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

Expanding the PR Machine

Like the school voucher movement as a whole, BAEO sought to create a presence in cities around the country considered to be important voucher battlegrounds. The new group had quick expansion plans – and deep pockets to back them up.

In March 2001, BAEO began its organizing efforts with its first annual meeting in Milwaukee – bringing over 600 African-American voucher backers from 35 states together for the express purpose of starting local chapters. By May, chapters were operating in Milwaukee, New York, Denver, Indianapolis and Philadelphia and the group claimed to be organizing chapters in nine other cities. Two months later, BAEO announced the formation of a new chapter in St. Louis, which immediately announced plans to start running ads.11 One of the Indianapolis chapter’s first activities was to host a conference with the prominent African American voucher supporter Rev. Floyd Flake as the keynote speaker.12 By the summer of 2002, BAEO had tapped into the network of existing local African-American voucher supporters and formed 33 local chapters.13

BAEO quickly converted the new activists into spokespeople, amplifying its press coverage. BAEO spokespeople were quoted widely in national education stories such as the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Cleveland voucher case and on the debate over President Bush’s voucher proposals. BAEO joined the roster of pro-voucher press conferences and briefings, often teaming up with representatives from pro-voucher partisans like the Cato Institute and controversial researcher Paul Peterson.14

With voucher supporters firmly in control of education policy in the White House, BAEO also networked with policymakers like Education Secretary Rod Paige. In June 2002, both Howard Fuller and BAEO president Lawrence Patrick spoke at an Education Department conference titled: “Gaining Momentum for Choice: Celebrating the Next Decade of Charter Schools in America.”15 In January 2003, Kaleem Caire – who had just moved from BAEO to the closely-related American Education Reform Council [see pp. 6-7] – was named to the Education Department’s Independent Review Panel for the National Assessment of Title I. Title I is the major federal program intended to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students, and the panel was charged with advising the government “on the methodological and other issues that arise in carrying out the mandated evaluation of Title I.”16

Perhaps BAEO’s most notable expansion was in its funding base. In October 2002, BAEO received a $600,000 federal grant, “to develop an intense public information campaign to reach parents about the choices available to them under the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind Act.” According to a Department of Education press release, the campaign was to target communities in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Said Education Department Undersecretary Eugene Hickok, “We want to change the conversation about parental choice by positively influencing individuals who are resisting parental choice options and get them to reconsider their outlook.”17

In February 2003, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded BAEO $4 million to create 15 new high schools.18 Not only is this an enormous leap in funding, it is also quite a change in course for a group that has largely served a media advocacy function for a political movement.

Though it is too early to get a full account of how BAEO is administering its federal grant, at least one example was reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The local chapter, run by Howard Fuller and Deborah McGriff, sent out postcards and established a hotline to promote a new program required under the federal “No Child Left Behind” law. In order to provide the required “supplemental services” – such as summer tutoring for students attending low-ranked schools – Milwaukee public schools diverted $11 million from a summer school program that served 17,000 students to one that will serve about 5,000. Thousands of Milwaukee children may not be in summer school as a result of the funding switch. The new tutoring program was only half full according to a May 30, 2003 news report.
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