Teaching Profession


By Drew Lindsay — May 07, 1997 18 min read

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.”

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.”

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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A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 1997 edition of Education Week


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