K-12

OPINION: Ahead of Betsy Devos’s confirmation hearings, some thoughts on why the face of school choice belongs to parents, not politicians

Remembering the Democratic Wisconsin lawmaker who embodied this idea

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for a photo after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

President-elect Trump promised to put school choice at the top of the new administration’s agenda. And he backed it up by choosing longtime choice advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.

As of this writing, Senate confirmation hearings for DeVos were set to begin Wednesday, Jan 11. [They have since been moved to Jan. 17.]  But even those who support parental school choice have criticized the move, predicting long-term consequences if he (or she) becomes the face of the movement. History proves, however, that no one politician or philanthropist, for that matter, can fill that role – it belongs exclusively to the low-income parents who seize it as a mechanism for social justice and their children, who need it the most.

Perhaps the only politician who could have been the face of parent choice is the late Annette “Polly” Williams. But even she would have resisted, which is why far too many of those involved in today’s education reform movement don’t know her name. Yet, it was Polly Williams who was at the forefront of demanding that any agenda for reforming education in America include low-income and working-class parents having the power to choose the best educational environment for their children.

Related: Will “school choice on steroids” get a boost under a Trump administration? 

A black Democratic lawmaker, Williams spent over 30 years in the Wisconsin State Legislature. All throughout, she was a champion for social justice, fighting especially hard to give low-income black families in Milwaukee access to a quality education and, perhaps more importantly, the chance to control where they received it.

In her first years in office, her target was the city’s school transfer plan, which disproportionately put the burden of busing on black students. Among other things, she sponsored legislation that would give parents some authority, requiring their written permission before their child could be bused to another school. She also led redistricting efforts to increase the representation of blacks and Latinos on the school board.

Then, after years of expressing frustration with the poor quality of education black children were receiving in the Milwaukee Public Schools, she sponsored a bill to create a separate, majority-black school district, one where black educators and community leaders would have the resources to provide and decide what was best for black students.

That initiative was ultimately unsuccessful, but not before making clear the lengths to which she, her staff and other black community leaders would go to redirect a long, troubled history of inadequate and unequal public education for black students in Milwaukee’s center city.

In the late 1980s, when Williams saw a chance to give low-income parents in Milwaukee the power to choose the best school for their children, and, at the same time, bolster a few private schools in the community that had little resources but a proven track record of success with the children of those same families, she didn’t hesitate to pounce. Although it meant defying party lines and risking political suicide, she welcomed the challenge and drafted a bill that would create the nation’s first private school voucher plan – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

Related: Betsy DeVos may push vouchers — but how would that impact students with the greatest needs?

It wasn’t the first time the voucher idea surfaced in Wisconsin. Gov. Tommy Thompson had unsuccessfully put forth a parent choice plan just a year before. And much-less known is the parent choice plan that the then-Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent Dr. Bob Peterkin and Dr. Deborah McGriff had worked out with black community leaders to allow MPS students to attend some of those same private schools that would end up being the first to participate in MPCP.

That partnership was close to final until the teachers union inserted language that the private schools and black community activists working with Williams found unacceptable. Initiatives like these put parental school choice on the table in Milwaukee, but Williams sealed the deal. She deserves the lion’s share of credit for pulling together a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats – a group she would later call “The Unholy Alliance” – to get the program through the legislature.

There’s no denying that Williams, whether today’s education reformers know her name or not, added a critical element to the efforts to reform education in America, empowering low-income and working class parents to be able to choose the best learning environments for their children.

Even so, whenever she recounted the origins of Milwaukee’s program, it was never about what Polly Williams, the politician, did. Whether her audience was at Brookings, Stanford, a local church or the White House Rose Garden, her narrative never changed – MPCP was a victory for Milwaukee’s low-income black parents.

Just a year before she died in 2014, Williams agreed to attend her first Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) meeting to be inducted into the organization’s inaugural Hall of Fame. When she accepted the award, she said “And now all the parents are in the BAEO Hall of Fame.”

At this particular moment in time, this is a lesson to remember. The drive for parent choice is about social justice for low-income parents and working-class parents, desperately seeking an alternative to systems that fail too many of our poorest children. Those are the parents Williams spent her career advocating for, and that was whether they had a child in the MPCP, at a public charter school or in the traditional public school down the street from their home.

For community activists, leaders like Williams, and parents who advocated for parent choice in Milwaukee in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, their fight was absolutely for quality education, but it was also a fight to gain power, and to gain some measure of control to define their own educational destiny.

Decades later, that fight is far from over.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

 Howard Fuller is founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

Robin Harris, a New America fellow, is writing a book about the life of Annette “Polly” Williams.

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Howard Fuller

Howard Fuller is founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. See Archive

Robin Harris

Robin Harris, a New America fellow, is writing a book about the life of Annette “Polly” Williams. See Archive