The Empire Strikes Back

Published November 1, 1998

The public education “empire” is striking back on several fronts, launching a broad counterattack to fend off threats to its exclusive $300+ billion franchise for delivering K-12 education to America’s 50 million schoolchildren.

Many leading public education groups have launched efforts to promote public education, discredit vouchers and school choice, counter what they regard as misinformation about school performance, lobby Congress not to divert funds away from public education, and attack school choice advocates.

The establishment’s most recent salvo came on October 1, when the National Education Association (NEA) fired off a 144-page polemic against school choice advocates. The NEA, which has 2.4 million members, charged that “a sophisticated web of groups and wealthy individuals” on the far right of the political spectrum are attacking public education through the use of “paycheck protection” initiatives. Such initiatives would require unions to get approval from individual members before spending their dues on political activities.

The NEA warns that “the conservative network” aims at “a state-by-state assault on public education.” But little concrete evidence to support such a claim is found in the NEA report, “The Real Story Behind ‘Paycheck Protection’–The Hidden Link Between Anti-Public Education Initiatives: An Anatomy of the Far Right.”

“This report has a lot more to do with the NEA preserving its political influence than it does with preserving the rights of its members or with getting children a quality education,” said Chip Mellor, president of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading legal advocate for school choice. The NEA is on the attack, he added, because paycheck protection and school choice “threaten the NEA’s money and educational monopoly.”

After a paycheck protection initiative passed in Washington state in 1992, the number of political contributions to the NEA’s state affiliate, the Washington Education Association, fell from 48,000 to 6,921, severely limiting the union’s political influence. When a paycheck protection initiative was placed on the California ballot last June, the NEA and its local affiliate, the California Teachers Association, provided $9 million to a $23.6 million campaign that defeated the initiative, outspending supporters by almost four to one.

“The movement for school choice is the broadest, most diverse political movement in America today,” said the Institute’s litigation director, Clint Bolick. He dismissed as “ludicrous” the NEA’s assertion that a vast right-wing conspiracy is promoting school choice.

“The school choice movement represents a combination of conservatives, forward-looking liberals, and most importantly,” he noted, “parents who desperately need educational opportunities.”

NAACP, Black Caucus Also on the Attack

The NEA is not the only special interest group to strike back against school choice. On September 10, members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined forces with the African American Ministers Leadership Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the People for the American Way to denounce conservatives for promoting vouchers to minority and disadvantaged families.

“Dangling the conservatives’ voucher agenda in front of the nation’s most disenfranchised Americans under the guise of helping them is both immoral and hypocritical,” said Rev. Timothy McDonald, chairman of the national African American Ministers Leadership Council and president of Concerned Black Clergy in Atlanta. “This is really an attempt to divide the African-American community against itself,” he added.

While McDonald’s remarks provoked a swift and angry response from Bishop Earl W. Jackson, an advocate of school choice (see related story, “Spurious ‘Racist’ Attack Angers Black Bishop”), several other education groups attacked school choice in September.

American Association of School Administrators

The American Association of School Administrators devoted the September issue of its monthly magazine, The School Administrator, to a defense of public education. Defenders included University of Arizona professor David Berliner, coauthor of The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, who argued that the press arms public school critics by reporting negative events that are bound to occur in a system with nearly 3 million teachers in 100,000 public schools.

In mid-September, as part of a “We Care” campaign, the Association arranged for a group of 300 school superintendents and board members to travel to Washington, DC, to lobby members of Congress to fund only public schools, not private or parochial schools.

National Congress for Public Education

A week earlier, another group of nearly 200 school administrators, teachers, and other educators had gathered at the National Congress for Public Education in Arlington, Virginia, to launch a similar counterattack against the threat to public education posed by “incomplete information,” “misguided attacks,” and “the diversion of money to alternative ventures with limited public access and accountability.” Those threats, says the Congress, “require a strong response.”

Founding members of the Congress are the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Whole Language Umbrella, and the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking. Sponsors include The George Gund Foundation, the National Council for Social Studies, the National Reading Conference, and Phi Delta Kappa.

National School Boards Association

Also in September, the National Association of School Boards launched its nationwide campaign to encourage school boards to pass anti-voucher resolutions. According to NSBA Federal Networks Advocate Dan Fuller, the resolutions are intended “to highlight the importance of public education and to increase the grassroots pressure on your elected officials at the federal and state level.”

National PTA

As well as promoting anti-voucher resolutions, the NSBA is cosponsoring magazine ads run by the National PTA to promote the view that vouchers are “a threat to public education.”

The campaign, “Congress: Don’t Kiss Our Public Schools Goodbye,” is an attempt to persuade members of Congress to reject vouchers by framing the issue as a choice between vouchers for a few or improving education for all. The National PTA strongly opposes education vouchers, tax credits, and tax deductions related to preschool through secondary education.