Troy Williamson–a father of three, former teacher, and dedicated advocate of education reform–thinks of his job as director of Educate New Mexico as providing irrefutable proof that positive parental involvement is the most important element in a child’s education career.
“Without question the greatest influence on my life has been my parents–my sister, my brother, and I were always their top priority, that was never in question,” he said from his office in Albuquerque. “I want to do the same for my children. ALL children should be so lucky. The thing that keeps me going is that Educate New Mexico is able to help a few parents who have the same passion for their children.”
He believes giving parents more say over the education of their children is the way to increase parental involvement, and the most effective way to do that is via school choice. He disagrees with choice opponents that low-income parents are the least involved in the education of their children. He contends they would be much more involved if they were given the opportunity to participate in making meaningful decisions about their child’s education. All too often, though, he hears school officials question the ability of low-income families to make sensible choices–asking, for example, “How do parents know what’s good?”
The purpose of Educate New Mexico is two-fold: The first and most important goal is to assist a small number of parents with private donation-funded scholarships. The second goal is to serve as a demonstration school choice program that clearly shows the benefits of school choice to individual children and their parents.
“Our long-term goal is to be instrumental in helping enact school choice legislation in the state of New Mexico,” said Williamson.
Although Educate New Mexico has been funding private K-12 scholarships for four years now, the second goal is proving more elusive and school choice legislation has yet to pass in New Mexico. The public schools in New Mexico are among the most culturally and socioeconomically stratified in the nation, with particularly poor outcomes for minority children. For example, Hispanic students perform well below their white counterparts on standardized tests, and their graduation rates follow suit.
During the 2003-04 school year, Educate New Mexico will provide 410 students with more than $450,000 in tuition assistance, with scholarship recipients attending nearly 100 different private and parochial schools across the state. The scholarships are valued at $1,000 a year for grades K-6 and $1,500 a year for grades 7-12. All scholarship funds are raised from private sources.
Williamson’s own school choice odyssey began as a public school teacher in Colorado. During his 11 years in the public school system, his views increasingly diverged from those of the teacher union as he came to see that “vouchers and school choice just made good sense.”
“I was frustrated with the stagnation of the public school system; the union’s protection of really poor teachers; the practice of tenure; and new ‘reforms’ each year that were largely ignored by Christmas time,” said Williamson. “All of this can be very discouraging, no matter how idealistic you are in the beginning.”
During his master’s studies in Arkansas, Williamson became aware of CEO America’s efforts to provide private funding for vouchers and school choice in the form of scholarships for low-income families. He was immediately attracted to their mission and went to work for them.
“That was about six years ago,” he said, “and I’ve been in the school choice business ever since.”
Laura J. Swartley is former communications director for the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana.