The ads are eye-catching: Called aggressive and sophisticated by some, they extol the benefits of vouchers that would allow students to use public funds for private schooling.
But the national campaign has gained a particularly high profile because of the spokesmen for the controversial idea: black parents.
The ads are the work of the Milwaukee-based Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group only a little over a year old. And they present a point of view distinctly at odds with that of other national black advocacy groups.
Officially, much of America's black leadership has come out against vouchers. Both the Baltimore-based NAACP and the Washington-based Urban League say they view school vouchers as destructive to the public school system, and potentially a step toward a more racially segregated society.
But some surveys indicate that, despite official disapproval, support for vouchers runs deep in many minority communities, and especially among younger blacks. In a 1999 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based group focused on black issues, 60 percent of African-Americans of all ages said they support school vouchers, with only 33 percent in opposition. In the 26-to-35 age group, approval jumped to 76 percent, with only 20 percent opposed.
Such numbers lead some to conclude that the Black Alliance is a much-needed new voice, speaking for large numbers of African-Americans whose views on school choice are not being represented by more-established groups.
"[BAEO is] a harbinger of things to come," says Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Professor Moe, whose latest book "Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public" analyzes surveys of parental attitudes, sees BAEO as a robust expression of the desires of a new generation of black Americans.
But Andre Hornsby, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators in Washington, disagrees. "This is America, and they [the BAEO] have a right to present any view they choose to present, but the truth should be told about who they are and who is financing this campaign," Dr. Hornsby says. "What they really represent is the views of a conservative think tank."
Hornsby and some other blacks say BAEO - which admits freely that it accepts generous funding from a number of largely white, conservative foundations - is being used by conservatives to put a black face on a white movement.
But that's exactly what BAEO founder and board chairman Howard Fuller says he was trying to steer clear of when he originated the alliance.
Professor Fuller, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a former superintendent of the city's school system, says something struck him a couple of years ago as he traveled across the United States speaking about school choice: "The lack of people of color in those rooms - even though much of the talk was about children of color - really concerned me," Fuller says. "I got up at one of the meetings and said that if the choice movement is going to have an impact, we need to change the complexion of the rooms."
Fuller decided to create a network of African-Americans interested in school choice. He invited seven people to his first meeting, and asked them to each bring four more. In March 1999, the group held its first exploratory meeting in Milwaukee with 150 attendees, and stated clearly that there would be no whites in attendance.
Today BAEO has more than 1,000 members and is working to create a national network with chapters in all major cities. It is also moving its headquarters to Washington.
The two main goals, Fuller says, are to engage blacks more fully in a dialogue about school choice and to keep the issue on the front burner in political and media circles.
Vouchers are not the only concern, says Kaleem Caire, president and CEO of the Black Alliance. Some of the local chapters consider issues like charter schools and home schooling more important.
"Our interest is greater access for our children," Mr. Caire says. "We'll measure our success by how many of our children we save."
But that's not necessarily the primary interest of groups like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, the Walton Family Foundation of Little Rock, Ark., and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation of Indianapolis, all of which offer financial support to BAEO.
"We support [BAEO] because they are living examples of what Milton Friedman pointed out," says Robert Enlow, vice president of programs and public relations for the Friedman Foundation. Friedman, a conservative free-market enthusiast, proposed a school-voucher program as early as 1955.
"We don't always agree with [the Black Alliance] on everything," Mr. Enlow adds. But he sees its involvement with vouchers as key because "no longer can this movement be seen as a white Republican movement."
That's just the kind of talk that makes critics like Hornsby uncomfortable. "Are the parents financing this [advertising] campaign?" he asks of the current media blitz, which according to some reports is costing $3-million, although BAEO will say only that funding for it tops $1.2 million. "If not, who is?"
But Fuller insists such questions are not important. "When the NAACP was formed in 1909, where did they get their money from?" he asks. "They had white benefactors, too. What matters is where you stand on the issues."
The good news, Fuller says, is that his group has already succeeded in drawing more people into the national debate over school choice - a process he predicts will continue for many years to come. "We intend to be around here for a long time."
CHOICEs: Tony Higgins, whose daughter attends private school for free through a Milwaukee program, is one of many parents featured on a link of the Black Alliance for Educational Options website.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor