Growing School Choice in the Community: an exclusive interview with Kevin Teasley

Published June 1, 2002

What’s a voucher proponent doing running a charter school?

Helping parents get a better education for their children, according to Kevin Teasley, president of the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation and holder of the first charter in the nation awarded to a public policy advocacy organization.

That’s the end of all choice-based school reform, he says, with charters, tax credits, and vouchers simply the means.

When the charter was awarded last December, Teasley explained the school would bring together multiple age groups and enhance individual student learning through the use of information technology. Stressing the need to move beyond what he called “the factory school of yesterday,” he described “a new model for the 21st century.”

After graduating from Indiana University with a journalism and political science degree, Teasley went to Washington, DC to do an internship with the National Journalism Center and the Reagan White House. He subsequently moved into public relations, first with The Heritage Foundation and then with the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, where he served as public relations director. When California’s first school voucher initiative, Proposition 174, took off in 1992, Teasley was named vice chairman and executive director of the sponsoring organization, ExCEL.

After a stint as head of the American Education Reform Foundation, Teasley established the GEO Foundation in Indianapolis in 1998. GEO embraces all quality educational options that enable parents to help their children learn and schools to succeed. The organization has been aggressive in its community outreach and educational efforts not only in Indiana but also in several other states. Teasley was recently interviewed by School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What is your perspective on the second California voucher initiative, Proposition 38?

Teasley: I was not involved with that initiative. However, I did meet with Tim Draper early on, and I told him what he was up against and advised against doing an initiative campaign. By that time, most of the potential funders at the national level were against putting an initiative on the ballot again. But I believe it suffered from much the same problem the first one: lack of grassroots support.

Tim had little to no grassroots support or involvement at the beginning of his campaign and little materialized as the campaign progressed. When it was over, the 2000 campaign received a lower percentage of votes than the 1993 campaign, yet spent four times as much—in excess of $20 million—and had a lot more technical support going for it, such as the Internet, email, and other twenty-first century tools.

The 2000 campaign also did not take advantage of the Milwaukee success story, which by then was almost 10 years old. In 1993, we couldn’t use it because the program was too young and very little research had been published. Today, there is a lot of information coming out of Milwaukee showing that choice works for children and for public and private schools.

Clowes: What were the lessons learned from California’s first voucher initiative?

Teasley: We lost the Proposition 174 campaign 70-30. I worked on the campaign because I believe in school choice and I was tired of doing press releases on ideas and not being able to follow through with them. The 1993 campaign offered me the chance to change an idea into reality.

But after losing, I wanted to learn from our campaign’s mistakes. The two biggest concerns I had about the campaign were:

  • First, donors to the campaign did not make contributions based on our having a business plan, rather most gave because they liked the idea of choice;
  • Second, people from poor-performing schools were not involved with the campaign from day one.

To remedy this situation, I set out to talk to most of the donors and convince them of the need for a business plan for school choice. The issue deserves and demands it. To a great degree, this goal has been achieved. Donors now are working more closely with one another and asking tough questions they did not ask before. That should result in a stronger movement and more victories.

As for the lack of grassroots support, I established the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation to tackle this problem as best I could. Most urban families don’t know the various school choice options that many states are experimenting with, most don’t know school choice proponents, but most do know many opponents. This makes it very hard to win campaigns for school choice.

The GEO Foundation set out to change this dynamic in a very unusual manner. Instead of printing books and white papers, we started taking urban leaders on fact-finding trips to Milwaukee to see school choice as a working reality. We focus on taking people who are not already in the school choice camp.

They go with all kinds of questions: Are public schools failing for lack of funding? Are schools discriminating against children? How is transportation handled? Are private schools being selective? Are vouchers simply helping the rich?

The trips help urban leaders discover the truth about school choice, which is that public schools are succeeding, children are not being discriminated against, families are finding ample transportation to support their choices, and vouchers are helping the poor since the law restricts their use to poverty-level families only. If the people are open-minded at all, they usually return from the trip as converts in support of choice.

Once we return, we ask our guests what kind of choice plan works best for them, discussing the various choice options and trying to help them understand all the complexities involved in the legislative battles to make choice a reality in their community.

The important point here is that we seek to empower urban leaders with the knowledge and the tools to make choice a reality for themselves. We do not want to impose choice on anyone. We want community ownership so that choice programs take root in the community and survive long after our involvement.

Clowes: What is involved in a typical trip to Milwaukee?

Teasley: The trip is the end result of lots of upfront work to find the right people to go in the first place. We need to find the community movers and shakers and convince them the trip is worthy of their time. We also need to know the invited guests are able to make a difference if they come back supportive of school choice.

In Milwaukee, we visit public, private, voucher, charter, and alternative schools. We visit with the mayor, who is a Democrat, with Milwaukee school board members, with parents and students, and with teachers and principals. We also visit with the teacher union. Providing all of these perspectives to our guests helps them develop an informed opinion. They see choice really does work and that it’s supported by lots of people from all over the political map, not just conservatives.

The trips have gained us a great deal of respect and trust within the communities with which we work. When was the last time the teacher union sponsored a trip for leaders to see the reality of school choice in Milwaukee—and arranged for both sides to be presented? Never. We believe our position is so strong that it is hard for anyone to agree with the opposition once they see the reality of school choice.

Clowes: What caused you to shift focus?

