Choice Plan’s Architect Relishes Her Role As State Legislature’s ‘Lone Independent’

By Lynn Olson — September 12, 1990 4 min read

Milwaukee--Since passage of the nation’s first private-school choice bill in March, Representative Polly Williams of Wisconsin has been lionized in The Wall Street Journal, praised by President Bush, and courted by conservative think tanks.

It’s not the reaction you would expect to a black former welfare mother who served as state chairman of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.

“I think it’s great,” she snaps. “Conservatives can be right sometimes, too.”

“If anything,” the lawmaker adds, “they’re jumping on my bandwagon.”

Ms. Williams pulled her own children out of the Milwaukee public schools 22 years ago and sent them to one of the eight private schools now participating in the city’s choice program. “I was exercising choice long before they were,” she says.

After 10 years in the legislature, the veteran lawmaker has developed a reputation for taking “unpopular” stands that have frequently left her fighting uphill against her Democratic colleagues.

“Representative Williams has been a very strong, honest, and effective advocate for the dispossessed and the disenfranchised of her district, which is overwhelmingly black,” says Walter C. Farrell Jr., senior policy adviser for education to Senator Gary George of Wisconsin. “Many of her colleagues will think that she’s too aggressive,” he adds, “but she was sent to represent a constituency, and I think in the collective judgment of the black community, she has done it admirably.”

One of only five black lawmakers in the 132-member Wisconsin legislature, and a woman to boot, the compact dynamo refers to herself as a “double minority.” A local columnist describes her as the state’s “lone independent.”

“A lot of the colleagues on my side of the aisle don’t like my politics because I’m not a team player,” Ms. Williams says. “I don’t allow anyone else to set my agenda.”

In 1987, Ms. Williams attempted to pass an amendment to the state budget that would have required the Milwaukee public schools to get written permission from parents be fore they could bus their children away from neighborhood schools.

That same year, she outraged members of the education establishment when she tried and failed to carve out a separate, all-black school district in Milwaukee.

The idea, she said, was to provide additional resources and authority for 22 predominantly black schools. But opponents charged that the proposal would encourage segregation.

This year, Ms. Williams plans to introduce a bill to require all employees of the Milwaukee schools to enroll their children in the city school system. “You’re going to hear the biggest noise yet,” she predicts.

“Polly is a fighter,” says Howard L. Fuller, director of the department of health and human services for Milwaukee County and a prominent black leader. “Whether you like Polly or not, she takes a stand for those things she believes in, and she always has.”

But what drives her, Ms. Williams maintains, are her 47,500 constituents from Milwaukee’s north side.

“I started out like one of these parents,” she says of the low-income mothers and fathers who have enrolled their children in Milwaukee’s choice program.

After her divorce, Ms. Williams spent 18 years as a single parent, raising four children. In 1969, she became a government employee, working for federal anti-poverty programs.

A former cashier, clerk, keypunch operator, and typist, she earned her degree from the University of Wisconsin while supporting her family.

“I know what it’s like to have food stamps,” she adds, “and to get that check every month.”

According to the legislator, the real enemies of poor people these days are not right-wing Republicans but well-meaning liberals who still want to tell black people what to do.

“There was a time and a place for their participation,” she argues, “but here we are in the 90s ... and they still see us as little children who are not able to think and take (charge of our lives.”

To Ms. Williams, the most egregious example of the white community’s misguided efforts is Milwaukee’s current school-desegregation plan. In a half-hour tour of her district, she drives by neighborhood and magnet schools, heatedly pointing out the differences in resources between them. Most of the local black children cannot attend the magnet schools across the street from their homes, she complains.

“We have all our children being bused all over west hell,” she says, her voice rising. “You’re putting the emphasis on transportation and race, when you need to be talking about education.”

A map she carries in her pocketbook emphasizes her point. It shows the busing patterns for three elementary schools and looks like a spider’s web blown through a fan.

“I’m very critical and very bitter about this public school system,” Ms. Williams acknowledges. “It’s very in sensitive, and it doesn’t care.”

To the children at the eight participating private schools, many of whom Ms. Williams visited in class last week, she has a simpler message:

“Y’all are in the history books.You are the students who are going to be setting the tone for the nation educationally. Everybody in this school has now been appointed ambassador of education.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as Choice Plan’s Architect Relishes Her Role As State Legislature’s ‘Lone Independent’