Under the Dome

Former public school teachers' lobbyist now supports private school vouchers

Brian Lewis, once a persistent voice opposing private school vouchers, has done an about-face.

A former lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Educators, Lewis says private schools are an alternative that more families should be able to pursue.

"It has been a gut-check for me," said Lewis, who recently moved his daughter from public to private school. The public school could not offer his daughter special services she needed, Lewis said. "It has been a personal journey," he said, and more parents should be able to choose the schools best for their children.

While he was working for NCAE, Lewis and Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom, argued opposing positions on vouchers in public forums.

But after those appearances, they said in a recent interview, they always talked about the complexities of improving education.

Now they are talking about a new partnership that will serve as an example for others.

Allison, who has a daughter attending public school, said he and Lewis have talked about hosting public forums in four cities featuring public and private school teachers.

Lewis now runs his own political communications and government relations firm. The men said in an interview that Lewis's company is not working for Parents for Educational Freedom.

They timed their announcement to come a week before the state Supreme Court considers a challenge to the state's new voucher program.

This is the first school year that families who meet income guidelines can use taxpayer money to send their children to private school. About 1,200 students are using vouchers worth up to $4,200 to attend private school this semester.

NCAE - Lewis's former employer - and the N.C. School Boards Association filed separate lawsuits challenging vouchers, called N.C. Opportunity Scholarships. The NCAE claims that spending money on private schools is unconstitutional.

Just last week, the state Department of Public Instruction released A-F performance grades for public schools that showed that the Ds and Fs were concentrated in low-wealth schools. Public school advocates fear that voucher supporters will use the grades as a lever to expand the voucher program.

Allison said his group isn't going to use the A-F grades to push people away from public schools. But the results should help foster a broad discussion about making sure low-income students have the resources they need, he said.