Although many consider support from politicians to be key to the success of an education reform proposal, a prominent school choice advocate warns that politicians are only one element of a successful reform campaign. In addition to political support, support from the grassroots and from donors also are required, says Kevin Teasley, president of the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF).
Teasley should know. He and his organization have been active in many recent school choice efforts across the country, including last year’s successful passage of school choice measures in Arizona and Minnesota. AERF has also been involved in keeping the Washington, DC, voucher legislation alive for eventual presentation to President Clinton.
“Pushing educational reform through the legislature requires political leadership,” explains Teasley, “but politicians are unwilling to lead when they look behind and see that no one is following them.”
Politicians need assurance that there is grassroots support for their leadership, and grassroots supporters need to know when there is school reform legislation for them to support. AERF exists, says Teasley, to provide the donor support necessary to get information out and “help others win their battles.”
“Many people support school choice,” says Teasley, “but fighting our battles alone prevents us from realizing our full potential.” AERF’s strategy is to focus resources on specific targeted states where grassroots support and political leadership already exist and where donor support is the missing component standing in the way of a positive result.
Last year in Minnesota, for example, Governor Arne Carlson’s tuition tax credit plan was backed not only by his own firm resolve but also by the united support of the state’s conservative grassroots groups. With donor support from AERF, Minnesotans for School Choice was able to demonstrate such strong public support for the governor’s plan that legislators from both sides of the aisle voted in favor of the final choice bill.
AERF grew out of an informal “kitchen cabinet for school choice” that formed after the defeat of California’s Proposition 174 in 1993. Conventional wisdom held that the choice effort was outspent. Teasley disagrees, arguing “We weren’t outspent–we just didn’t tap the resources.”
To ensure that future efforts were more focused, Teasley worked with Golden Rule Insurance Company’s J. Patrick Rooney to put together a school choice coalition. That coalition eventually became the Indianapolis-based American Education Reform Foundation, which Teasley was asked to lead in November 1996.
AERF is currently working with congressional leadership to allow children to attend better schools, not just in the District of Columbia but nationwide. Their aim is to make it difficult for President Clinton to veto the voucher bill for Washington, DC, which has already passed the U.S. Senate and should win easy passage in the House.
As Speaker Newt Gingrich asks, “Why should President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore be the only people living in public housing to have school choice?”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].