Beautiful tribute to Polly Williams by DFER’s Joe Williams
Here's a beautiful tribute to Polly Williams by DFER's Joe Williams, who, early in his career, covered the ed/voucher wars in Milwaukee for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
REMEMBERING POLLY - We mourned the death Sunday night of Annette "Polly" Williams, a long-time State Representative from the north side of Milwaukee. She has been called the "mother of school choice," but even that tag doesn't do her justice. A black Democrat, Polly was really the first prominent elected Democrat in the nation in the post-deseg era to stand up and call BS on a public school system that wasn't working for black children.
If you remember, many establishment black leaders in the 1970's and early 1980's were publicly aligned with court-ordered desegregation efforts in school systems like Milwaukee. They had supported (and in many cases brought) the original deseg lawsuits and were essentially "bought in" to the resulting settlements and busing plans because they signed on to the agreements. To be critical of the early results of these plans would be very complicated and potentially self-defeating.
The really amazing thing about Polly was that she didn't care about all that. She and Howard Fuller, before he became Milwaukee Superintendent in the early 1990's, fought some rather lonely battles with the NAACP and other groups, arguing passionately that the very busing schemes meant to enable black children to get a better education in Milwaukee had had the opposite effect. Black students, they argued, were being ripped from their neighborhoods to satisfy arbitrary "racial balance" quotas. The system had become so focused on implementing the complicated and convoluted busing plan there was little energy (or money) left to actually educate those same kids. Black children were not getting a better education for it, they argued, and their families had lost power over what was happening to their kids.
Polly and Howard led a move to basically secede the north side of Milwaukee from the Milwaukee Public Schools, proposing to create what would have been an all-black school district. The backlash from the school establishment (and teacher unions) and liberals to try to stop them created the conditions which eventually led to the launch of Milwaukee's private school voucher program. (They ended up losing on the district secession plan, but winning later on the next best alternative for them: school choice.)
As an elected Democrat at the time, Polly was the first to rip up the party's traditional playbook and make a very public argument that the kids she represented were being harmed by the very school system that the Democratic Party was seemingly willing to defend to its death.
Yes, Polly was a pain in the neck to work with at times (show me a strong leader who isn't) but she was remarkably consistent in her thinking on education reform and empowering parents for more than 30 years. She represented the anger that many black families felt because of the way they were treated by the system. She wasn't big on orgs she considered "white" like TFA and the big charter networks, but without her paving the way in the early years it is hard to imagine how today's education reform movement would have ever formed at all. (With DFER, as Katy Venskus can tell you, she was supportive but suspicious...)
She was so consistent in her thinking that she eventually drove the school choice lobby in Wisconsin nuts when publicly opposed legislation to expand the voucher program beyond just low-income families. She made it clear to anyone who listened that she didn't support school choice because she believed in competition. She supported school choice because the kids in her community were getting screwed and she wanted payback.
Still, she - more than anyone I can think of - really let the ed reform genie out of the bottle.
Think of it this way: It was Polly's support for vouchers (she considered them reparations) in the late 1980's which enabled a Republican Governor (Tommy Thompson) to cut a deal with her in 1989 to create Milwaukee's private school choice program. The groundbreaking law brought Polly considerable national attention. (If I remember correctly, the NY Times included Polly with the creators of Sesame Street and other visionaries in their short list of the top education trailblazers of the last century.)
The timing was important. At the same time all of this was happening, neighboring Minnesota was passing the nation's first charter law.
For many Dem strategists at the time, the prevailing theory was that the best way to stop Dems like Polly from partnering with Republican Governors to spread private school choice more broadly was to aggressively support the budding charter school movement as a kinder, gentler alternative. This then created the conditions for Governors like Bill Clinton and the influential Democratic Leadership Council to emphatically embrace charters as a reform option and, just as important, to begin admitting out loud that there was a problem in schools. (For most of the 1990's, as Charlie Barone and Michael Dannenberg will tell you, the Dems were in near complete denial about the state of public education.) But the door had been opened.
Polly cracked open the door in a way that scared the hell out of the establishment, and the establishment reacted. President Clinton went on to create federal start-up grants for charters and the charter movement took off... (Also, the national teacher unions at the time make the miscalculated decision to double-down on the 'there is nothing wrong and even if there is, just give us more money and it will be groovy' strategy which ended up alienating key liberal leaders like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller on accountability issues.)
Obviously there is some oversimplification here on my part, but you get the idea. It's sort of like the scene in It's A Wonderful Life (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PlYcT6DmJY) when you get to see what the world would have been like had George Bailey not been there to make a difference. That's how important Polly's role was back then.
When I was still a journalist, Polly was a trusted source for me. (She and her aide, Larry Harwell, used to share maps, stats, memos, and other documents to refute the argument coming from public school leaders that everything was just peachy in the Milwaukee Public Schools.) She - like Howard - challenged my own liberal, knee-jerk tendencies and kept me in close touch with the anger real families felt about how the system wasn't working for their kids.
When I made the decision to send my son to an integrated arts magnet school (she called it "Yuppie Academy,") she reminded me of all the black kids who had been bused out of that inner city neighborhood so that the children of white liberals like me could attend a great public school and brag about what great supporters of public education we were. She wasn't wrong in her assessment.
Polly was my neighbor and also my friend. She was crazy (like a fox) and that was partly why I loved her.
When you think about how much work DFER has had to do even in the last eight years to get today's Democrats to admit there is even a problem which needs solving in education, you can get a sense for how important Polly's lonely elected voice was back in the 1980's. It was pretty much blasphemy back then.
I was chatting about Polly the other day with Howard Fuller and he was lamenting the fact that so many young people in the education reform movement had no idea of who she was or what her impact had been. He's right. Consider this my feeble attempt to shine a tiny ray of light on some of it.