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

American Education Reform Council (AERC)

AERC poured $185,000 – a whopping 65% of its grant money – into BAEO in 2001.35 AERC, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), is affiliated with the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF), which serves as AERC’s lobbying arm. The two groups share office space and Susan Mitchell heads both groups.

AERC is intimately connected to BAEO in both staffing and funding. John Walton not only funds AERC – giving almost one million dollars via the Walton Foundation between 1999 and 200036 – but was also AERF’s previous president and provided its initial grant.37 The Bradley Foundation also supports AERC, providing $300,000 grants in 1998 and 2000.38 It is clear that the Bradley and Walton Foundations have a key role in both directly and indirectly funding BAEO.

In addition, Howard Fuller himself sits on the AERC board alongside John Walton.39 Kaleem Caire stepped down from his position as executive director of BAEO to become Project Director for AERC’s national effort to expand parent options.40

As a 501(c)(3), AERC’s political advocacy is restricted. It cannot endorse political candidates and may only do a minimal amount of lobbying on legislation. However, AERC ran “informational” advertisements during the Colorado and Michigan voucher campaigns in 1998 and 2000, respectively. AERC spent $500,000 on the Michigan initiative, in addition to the $2 million Walton spent out of his own pocket.

AERC activities apparently extend beyond advertising to organizing local grassroots organizations. A Friedman Foundation newsletter credits AERC and the Institute for Justice for working together to start Pensacola Parents For School Choice in May 2000.41

Without the restrictions of a 501(c)(3), AERF can participate in more overtly political activities.† It was a major force behind failed efforts to get a voucher referendum on the California ballot in 1996 and 1998.42 Walton and AERF then teamed up with a combined $410,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to pass Proposition 226, so-called “paycheck protection,” in California to limit the use of union money being spent in political campaigns.43 The organizers of the anti-union measure all worked together on the state’s failed 1993 voucher initiative and saw the measure as payback for money the teacher’s union spent to “cream the measure.”44

AERF drew public criticism in 1997 when it hired Sterling Tucker, a community activist and former D.C. City Councilman, to organize support for a DC voucher program designed by House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX). Local officials opposed this congressional effort to impose a voucher program in the District of Columbia. Several black ministers, who had initially supported the program, later withdrew their support, accusing Tucker of misleading them about the program and not disclosing his connection with AERF.45

AERF’s more political activities have, at times, been controversial. The group became embroiled in an investigation surrounding the 1997 re-election campaign of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox, an important race given the court’s role in deciding legal challenges to the voucher program. Wilcox opponent Walt Kelly accused Wilcox campaign manager Mark Block and get-out-the-vote organizer Brent Pickens of illegally coordinating campaign activities. The state election board launched an investigation that eventually included AERF. J. Patrick Rooney and Kevin Teasley, then AERF chairman and president, had met with Block after being notified of the importance of the Wilcox election to the Milwaukee voucher program by Bradley Foundation staffers. Although AERF was not found in violation of election law and reportedly denied repeated requests for contributions by Block, Teasley wrote to AERF board members and other voucher supporters, informing them of the importance of Wilcox’s election. Following Teasley’s letter, AERF board member Robert Thompson contributed $10,000 to Wilcox’s campaign, the maximum allowed under law.

Rooney and Teasley have extensive right-wing credentials. Teasley, former president of AERF, has worked for the Heritage Foundation, the libertarian Reason Foundation, and served in the Reagan White House Office of Public Liaison. Rooney has subsidized private vouchers in his home state of Indiana and told the right-wing Heartland Institute’s School Reform News, “We are not going to fix the present system, so quit kidding ourselves.” In the same interview, he recommended that readers “invade the schools.”

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