Community Voice or Captive of the Right? A Closer Look at the Black Alliance for Educational Options

BAEO’s Founding: Image and Strategy

With the voucher legislation and ballot initiatives of the 1980s failing, voucher proponents embraced a new strategy – adopting the language of the civil rights movement and targeting the African American community. This political strategy is designed to boost support for vouchers, not only among African Americans, but also among progressive and moderate suburban whites, many of whom support strong public schools. 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 and privatization that would irreparably harm public education.

BAEO announced its formation on August 24, 2000 at a national press conference in Washington, D.C. Former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Dr. Howard Fuller, the group’s president and founder, said it would support tax-funded voucher programs, private scholarships, tuition tax credits, charter schools and public/private partnerships.

Almost immediately after formation, BAEO began running print ads in several national newspapers, including the Washington Post, Washington Times, and New York Times, and over a dozen community newspapers with predominantly black readership.1 The ads feature young African American students and their parents repeating BAEO’s mantra, “Parental school choice is widespread – unless you’re poor.” Designed to put a new face on what has traditionally been a largely white Republican movement, the ads’ objective, Fuller explained, “is to change the face of [the voucher] movement."2

The ad campaign expanded after the November 2000 election to include television and radio spots in the Washington, D.C. area in what BAEO organizers described as a targeted attempt to influence key opinion-makers, like lawmakers and journalists. Kaleem Caire, BAEO’s then-executive director, explained the ad campaign strategy in a Family News in Focus article, saying, “[Washington, D.C.] has the most opinion leaders in the country – and it’s out there where we felt that the message needed to be sent first.”3

A second blitz of television ads touting the benefits of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida ran from April through June 2001. “Anybody who watches TV in Washington, D.C.,” Jim Manley, press secretary for Senator Ted Kennedy told USA Today, “is going to stumble across these ads.”4 In addition to Washington, D.C. and national newspapers, the campaign targeted 30 newspapers and 35 radio stations in Wisconsin, where the fight over vouchers is a constant part of the political landscape.5

The extent of BAEO ad spending was the source of some speculation. The group announced it was beginning operations with a $900,000 budget in August 2000 and reported spending $1.3 million on the November 2000 ads. However, given BAEO’s aggressive advertising in expensive media markets, their total ad spending was likely far higher. By July 2001, the Christian Science Monitor reported that some estimated BAEO’s ad buys were worth as much as $3 million6 – a handsome feat considering the group was only a year old at the time.

According to a June 2003 study, BAEO’s spending on advocacy ads was at least as high as those early estimates. The Annenberg Public Policy Center found that BAEO’s 2001 print and television ads in the Washington D.C. market alone cost $4.33 million.7 This spending for one year8 made BAEO the fourth-largest spender during the entire 2001-02 time period studied, ranking it above the AARP and Lockheed Martin.9

The Annenberg study also found that BAEO’s ads accounted for 89% of the total pro-voucher spending. Furthermore, pro-voucher ads targeting Washington D.C. totaled $4.9 million, while comparable anti-voucher spending came to only $870,000.10

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