Five Questions For Joe Williams

Press Releases

September 22, 2008

(From Rocky Mountain News, September 20, 2008)

* Executive director of the New York-based Democrats For Education Reform

Williams was in Denver on Friday to announce former state Sen. Ron Tupa will head a Colorado chapter of the political action committee. The group, called D-FER, bills itself as supporting party leaders willing to take on special interests – read, teachers' unions – to improve public education. Williams, a former journalist, sat down for an interview with the Rocky Mountain News' Nancy Mitchell between speaking engagements:

1. A group called Democrats for Education Reform would seem to suggest there are Democrats not interested in education reform. Is that the case?

We were founded by a group of progressives, of Democratic contributors and activists who got involved in school reform and found that, when they would tell people what they were doing – whether it was adopting a public school and pushing for changes or starting charter schools – people would accuse them of being Republican.

They also found that a lot of the elected officials they had supported over the years would not help them when it came down to starting new schools.

The Democratic Party has been so closely aligned with existing school systems . . . it has sort of marginalized the party when it comes time to talk about changes that the unions may not want to see.

2. What's caused that split within the party?

There's frustration the party hasn't done enough to be seen as champions for the kids who need them the most . . . At some point this split needs to happen so we as a party can decide what we're really going to be about when it comes to educating our kids.

We were at a fundraiser with Obama last year . . . he basically said the unions have a lock on the discussion about reform but things are happening and the unions are going to have to decide whether they want to be part of change or get left behind.

3. Obama seems to have stepped back from that in his recent public speaking. Do you agree?

He has. He has to win this election. It would be unwise for him to completely alienate the unions. I think there's a difference between bashing unions and standing up to them when it comes time to defending the things you feel strongly about . . .

He continues to talk about merit pay, he continues to talk about his support for charter schools . . .

He's sort of taking a very pragmatic approach. He's decided what things he's going to stand up to the unions on but at the same time he has to acknowledge that teachers are crucial if we're going to get this job done.

4. What's the ultimate goal for your group?

We're hoping to get to a point where the Democratic Party is the party that has the rigorous debate, that allows ideas to be on the table – right now they're taken off before we have a chance to really talk about a lot of things. That's in large part because of the union's ability to stop things.

We'd like to see the Democratic Party be the party of progress in terms of trying to find ways to get our public school system into the 21st century.

5. With the unions as partners?

It's going to be their decision. At this point, as Democrats, we need to move forward. It's going to be very hard for our party to survive without the teachers' unions as an active part of our party. Ideally, as a Democrat and as somebody who wants education reform, yes, I would love to see the teachers' unions as a partner.