Politics makes strange bedfellows, and school politics is certainly no exception.
Last week, Portland glimpsed the growing national alliance between free-market whites and traditionally liberal African Americans when the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute brought Howard Fuller, who hung in the 1960s with Marxist guerrillas in Mozambique, to Emmanuel Temple Church.
Fuller's message for the North Portland crowd of about 80 people, divided evenly between blacks and whites: strategize how to win converts for vouchers in a program in which parents get taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.
Using the equal-opportunity language of civil rights, Fuller contends black and low-income parents in troubled Portland schools should have vouchers.
"We should not hold people hostage in schools that year after year continue to fail people's children," says Fuller, who in 2000 founded the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options with money from Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's foundation and other conservative, free-market groups.
The alliance, which has included President Bush's first-term education secretary Rodney Paige on its board, has a handful of local members. Among them: ex-Trail Blazer Michael Harper and Smith Williams, a black parent working to establish an all-boys private Christian academy in North or Northwest Portland. Williams hopes Fuller's visit stimulates interest in an alliance chapter that would help vouchers take root in Portland.
The obstacles to vouchers have proven high in Oregon. Madison High grad Steve Buckstein coordinated a statewide 1990 "school choice" ballot measure to give a $2,500 tax credit to any parent who home-schooled or sent their kids to private school. Voters rejected it by more than 2 to 1.
Buckstein says Oregonians weren't ready then for vouchers, a lesson that led him to found the Cascade Policy Institute two months after the 1990 election to seed the soil with ideas such as vouchers.
One thing is certain: Public-school teachers will vehemently oppose the idea.
"Voucher systems siphon money off from the public schools system when they're being starved already, and do nothing to enhance the greater good for all our children," says Ann Nice, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
But in his Portland lecture May 23, Fuller answered that criticism, saying abolitionist Harriet Tubman wanted to end slavery but worked at the same time to free as many slaves as she could. Likewise, Fuller says, he wants better public schools, but it's time now to give blacks the same private-school option that white parents have always had.
Fuller and Buckstein do have disagreements. Fuller supports vouchers only for low-income kids. Buckstein sees vouchers for the poor as a politically viable first step to getting vouchers for all parents.
Still, they can work together.
"In politics," says Fuller, who as schools superintendent more than a decade ago in Milwaukee, Wisc., led a successful vouchers campaign for low-income parents, "there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests."