Until March 2000, Tammy Johnson was a community organizer in Milwaukee, the national center of the school voucher movement, where she saw what she calls the “devastating” impact of vouchers.
“The demand for better facilities, more qualified teachers, and relevant curriculum fell on deaf ears at the school board, which spent millions on vouchers,” Johnson said. In 1998, three quarters of the city’s public school kids had “special needs.” The school system, meanwhile, was losing $22 million to private schools via vouchers.
Vouchers were the brainchild of an African American Democrat, Wisconsin State Representative Annette (Polly) Williams, who believed that publicly funded vouchers would offer poor families an escape from poor schools. In the 1980s, Williams teamed up with Republicans and white conservatives to promote the voucher system. Conservative moralist and former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett dubbed Williams the Rosa Parks of the school voucher movement. But after Williams’ landmark legislation passed in 1990, she was sidelined by the conservatives she’d worked with, including Bennett, the Bradley Foundation, Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice (IJ), and Clinton investigator Kenneth Starr, who, as U.S. Solicitor General, was busy at that time doing things like trying to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Strategic decisions were made without Williams’ input and the conservatives funded their own advocacy organization, which competed with the group she headed. Williams wanted the city’s voucher program to benefit low-income urban families. But once her bill became law, she watched as her affluent former allies lobbied to include middle-class kids in the program.
“Their agenda is not the agenda of the poor folks who actually live in the community,” Williams told the Washington Times in 1995. But by then Milwaukee’s tax monies were already going to private schools, many of whose students receiving vouchers were not the disadvantaged ones that Williams had intended the program to benefit. It was the first such program in the nation, and now the question of allowing religious schools to receive public money via vouchers was on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tammy Johnson, who worked with the NAACP and others against the Milwaukee legislation, recently moved to California and got involved in fighting a Milwaukee-style voucher ballot initiative there, Proposition 38, which provides a publicly funded voucher to any student who wishes to attend private school. (It was on the state ballot this past November but had not been voted on at press time.) “Just as in Milwaukee, California voucher advocates sell the idea of school ‘choice’ to poor parents by putting black and Hispanic faces out front,” Johnson said this September. “But in practice, the real choice belongs to private schools that can pick which kids they want. Polly Williams discovered the double-cross too late.”
It’s a cautionary tale whose lesson is that it’s harder today than it once was for progressives to distinguish friends from foes. Whether the issue’s affirmative action, school choice, welfare, or workplace fairness, the ideological right, those who used to be known as conservatives, have begun to link up with women, people of color, and marginalized Americans in order to cast themselves as anti-establishment. As we saw at the 2000 Republican Convention, the once-familiar face of the religious right is increasingly invisible, hiding behind legal moves that at first might seem progressive. The right has gone from the moral focus of the Christian Coalition to the legal focus of right-wing groups who—by avoiding lifestyle issues—have managed to work with the left and then co-opt its positions.