Published Online: May 7, 1997

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Today, Kirkpatrick has resigned from REACH and turned full-time to writing and research. Working in a spare bedroom in the Harrisburg house that he shares with his wife and two cats, he contributes to a handful of conservative education newsletters across the country. His second book will roll off the presses soon, and he's wrapping up a report on alternative teacher groups like those meeting in Nashville.

"Dave has a capacious grasp on all types of education issues," says Quentin Quade, director of the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, whose monthly newsletter includes a column by Kirkpatrick. "It's rare that I talk to him that I don't come away with the impression that he's an expert on the subject."

PSEA officials, however, see Kirkpatrick as more of a gadfly than a policy expert. "Although he is a retired member of the PSEA and a former president," says union spokesman Wythe Keever, "he hasn't been in the classroom since at least 1971. He's basing a lot of what he says about education on what he saw in the '60s. He has his right to his opinion, and we're not attempting to censor him in any way, but his is a distinctly minority opinion among our members."

Although critics may dismiss Kirkpatrick and Lieberman as dinosaurs, that's a harder label to pin on some of the other public school educators banging the drum for choice in the 1990s. When he first lobbied for vouchers in 1990, Milwaukee's Howard Fuller was in his late 40s. Once active in the Black Power movement, he saw choice as an extension of his civil rights activism. He largely muted his support when he was named the city's school superintendent in 1991, but he returned to campaigning for choice after resigning in 1995.

Like Fuller, the Edison Project's Stephen Tracy was drawn to vouchers and privatization as instruments to improve education for disadvantaged students. As an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1960s, he won a Ford Foundation fellowship to work in the Philadelphia schools and became convinced that schools could lift kids from poverty. But nearly 25 years later, even after the fury of education reforms in the 1980s, he decided that public schools as they exist cannot be an engine of equity.

Others who became educators in the '60s share his disappointment with the traditional system, he says. "After working in the field for 15 or 20 years," he explains, "it began to dawn on us that public schools are not delivering on the promise that attracted us to the profession in the first place. We asked: 'Is the institution really doing what I thought we were here for?' The answer for me by 1993 was no.

"It's important that people with a commitment to public education work on issues involving charter schools, choice, and private investment in schools. If all of us who say we believe in public education refuse to discuss these things, you leave the field to others who may not be as committed to equal opportunity as we are."

Many teachers support vouchers, Kirkpatrick contends, they're just afraid to say so.

Educators like Fuller and Tracy are among a number of new faces that have popped up in the leadership ranks of choice campaigns in the 1990s. After the 1970s and 1980s saw expansive choice initiatives repeatedly thumped at the polls and in statehouses, voucher legislation recently has been narrowly crafted--and widely promoted--as a salve for the inner cities. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the only states where lawmakers have approved vouchers, the programs target two troubled inner-city school districts: Milwaukee and Cleveland. ("Judge Overturns Expanded Wis. Voucher Plan," Jan. 22, 1997, and "Ohio Court Clears Cleveland's Voucher Pilot," Aug. 7, 1996.)

And while Republicans, business executives, and leaders of the Roman Catholic church still head the choice coalitions in both those states, they have been joined by a smattering of blacks, Democrats, and educators.

Milwaukee's Polly Williams was the first notable black Democrat to back vouchers. A state legislator, she became a darling of conservatives in 1990 when she led the drive to pass the city's original voucher pilot and then fought the NAACP's lawsuit challenging the program. Today, the list of atypical advocates includes such leaders as Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a white Democrat; Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, a black Democrat; and most recently, Floyd H. Flake, a Democratic U.S. representative from New York City who this spring became the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to sponsor choice legislation.

Voucher proponents say their new diversity reflects a groundswell of voucher support among urban Democrats and inner-city minorities. Some advocates even draw comparisons between the choice movement and the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Milwaukee's battle for choice "began in the church basements and meeting halls of the Near North Side," writes choice booster Daniel McGroarty in his 1996 book Break These Chains (Prima Publishing). "From the start, the Milwaukee proponents' language was appropriated from the civil rights movement. Their rhetoric was more redolent of Martin Luther King than the free-market pronouncements favored by conservative proponents."

Voucher critics dismiss such talk as political posturing. Choice campaigns, they contend, assemble multiracial advisory boards and stage photo opportunities that prominently feature members of minority groups to disguise a conservative idea as a derivative of the Rainbow Coalition. Blacks in Milwaukee largely opposed the 1995 expansion of the city's voucher program to include religious schools, argues Walter Farrell, a professor of education policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. White conservatives, he says, are using smoke and mirrors to make it look otherwise. "This has all been manufactured," Farrell contends. "The impetus and organization for the choice coalition has come from the white community. They simply have found a group of individuals of color who advocate their position."

In Nashville, at the meeting of alternative teacher groups, Kirkpatrick knows his arguments for choice may not win new converts. Many teachers support vouchers, he contends, they're just afraid to say so.

His remarks today have touched on many issues other than choice. The NEA's membership growth, the cost per classroom of education in America, the number of independent teacher associations in Indiana--the facts fly until his listeners are buried in footnotes. At one point, though, he raises an argument for choice that hits home with the teachers. It's hypocritical, he suggests, for them to demand greater freedoms to teach but at the same time refuse parents the right to choose a school for their children. "We cannot talk about choice for ourselves and deny choice to everybody else," he scolds them lightly. "You really can't."

When Kirkpatrick wraps up his remarks, his listeners applaud, but no one gives him a standing ovation. Those days are over. After the conference, he'll return to Pennsylvania, his wife, his cats, and his writing. He no longer has the ear of thousands of teachers, but he still has a stacked arsenal of facts at the ready. And the facts, he reasons, are on his side.

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