For Maverick Polly Williams, the Mother of School Choice, The Point Was Always to Empower Parents and Improve Education for Black Children

By Robin Harris

In 2011, after more than 30 years in office, Polly Williams retired from the Wisconsin state Legislature. Jesse Jackson was among many of the politicians that showed up to celebrate. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

The people’s politician

Williams got her political inklings from her cousin Monroe Swan, who in 1972 became Wisconsin’s first black state senator. She worked on his campaign and then a few others. And in 1976, at 39 years old, she ran for state representative against a Democratic incumbent who also was black. Recalling her initial campaign, she said: “Black folks saw me as a problem. ‘You’re running against this black man. You’re trying to put him out of work.’” But Williams said he was not a “good representative.” So, even though she helped get him elected in 1972, she “decided to take him on.” She was unsuccessful in 1976 and again in 1978. But in 1980, on the charm try, she won.

Polly Williams with family and friends supporting her campaign in the 1970s. It took three tries before she was elected in 1980. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

Open invitation to the White House

In his memoir Power to the People, former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson writes that the idea for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program originated during a meeting in his office at which Williams and Fuller were in attendance. Fuller, in his memoir, No Struggle No Progress, maintains that the idea emerged out of talks in the black community after the bid to create an all-black school district failed. And editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal, Mikel Holt, in a comprehensive firsthand account, Not Yet “Free At Last, names an origin long before — as part of local black activists’ efforts in the 1970s to gain control over their educational destiny.

Howard Fuller in 2018 tells the audience at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s National Summit on Education Reform about Williams’s early role and influence in the parental school choice movement. (Photo courtesy of Howard Fuller)
In 1991, Polly Williams was interviewed by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes. She also appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and This Week With David Brinkley. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

A Polly Williams choice person

Soon after her confirmation, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos evoked Williams’s legacy in a major speech on the Trump administration’s plans to expand school choice and then in testimony on Capitol Hill. Most recently, she referenced Williams during her back-to-school tour in September. DeVos, in an appeal to bipartisanship, championed Williams as “a Democrat city councilwoman [sic] … [who] bucked the system on behalf of the kids she loved.”

Polly Williams outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in 1997. (Photo courtesy of the Williams family)

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