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Conservatives court minorities for vouchers


They are courting minority community and religious leaders, complete with all-expenses-paid trips to Milwaukee, Wisc., to observe firsthand that city's school-voucher program. The next excursion is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 20.

Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck, a passionate proponent of school vouchers and the leader of a failed 1998 voucher program in Colorado, is accompanying 25 mostly minority leaders from Denver and Colorado Springs on the intensive, 36-hour field trip, he said. It is the third such trip designed to convince minority leaders from Colorado that they stand to benefit from a similar program here.

Voucher programs have been installed in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, and involve giving tax money to parents to spend on the school of their choice, including a private or religious school. Many public-school proponents and minorities have vehemently opposed vouchers, arguing they drain schools of money and more accomplished students -- leaving minorities in dire straits. Others argue that public taxes should not be used to fund religious schools.

Research on the success rates of voucher programs has been mixed. But proponents believe that the public school system has been irrevocably unraveled and insist that vouchers would encourage healthy competition

Though Colorado voters have twice rejected vouchers in the past decade, several Republican legislators have said they plan to reintroduce voucher programs in the upcoming session.

The Milwaukee trip is being paid by Indiana-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, reportedly the brainchild of J. Patrick Rooney, who heads an insurance company.

"If we learned anything from Amendment 17, it's that rich white Republicans of goodwill sitting around trying to figure out what is best for somebody else doesn't work," Schuck said, referencing Colorado's failed 1996 parental rights amendment.

The developer revealed the new strategy -- to build an "army of black and brown mothers who will march on the Capitol steps to demand a quality education for their kids" -- during a September meeting of conservative Republican leaders at the Broadmoor hotel.

Not all minority leaders are convinced. Jerome Page, president of the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region, said the cost to public education -- and to minority and at-risk students -- would be disastrous.

"I admire Steve Schuck -- he's one of the leaders of this city and state," Page said. However, Page added, when Schuck made his comment -- that wealthy white conservatives shouldn't be selling the voucher idea to inner-city America -- it was to a group of fellow conservative white males, which included Gov. Bill Owens and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Those leaders, he said, have "no track record of doing something positive for the black community."

"Their agenda, 20 to 30 years from now, may be good for the country as a whole, but in the meantime, they will wipe out two generations of poor white people and black people," Page said.

Schuck declined to identify the people who pay for the trips through the GEO Foundation, saying, "We don't want them to have publicity; these are people who have absolutely nothing to gain personally."

The trips, he said, are "great, inspirational, they reinvigorate me every time."

Many minority leaders have returned from the trips convinced. In September, Willie Breazell, the director of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, resigned after he drew criticism from within the organization for supporting vouchers. He made his stance following a GEO-sponsored field trip. The Rev. Alvin Yeary, a Colorado Springs minister and NAACP secretary, also resigned in solidarity with Breazell, as did two other executive committee members.

Yeary, who has been invited on the upcoming excursion, said he absolutely supports what he calls the "choice movement" -- the term vouchers, he said, has a racist and negative connotation.

He believes that school choice would invigorate competition -- and allow students to attend the schools most likely to ensure their success. Yeary dismissed the "separation of church and state" argument with regard to tax money funding religious schools as "bogus."

"You cannot possibly separate church and state, because they're intertwined completely," he said. "All fibers of our social and moral code come from religious and church background.

"Instead of separation of church and state, let's worry about the child who becomes a predator instead of becoming a productive member of society."

However, Anthony Young, founder of the Tutmose Academy, a charter school in Harrison School District, said no conclusive proof has been established showing that vouchers could benefit the students most in need -- the poor and high-risk. Currently ambivalent about tax credits, Young said he couldn't support the idea without such conclusive proof. Otherwise, too many students would fall through the cracks.

"If you're very poor, a tax credit does nothing to address the issue in a meaningful way," he said. "To me, it would be unwise to dismantle and gut public education."

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