School choice pioneer Annette Polly Williams dies at 77


THEY WANTED CHOICE: In 2005, school choice supporters rallied at the Capitol in Madison, Wis., showing support for lifting an enrollemnt cap on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Former Assemblywoman Annette Polly Williams, who was described as “absolutely essential” to bringing school choice to Milwaukee, died this past weekend.

By Paul Brennan |

MILWAUKEE — James Carl was able to sum up the importance of former Assemblywoman Annette Polly Williams in bringing school choice to Milwaukee in two words: “absolutely essential.”

Williams died Sunday at the age of 77, having helped to transform the education landscape in Milwaukee and the nation.

Starting in the late 1980s, Williams threw her support behind the legislation that created the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The legislation eventually passed in 1989.

“If it were not for her willingness to support this program, it never would have gotten through the state Legislature,” Carl told Watchdog.

Carl, dean of the Farmington College of Education at Sacred Heart University, wrote extensively about Williams and the MPCP in his 2011 book, “Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education.”

When the MPCP was first proposed, voucher programs were almost exclusively associated with conservative politics.

“Polly Williams was the first African-American politician of a liberal mold to embrace school choice. She was someone who was willing to reach across the aisle work with Republicans on it,” Carl said.

“She was absolutely essential in the creation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.”

Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and a longtime colleague of Williams, echoed this assessment in a tweet he sent out after learning of William’s death.

“There would be no school choice movement had it not been for the courage of Polly Williams. She was the definition of a warrior,” Fuller wrote.

Courage was required for a liberal politician, especially an African-American, to back a school voucher program in the 1980s.

ANNETTE POLLY WILLIAMS: Williams used to explain her advocacy of school choice by saying, “The president shouldn’t be the only person who lives in public housing who gets to send his kids to private school.”

In addition to facing fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and other entrenched interests, school vouchers had a history almost guaranteed to alienate African-Americans.

“The first voucher programs were created in the South in the early ’50s in anticipation of the decision of Brown v. Board of Education,” Carl explained.

“Those programs were basically a way of preserving school segregation, after the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in Brown.”

But regardless of the history, Williams saw how a voucher program could be used to create new educational opportunities for poor and minority children attending failing schools in Milwaukee.

“My fight is for our, for my, black children — to be able to access this system and get the best that this system offers,” Williams said, explaining her advocacy of vouchers.

Her fight gained national attention and as the school choice movement began to take off in the 1990’s, Williams was in high demand as a speaker around the country.

During the Clinton years, she was known to sum up her position on school choice with a sharp witticism: “The president shouldn’t be the only person who lives in public housing who gets to send his kids to private schools.”

Although she is most closely associated with the fight for school choice, and the MCPC paved the way for other such programs around the country, Carl pointed out Williams did more than work on school issues during her long career in the Assembly.

“She was always an advocate for creating greater opportunities for poor and working class people,” Carl said. “Her advocacy of school choice was part of that.”

First elected in 1980, Williams represented the 10th District, which takes in both suburban Glendale and parts of inner city Milwaukee.

By the time she decided to retire in 2010, Williams had become the longest-serving female member of the Legislature.

“The north side of Milwaukee has definitely lost a champion,” Carl added.

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