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A leader who is changing the conversation of parental choice

Every good leader knows how to spot an individual capable of transformational change, and Howard Fuller saw that in Gerard Robinson nearly 10 years ago. Robinson displayed the conviction to empower poor families with the education options long enjoyed by wealthier households, and he had the fortitude to challenge the status quo that would resist him. Fuller and the Board of Directors of the Black Alliance for Educational Options eventually picked Gerard to lead their burgeoning advocacy organization, a decision that had a profound effect on the politics of school choice. Elected officials of different ideological stripes from across the nation who would have shunned the prospect of publicly funding private school options were now being courted by a charismatic young man who implored them to put the parent and the child first.

The years that followed would result in rapid growth for BAEO, which established seven state chapters during Robinson’s tenure and would partner with Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy & Governance to develop an annual gathering of elected officials to talk about bringing parental choice back to their states and districts. The first meeting could have been held in an elevator, but that gathering now brings several hundred officials together. And choice has become a bipartisan cause with legislators who now see that the poorest among us are those who have the fewest options.

Today, Robinson was picked to replace Eric Smith as Florida’s next education commissioner, affirming the state’s role as a national leader in redefining the way we deliver a public education in the 21st century. But, just as importantly, low-income families have an advocate in Florida’s top educator. Gerard could be convincing with governors and lawmakers, but he could also be relentless in his push to provide opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Virginia saw how he helped to redirect the conversation of school choice in that state. While Robinson was secretary of education earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers introduced a proposal to award tax credit scholarships to low-income children. And the same black elected officials whom Robinson wooed years ago were the same ones standing before the commonwealth legislature to urge the adoption of the Education Improvement Scholarships. A senate committee may have killed the proposal after it passed the Assembly, but one Florida Democratic lawmaker who joined Gerard in fighting for its passage believes they have begun to change the debate. “Everybody wants to do the right thing,” said Terry Fields, a former state representative in Jacksonville, Fla. “But I think they’re a little afraid of what the right thing is.”

We may have surmounted many of those fears in Florida, but it will take someone like Gerard Robinson to remind us why those fears were unfounded.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization