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Teachers' union vs. black school-choice candidate

A May 18 Pennsylvania Democratic primary for governor could change the national debate on parental school choice. A singularly independent black candidate, state Sen. Anthony Williams, is focusing on giving parents the right to choose among charter schools, vouchers for private schools and those public schools that actually work for all children.

“Many inner-city schools,” he says, “remain separate and not equal for African-American and other disadvantaged children.” He wants “the dollars to follow the child.”

Williams is strongly opposed by the teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, as are nearly all school-choice candidates around the country, few of whom are black Democrats. Any of the pro-choice politicians would lose union financial support.

“Many African-American elected leaders,” Williams told me, “are not in step with people in their communities.” In Harlem, for example, as I told him, large numbers of black parents are competing for places in charter schools there that markedly outperform the local public schools. In addition to the teachers’ union, a fierce leading opponent of the charter schools there is prominent black New York State Sen. Bill Perkins. He may lose his seat.

What makes Anthony Williams even more singular is his unusually active and substantive record for the 8th Senatorial District, which spans small towns, suburban enclaves and communities in south, west and southwest Philadelphia. The Philadelphia AFL-CIO supports Williams’ re-election to the Senate but is silent on his gubernatorial candidacy. In that race, organized labor’s primary allegiance is to the teachers’ union rather than the students.

I have been covering politics for more than 60 years – first in Massachusetts, then in New York and around the country on my basic beats, education and the health of the Constitution. I have rarely come across a legislator with such wide-ranging accomplishments in the Pennsylvania state Senate (since 1998) and in neighborhoods throughout the district. A characteristic message to his constituents:

“The senator and his staff have started a door-to-door community outreach initiative to connect with constituents throughout his district. Williams and staff are available to answer questions, assist with state agency issues and work with community members who want to get involved in their neighborhood.”

Among his Senate roles: Democratic chairman of the State Government Committee, member of the state Senate’s Education Committee, a member of the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and chair of the Black Elected Officials of Philadelphia Country as well as the Black Alliance of Educational Options (like school choice). For the May 18 primary elections, his supporters include influential Democratic Rep. Bob Brady and a leading conservative, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who points out:

“He not only votes with Republicans on occasion; he also works hard to cultivate good bipartisan relationships.” (Another rare achievement in national local, state and federal legislatures.)

Since Philadelphia, like many cities, is plagued by violent gangs and corollary deaths, Williams works to get guns off the streets and is also involved in Neighborhoods United Against Drugs.

Among his efforts to increase public participation in government that purportedly serves his constituents, he started the school-year internship program for high-school and college students. As described by his staff: “Three types of internships allow young people attending schools in the region the opportunity to discover the inner workings of state government – and build their résumés in the process. Legislative, communications and operations internships allow students to specialize in a field and pick up new skills as they witness government in action.”

These years, I rarely vote enthusiastically for anybody, but as I keep learning about this ceaseless proponent of real-life, real-time democracy (lower-case “d”) in action, I wish I were a resident of Pennsylvania so I could vote eagerly for Anthony Williams in the primary elections. Here is more of what keeps him busy – giving more proof to voters on how he could impact their lives as governor of Pennsylvania:

He helped vote into law the “Access to Justice Account” as legal-aid funds increasingly diminish around the nation. This statute provides actual legal assistance to poor and otherwise disadvantaged residents of Pennsylvania. And in education, he worked to enact a law that provides scholarships for students interested in getting into fields of science and technology – while also making it possible for homeschool students to get access to extracurricular activities via school districts. (That’s of particular interest to me because one of my daughters has homeschooled her three children in Missouri.)

And dig this: the teachers’ union is devoting intense energy and resources to prevent Anthony Williams from being elected governor of Pennsylvania – the very same Williams who voted for a bill that became law to allow retired educators to come back into the classroom when there are teaching emergencies – without jeopardizing their pensions!

Yet the teachers’ union vehemently is against him becoming the state’s governor lest mere parents have a choice on where their children go to school. But Anthony Williams will not be deterred, saying:

“With the growing and increasingly competitive global marketplace, improving education through innovation with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics will improve our economy” – and certainly the futures of Pennsylvania students.

Even if he loses the primary, staying in the state legislature, I will keep reporting on Anthony Williams because he will surely continue to be heard from on saving students from dead-end schools. He is a founder of the Hardy Williams Academy Charter School in his state. Like another historic Pennsylvanian, Benjamin Franklin, this model citizen practices what he preaches.