Could you tell me how you got involved in this space and why you’re excited about it?
I first became attracted to the idea of school choice as a graduate student, the idea seemed to make a great deal of sense to me. I was surprised one day in class when my professor, Bill Crystal suggested that we each change sides and debate the side we didn’t favor. I was made a teacher’s union representative and asked to make the arguments against school choice. My overwhelmingly progressive classmates at Harvard were asked to be parents or students and make the case in favor of parental choice, stunningly, they were unable to come up with a reason why school choice was a good idea. Despite their normal instincts to support the underdog or people who are lower income people, they willingly supported the government authority over parent choice and the teacher’s union over students.
That sort of startled me at that time and made me think harder about the issue and my commitment to it. Then, five years later, I found myself as a 20 something and the chief of staff to one of the nation’s most innovative governors. He was playing with the idea of school choice. I was very lucky. I was in the room where it happened. I was six months into my job as chief of staff, when an African-American Democrat legislator, Polly Williams, came into governor Thompson’s office and made the case for why she wanted to break off or break up the Milwaukee public school district and create a black school district because the school district was run by an overwhelmingly white school board and the white administrators who were not listening to the needs of black parents and black students.
Her answer was why don’t we just create a black school district? The Republican governor, Tommy Thompson said, “well, why not? I don’t think it’s constitutional. I don’t think the courts would allow us to do that. But what we could do is give the power to the parents, let parents decide where their kids go to school and make the schools compete and listen to those parents and provide them with what they need for their children’s education.” So, I was there when it happened, completely as an observer. I hadn’t been there long enough to be someone who was making the deal happen. But after that I ran for the legislature. Two years later was I was elected speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly. School choice was my top issue, even though it didn’t matter to most of my constituents.
“I represented a well-off suburban area, but I knew there was nothing more important to the future of Wisconsin than making sure that poor and minority children were getting the education that they needed to succeed in the world, that there was nothing else we could do more to improve life in Wisconsin than to help those at the bottom.”
I represented a well-off suburban area, but I knew there was nothing more important to the future of Wisconsin than making sure that poor and minority children were getting the education that they needed to succeed in the world, that there was nothing else we could do more to improve life in Wisconsin than to help those at the bottom. I was very lucky, my constituents overwhelmingly support that idea. I was able to lead the charge to greatly expand the program in the legislature and then to protect it. By the time I got done with the legislature, everybody thought “oh, he’s going to go off and make a whole bunch of money as a lobbyist or corporate executive.” I actually went to work in the issue I cared the most about, which was making sure that all kids get a great education. It’s been a wonderful 15 years fighting for kids who don’t have the same opportunities that my kids have.
Describe what your role now entails and how you’re continuing the fight.
Well, I’m a senior strategist here at the American Federation for children. My background in the legislature gives me an unusual insight about how to pass laws that would expand educational options for children around the country. Quite often I’m asked to focus on states that haven’t given kids those opportunities and try to help people in passing a new private school choice law, or a new charter law or a new virtual law, and we’ve been able to do it in state after state. When I started in 2004, there were just four states and the District of Columbia that had private school choice programs. Today there are 26 States plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. I think we’ve got a few more coming in the next couple of years.
What does school choice and education freedom mean to you?
I’m a big believer in the American dream and the key to the American dream is getting a good education and being willing to work hard. That first step is apparently the most difficult here. We have to make sure that every kid gets a chance to go to a school that will help them to reach their potential.