Voucher Politics

The condition of Baltimore’s schools, together with the fact that more than 40% of the parents of Baltimore schoolchildren applied for a limited number of private scholarships would suggest that Baltimore City is a jurisdiction politically ripe for the introduction of vouchers. Several Baltimore political leaders have lent their support to voucher proposals. In 1994, Del. Pete Rawlings, now the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee attempted to institute a school-choice pilot project in Baltimore. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke has been unstinting in his verbal support of school choice, and in 1996 established a task force on school choice options for Baltimore. The inhospitable atmosphere of the Glendening Administration, whose first public act was the removal of Robert Embry as Chairman of the State Board of Education, prevented either of these initiatives from being carried further.

Few appreciate the efforts that were brought to bear from outside Maryland to squelch the Rawlings and Schmoke initiatives.

The archives of the Institute contain a most interesting document, widely disseminated to local union, nonprofit, political, and religious leaders. In April 1997, Carole Shields, the President of People for the American Way, a Washington-based lobby best known for its systematic campaigns of disparagement directed at the judicial nominees of Republican administrations, announced the launch in Baltimore of a new group, Partners for Public Education, designed to oppose voucher initiatives. An event at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore was “the first of a series of events nationwide”. “Participants will discuss: the agenda, goals, and strategies of the Christian Coaltion (the leading proponents of vouchers,” including “an in-depth look at the Christian Coalition, its current agenda, and its record on civil rights”. Participants were to be linked to “our clergy network..to help protect religious liberty and speak out against discrimination” and “were to receive a “regular communique that provides African American clergy with current information on the Right’s activities, and offers ideas and suggestions for sermons…For years, vouchers have been a key agenda item of the Religious Right movement.”

What all this had to do with Baltimore City is not clear. Here the Christian Coalition is virtually unknown. The only known local voucher advocates are the Archdiocese of Baltimore, whose record on ‘civil rights’ differs somewhat from that of the Christian Coalition and which was known to “speak out against discrimination” long before PFAW was invented; various small protestant and jewish schools; a considerable group of nonsectarian schools, and the mighty Calvert Institute, none of whose previous or present board members or leaders can be plausibly described as members of the Religious Right.

s.Shields’ letter, with its naked appeal to racial and religious fears and animosities, concluded with a statement of a plan to hold similar events in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia. The stated budget for the Baltimore event alone was $86,200, or enough to provide thirty private one-year scholarships, and included $12,000 for travel, a rather large amount, considering that the distance between Washington and Baltimore was and is 29 miles, but including “airfare/gas reimbursement, per diem, and lodging, as appropriate, for clergy and/or educators…and for staff.”. Also included were $33,600 for 350,000 eight-page newspaper inserts in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, to convey the impression that these newspapers favored the stated program, The limited number of inserts vis-a-vis circulation suggests that distribution of this piece of scare propaganda was targeted to certain neighborhoods. In addition $20,000 was provided for other “printing costs”, $2,000 for “liaison with the NAACP”, whose President, Kweisi Mfume, was to speak, $4,500 for six weeks’ labor by an “event organizer”, and $9,100 for “workshop and worship service costs” including “facility rental”; the budget did not include PFAW’s own staff. The event was to include lunch, an evening service, and entertainment by a youth choir from Washington. “We believe the anti-voucher, pro-public schools fight will continue for a number of years and for that reason building a critical mass of support is crucial.” In essence, PFAW has used a mixture of fearmongering and emoluments to construct, from outside, a local political machine in Baltimore, with little participation from knowledgeable local leaders like Mayor Schmoke and Delegate Rawlings. This is not an attractive spectacle. Such issues as vouchers, charter schools, and textbooks for private schools have hitherto been debated in Maryland, by its citizens, in a civil and mutually respectful manner, without the exercises in race, religion and gender-mongering characteristic of PFAW.

Posted in: Comment, Education