It’s midwinter when the Grinch steals Christmas in the Dr. Seuss children’s story, but it was midsummer in 2003 when not one but six bright green Grinches appeared outside the teacher union building in Denver, Colorado after the Colorado Education Association filed suit against the state’s new voucher program. The school choice advocates inside the furry costumes were making the point that the teacher union was stealing educational opportunities from children.
“Our Grinches were steaming hot in their full-body costumes, but not as steaming hot as the union ward-heelers,” said Alex Cranberg, chairman of the Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), which organized what has come to be known as the “Grinch Patrol.” The Grinches have dropped in on numerous teacher union press conferences, stealing a bit of the spotlight each time.
The opponents of school choice are very well-funded, notes Cranberg, but he views their approach as a narrow, top-down effort more oriented toward movie set battles. He believes parental choice advocates could win on a regular basis if the movement were better funded.
While the Grinches draw attention to how teacher unions fight against school choice, ACE and other groups fighting for school choice are attracting their own spotlight. That spotlight became more intense when District Court Judge Joseph E. Meyer III ruled against the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program in December 2003.
In January, a Denver Post editorial suggested a response to the ruling: Lawmakers could pass a bill assigning only state funds to private school vouchers; the suspended program also used local property taxes. Under the Post‘s proposal, the state would provide the majority of the funds but might call on groups such as ACE to “backfill the money needed for some kids to attend the private school of their choice.”
This is a challenge that speaks to Cranberg. ACE is a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to low-income children in an effort to provide more families with the ability to choose the school they believe will best educate their child. To date, 728 children have received an ACE scholarship.
“There is always some way around the obstacles put in our way,” commented Cranberg.
Before Meyer’s decision, Colorado was running ahead of most states in the movement toward greater educational freedom. It was the first state to implement a school voucher program after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland program, and the 11th state overall to institute a school voucher program.
Despite Colorado’s forward position, Cranberg still believes the state of school reform is far behind what it should be. He attributes this partly to organization and funding but also to people not applying the same rules to public schools that they apply to other aspects of their lives.
“It is amazing to me how many normally thoughtful citizens check their economic literacy at the door when it comes to education,” he said.
What Cranberg sees as the next step in achieving change is a substantial effort to recruit and empower new allies for school choice. This would involve recruiting the best people, organizing efforts on a neighborhood basis, and seeking the support of various community organizations and media–much like a political campaign.
“Political activism is essential to support policy activism,” said Cranberg.
Robert Fanger is the media relations and communications associate with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. His email address is [email protected].