Published Online: May 7, 1997



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The article stirred little talk, however, and Kirkpatrick resumed his union work. The PSEA at the time was flexing some new muscle. A few months after that 1970 NEA convention, Pennsylvania enacted a controversial new law giving teachers the right to strike. Walkouts soon became a powerful weapon for the union. (By the 1980s, Pennsylvania would lead the nation in the number of teacher strikes.) The PSEA also was beginning to learn how money greased the wheels of power at the statehouse; in the late 1960s, the union had formed a political action committee, and Kirkpatrick as president often hand-delivered campaign contributions to lawmakers.

In 1971, a few months before his term as PSEA head expired, Kirkpatrick left to become the communications director and education adviser to then-Gov. Milton Shapp--a liberal Democrat. For the next two decades, he continued to work congenially with many mainline education groups in various jobs with the legislature, the state school board, a higher education association, and a group of districts that were suing the state for equity in school funding.

School choice did not emerge as a political issue during those years, but Kirkpatrick continued to study the idea. Vouchers, he came to believe, are not very different than the GI loan that paid for his radio-broadcast training after a three-year stint in the Air Force. They had been tested and proved successful in countries such as Denmark, Australia, and Britain. And American education, Kirkpatrick decided, was hopelessly stalled and needed the jolt of competition.

In 1990, Kirkpatrick published his ruminations in Choice in Schooling: A Case for Tuition Vouchers (Loyola University Press). The book is not a call to arms but a meticulous history chockablock with--what else--facts. But it hit Pennsylvania at about the same time that the pro-voucher forces in the state scored a big upset. In November 1991, the state Senate unexpectedly approved a voucher bill, 28-22. The House blocked the proposal, but the issue was heating up.

A month after the Senate vote, hundreds of PSEA representatives gathered for the annual meeting of the union's House of Delegates. As president of the union, Kirkpatrick had relished his role as chair of these meetings. "I love the House of Delegates," he says now. "It's like playing an orchestra to preside." But at this meeting, union leaders not-so-friendly to Kirkpatrick held the baton, and the delegates were asked to consider a motion to censure, discipline, or expel their former president. Eventually, the delegates merely passed a resolution condemning what it said were "misleading and dishonest" statements suggesting that the union and its members supported vouchers.

The resolution scrupulously avoided rebuking Kirkpatrick personally, but the intent was obvious. "We don't want to give Mr. Kirkpatrick ammunition that the PSEA is beating up on him or not letting him express himself, his rights, or his opinion," one of the delegates said at the time. "But rather, we want to make it clear that when you have a traitor, you label him a traitor."

Recounting his denunciation to the teachers in Nashville, Kirkpatrick shrugs off the personal attack. "I couldn't care less," he claims, "and I think they know that. But they did it because it intimidates other people." It could have been worse, he continues.

After teacher Kevin Irvine touted vouchers in a television commercial aired statewide in Colorado, he received death threats and hate mail in his box at school. Someone even threw a Molotov cocktail in Irvine's yard late one night.

'They can call me names, but nobody can say that I'm anti-public school or anti-union.'

David Kirkpatrick
Former president,
Pennsylvania State Education Association

Kirkpatrick was never physically threatened, but the union's condemnation effectively branded him an outlaw. Soon after, he accepted an offer to become executive director of the state's fledgling choice coalition, REACH, or Road to Educational Achievement Through Choice. His background, he figured, would make him immune to charges that voucher proponents aim to destroy public education and the unions.

Indeed, education and unions are something of a family tradition for him. His sister is a veteran of 35 years of teaching in the public schools in Bennington, Vt., their hometown. And his parents were loyal union members in the 1930s, his father as a knitter and his mother as a seamstress. Kirkpatrick still remembers one strike when he was about 9 years old where he scampered around the factory floor and climbed behind the idled machines.

"They can call me names, but nobody can say that I'm anti-public school or anti-union," he says. "And they can't say that I'm from the far right or that I'm a Christian conservative. I've never been accused of that."

REACH's best chance for getting a voucher law came when Gov. Tom Ridge introduced a plan in early 1995 for statewide choice. REACH campaigned all spring for the legislation, producing television ads, organizing rallies, and lobbying lawmakers. Kirkpatrick directed the operations, but he also put himself in the public spotlight, appearing in debates and public forums in schools across the state.

Naturally, newspapers zeroed in on the man-bites-dog curiosity of Kirkpatrick leading the voucher forces. And while pro-voucher legislators relied on Kirkpatrick's encyclopedic knowledge of choice in behind-the-scenes strategy sessions, they also found him a handy sidekick in public forums. "When you go into a town meeting of 300 residents of your district," says state Rep. Bill Adolph, a Republican and a prime sponsor of the choice bill, "a good number of those people are going to be teachers. Choice is an education issue, they're interested in it, and their union has taken a strong stance in opposition to it. But when I introduce Dave as a former president of the union, it gives him credibility immediately."

Despite REACH's efforts and statewide stumping by Gov. Ridge, a Republican, the plan lost, falling short in the 203-member House by as few as five votes. (Legislative leaders canceled the vote before the tally became official.) Since then, the issue has largely faded from the scene in Pennsylvania.

But the battle raised Kirkpatrick's profile nationally. Last year, he went to Washington state to lend his name to legislation that was something of a hybrid charter schools bill and voucher plan. He talked with legislators, wrote an opinion article for the Seattle Times, and squared off on a radio talk show with an executive from the state's NEA affiliate. "The unions do not want teachers to be independent," he told listeners. "They're always talking about how the teachers should decide how schools should be run. I sang that song for years, and I believe it. . . . But the [unions] really don't."

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