On the School-Choice Barricades

In case you missed it, The Wall Street Journal featured the American Federation for Children and Kevin P. Chavous in its “Saturday Interview” section on Sept. 6, 2014.

 

On the School-Choice Barricades

Former D.C. councilman Kevin Chavous talks about his battles with teachers unions across the country and why the voucher movement is advancing.

By. Allysia Finley

‘It’s like a tale of two Americas on school choice,” says Kevin Chavous. There’s the status quo that includes the teachers unions and their allies. “And then there’s the other America”—those “who have to suffer every day because their kids aren’t getting the education they deserve.”

“This is really the fight for the soul of America” – Kevin P. Chavous

‘It’s like a tale of two Americas on school choice,” says Kevin Chavous. There’s the status quo that includes the teachers unions and their allies. “And then there’s the other America”—those “who have to suffer every day because their kids aren’t getting the education they deserve.”

You might say Mr. Chavous and his operation, with about 30 employees, are the shock troops for school choice on the other side of the barricades from the unions. The National Education Association has more money (some $1.4 billion in revenue) and three million members.

But Mr. Chavous has the political power of an idea—education opportunity for all—and school choice is clearly making inroads nationwide. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 19 states boast programs that enroll more than 308,000 children.

School-choice foes often target rural Republicans vulnerable to union pressure, Mr. Chavous says, “because their cousins, their wives, their sisters all are employed or have ties to what is often the largest employer in their county: the school districts.” Some politicians don’t want poor children attending their own children’s schools, which is why state legislators often seek to restrict choice programs to cities.

Unions used this strategy to defeat a voucher bill in Tennessee last year. Leading the opposition was GOP House Rep. Dennis Roach of Rutledge. Mr. Chavous’s operation fought back by targeting Mr. Roach in the Republican primary last month and he lost to businessman Jerry Sexton.

The move against Rep. Roach is part of a wider offensive this year to influence primaries across the country. All six candidates AFC endorsed in Oklahoma’s legislative primaries won, and all 11 of the candidates it backed in Arizona prevailed. The group has also backed candidates in primaries in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

There was a time when Mr. Chavous, who calls himself a “recovering politician,” was the sort of person teachers unions recruited to their side. In 1992 he was elected to represent Washington’s eastern Ward 7, a predominantly black section with some “challenging” neighborhoods.

He says he began visiting city jails and perceived “the direct link between education, crime, homelessness, jobs, drug abuse, poverty.” Finding that “85% of our inmates were high-school dropouts,” Mr. Chavous says, he began to inspect the city’s broken public schools.

He was among the first Democrats nationwide to embrace charter schools. And he paid the price during a 1998 mayoral bid, when he says the union ran ads that said in essence “Chavous hates your kids.” He recalls being asked by his 7-year-old son, “Dad, why don’t you like my teacher?” Mr. Chavous finished second in the Democratic primary to Anthony Williams —who as mayor from 1999 to 2007 became one of Mr. Chavous’s staunchest school-choice allies.

He also sees “some opportunities” in New York state, though ultimately Mr. Chavous considers the entire country ripe for better school options. “This is really the fight for the soul of America,” he says. “Parents are tired of the status quo offering promises of change that don’t take place.”

Click here to read the full story (http://on.wsj.com/ZerJ3Y).