Now, for vouchers - Ackerman says school reform is new 'civil-rights movement'

Voucher supporters hope that Ackerman's entry into the discussion will tip the legislative balance.
Voucher supporters hope that Ackerman's entry into the discussion will tip the legislative balance. (CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: November 07, 2011

THE CONTROVERSIAL reforms that Michelle Rhee pushed during her tumultuous tenure as public-schools leader in Washington, D.C., were hardly the last marks she'd make on U.S. public education.

Since resigning last year, Rhee has pushed hard for school vouchers and merit pay for teachers, and has founded StudentsFirst, which pours money into lawmakers' coffers.

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise then, that, after receiving a $905,000 buyout, Philadelphia's former schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman became a voucher proponent herself.

She inserted herself into the discussion last month, arguing in an Inquirer op/ed that it would take charter schools and vouchers to fix the school district.

"I didn't even see vouchers as a viable option until recently, because my work and my focus was on changing the system from within for parents," Ackerman said.

She called on parents to contact legislators to support the voucher bill, which passed in the state Senate last month but faces an uncertain future in the House.

As the debate in Harrisburg wears on, those on both sides wonder what Ackerman's support could mean for the bill's future.

Ackerman's new thoughts on school choice strike a similar tone to those of Rhee, whose ability to stir controversy in D.C. rivaled Ackerman's in Philadelphia.

Rhee is in town tonight as part of the Philadelphia Speaker Series at the Kimmel Center.

Drawing attention

Ackerman showed up unannounced recently at an education forum hosted by state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a co-sponsor of the voucher bill, at South Philly's Universal Institute Charter.

Parents flocked to her after she spoke in support of school choice.

"They gave me a big hug and just said, 'No one's gonna listen to us,' " she recounted. "I felt their frustration. I was kind of sad."

Williams, who got about $5 million from a pro-voucher group during his 2010 run for governor, said that he has discussed school choice with Ackerman and her support doesn't surprise him.

"She's probably going to share her opinion where she thinks it's most effective," he said, adding that her endorsement of vouchers has potential to bring the movement more attention. "She has a following."

Ackerman insisted that no one from the well-funded pro-voucher movement put her up to the editorial, but advocates say that they're happy to have her on their side.

"I think everybody in the school-choice movement would love to work with her," said Joe Watkins, who chairs pro-voucher organization Students First. (The group isn't related to Rhee's group.)

Watkins said that he hasn't spoken with Ackerman about vouchers, but welcomes her ability to grab attention to tfocus on the issue.

Despite bipartisan contributions from Watkins' Students First to House members - nearly $200,000 to Republicans and more than $110,000 to Democrats since last year - the voucher bill's future is shaky.

The House has only 12 scheduled days left this year, and many members seem to have "no real appetite" to take it up soon, according to state Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Northeas Philadelphia. If the House doesn't vote on it this year, it will be considered again next year.

Ackerman's future

Though Ackerman said that she hasn't decided where she wants to be based - she has been visiting family across the country, including her two sons and grandchildren in Albuquerque - confidantes expect to see a lot of her in Philadelphia.

"That is just the beginning," Emmanuel Bussie, a district parent and director of operations for grass-roots group Professionals for Progress, said of the Inquirer op/ed.

Bussie said that his organization discussed plans to bring attention to school reform with Ackerman. She said that she'll help the group work with parents but that she's made no commitments.

As for a lucrative career as a lobbyist or consultant like Rhee, Bussie says Ackerman isn't interested.

"I'm trying to talk her into it," he said. "If I had my way, she would set up a consulting firm."

Ackerman said that she hopes to educate parents on school choices and help them navigate the district bureaucracy.

She calls public-school reform "the civil-rights movement of our generation."

"If you think about the civil- rights movement, or even the birth of this country, it happened from the rebels on the outside," she said. "I'm not a rebel, but that's what kind of push is gonna shake things up."

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