Jeanne Allen: What’s a School Choice Warrior to Do During This Political Campaign?

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At this year’s national charter school conference, school choice warrior Howard Fuller argued that we must partner with anyone who is aligned on helping kids. Like him, I am never ambivalent or silent when the truth about education reform is at stake.
Well here I am, speaking up — and not remaining silent — because the truth must be told, or in this case clarified.
Last week when asked by The Wall Street Journal whether I agreed with Donald Trump’s comments that school choice was a civil right, my immediate thought was, you bet it is — and he’s repeating what scores of intelligent people have said for decades. No-where, no-how does that imply a confidence in Donald Trump as good for civil rights. Even if The Wall Street Journal did eventually headline my WSJ video segment “Trump’s ‘New Civil Rights Agenda.’”
Within hours of the video’s posting to WSJ.com, I started seeing tweets about the segment, including an incredulous post by The 74’s Matt Barnum:

Sick joke? I said nothing of the sort. In fact, thanks to digital media, you can see it yourself.
The social media uproar was reminiscent of another statement I made earlier this summer, applauding Hillary Clinton’s embrace of innovation in higher education. For that, I was chastised by a donor who viewed the statement as an endorsement (it wasn’t) and said he’d pull his funding. Others sent “How could you?” notes.
A few truths about my views, and their bipartisan nature: I have worked with people diametrically opposed to one another’s points of view on all sorts of issues. Joe Nathan, Clint Bolick, Eric Premack, Linda Brown, Tom Patterson, Sara Tantillo, Judith Jones…and hundreds more. These are the people who created the modern education reform movement.
I knew the late Democratic State Rep. Polly Williams, a member of the Black Panthers, whose allegiance with a white conservative governor brought vouchers to Milwaukee. Polly believed school choice was critical to putting children of color on par with white children. Dozens of African-American lawmakers, like Fannie Lewis, Dwight Evans and T. Willard Fair, showed us that respect and civility trumps disagreement (no pun intended) in the cause of education reform.
After the Clinton statement backlash, another set of critics reacted to my praise of Mike Pence as Trump’s Republican running mate. Not only does he have a noteworthy record on education reform, but I have personal knowledge of his work from years before, having started in the public policy world at the same time, in the same space.
Again, I thought of Fuller’s comments about partnering with leaders of any political stripe who are aligned with helping kids.
Since the Center for Education Reform’s founding, its staff and board members have had varying political allegiances. When George W. Bush won the hanging-chad election, our top leaders donned black armbands. We argued, sighed and then went back to work. When President Obama was inaugurated, I carted my family off to the public festivities. He was, after all, our new president. I wish he would embrace education reform fully and expand the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. I disagree immensely on many of his actions. But I have given credit where credit is due nonetheless.
In May, I told Education Week that I did not want Trump to even talk about school choice. My concern was that any association with the candidate would be bad for policy. Yet as the teachers unions nationwide have ramped up their game spreading lies about education reform and with no national counterweight to match their reach, I wonder: Trump may not be your candidate, but if one appreciates the impact school choice has on poor children, having the issue gain national exposure of an unprecedented nature has its advantages.
Agree or disagree, but live school choice in D.C., see it in action in hundreds of communities and spend years talking to the people who it affects, and one hopes there will be a better appreciation for why some of us applaud its recognition in the public eye.
I haven’t endorsed anyone for president. But when candidates talk about the power of education innovation or school choice, education advocates should embrace those statements on behalf of educational opportunity — regardless of name or party.

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