By the Company It Keeps: Derrell Bradford

Derrell Bradford is a fighter for low-income kids, and he has the compelling personal story to back it up. He’s a prized possession of the ed-reform community.

Derrell’s been dedicating his many talents to the State of New Jersey for some time now, recently as executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, the state’s school-choice advocacy group, and now as head of Better Education for Kids, an advocacy outfit focused primarily on educator effectiveness.

But he’s much more than muscle; Derrell is a highly talented communicator. He’s a regular presence on major TV shows, and he’s a regular radio commentator. And he’s a truly gifted writer. When he’s representing the cause, we’re winning.

I’ve known Derrell for years now; we ran in the same school-choice circles for some time. But I got to know him much better during my time working for the New Jersey Department of Education. Not only was he a vocal external supporter of our work (much appreciated!), he also was willing to serve—taking on a tough, thankless task that exposed him to nasty, unwarranted criticism. But his contributions were substantial, and the story has a very happy ending (see below!).

As you’ll also see in his answers, Derrell is well read, well rounded, humble, and funny, and he has the most fascinating interests. Oh, and he is exactly right about the best jazz line-up of all time.

Now that I have three young kids, I think more and more about how lucky my wife and I are. We have the ability to make sure those three angels end up in schools that meet their needs. But for millions of moms and dads, that’s not the case.

Now in full-fledged dadhood, one of the highest compliments I can give is this: Were my situation less blessed, I would want Derrell Bradford fighting for my kids.

Low-income families and the organizations that support them are fortunate to keep the company of Derrell Bradford.

How will you determine if Better Education for Kids has succeeded? What are you ultimately trying to accomplish?

Good question. I would argue that someone who does what we do…works in education policy and politics…really doesn’t know what success looks like. We know what “better” looks like. We know what “different” and “more accountable” look like. And most importantly we know what “more equitable” both in terms of access and finance, looks like. But success is evolving, just like America is evolving, and you have to constantly reexamine the things you do to make sure they are working and to design new answers when they don’t. That said, I think what we’re trying to accomplish here at B4K is the same thing that other groups in the political space try to accomplish: support legislators who will create and advance legislation so we can implement innovative policy for kids. Education reform is the child of political reform, so we’re focused on reforming politics to make it possible.

Why did you get involved in education reform?

So I am the least likely person to be involved in the movement…I really fell into it in 2002 after a stint in the publishing industry. I got a job working in communications for a school choice and education reform advocacy group in New Jersey. And I can remember sitting in my office and thinking “why should I care about this?” And that answer was easy for me. When I was a kid I had been lucky enough to get a scholarship to an all-boys private high school just outside of the city, and that happened right when things were getting really difficult for me in the public school I attended. Going to that school was the single most important and transformative event of my early life…I’m deeply humbled by it and I just want every kid to have the same opportunity I had.

Several years ago, Governor Chris Christie appointed you to a task force charged with making recommendations for a new statewide education-evaluation system. Any reflections on that work, especially given that those recommendations were piloted by the state and made their way into successful tenure-reform legislation?

So the experience on the task force was both fulfilling and frustrating, and I am grateful to have been appointed by Governor Christie. I had been working on supply-side reforms for a long time at that point so I was happy to participate in reform at a more systemic level since both kinds of reform (choice and systems) are very important to me. I learned a great deal during the experience, and I wish more people knew the time and effort we put into generating the recommendations. How long we spent working to prioritize, and not penalize, supporting great teachers. How many discussions we had about fairness while focusing in on something simple and crucial; that student learning had to be a measure by which we judged teacher effectiveness. We were enormously sympathetic to the value and importance of great teaching and leading.

The frustrating comes from the way the effort was spun by, let us call them the education status quo. The same folks who gave us a system that ranked 99% of teachers as effective and which left teachers with no objective defense against politics at the school-leader level. The same people who designed a system that routinely and deliberately sends the least experienced teachers to the places where the kids have the highest needs and that dispenses with teachers based on how long they have taught and now how well. All the ad hominem attacks, the speculation about our motive (and my motives in particular)…it was all a very troubling experience for me. I had not been prepared for the transition from private advocate for education reform to quasi-public target for the people who like things as they are. It was jarring to say the least.

That said, I am really proud of the fact that, unlike so many task force efforts, this one is actually being put into practice instead of being put on the shelf. I, of course, tip my hat to you for your involvement, as well as to Commissioner Cerf, the Governor, and the other members of the task force who served with me. Of course, now that we’re at implementation, the really difficult work begins.

If people haven’t seen “The Cartel,” what should they know about it?

That it’s long 😉 In all seriousness that movie really captured the education reform movement in New Jersey right as it was about to crest. Chronologically it is the equivalent of Star Wars in the education reform trilogy (with “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman”). But it also is gritty and funny in a dark way that made it both memorable and impactful. “The Cartel” really took on the notion that public education in America operates solely and purposefully “for the kids,” and it showed exactly what can go wrong when you are consistently first or second in school spending every year (as New Jersey is) and lots of interest groups have placed the economic advancement and security of the adults above the kids. And it did this in a way that folks who do not spend every-waking second thinking about it could easily understand.

