From 1989 the number of articles published on vouchers escalated dramatically. Also proponents changed tack, firstly by limiting their proposals to public schools. In this way they hoped to assuage concerns that vouchers subsidise religious schools and drain funds and brighter students from the public school system. This limitation to public schools was not what proponents wanted but it enabled them to get vouchers “high on the public agenda” and was therefore seen as a first step. According to Chester Finn: “I would rather see progress in public schools than slam my head against a brick wall.”
Voucher proponents try to enrol public support through an appeal to the idea of parental choice and control over their child’s education. Choice implies freedom, voluntary action, self-expression, discretion, abundance and control. Consumer choice is supposed to be one of the great benefits of an affluent capitalist society: “the warm glow of the word promises even the most timid of public officials that this is an issue with a ready-made constituency”. In other sectors of the economy competition and choice were supposed to ensure lower prices and better quality. Why not in education?
There were also attempts to redefine private schools as public schools. Bush snr stated in 1992 that “any school that serves the public and is held accountable by the public authority provides public education”.
Campaigners then began to frame vouchers as being in the interests of low-income students, particularly black and minority students. A Friedman Foundation strategy paper noted that voucher programs for low-income children were a “beachhead” in the long march to universal school choice”. This strategy enabled proponents, including the Bush Administration, to reincorporate private schools into voucher schemes because this would enable poor black children to attend private schools.
Ted Forstmann, venture capitalist, founded the group Put Parents in Charge, which spent over $20 million on an advertising campaign in 2001 which included full page advertisements in the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post and television advertisements that featured parents of various ethnic and racial origins stating “I will no longer be a silent witness to my own kids’ education … I will no longer sit and watch the system fail my children … I want to have choices … I want to decide where to send my kids to school.” The word voucher was avoided. Put Parents in Charge claimed:
Until parents are in charge of their children’s education and can choose from a variety of schools, the problems with our current system are not going to go away. We believe that when schools are forced to compete, existing schools will be motivated to improve, the system will open up, and new educational options will emerge.
The newly acquired interest in the welfare of coloured students was a ruse to get vouchers more widely accepted and enrol the black community in the cause. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a pro-voucher organization purporting to represent the interests of black students, is funded by neo-conservative groups and wealthy right-wing foundations that critics claim had once funded anti-affirmative action and promoted racist books such as The Bell Curve and Hating Whitey, which claims black Americans are intellectually inferior to whites.
The BAEO spent $1.3 million on television and print ads for school choice in Washington city in 2001 and the Friedman Foundation also spent a couple of million dollars on television ads on school choice in early 2001. Attempts to introduce voucher amendments into the US House of Representatives and Senate in 2001 failed but in 2004 Congress passed a federally sponsored voucher program for the District of Columbia and the Senate included $14 million to fund it.
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