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Q&A With Howard Fuller on 'The Mother of School Choice,' Annette Polly Williams

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The school choice pioneer often credited with creating one of the nation's first school voucher programs in Milwaukee, Annette Polly Williams, died Nov. 9. She was 77 years old.

Ms. Williams, the longest serving woman in the Wisconsin state legislature, represented a district with one of the highest percentages of African Americans in the state, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. School vouchers allow qualifying students to use public money to attend a private school.

Howard Fuller, a prominent school choice advocate and the superintendent in Milwaukee during the city's early days of the voucher program, worked closely with Williams on her education reform efforts. The two remained friends until Williams' death.

I spoke with Fuller today about Williams and wanted to share it here. The interview is edited for clarity and length.

How did you know her?

I've known Polly since she was 16 years old, we went to high school together.

I was a freshman in high school and she was a senior, I would always remind her of that because she would always act like we were the same age (laughs).

Why did she promote education and vouchers—what was her motivation?

You have to understand that Polly was deeply committed to the black community in the city of Milwaukee. The history of the struggle is pretty deep. Many people felt that integration had solved the problem of educating poor black kids, but it didn't. We had been engaged for some time to make sure that lower income black kids were educated in the city. We went to the district with all kinds of ideas that they could not or would not implement.

So the logical progression was to say 'well then, give us a way out of here.'

What did she mean to school choice? What was her contribution?

I do not think there would be a modern day parent choice movement without Polly Williams. When Polly took the stand that she took in 1988, as hard as the discussion was about parent choice today, in '88 being a black Democrat saying 'I support vouchers,' that was an unbelievably brave stand.

In my view, she meant everything to the movement. She took the stand that needed to be taken at that moment in history. It's not to say that other people didn't play a role, but it was Polly's leadership and courage that was the key catalyst for this to happen.

Vouchers opened up the doors for other [school choice] programs. And quite frankly, a number of people started to support charters in order to not support vouchers. So in my view, not only was Polly critical to the voucher movement, she was in a lot of ways helpful to the charter school movement.

To me one of the great tragedies, but it's the way the world works, is that so few young ed. reformers know anything about Polly Williams. Yet a lot of things would not be happening today if it were not for her courage and commitment.

Polly left office in 2010. What did she think about the expansion of Milwaukee's voucher program's and what it had become? Did you guys ever discuss it?

All the time. Polly had concerns and actually opposed some of the expansion ideas of the program. In all honesty, Polly in her later years did express her disagreement with the direction of the program.

But what people need to be absolutely clear about, is that Polly never changed her mind about the importance of low-income and working class parents having choice. But neither Polly nor I have ever supported universal vouchers.

In 2009, when there was an effort to cripple the program or eliminate the program, Polly Williams stood with other black Democrats and a couple white Democrat supporters to protect the program. When people say she was disaffected, I say in 2009, Polly supported the efforts that saved the program.

Is there anything else you want to share?

When I spoke at Polly's funeral, the point I tried to make was that Polly was a warrior, but she was also a rebel (laughs). But Polly was just deeply committed to our community and our children and I'll always love her for that.

Howard Fuller is the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is also the founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities and served as the superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995.

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