With Jason Fields Out, So is a True Champion for School Choice

By Christian D’Andrea
A MacIver Institute Perspective

“Knock it off,” Fields exclaimed. “You all don’t give a damn about these kids.” He then pointed out legislators on both sides of the aisle who used students in both Milwaukee Public Schools and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program as rhetorical ammunition on the floor. He then condemned actions that put the best interests of students behind political ideologies and old guard mentalities.

“I’m tired, because I’m fighting for young black men and I’m tired,” Fields said. “And you’re not helping. None of you.”

Representative Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) never cared much about fitting in. Instead, he cared about the children in his district. Perhaps that was never more evident than on May 10, 2011, when he lashed into his colleagues during a never-ending floor session where partisanship was high and progress was low.

Fields was a true champion for school choice, a lawmaker who threw his full support behind the program that delivers over 20,000 Milwaukee school children from neighborhood schools that don’t fit to private institutions that do. While it was an unpopular decision amongst his caucus, his actions helped thousands of students find the environment that fit them best. His work also paved the way for vouchers to expand to Racine, the home of one of Wisconsin’s worst public school districts.

That unpopularity helped oust him in the long run. Last week, Fields was defeated in the Democratic primary in the 11th District by newcomer Mandela Barnes. Barnes ran on a campaign that opposed Fields’s support of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).This shift will leave one less voice to be heard when it comes to explaining the real impact vouchers have on students and their lives in downtown Milwaukee.

Fields will be missed in the Assembly, where he was a warrior for families that weren’t satisfied with their failing neighborhood schools. He worked tirelessly to maintain and expand the MPCP throughout his time as a legislator. This differed from many of his colleagues within his party.

His vision sought greater options than ever before for students in Milwaukee and statewide. His work helped expand the world of voucher and charter schools in a dynamic environment where education is anything but one-size-fits-all. While the results weren’t perfect, there was progress being made.

The timing is disappointing. In the fifth year of the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), the government-funded, high-quality study finally found a significant difference in achievement between regular public school students and voucher students. Those results showed that students that attended private schools with MPCP vouchers made greater progress in the classroom than their counterparts.

Unfortunately, the SCDP’s contract expired this year, meaning that some of the most significant research related to the MPCP will be shelved. That empirical evidence of student success, though modest, will provide school choice advocates some of the strongest ammunition they’ve ever had in the debate about Milwaukee’s voucher schools. Sadly, Fields won’t be able to add his first-hand experience to that argument as a member of the Legislature.

Over a year ago, Fields’s frustration with politics-by-the-numbers left him angry and exhausted on the Assembly floor. Now, he’ll have some rare time to rest. But let’s hope that his advocacy continues to move forward with the power and resonance that it had in the Assembly for the past eight years.

The children of Milwaukee surely need him. And it.