Thursday, December 22, 2011

On the Cusp of a New Tide, a Look Back at 2011's School Choice Champions

Did you know that the American Federation for Children names a “Champion for School Choice” in each of our Turning the Tide monthly newsletters?

It's true! It's an award we give to someone who is committed to putting kids first, to fighting for educational options, and never letting the status quo be good enough for families. Over the past year, we've identified a bipartisan (and even some non-political) crop of some of the most staunch school choice supporters across the country. They come from everywhere, and have worked in all parts of state and federal government -- or, in one case, on the hardwood!

So, exactly who was it who received the title this year?

Eleven leaders from across the nation and from all walks of life were recognized for their commitment to providing educational options to low-income children.  From Indiana to Pennsylvania -- and even our nation’s capital -- we once again applaud these leaders for putting kids first. You can read each one of our past newsletters, from both 2010 and 2011, by clicking here, and you can check out this year's winners below.

Governor Mitch Daniels signed legislation that established the broadest voucher program in the nation for low- and middle-income families helping almost 4,000 students attend the school of their parents’ choice.  The Indiana Governor faced a tough year when some lawmakers left the state to boycott the legislative process; but the Governor did not give up on kids.  In the name of compromise, Governor Daniels tabled some controversial bills—but not House Bill 1003, which established the Choice Scholarship Program.  Why was Governor Daniels named a Champion of School Choice?

For his outstanding support of educational opportunity, his willingness to work with both sides to find common ground, and—most importantly—his unwavering commitment to putting kids first.

State Senator Anthony H. Williams has made clear in the opening days of 2011 that school choice would play a prominent role in the Pennsylvania legislative session.  Williams has fought for expanding educational options for over a decade and cosponsored legislation that create a sweeping school voucher program in the Keystone State.  While the bill did not become law this legislative session, Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony H. Williams was named a Champion of School Choice for his ability to see past partisan politics, his tireless commitment to the school choice movement, and his prioritizing the interests of kids over special interests.  And we’re sure he will be up for the fight in 2012 too!

Jalen Rose, a former basketball star, is devoting his heart to something else entirely: education reform. Rose is opening a charter school in his hometown of Detroit. Aimed at helping low-income kids in the Motor City, he spent the summer getting the building on the city's Northwest side ready for the 2011-12 school year. And as the calendar marched towards the fall, it became clear that Rose hadn't jumped into education reform on a whim—he had a deep-seeded belief in the power of education to transform the lives of children. Now, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy is giving kids in one of the cities hit hardest by the current economic downturn a chance to explore new academic areas, learn how to work together in teams, and become leaders themselves. But Rose's goals in education reform go far beyond a single school. He's now working to bring more professional athletes into the education reform fold, and he even testified at the Michigan State Capitol in support of school choice. His work in expanding educational options has even garnered support from former on-court rival Grant Hill. For a guy whose life changed on the day he was offered a scholarship to attend college, Rose recognizes the importance it can have in a young child's life.

In politics, it’s easy for many to follow the crowd. Especially in a body as large as the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s typical to see our elected leaders forego difficult votes and instead obey the wishes of the party leadership. But U.S. Representative Daniel Lipinski, who represents Chicago’s South Side, isn’t your typical politician. The Illinois Democrat holds the distinction of being the only member of his party in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the SOAR Act—the measure to reauthorize the highly-successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—when it came before the U.S. House in March. For his courageous vote in the face of intense political pressures, his ability to see past traditional and often antiquated party breakdowns, for his unwavering support for low-income kids, and for mirroring the bipartisan cooperation that has become a hallmark of state school choice advocacy, U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski is a Champion of School Choice.

Rep. Michelle Litjens and Sen. Leah Vukmir , two state policymakers responsible for introducing Assembly Bill 110 that would create a scholarship program for children with special needs and would help thousands of Wisconsin families, while also saving cash-strapped taxpayers money. The two legislators formed a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers—which includes another prominent champion for school choice, Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee). For making families and children with special needs a priority and being unafraid to challenge the status quo, the American Federation for Children named both Wisconsin Representative Michelle Litjens and Senator Leah Vukmir as Champions for School Choice.

She has over 40 years of experience in the public school system as a teacher, principal, and, most recently, a superintendent of the 10th largest school district in the United States. An ardent supporter of public education, she has worked tirelessly to improve public schools on opposite ends of the country, in and out of the classroom. But Arlene Ackerman realizes that many public schools aren’t serving the children in their buildings, and for them, another option is necessary. That’s why the former superintendent surprised many in the education establishment when she forcefully endorsed school choice, even going as far as calling access to a quality education “the civil rights battle of our generation.” Arlene Ackerman is a Champion for School Chocie because of her willingness to take on the education establishment, her commitment to helping kids learn no matter what, and her dedication to putting educational outcomes ahead of bureaucratic systems.

Along with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and leaders in the legislature, Superintendent Tony Bennett is responsible for creating the most expansive voucher program in the country. Over 3,900 students enrolled to participate in the program. With Governor Daniels at the helm and Bennett riding shotgun, Indiana has one of the most formidable duos committed to school choice in the entire country. And that’s not all—Bennett has committed himself to other reforms, including support for strengthened charter schools, children with special needs, and a revamped form of teacher tenure. For making an unapologetic commitment to school choice, making good on his promises to bring change to Indiana’s education system, and showing the way to many other states around the country, the American Federation for Children is proud to name Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett as a Champion for School Choice.

Former Ohio State Representative Jon Peterson played a big role in the recent expansion of school choice in the Buckeye State, despite the fact that he reached his term limit and left office more than two and a half years ago. Still, it was Peterson’s name that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue at the beginning of July, after Governor John Kasich signed into law a state budget that created, among other provisions, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, which will help an estimated 13,000 children.  The former legislator—who now serves as the treasurer for Delaware County in Ohio—devoted himself to the cause of special needs children and expanding educational options during his eight years in office. While his own daughter, who has autism, excelled in traditional public schools, it was apparent that not everyone had the same good fortune. That’s why in 2003 Peterson sponsored legislation to create the Ohio Autism Scholarship Program.  For his commitment to fighting for children—above and beyond his legislative service—his lasting legacy after leaving office, and the foundation he built in Ohio’s school choice movement, the American Federation for Children named Jon Peterson as a Champion for School Choice.

Gerard Robinson—the former president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a staunch school choice proponent for decades—was on June 21 named the new Florida Commissioner of Education. Though he’s been Virginia’s Secretary of Education since early last year, he’ll be leaving the Old Dominion to take over the educational duties in one of the nation’s most populous states. Robinson was unanimously voted into his new role by the Florida Board of Education, and he will also head south with the blessing of Governor Rick Scott. Gerard Robinson is named a Champion for his commitment to helping those less fortunate, his willingness to take on tough challenges, and his unwavering commitment to giving kids in Florida the same opportunities he fought to give them in Virginia.

After being elected to Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) in the fall of 2007, Chas Roemer took the stage in Louisiana as a vocal leader of education reform. While on BESE, one of his most notable accomplishments was leading the fight to provide parents more choice through school vouchers and charter schools. Roemer also worked to increase accountability for failing schools and helped pass the Red Tape Reduction Law, which freed local districts from bureaucratic red tape. Roemer sought re-election in order to lead efforts for even bolder education reform measures in Louisiana.  For his commitment to stand up for the children and families of Louisiana, fight the status quo, and continue leading the charge for school choice, the American Federation for Children is proud to name Louisiana BESE member Chas Roemer as a Champion for School Choice.

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