Bios are always hard to do, but if you’ve gotten to this page you probably want to know something about who I am, what I do, and why I started the Center. Here are a few highlights that hopefully give you a sense of why I think what we do is the most important thing on earth, and how I arrived here.
It was 1993 when I started the Center for Education Reform. I had 3 children and had left the security of a premier research institution that gave me my formative training. I had spent five years as one of the youngest appointees in the US Department of Education before that, and while pursuing a masters cut my teeth on Capitol Hill (where I quickly learned that people do indeed make policy and unless Congress hears from its constituents it does what it wants). I had graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA with a BA in poli sci, but I’d learned as a freshman to my chagrin that my great education in my great school district in my great suburb in New Jersey was sorely lacking. Those straight “As” that made Mom and Dad so proud had either been inflated, or worth very little, which, sadly, is an all-too-familiar story even today. I wrote my principal then, and when I arrived in Washington some 4 years later, I began to understand why even my own parents didn’t realize we were lulled into the “great school mythology” by real estate and relationships. So by the time I’d worked in the federal government and been at Heritage, I knew something else was needed to bridge the gap between policy and practice, between what policymakers perceive, and what we actually need.
So I left, raised $33,000 to start CER (thanks to a good friend who was willing to take a chance on the first 3 months of CER. He makes garlic, among other things. I thought it was a good sign). I assembled a board, a logo, and an office. We had three staff in 1993. And we had three months. By November I was on my way to a potential supporter in St. Louis, who had been convinced that he couldn’t last in life if he didn’t meet me. My husband had told him that when he called him to make the meeting. By the end of that meeting, I had a check for $100,000 in hand. He worked for a man that made his fortune selling ice cream. First garlic. Then ice cream. A pattern was beginning to emerge. Over the next few months our phones rang often, and people asked for help, but they also asked for opinions. Soon we realized that we could save time giving our opinions and intelligence if we started a newsletter. Within nine months I was on my way to possible major donor number 3. I was also about to give birth to child number 4. I arrived at an airport in Tulsa eight and some months pregnant and drove two hours to visit this particular prospect. It could take a few months, they said, to determine interest. On the way back, I swore I’d begin shopping at Wal-Mart for diapers. After the Waltons began supporting us, we drove nearly an hour every weekend to do so. And in keeping with the rule of 3s, by 1995, CER had a budget of $300,000, though the staff had grown to 5. Since then, the Center has been supported and advanced by a growing number of concerns. I still eat garlic and ice cream, and shop at Wal-Mart. I frequent Banana Republic and the Gap. I also drink wine. (But we don’t have a wine donor yet).
I’ve struggled over the years to figure out the connection between education and products that fulfill our every desire. But that’s it, isn’t it? Education fulfills the most basic need we have as human beings. Understanding, civility, justice, and even love are influenced by an excellent education. Just as with food and clothing and stuff, perhaps the people who cater to real people with these basic needs understand the need for education to do the same. And so rather than support feel-good efforts, they support the really hard, often-controversial work that needs to be done. Our supporters—both moral and financial—give us the ability and the drive to do what it is we set out to do in 1993. CER’s purpose when we started out—as it is now—was to create and influence changes in American education that put people, not systems first..
When I founded the Center in 1993, it was no more than an idea and a commitment. The idea was to establish a non-profit advocacy organization that provided information, guidance and assistance to any and every person interested in bettering schools in their communities, districts, or states. And the commitment was to put the needs of children and parents ahead of demands of the unions and bureaucrats…and to keep them there.
It has worked. Charter schools, which in our early years were wacky notions of the “radical fringe,” are now mainstays in communities across the country. Standards, which had all but disappeared, have re-emerged as a core element working to create successful schools. Accountability, which in many cases never existed, is another block in the foundation of education improvement and reform that is being built. And vouchers, once vilified as unwanted and unconstitutional, turn out to be neither. But it has only worked because of you, and thousands of others like you, who are interested enough to be reading this, may have supported our efforts, or be working the field. Education reform doesn’t happen in our offices, or at the desks of CER’s staff. It happens in schools and communities nationwide, usually led by parents, teachers, and dedicated elected leaders who stand up for what’s right, and who don’t sit down until they get it.
The success of The Center for Education Reform has come not just through our own hard work and sacrifice, but also through yours, and through the encouragement and support you have given us over these past eighteen years. It has been an honor. Thank you for taking the time to get to know me, and CER!