How did you get involved in the education reform movement?
I’ve been interested in education reform and school choice since college. Jeannie Allen, the founder of the Center for Education Reform had a newsletter that she would mail out back in the 1990s. I was an early subscriber and I followed her work to learn more about the need for education reform, and the need for school choice. I researched it and wrote a paper about it my senior year of college. As soon as I graduated and moved to Washington D.C., I looked for opportunities to be involved. I wanted to ensure that students could have access to a high quality education regardless of where they lived. My parents researched schools when I was a child to ensure that I had a good education. They saved up and carefully moved into a neighborhood that had high quality schools.
I am grateful that I’ve benefited from that experience. I knew that other kids deserved that same opportunity, even if their parents couldn’t afford to move into the neighborhoods tied to traditionally high quality schools.
What are some of the things you got involved in to help students access school choice?
I grew up in Florida and went to a high quality school, then left Florida for college and graduate school, and finally moved to Washington D.C., to start working on Capitol Hill. I made sure I worked for members of Congress that were really interested in education reform and really involved. John Kasich, who later became governor of Ohio, was the Budget Committee chairman. When I worked for him, we organized a big school choice hearing and invited Governor Bush up to Washington, D.C. to testify about the brand new school choice program he had just created in Florida for students who were attending low-performing schools.
So, I started out at the national level with members of Congress, making sure we’re drawing attention to the school choice work that was going on in the states. You can only do so much in Washington, so I moved on. I actually moved to Canada and worked in education reform in Canada as well. The U.S. isn’t the only country that is constantly seeking to provide better educational opportunities for students.
Canada has a free-market think tank, the Frazier Institute that wanted to launch a privately funded school choice program following the model of the Children’s Scholarship Fund in New York. I was brought on to be the Executive Director of our program, and direct the school choice program for the province of Ontario in Canada. They trained me up, gave me their database and we launched a school choice program for low-income families in Ontario. That was awesome. It was a wonderful experience, really working directly with families, ensuring that they knew how to research and find a private school that met their needs, and ensuring that they were ready to share their story. Once they enrolled in that school and saw the changes that it made in their students’ lives, they were prepared to speak to legislators in the Ontario government in order to advocate for a publicly funded program in that province. That fight goes on still today in Canada.
“Once they enrolled in that school and saw the changes that it made in their students’ lives, they were prepared to speak to legislators in the Ontario government in order to advocate for a publicly funded program in that province.”
I was happy to be part of laying the groundwork for it. I came back to the U.S. and had the great fortune of running the school choice office at the Florida Department of Education when Governor Bush was in his final two years of office. By then Florida school choice had grown significantly. There was the Tax Credit scholarship program for low income families and the McKay scholarship program for families with special needs. My office was also responsible for hundreds of charter schools in the state and for overseeing the virtual schools and home education. That was a great experience, to oversee the administration of those programs to make sure they were running well and that family’s needs were being met and that schools were compliant with the requirements.
You can introduce a program, but it’s really, really important to make sure that the families know about these programs and that they know how to apply and they know how to renew. I really worked on making sure that the programs were run well and expanding at a good rate.
What does school choice mean to you?
School choice really is providing families and students with the opportunity to find the school or the educational option that meets their needs.
Is there anything else you would like for people to know about your story?
An important thing that I want people to know is to realize that there are numerous ways that you can get involved in the school choice community, and you don’t have to play only one role. It could be that you’re a young, just out of graduate school student. I was really interested in policy and you can serve in a policy capacity, but you can also serve in a program administration capacity, just like I did in Ontario through launching the privately funded scholarship program and by running the school choice office for Florida. You can also serve as an advocate, which I was able to do as the Federal Lobbyist for the American Federation for Children in Washington.
“It’s hard work making sure that your child’s needs are met and, having experienced that personally, I want to fight harder for you.”
As an advocate, as a supporter of school choice, that there’s a wide variety of options and ways to serve. There’s policy, program administration, advocacy, and then certainly parent outreach and connections with parents, which I’ve had the opportunity to do while working closely with Virginia Walden Ford supporting the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. I highly suggest being involved in all of those, finding what your strengths are, and knowing that in five years, you could shift onto it to another area of service for the school choice community, families and students. The other thing that I would want people to know is that, for me, this is also personal. I have two amazing and very complex daughters. My older daughter has now attended public school in Canada, private school in Virginia, and public school in Virginia. She’s now in public virtual school in Virginia. Sometimes, school choice professionals end up experiencing choice personally. I can say to parents that it’s tough. It’s hard work making sure that your child’s needs are met and, having experienced that personally, I want to fight harder for you.