But the group only advocates vouchers targeted to low-income parents. It does not defend the "universal voucher" scheme that conservatives favor, and which some fear would leave public schools to founder while white middle- and upper-class parents combine public funds with their own in order to send their children to the best private schools.

This distinction has not silenced BAEO's critics. "BAEO is a black face on a white agenda," says Reverend Timothy McDonald, president of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council, a national coalition of pastors who oppose vouchers. Leaders from the National Urban League, the NAACP, and other anti-voucher black organizations have voiced similar concerns about BAEO.

This debate is not new -- and it's not news that some members of the black community strongly support voucher programs. With more than 90 percent of black children enrolled in public-school systems, many African-American parents are losing patience with limited educational options. But some black leaders are nervous about the wider movement for school vouchers -- and about the role groups such as BAEO might play when they band together with conservative activists and funders.

If the new organization has already ruffled some feathers, it has also succeeded in pulling together a broad roster of Republican and New Democrat supporters. Former Democratic Congressman Floyd Flake is on its board of directors, as is conservative columnist Armstrong Williams and 32-year-old Corey Booker, the Democratic challenger in Newark, New Jersey's mayoral race. BAEO's founder and president is Howard Fuller, who also leads the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

Fuller is no stranger to the fight for school vouchers. The 61-year-old reformer, a veteran of the black-power movement and onetime fundraiser for a guerrilla movement in Mozambique, worked in 1990 to create a means-tested voucher program in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The program was hailed nationally as a pioneering experiment.

Under Fuller's leadership, BAEO has developed a national network. There are now more than 33 local chapters in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Since 2000, the group's membership has grown from an initial core of around 100 to close to 1,000. And this year, it moved its headquarters from Milwaukee to Washington in order to better influence national decision makers.

BAEO's critics worry that the organization's influence will only strengthen the hand of white conservatives who want to privatize public schools. Connect the dots, these opponents suggest: BAEO has accepted grants from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation. Wal-Mart heir John Walton was a major contributor to unsuccessful ballot initiatives for school vouchers in Michigan and California. And the Bradley Foundation has provided grants to vocal opponents of affirmative action, to The Bell Curve author Charles Murray, and to the organization run by David Horowitz, author of Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes.

Fuller deflects concerns about BAEO's funding with one of his favorite maxims: "We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests." In any case, says Lawrence Patrick III, CEO and executive director of BAEO, "The people who give us money know we're not supporting universal vouchers. We've taken such a hard line, and it would be difficult for us to a budge an inch." Even some BAEO critics trust Fuller's motives. "There are those who favor vouchers because they care about kids, and there are those who want to destroy public institutions," says Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League. "Fuller falls into the first category."

The question, however, is one of strategy. It's possible that winning support for targeted vouchers will end up paving the way for universal vouchers. Indeed, one need look no further than the Milwaukee experiment for an important lesson on how messy these matters can become. Annette Polly Williams, who worked with Fuller to implement Milwaukee's program, later broke from the movement because she was unhappy about pressure from the right. Now a Democratic state representative in Wisconsin, Williams says former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and other conservatives worked to "hijack" the voucher program by expanding it to more well-off families.

"The people now who are taking over want to pick the leadership in our community," she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1998. "[Fuller] is the person that the white people have selected to lead the choice movement now because I don't want to cooperate."

Fuller shrugs off the criticism. He argues that black leaders should counter the threat of long-term conservative schemes by joining the movement for targeted vouchers and steering it in the direction they want. The question for liberals who support public schools is this: What alternative can they offer that's more promising than targeted vouchers?