My wife Michele and I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Center for Education Reform’s 20th anniversary Gala and Awards Show Wednesday evening. The Washington Hilton ballroom was filled with a who’s who of education reformers on both the local scene and national stage. At one end of the room was Kevin Chavous, Michelle Bernard, and Chester Finn while at the other was Joe Bruno and Brian Jones. Josh Kern joined us as did Lisa Graham Keegan, who was recently inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame. Also in attendance was my hero Donald Hense. The event was indeed a celebration as eight individuals were honored for their groundbreaking work in improving public education for those who, because of their low economic status, are the least able to be able to fight for themselves.
But the night was also bittersweet. The men assembled in black-ties and the women in formal gowns knew that together we were marking the end of an era. For it was at this moment in time that Jeanne Allen was stepping down as president of the Center for Education Reform, the school choice support organization she founded twenty years ago. How perfectly appropriate, then, that her husband, Dr. Kevin Strother, sang our National Anthem with passion usually reserved for our most solemn occasions.
The master of ceremonies for the program was none other than Michael Musante, the government relations expert for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS). Based upon his performance at the Gala I really think he should consider changing jobs. He moved through the crowd as if he was floating on air, sometimes telling jokes, other times singing classic Frank Sinatra songs with the assurance that comes from an experienced nightclub professional. After all you have to have talent if you are able to pull off “Mack the Knife” with credibility bestowed by the outstanding SunRay Orchestra. Among the others who sang beautifully at the event was Bob Bowden, producer of the exceptional movie “The Cartel.”
Those recognized included Yvonne Chan, Barbara Dreyer, William Bennett, James, Janis, and Tracy Gleason, Deborah McGriff, and Michael Moe. You can read their biographies here. Each award was preceded by the performance of a classic song made famous by the Ratpack. Included in the program was a well-produced slide show of reformers who are no longer with us because they have passed away moderated by Ms. Allen and Mr. Chavous. I very much appreciated Mr. Chavous’ discussion of the prominent role Joseph E. Robert, Jr. played in his understanding of the value of private school vouchers in education reform.
There were a couple of highlights for me. Hearing Bill Bennett speak was a privilege. The former U.S. Department of Education Secretary addressed the crowd with such authority and confidence that it made us feel uniformly proud that we were engaged in the struggle to let parents decide where they can send their children to school. His one sentence summary of the overriding public policy mission in public education as “determining who gets to teach and what do they teach when they are there” immediately ceased any stray conversation in the ballroom.
The other noticeable theme of the event was the words offered by presenters and awardees about the work of Jeanne Allen. It may be impossible for many to grasp now but when the idea of school choice was first promoted as a means to fixing our failing public schools most people thought the idea was crazy. It was crystal clear from the remarks that Ms. Allen literally held the hand and supported the back of those brave people who paved the way for the creation of the charter and private school voucher movements so prevalent in America today. The fact that so many of these programs now seem commonplace is the highest accolade that can be bestowed to this fine individual.