What's in a Name, School Division

AS MINNESOTANS SETTLE in for what's likely to be a drawn-out battle over education vouchers--the idea of giving private-school students tax dollars to help offset their tuition--they'll be hearing a lot more from two groups with confusingly similar and conveniently vague names: The Choice in Education Foundation and the Choice in Education League-Minnesota. Both organizations have been pretty low-profile in a state where there wasn't really much serious debate about vouchers. But now that Gov. Arne Carlson has thrown his weight behind the idea, their star is rising fast.

There's a long story behind the fact that both groups even exist; the short version is that both essentially represent private-school officials and parents, and both are heirs to another apple-pie group, Citizens for Educational Freedom. That organization was around for 30-some years; before it faded, it gave birth to the Choice in Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that does research and has co-produced several studies with the conservative Center for the American Experiment.

CEF is a 501/c3 nonprofit, which means it can do very little direct politicking; that, however, is taken care of by the Choice in Education League-Minnesota, an out-and-out lobbying group. Its phones ring, for the time being, at the Minnesota Catholic Conference (Catholic schools make up the vast majority of Minnesota private schools), but Executive Director Gene Piccolo says the group will start looking for its own office space as it comes into its own. Indications are that the group is growing up fast; Piccolo says they raised close to $100,000 last year, their first full year of operation, and hope to do a good deal better this year. The money should pay for mailings, phones, and the other accoutrements of "grassroots lobbying;" the group has also retained well-known lobbying firm North State Advisers.

Even so, groups like CELM are comparative small fries in a voucher fight that's attracting heavy hitters from all directions: The Minnesota Business Partnership, a coalition of the state's biggest companies and their CEOs, has been drafting its own legislative proposal for "educational certificates."

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