Teasley: My focus was originally on vouchers. Today, I think that view is a bit narrow and limits our ability to build strong coalitions. What we really want to do is empower the powerless. Those with money already have choices. Those without money don’t.

At GEO, we support all methods of choice. We support charters, vouchers, tax credits, and tax deductions as well as contract, partnership, magnet, private, parochial, and public schools. The real adjective we are interested in seeing in front of the word school is “quality.” By being ecumenical in our approach, we stand a better chance of making allies and creating opportunities to gain more converts. Once someone agrees to some form of choice, it isn’t too long before they understand the need for other choices, too.

Rightly or wrongly, voucher supporters are viewed as anti-public school. I know that is not true of most voucher supporters, but it is a common perception. I prefer to say we’re in favor of choices, which includes choosing public schools in addition to private and parochial schools.

Unfortunately, our rhetoric does not always convey this notion. Often times, I hear school choice supporters use phrases such as “private school vouchers,” “private school tax credits,” and “tuition tax credits.” These phrases convey to the public the idea that we want to get funding to private schools and take it away from public schools. That doesn’t help us. We need to use language that includes public schools.

For example, school choice in Milwaukee means parents can choose public schools for their children, too. We need to clarify that the money follows the child and that vouchers can be used at public schools, too. Also, we shouldn’t say that money flows from public schools because it is not the public schools’ money in the first place. The money should follow the child to whatever school is most appropriate: public, private, parochial, charter, magnet, alternative, contract or otherwise.

Clowes: Why start a charter school?

Teasley: We are starting a charter school for many reasons.

First, during our grassroots efforts, we found many families crying out for more choices. We talk about the need for more choices, but we have the ability to create a quality choice ourselves. We are in the fortunate position of having a strong charter law and all the ingredients needed to open a strong school.

Second, we want to impact public schools statewide by showing what can be done, not talking about it.

Third, we want to build meaningful relationships with families and community leaders. Our school has already helped us reach more families in a more meaningful way than ever before. We also are in regular conversations with community and elected officials like never before. We are not a “one-note Charlie.”

We have gained a lot of respect in the community as a result of putting our reputation on the line and starting a school. It is one thing to talk about choice and the need for change; it is quite another to actually start a choice school. It is a big risk on our part.

I encourage other school choice organizations to consider starting their own school. Most of these organizations already have the necessary infrastructure to succeed, beginning with a strong board, strong financial backing, and business savvy. In addition, most of these organizations know what works educationally. It can be done. Once you start your school, it will provide a base of operations from which you can work for years to come.

Clowes: What recommendations do you have for organizing for school choice?

Teasley: When organizing for school choice, I recommend starting from the grassroots and working your way up, not the other way around. We started from the top in California and we failed miserably. We need to listen to the people in the failing schools and—in particular—be open to all choice ideas.

For example, Steve Schuck, an ardent voucher supporter in Colorado, started a scholarship program recently. Instead of making it a “private school scholarship” program, he made it a “parents challenge” program, where parents could keep their children in public schools and use the scholarship funds to get books, computers, and tutors. Of course, he allows parents to use the scholarships at private schools as well, but that is the parents’ decision.

As a result, Steve has received a great deal of public support for his program and he has changed the dynamic in Colorado in regards to school choice. People no longer look at Steve as a “voucher” guy, but rather a man who wants to help poor families educate their children. That is a big difference and it is helping us win converts in Colorado.

Milwaukee started at the grassroots. Most people look at 1990 as the first year of the Milwaukee school choice battle, but it started about 20 years before with battles over busing and integration, the creation of an all-black school district, and vouchers. It wasn’t until 1990 that the grassroots proponents gained enough support to finally win. But when they won, it was a victory for grassroots supporters and they are there today to defend and implement the program to their liking.

Clowes: What do you regard as the biggest obstacle to the progress of school choice?

Teasley: In the battle for school choice, perception and patience are just about everything. If people think you are out to destroy public schools, they won’t support you. If they don’t think you are in it for the long haul, they won’t support you, either.

Perception is important to the school choice movement because you can’t win if everyone thinks you are out to destroy public schools. We’re not. We’re out to empower parents with more choices—choices that include public schools.

Patience is important because the opposition is bigger, better funded, and better organized than we are … and will do everything it can to discredit school choice proponents. Look across the street from every state capitol and you will see the teacher union building without exception. That is by design. They want to keep an eye on every move legislators make. They understand this is a 365 days-a-year job. We need to be just as vigilant.

I’m encouraging donors and other leaders to invest in supporting organizations that will help us in the long haul in communities where we want to have an impact.

It’s important to invest in creating institutional foundations for school choice. Those institutions need to focus 100 percent on parent empowerment issues in regard to K-12 education so that efforts are not diluted in the pursuit of other agendas. This has been our practice at GEO Foundation in Indiana and Colorado where we have offices. We are laying the groundwork to have a long-term impact on K-12 parent empowerment issues.

For more information …

An account of one fact-finding trip to Milwaukee is found in “Milwaukee Choice Proves Attractive,” School Reform News, July 2000.

A “virtual” fact-finding tour of Milwaukee is available at the Web site of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation at The Foundation is located at 1800 North Meridian Street #506, Indianapolis, IN 46202, phone 317/283-4711.

Mikel Holt’s book about the 30-year battle for school choice in Milwaukee, Not Yet “Free at Last,” is available from at