Published Online: May 7, 1997



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Nashville, Tenn.

David Kirkpatrick is fond of facts. Dates, statistics, reports, studies--he constantly jots down the details and mentally files them away, ready for instant recall. It's a handy habit, but his eagerness to impart this data can get the best of him. Frequently in conversation, he darts from subject to subject, aborting sentences in mid-thought so that he can rush another nugget of information to the front line of his argument for school choice.

No matter. The debate over whether public monies should go to private schools has raged for years. What's more important is who Kirkpatrick is--or was. A quarter of a century ago, he headed one of the most powerful teacher groups in the country, the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Like other National Education Association affiliates at the time, the PSEA was shedding its image as a milquetoast association and evolving into a powerhouse union. And as the group gained clout, so did Kirkpatrick. More than once, he spoke before the thousands of delegates at the NEA's annual convention and felt the warm embrace of his fellow teachers' thunderous applause.

But that was a long time ago. Before he wrote a book advocating school choice. Before union leaders denounced him as a traitor. And before he led a fight for vouchers in Pennsylvania that turned into a nasty, name-calling brawl.

Now, at 68, Kirkpatrick is the enemy of the union he once led. To many of his former colleagues, he is like Darth Vader, a fallen angel gone to the Dark Side. That's because in the fantastically fuzzy world of education policy, school choice has always been one of the few issues that divide people cleanly. Opponents--often Democrats, the teachers' unions, and other liberal groups--have argued that vouchers will destroy public education. Supporters--usually business leaders, free-market Republicans, and the Catholic

Church--have argued the opposite. And there was no fudging. You were either one of "us" or one of "them."

Recently, though, these crisp lines have blurred as choice has won over some new believers. In the '90s, several leaders of the education establishment have defected to the voucher camp. And because these turncoats have proven records of building up the public system, not tearing it down, they make the Dark Side look a little less evil. Indeed, there are now so many unlikely champions of choice that Kirkpatrick looks like a man ahead of the times.

"I don't get to speak to groups of educators much these days," Kirkpatrick is saying to a teachers' conference in Nashville, Tenn. His "radical" views, he explains, don't make him popular on the education lecture circuit.

But the welcome from these 35 or so educators on this March day has been warm. They are representatives of alternative teacher groups, organizations that serve teachers who want nothing to do with the major teachers' unions. Meeting in a narrow, windowless basement room of a downtown hotel, they trash the unions as bureaucratic leviathans and talk as though they are freedom fighters battling a Communist regime.

"Some of you are for choice," Kirkpatrick tells them, "and some of you are against it. And I'm not trying to convince anybody either way." But soon, he's doing exactly that. "I think it's the best thing that'll ever happen to us," he explains. "We are not going to get the government off our backs until we're free to run the schools the way we want to--not the way the superintendent wants, not the way the school board wants."

In recent years, a number of top-flight public school administrators have left their posts and now work as missionaries for choice, privatization, or other unorthodox ideas.

With a dark suit stretched over his squat frame, Kirkpatrick looks like the stereotypical union boss. In his talk, he occasionally mentions Myron Lieberman, another longtime labor organizer turned union critic. Once a candidate to head the American Federation of Teachers, Lieberman championed collective bargaining for more than 20 years. Then, in the early 1980s, he recanted his union activism and turned to pummeling public schools and the unions in his prolific writings. Now, he is a minor celebrity among choice backers, a Dr. Frankenstein horrified by his own creation.

Lieberman is arguably the education establishment's most famous defector. But in recent years, a number of top-flight public school administrators have left their posts and now work as missionaries for choice, privatization, or other unorthodox ideas. In the early 1990s, Chris Whittle's Edison Project snatched up three school chiefs to drum up clients and market the for-profit company's ideas: Stephen Tracy, then a highly regarded district superintendent in Connecticut; Bill Kirby, a former commissioner of education in Texas; and Deborah McGriff, the superintendent of the Detroit schools. And in 1995, Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller quit and helped lobby for the successful expansion of the city's voucher program to include religious schools. (That expansion is now tied up in the courts.)

The list of heroes turned heretics includes standout teachers, as well. Tracey Bailey, the 1993 National Teacher of the Year, now leads the Florida education department's aggressive push for charter schools and vouchers. Two other former state teachers of the year--John Gatto of New York and Kevin Irvine of Colorado--also tout vouchers.

Kirkpatrick is no Johnny-come-lately to school choice. Indeed, he made one of his first public stands on vouchers in a veritable hornet's nest of opposition: the NEA convention of 1970 at the San Francisco Civic Center. Those were heady days for the 41-year-old high school teacher from Easton, Penn. His rise through the PSEA ranks had been lightning quick; in May 1965, only six months after paying his first membership dues, he had won election as the Easton affiliate's president. (Thanks to the name recognition he enjoyed as a part-time radio newsman and talk-show host, Kirkpatrick had not even bothered to campaign for the job.)

Just five years later, he arrived in San Francisco as president of the entire Pennsylvania union. The group boasted 88,000 members at the time, the most of any NEA affiliate. Despite the muscle such numbers gave the PSEA, Kirkpatrick opposed a budget resolution that favored the bigger affiliates. Standing in the balcony of the civic center, with the cheers of the delegates below ringing in his ears, he proclaimed, "The application of power without justice is tyranny."

Later in the convention, though, Kirkpatrick shocked some of his fellow teachers during a voice vote on a resolution condemning vouchers. Union staff members had been circulating fact sheets about a federal voucher proposal that Kirkpatrick believed misrepresented the plan for low-income families as a scheme for the wealthy. The resolution passed, but he and some other members of the Pennsylvania delegation made sure the vote wasn't unanimous. "We yelled no," Kirkpatrick remembers. "I was sitting right at the railing, and people looked up, just startled. They couldn't believe it."

Back home, Kirkpatrick explained his opposition in an education-journal article. The union, he wrote, was taking an "ostrich-like view" of criticisms of education that had been mounting since Sputnik. "We should be willing to take part in any educational experiments and be quick to accept those that show value. ... Let us not be among those who will delay and bungle. Let us be those who will lead and improve."

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