Former Governor Tommy Thompson and the late state Rep. Annette Polly Williams, D-Milwaukee, provided the political leadership that launched the Milwaukee school choice program in 1990. Much less is known about the decisive role played by state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, when that program teetered on the brink of unraveling sixteen years later.

In 2006, school choice enrollment approached the 15,000-student limit set in 1995 when the state expanded the program to include religious schools. The daunting mechanics of rationing slots among dozens of schools and thousands of new parents would have caused irreparable damage.

Legislation to lift the cap faced both opposition from Governor Jim Doyle and an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled state Senate. After Doyle agreed to a compromise, a bill cleared the Assembly (thanks to Speaker John Gard’s leadership). When it reached the Senate, former Senator Tom Reynolds, R-West Allis, threatened to cast a decisive “NO” vote.

Vukmir, then a member of the Assembly, patrolled the Senate corridors and counted votes. After members of the school choice coalition threw up their hands in trying to persuade Reynolds, Leah called the quirky legislator aside and delivered a message that got his attention. Namely, if he killed the bill he could expect an electoral thrashing by Vukmir in a 2006 primary challenge. Reynolds blinked. The bill squeaked through.

More than a decade later, thanks in no small part to Vukmir, Milwaukee choice enrollment has more than doubled. Research documents that choice students are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. An emerging body of evidence shows that safer schools attended by choice students reduce the chance that they will engage in criminal activity.

In the likely event of her running for the U.S Senate next year, Vukmir’s longstanding role as a true champion of school choice will be a key part of the story she presents to voters. As the Reynolds incident illustrates, she has operated in the trenches. At the same time, she has worked throughout the state and on major national platforms to advance programs that expand educational options available to parents. Her work in Wisconsin includes a partnership with Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, to enact a choice program for parents of students with special education needs.

The departure of Nicole Schneider from the field of potential opponents of Sen. Tammy Baldwin focuses attention on Vukmir and others who might contend for the GOP nomination. In coming weeks and months formal decisions will be forthcoming from Eric Hovde, Kevin Nicholson, Dale Kooyenga, Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps others.

Fresh in many minds is the bruising GOP primary in 2012 between Hovde, Thompson, and Mark Neumann. The nature of that battle played a decisive role in Baldwin’s eventual defeat of Thompson.

My own support for Vukmir next year is based on much more than her education reform record. She was a stalwart backer of the transformative Act Ten. She bucked members in both parties — including initial opposition from Governor Scott Walker — to help enact right-to-work legislation and partial reform of prevailing wage requirements. Thanks in part to her, the woefully misnamed Government Accountability Board is history. Pro-life supporters have found her a staunch ally.

Finally, with health care certain to be a major issue, her medical credentials and experience will make her the most authoritative candidate on that topic.

The overriding goal next year is to replace Baldwin. I expect RightWisconsin will provide a forum for supporters of several qualified potential candidates to make their case.

A personal observation, as someone who worked for Pat Lucey, Les Aspin, and opposed Thompson in 1986. I find it problematic that some conservatives want to impose what amounts to a litmus purity test in evaluating possible candidates for the GOP nomination.  I think that takes “building a wall” a step too far.

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