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By Dave Umhoefer July 13, 2014

Gary George says he created private school choice program

In the history of Wisconsin’s groundbreaking private school choice program, as told by journalists and scholars, Democrat Annette "Polly" Williams is the godmother of the movement and Republican Tommy Thompson the godfather.

But Gary George is bluntly rewriting those accounts as he attempts to resurrect his political career through a challenge to US Rep. Gwen Moore, another Democrat from Milwaukee.

"I created the school choice program, which ushered in not only an era of educational reform in Wisconsin, but really throughout the nation and around the world," George, a former state senator, told newsman Mike Gousha on WISN-TV’s "Upfront" show July 6, 2014.

Who deserves the title of creator?

The word has several meanings, including "to cause to come into being," or "evolved from one’s own thought or imagination."

How it passed

George pointed us to the final amended bill that became law in 1990, when it was signed by Thompson, who was governor at the time.

That bill allowed poor Milwaukee parents to use publicly funded vouchers to send their children to private, non-religious schools of their choosing. It was a scaled-down version of a Republican plan that sought to include religious schools.

To become law, the bill had to clear Joint Finance, the powerful committee that George co-chaired with Milwaukee Democrat Walter Kunicki. It was part of a multi-issue budget bill.

As heads of the committee, George and Kunicki were listed as authors of the bill. George brokered several changes, getting the support of Williams and others.

George’s role was "crucial" in winning passage, wrote James Carl, a scholar of urban education reform, in his book, "Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education."

Williams told PolitiFact Wisconsin the same: "I give him his props. We couldn’t have gotten that bill passed without his help."

Other participants agreed. Howard Fuller, a Milwaukee Public Schools critic who went on to become superintendent, told us that "if Polly had not come to an agreement with Gary, it would not have passed."

So George can lay claim to a significant role in the legislation that created the choice program.

But there’s little doubt that the final product was largely drawn from an earlier bill drafted by Williams, then a state representative, and educational activist Larry Harwell.

Indeed, George appears to have had little if any role in the decades-long legislative battles that came before the measure finally passed.

And in his book, Carl flatly calls Williams "the state representative who authored the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program."

Further back in history

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Williams and Harwell were among the varied and sometimes competing forces -- some liberal Democrats, religious leaders, conservatives, business leaders -- who began pushing in the late 1960s for choice and independent community schools in Milwaukee’s central city. Some legislation was considered and voted on in the 1970s and into the 1980s but the partisan political obstacles were many.

The decisive action, put in motion by Thompson, came during the Republican governor’s first term in the late 1980s.

The reform-minded Thompson was rebuffed in 1988 when he sought a voucher program in Milwaukee that included religious schools. George did not favor the plan and Joint Finance deleted it from the state budget, amid teachers union opposition to the governor’s move.

Thompson tried again in early 1989 with a similar result, but momentum built when Milwaukee Public Schools leaders put forward their own choice plan. George’s policy adviser, Walter Farrell, started warming to the bill, Carl recounted in his book.

At that point, Williams, who opposed the MPS plan, authored her own, but it fell in the state Assembly.

She redrafted new legislation in mid-1989 and worked to get bipartisan support. The governor, as well as Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, got behind it. Teachers union opposition faded.

Williams "helped persuade (George) to support their legislation," Carl wrote in his book. "After meeting with community residents and Thompson, George eventually came down on Williams’ side."

The Williams-authored bill easily passed the Assembly, but was bottled up in a Senate committee until George attached it to a budget bill and made changes that Williams agreed to.

It worked. Senate and Assembly passage followed, and Thompson signed it in April 1990, winning praise from President George H. W. Bush.

In news accounts at the time, Thompson credited Williams for the plan, and George offered a cautious comment:  "We’ll see if this is an experiment that works."

Today, Fuller sees Williams as deserving of the most credit, despite George’s crucial late work.

George told us: "Polly Williams, she had the concept, but you have to legislate it. It’s legislation, so there’s no parentage."

Williams says now she is bitter at what she sees as a misguided Republican expansion of choice beyond Milwaukee and to wealthier families in recent years. But she’s proud of what she did and politely disagreed with George’s comments.

"He didn’t create it," she said.

Thompson told PolitiFact Wisconsin he sees it this way: "It was my idea, and both Williams and George had a lot to do with it.

Our rating

George told an interviewer: "I created the school choice program."

Clearly the former senator helped give birth to choice, steering it through the Senate with crucial changes and granting his crucial support.

But George didn’t conceive of the idea. And his account crowds out the long leadership -- and more prominent role -- of both Williams and Thompson, not to mention Williams’ authorship of the bill George modified.

Our definition of Half True is a statement that is partially accurate, but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

That fits here.

Our Sources

Upfront with Mike Gousha, video excerpt, interview with Gary George, July 6, 2014

Interview with Gary George, July 7, 2014

Interview with Polly Williams, July 9, 2014

Interview with Bob Lang, director, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, July 8, 2014

Interview with Howard Fuller, July 10, 2014

Interview with Tommy Thompson, July 10, 2014

"Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education," By Jim Carl,  Praeger Series on Political Culture, 2011

Archives of Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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