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Home » Chalk Talk – Reflections on Election Eve

Reflection on Election Eve

November, 2008

Election evening, I reflected back to the beginning of The Center for Education Reform:

Back in 1993, we had a much better outlook. State governors and legislatures were bold and innovative and went on to establish many programs that bred choice and accountability. Just 15 years later, the most salient issue of our day seems lost.

A young, relatively unknown Democrat with a theme of hope was President then, too. Bill Clinton was sworn in a few months before CER started. He was not known for much education reforming at the time, though he boasted of record spending as governor of Arkansas. But in that position, he had been called to the White House in 1989 by then President George H. W. Bush and resolved to adopt and pursue national goals. He also wrote with praise to Wisconsin state legislator Polly Williams, a Democrat and African-American who pioneered the country’s first voucher program in Milwaukee. Clinton was one of a dozen or so governors who vowed renewed accountability. Yet when he became president, the sentiment of the letter he wrote to Rep. Williams would become obscured by party politics, and Bill Clinton went on to veto in 1996 the precursor to the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program which went on to establish a pattern of resistance to school choice throughout his tenure.

Clinton did, however, sign into law the first public charter school grant program, authored by Congressional Republicans. He announced with great fanfare in at least one State of the Union address that he wanted to see 3,000 new charter schools created. We figured his choice tendencies were finally eking out, and as his staff traveled the country delivering the first and second round of checks to states to distribute to burgeoning charters, we were happy that we could declare the charter movement truly bi-partisan.

But it was the states that made all of education reform – not just charter schools – truly bi-partisan, and multi-racial. It was Governor Tommy Thompson (R) with Rep. Polly Williams (D) who brought choice to Milwaukee in 1990. Thompson also launched that state’s charter law in 1993. Governor Tom Ridge (R) and Rep. Dwight Evans (D) were the patrons of the first charter law. Republican Governor Taft of Ohio would join hands with Cleveland City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis (D) to create in 1995 the first voucher program to include parochial schools, whose fate was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Tom Carper (D) worked with leading republican Bill Manning (R) on Delaware’s charter law. Perpich (D) in Minnesota with conservative voucher supporters; Texas’s Gov. Bush with Lt. Governor Bullock, a prominent democrat; Washington, DC Councilman Kevin Chavous in ’96 with scores of republican supporters; California Gov. Pete Wilson with grassroots support from African American educators… The list goes on.

During the Clinton presidency, we would see some 34 laws for charters established, and dozens of attempts to grow more full school choice for children most in need. But the key ingredients to doing so were governors who really liked the subject of education reform, and became experts at leading the charge; open-minded state legislators and a national presence for the issues that gave them all some support, and political cover to boot.

More than a decade later, the crisis that inspired this action still persists but the fire that ignited the movement at first has been doused by complacency and a disbelief that we still need to work as hard as ever. People still believe that it is nothing more than a money issue. Governors are, I’m afraid, not very in tuned with education reform and willing less still to advance it. One governor even told me his state had charter schools – when it is actually one of the final ten that never passed a law. Some state executives don’t even challenge when the legislature fails to fund the charters they’ve allowed to be created. State legislatures often fail to discern the difference between a good law and bad one, preferring instead to claim victory on the smallest movement. On standards, tests performance-pay and school choice through scholarships or vouchers, key votes are thwarted by special interests.

That’s why we pay so much attention this year especially to the state executive races, where we are sad to say that out of 11 races, it looks like only 2 Governor’s Mansions will be occupied by reformers.

And it’s why the presidential race is so important – because the fate of education reform for a new governor often depends on the position of their own party’s leader.

President-Elect Obama must stand for something more than the word “charter”. He must learn the lessons of equity that vouchers provide for children that he is said to most care about. If he does not, then few efforts in the states will be won without waiting for another election to shake up the system. In short, we will have worked for 15 years to go back to 1993.