By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"They vote," GOP pollster Bruce Merrill says. "These people give money. They march. They go to the polls."
Spout the ideology of the right, and the right embraces you. Especially if you take on the National Education Association.
Knowing this, Symington--in his State of the State address last month--blasted public education and the teachers' union as "a closed shop afraid of change, a monopoly of mediocrity more vigilant in guarding turf than instilling knowledge."
It's not an original thought. For years, right-wingers have openly blamed teachers for the woes of the American educational system. Forbes magazine recently dubbed the NEA the "National Extortion Association," calling it "the most powerful U.S. trade union."
Arizona Senate Majority Leader and longtime school-choice supporter Tom Patterson calls the National Education Association and its local minion, the Arizona Education Association, "the true 600-pound gorilla," charging that the union wants to retain carte blanche to perpetuate waste. It'll spend big bucks to keep it that way, Patterson says.
Indeed, during the 1992 campaign cycle, the Arizona Education Association poured $100,000 into political races, mainly supporting Democratic legislative candidates. The California Teachers Association spent about $14 million--compared with the opposition's $1.7 million--to crush the voucher ballot proposal last year.
Patterson chuckles at the suggestion that he, Symington and others stand to profit--in the power structure or the bank book--with a win on vouchers. "This is not a big political winner," the senator earnestly says. "This is a labor of love."
@body:Financial and political support for vouchers is not consolidated, as it is on the other side, with the National Education Association. But the support is there. In spades.
Conservative economist Milton Friedman has been touting school vouchers for decades. The Reagan and Bush White Houses always lent a sympathetic ear, but school-choice advocates were suddenly without a pulpit when the Clintons hit D.C. In fact, far-right Republicans found themselves ideologically homeless. So in early 1993, they founded Empower America, a Washington, D.C., think tank that, according to the Wall Street Journal, "blends Wall Street money and the grassroots marketing techniques of Perot-era politics."
The board is chaired by Malcolm Forbes Jr. and includes such GOP bigwigs and possible 1996 presidential contenders as Jack Kemp (a former congressman and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary), William Bennett (former U.S. education secretary and drug czar) and Jeane Kirkpatrick (former U.S. delegate to the United Nations).
Empower America strongly supports school choice, but is not devoted solely to the cause. That task is left to a group founded last October named Americans for School Choice. With offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the organization offers legal services, fund raising, research and advertising for state voucher efforts.
Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, former U.S. education secretary and yet another possible 1996 presidential contender, is a member of the board, along with Bennett and Kemp. Alexander is a longtime associate of fellow Tennessean and education entrepreneur Christopher Whittle. The U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee spent weeks investigating Alexander/Whittle investments before Alexander was confirmed as education secretary in 1991.
Whittle's the guy who made millions by bringing Snickers commercials to public-school classrooms on his televised Channel One info/newscasts. He stands to make far more with his national chain of private schools, the Edison Project. The key, of course, is vouchers: public dollars into private schools--Whittle's private schools.
As explained in its literature, Americans for School Choice has clear goals for 1994: to launch ballot initiatives in at least five target states; to push legislative initiatives in at least four states; and to build powerful organizations in at least 25 states.
@body:On October 15, just eight days after the formal creation of Americans for School Choice, up sprang The Better Schools for Arizona Committee.
Its leaders include Arizona Chamber of Commerce leader and Phelps Dodge exec Nicholas Balich; Arizona Cotton Growers guru Rick Lavis; Salt River Project lobbyist and Arizona Tax Research Association chairman Russell Smoldon; and Jim Bush, an attorney and Phelps Dodge lobbyist. The committee's goal is to push education-reform legislation, specifically, vouchers. Joan Barrett, the group's executive director, insists there is no formal link to Americans for School Choice; instead, she says, The Better Schools for Arizona Committee is affiliated with Arizona Business Leadership for Education (ABLE), a local group of business leaders devoted to reform.
The emergence of The Better Schools for Arizona Committee is curious in light of the fact that last year, ABLE joined a coalition that backed education reform without vouchers.
Tony Mason, an attorney and one-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate who co-chairs ABLE with Lavis, says vouchers will lead to a better-educated work force.
The jury's still out on that one. In Milwaukee, a study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison shows that while some voucher-kid test scores increased, others declined. And a significant percentage of those who initially opted for the $2,900 vouchers indicated dissatisfaction, eventually switching schools, according to the study.