What it did most importantly though was show our education reform movement here for what it was: bipartisan and passionate. It was a fight for something better, and lots of folks put their political and social differences aside to be a part of it.

Lots of ed reformers, especially those on the political left, still oppose publicly funded voucher programs that would enable disadvantaged kids to go to private schools. What’s your response?

I am a Democrat, and I support vouchers, tax credits, etc. with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being. And there are a few reasons for this. First, I had the experience of getting a voucher when there were none in Maryland (as there still, unfortunately, aren’t any) and that experience literally saved my life. I never go to Dartmouth or the University of Pennsylvania without that, and I wake up every day knowing that more kids should have that chance. Second, I’ve had too many friends, family members, and neighbors, wrecked by schools that did not work and that had long histories of not working. Educational opportunity is a personal thing for me…and every kid’s future is more important than preserving anyone’s notion of residential assignment as the primary way we distribute education.

And maybe the most important thing for my friends on the left is that we would never support delivering health care the same way we deliver education. If you had to go to the hospital that was closest to you just because you lived near it the world would end…no one would stand for it. But we force families to get their education precisely that way. How does that make sense? We have these discussions about wealth inequality but our education system distributes quality through the housing market, which is absolutely a wealth proxy. If you’re for forcing people to buy “free” education with a mortgage then it’s not free and it certainly isn’t “public.”

Vouchers, charters…choice…to me they inform a worldview about education where there is no 100% solution. There are, instead, 100 one-percent solutions. You need choice—accountable and transparent of course—just like you need teacher tenure and evaluation reform. Just like in the real world you need both laws, and the police. Law without the police is anarchy. The police without law are an army. These things compliment one another. And again, the wealthiest families know this already. They’ve got plenty of choices. The only folks who don’t have them (or who have them in short supply) are poor.

I don’t want to rant on but there is one more important thing. I tell folks all the time that President Obama is the most important school choice story in America. Parochial school in Indonesia, and a scholarship to the prestigious Punahou school in Honolulu. Want to know the kind of difference expanding choices for minority kids can make? Just check out 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

You’re a product of Baltimore. If you could have dinner with Cal Ripken, Jr., Edgar Allen Poe, Dr. Ben Carson, or David Simon (creator of The Wire), whom would you choose?

Simon, hands down. The Wire, both in terms of raw fiction and its blindingly hot institutional insight, was like looking at the sun for too long. Even after you turned away the image was still there. But other than its amazing takes on the drug trade, and Season IV’s outstanding view on schools, I felt like it was a really detailed analysis of the past and future of the northeastern American city; which was really about two cities where Baltimore is concerned. The city it is and the city it wants to be, both fighting to the death with one another. Brilliant stuff. Brilliant guy.

You were fortunate enough to go to the University of Pennsylvania. What professor, course, or experience there had the greatest influence on you?

I would say that A History of the American South, which was taught by Drew Faust, who is now the President at Harvard, was outstanding given that I did not like history. But since I was an English major, I would say my then advisor, Maureen Quilligan, was enormously influential and really shaped my love of British literature. And then Professor Karen Rile, who led my independent study in creative writing. She taught me to stop writing so people would think that I was smart, and instead to write so I could tell the stories that were important to me.

You’re an enthusiastic gamer. How’d you get hooked, and what are the three best video games of all time?

How I got hooked? I had no video games as a kid (though I was a pretty serious athlete) so now I overcompensate. Three best games of all time? Impossible to answer but here goes. The Mass Effect trilogy for its amazing universe, story, and dialogue…you really cared about the characters and their motivations and choices. Any of the Ratchet and Clank series for their color, humor, and over-the-top weapons and explosions. And for the last I will say it’s a toss-up between Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim…which are kind of the same game and are both from the same company, Bethesda. Those games just plop you in a fully realized world and let you go explore. They’re both great time sinks where you can spend more time not playing the main game than actually making your way through the story.

You’re a music aficionado. Assemble your dream concert for me. You can have up to five acts—living or dead—on the bill.

Only five?!?!

• Miles Davis and his crew circa 1958 (Adderly, Coltrane, Evans, etc.)

• Yes

• U2

• Soundgarden

• The Roots

For ten years, Walton’s Bruno Manno has been the reigning sartorial king of ed reform. But, man, his title may be in jeopardy—you bring the flare something wicked. Are you going to challenge him for the belt, or is this town big enough for the two of you?

So I took the leap and tried this custom-suiting place recently. Not super expensive and lots of tweaks. We’ll see how it works out. But the most important thing about taking down the king is that you can’t let him know you’re gunning for him!

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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