FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Patrick Wolf knew he had arrived in the world of education policy when in 2000 he stepped outside his Washington home, grabbed his newspaper, and found splashed on the front page the report that he worked on.
“It was a pivotal point for me. I wasn’t just some scholar cloistered in my tower trying to think great thoughts. The work I was doing was recognized and was influencing the positions people were taking,” Wolf said. “That was the watershed in my career.”
That career has turned the 1983 Cathedral High School [of St. Cloud, Minnesota] graduate into one of the country’s leading experts in school choice.
He is a professor and the 21st Century Chair in School Choice and Education Reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It’s a role he has had since July 2006, when he joined the country’s first independent department of school reform in a college.
Wolf is also the principal investigator of a school choice program in Washington, DC, studying the country’s only federally funded voucher program. Wolf’s next report to Congress is due in May.
Wolf, a proponent of what he calls targeted voucher programs, has testified before a congressional subcommittee and several state legislatures on the merits of school choice programs and vouchers. He has studies that show vouchers targeted to students with special needs increase parent satisfaction and academic achievement of students who use them.
Those who know him are hardly surprised at Wolf’s professional success. He has long showed an aptitude for learning and government.
His mother, Sally Watson, is a former teacher at Sts. Peter, Paul and Michael School in St. Cloud. She divides her time between St. Cloud and a home in Florida. Wolf has three sisters who live in Minnesota, Michigan, and Tennessee. His father, Richard Wolf, died in 2001.
Wolf said he saw firsthand through his family’s success with education that people who received a good education could realize their dreams.
Wolf left St. Cloud with a diploma from Cathedral for what was then the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He majored in political science and philosophy.
He moved on to graduate school at Harvard from 1988-95, earning a master’s and doctorate with plans to teach public policy and government at a university.
He got two job offers after finishing his education at Harvard–one at Columbia University in New York and one at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He took the job at Columbia and stayed from 1994-98.
Wolf moved to Georgetown in Washington, DC and began to do more work in school choice. He developed a class in educational accountability and reform. In January 1999, he got a call from a team member of Paul Peterson, a leading researcher in school choice at Harvard.
Peterson had a research project on a Washington, DC voucher program. He wanted Wolf’s help.
What the study showed was that black students who were taking advantage of the scholarship were increasing in achievement. Hispanic and white students did not show a lot of improvement, Wolf said.
The report was released at the height of the hot presidential race in 2000 in which school choice had become an issue. The coverage and attention that Wolf received propelled him into the ranks of leading experts on the subject of school choice.
“It was very exciting. It also brought a lot of responsibility,” Wolf said.
“I can only assume as he continues his research he will become even more prominent. He is already the leading figure of his generation,” Peterson said.
Wolf credits much of his inspiration to John Brandl, a 1959 St. John’s University graduate and friend of his mother’s who helped stoke Wolf’s interest in politics and public policy. Brandl represented south Minneapolis in the legislature from 1976-1978 and from 1980-1990.
When Wolf was in seventh grade, Brandl invited him to the Capitol for the last day of the legislative session. Wolf had lunch with the speaker of the House and got a seat on the House floor.
“I think it whetted his appetite for more involvement for government. That became his nature when he went on to college and graduate school–the study of government,” Brandl said.
Wolf served as an intern for Brandl while in college.
Shortly after the internship, he worked at the Minnesota Foundation For Better Hearing and Speech and came up with an idea to put a surcharge on phone lines to pay for a system that would allow deaf people to use the telephone.
Brandl said he doubted the bill would pass but co-sponsored it anyway with Sen. John Marty of Roseville, Rep. Karen Clark of Minneapolis, and Rep. Dave Gruenes of St. Cloud. The bill passed.
“In 1987, most deaf people could not communicate with many other people over telephone lines. It was a very important experience in my life,” Wolf said.
It was also not bad for a 22-year-old.
Working on behalf of that legislation gave Wolf another opportunity. The state agency charged with implementing the plan called and asked for his help.
He wound up as the acting program administrator.
“I accepted because it paid more than delivering pizza,” said Wolf, who had planned to work at a pizza parlor while he prepared for graduate school.
The next year, he went on to Harvard, where he met and became a student of Paul Peterson.
“He’s always been interested in effective public services. How can we make government more effective? He came to Harvard to study that particular question,” Peterson said.
The merits of school choice and vouchers have been debated for decades. Milwaukee started the first voucher program in 1991. Florida has the only statewide program for students with learning disabilities. About 100,000 of the 50 million students in kindergarten through grade 12 in the United States attend school through vouchers. That’s 0.02 percent.
Minnesota has had open enrollment, which allows students to choose whatever public school they want, since 1987. It is also one of a handful of states that provides tax credits for parents who want to supplement their child’s education.
Minnesota also started the first charter school program in 1992. Two million students in the United States are in charter schools.
The public has been reluctant to embrace vouchers because Americans cling to the ideal of neighborhood public schools, they want public education to work and the dream of public education to be fulfilled, Wolf said.
“Some people view school vouchers as surrendering on the dream,” Wolf said. “The public is very resistant to it for that reason, because we are giving up on the school dream.”
In November, voters in Utah rejected a voucher proposal.
Wolf said the research shows that voucher plans can work well for black students.
“A highly disadvantaged student in a crime- and gang-ridden neighborhood, attending schools that aren’t trying very hard for that, that is not a precursor for success,” Wolf said.
After living in the upper Midwest and East all his life, Wolf moved to Arkansas in July 2006.
He said Fayetteville has the feeling of familiarity. It’s a town of 60,000 to 70,000 people, with a major state university in the middle of farm country.
“This kind of felt like St. Cloud. I just felt like I was coming home. I am 800 miles south of home. It feels like St. Cloud,” Wolf said.
Dave Aeikens ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the St. Cloud Times, where an earlier version of this article appeared on December 30. Reprinted with permission.