The Courage to Lead

It's hard for anyone to make me speechless, but speechless I was that fall night in 2004. had been meeting with several members of the South Carolina legislative Black Caucus trying to get them to support both an expanded charter school bill and an opportunity scholarship bill for low-income kids. South Carolina, then and now, ranks near the bottom among states in terms of the educational achievements of students. The two bills being considered at that time several years ago, would have immediately given thousands of South Carolina students access to the type of quality schools they deserve, but were not getting -- especially low income African American kids in the state who were languishing in terrible schools.

I shared with those Black Caucus members the D.C. experience and how charter schools along with the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) have given thousands of D.C. kids a quality education while D.C. Public Schools struggle with internal reform efforts. Following my impassioned plea for their support, the room fell eerily quiet. Then, one member stood up and said, "Mr. Chavous, with all due respect, those things you have talked about in D.C. may have worked up there. But, there is no way I can support charter schools or vouchers because many of the Republicans who came from Jim Crow backgrounds support them. I won't vote for anything they vote for, even if it would help our kids."

I was thunderstruck and, as a result, speechless. Needless to say, both bills died during that legislative session and South Carolina schoolchildren still rank near the bottom educationally when compared to other states.

Since that night, in my travels from state to state advocating for progressive education reform legislation, I have observed increasing polarizing partisanship in state legislatures not unlike we see in Congress. Former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry has noticed it as well. While speaking at the American Federation for Children Policy Summit this past May in D.C., McCurry pointed out how rarely members of either party cross the political aisle to vote for a measure sponsored by a member of the opposite party. He related that in 1982, there were 344 members of Congress that were regular "party switchers." Today, this number is only 13 members. And, of course, it doesn't matter if the proposal makes sense, is good for the country or will help our kids learn. Politics comes first, our kids are second, just as I was told by that South Carolina legislator.

But, sadly, the partisanship extends beyond voting. Earlier this year, while testifying and speaking with Alaskan leaders about a proposed educational choice bill, I was standing in the hall of their statehouse speaking with one of the lead Republicans who was sponsoring the proposal. While we were chatting a Democratic legislator stopped to talk with us because he was considering supporting the bill. As the three of us were talking, several other Republican legislators walked by, barely acknowledging us. Later, when I was alone with the Republican sponsoring the bill, he said to me, "You know I am really going to be in trouble with my (Republican) caucus, don't you?"

"Why is that?" I said.

"Because they saw me talking in the hall publicly with a Democrat."


What happen to the notion of colleague collegiality? Of voting your conscience? Representing your constituents? Doing what's right? Sadly, politics rules the day in far too many of our state legislatures. This is why it is hard to effectuate meaningful changes in our schools. Our schools will never be fixed as long as our leaders put party politics ahead of our children.

America's families and schoolchildren need exactly what they are not getting from too many policymakers: the courage to lead. We deserve to have a critical mass of our political leadership willing to take courageous stands for our kids, no matter the political costs. When that happens, our kids and our country will benefit.