Voucher Supporters Attack Kerry

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

illustration: Katherine Streeter

Republican supporters of school vouchers are running attack ads against presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, apparently to suppress voter turnout in the black community.

The ads are aimed primarily at African Americans in swing states and will run in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Kansas City. A board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), who also heads a pro-voucher group in Washington, D.C., is organizing the ad campaign.

The campaign includes newspaper and radio ads and is noteworthy for its reliance on innuendo and half-truths. One newspaper ad, for instance, attacks Teresa Heinz Kerry for being “elitist, rich, and white.” A radio ad quotes NAACP Chairman Julian Bond calling on Kerry to include people of color in his campaign — but then fails to mention that Bond praised Kerry at the NAACP convention this July, while Bush was roundly criticized as the first sitting president since Warren Harding to not attend an NAACP convention.

Bush garnered about 8 percent of the African-American vote in 2000. The ad campaign seems designed to sow cynicism and dampen voter turnout rather than win votes for Bush, who has an abysmal standing among blacks due to Republican policies on civil rights, jobs, social programs, and tax breaks for the rich. “The Republican strategy is to get black people not to vote, and it’s a very conscious strategy, even if it is disgusting,” says Michael Charney, a teacher activist who has written about the political effect of the voucher program in Cleveland, where anti-Kerry ads are also running. “The goal is to take people’s attention off the issues and discredit the entire political process by arguing that the leadership in both parties comes from rich whites.”

A website affiliated with the Tom Joyner show argues the ads will not boost African-American support for Republicans and chastises the campaign’s promoters for selling their souls. “Blacks don’t resent people for being rich,” the article notes. “Some of the richest people in the nation’s history have done some of the greatest good. That’s what we look out for: whether the rich use some of their money to help or hurt others.”

The anti-Kerry ads are being organized by People of Color United, run by Virginia Walden-Ford, who is founder of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a board member of BAEO, and head of the Washington, D.C. chapter of BAEO. BAEO was founded in 2001 with funding from conservative foundations and has become the leading organization in the African-American community pushing vouchers. It is led by Howard Fuller, a former school superintendent in Milwaukee and advisor to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000 who currently heads the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

When Walden-Ford returned a call, she did so from an organization affiliated with Alan Keyes, the black conservative Republican moving to Illinois to run for the U.S. Senate against African American Barak Obama.

“We’re sharing office space right now,” Walden-Ford said of her relationship to the Keyes group. Walden-Ford also said D.C. Parents for School Choice and the Washington, D.C., chapter of BAEO share office space and a phone line.

Walden-Ford is spending about $70,000 on the anti-Kerry campaign. The actual ads were produced by a friend, she said, but she did not know for how much. “I don’t know a lot about costs,” she said.

An African-American Republican, Walden-Ford is experienced in launching attack ads against Democrats. As part of last year’s debate over a federal voucher plan for Washington, D.C., her D.C. Parents group ran an ad comparing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Bull Connor, who set dogs against civil rights protesters. Another ad compared Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to arch-segregationist George Wallace.

Walden-Ford said the biggest contributor to her current campaign is J. Patrick Rooney — chairman emeritus of the Golden Rule health insurance company and an indefatigable supporter of Republican causes, in particular school vouchers. Rooney has argued that “the problems are not fixable” in urban public schools and has criticized those working for public school reform.

Nationwide, in the last decade Rooney’s family, companies, and employees have given almost $3.25 million to Republican candidates and committees, according to Mother Jones magazine.

Fuller’s and Walden-Ford’s BAEO, meanwhile, stands to gain from Bush’s re-election. In 2002 and 2003, BAEO received a total of $1.1 million in grants from Bush’s Department of Education, according to the liberal group People for the American Way.

Voucher organizations rely on a small cadre of activists and funders, and Walden-Ford has strong connections to the national voucher movement. In addition to being a BAEO board member and heading its D.C. chapter, Walden-Ford was featured at a May press conference announcing that three smaller voucher groups have reorganized into the Alliance for School Choice and its lobbying group, Advocates for School Choice.

Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group promoting vouchers and opposing government programs such as affirmative action, heads the alliance. Board members of Bolick’s new organizations are virtually a who’s who of the national voucher movement, from Fuller to Wal-Mart scion Jon Walton, to education entrepreneur David Brennan of Ohio.

Barbara Miner (barbaraminer@ameritech.net) is a freelance writer and former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.