From Participant to Presenter: Dr. Anna Egalite and the Reform Leaders’ Summit
When Anna Egalite applied for the Reform Leaders’ Summit in 2010, she had lived in the United States for just two years, and she was hungry for answers regarding educational choice. Egalite came to America through the Irish Teaching Fellows and taught at Sacred Heart Interparochial School in Pinellas Park, Florida. During her first year of teaching, Egalite witnessed her low-income students bounce back and forth between the local public and private schools.
“These parents knew the public education on offer in Pinellas County was of lower quality than the Catholic school alternative and that their child felt unsafe at their assigned public school, but the financial stretch of making consistent tuition payments at our Catholic school was frequently too hard to pull off,” Egalite says. “This felt truly unjust, and it motivated me to learn more about why and how American education developed into its current model.”
This sense of injustice was only enlivened in Egalite when she saw Howard Fuller speak at a Teaching Fellows graduation ceremony. Fuller, a legendary champion of school reform and a Reform Leaders’ Summit presenter, called upon audience members to engage in the policy work it takes to make private schools accessible to all parents, not just those who can afford them.
“[Fuller] spoke with an urgency that I found to be truly arresting—he speaks about these politically sensitive and controversial issues with an unapologetic demeanor,” Egalite says. “[Hearing him talk] was a wake-up call. Listening to him speak, I was able to see that education policy is not this distant issue for policymakers on different sides of the aisle to argue over. I could see how the impact of a change in education policy can be incredibly powerful when the average person pays attention to who benefits under the status quo.”
After graduating from the Teaching Fellows program, Egalite sought this broader understanding of the American system of education and the politics surrounding it. She enrolled in the Education Policy doctoral program at the University of Arkansas and also joined the Reform Leaders’ Summit. As she began these programs, Egalite saw her status as a “total outsider” to American politics as a benefit.
“I came from a place where the government provided for my education; it didn’t provide it. I didn’t come with the baggage of the politics surrounding school choice, nor did I have a rosy or overly-idealized image of public education,” Egalite says. “I respect that there are great public schools working hard to provide a great education for families lucky enough to live in desirable communities. But I worry all the time about the kids who are not so lucky to live in those areas.”
Egalite says she is grateful that, as someone who had few preconceived notions about educational choice, the Reform Leaders’ Summit gave her a space to have a real dialogue about education reform without the polarizing politics. “I find it disconcerting that the school choice issue is used as a weapon in political battles between the left and right...It’s easy to pick a side and not take the time to listen to other ideas or investigate the evidence that is out there, but it takes courage to say, ‘Let’s come together, share our ideas, and figure out where we stand,’” Egalite says. “The Summit was sort of a professional retreat for me where I could spend time reflecting on these different viewpoints and my own philosophies on the strengths and limitations of traditional public schools and the potential for school choice to even the playing field.”
Egalite’s passion for calculating the impact of educational choice policies has not waned since her time as a participant in the Reform Leaders’ Summit. Since then, Egalite earned her Ph.D. in Education Policy and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. She currently serves as assistant professor at North Carolina State University in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development, where she studies the impacts of private school voucher programs in both private and public schools. Egalite has presented her research to each Reform Leaders' Summit cohort since 2016 and is the first participant to become a presenter at the conference.
As a past participant, Egalite says that returning to the Reform Leaders’ Summit as a presenter “was a huge honor.” Egalite says, “There is no wasted time at the Summit, no filler speakers, so to be given a huge chunk of time—an hour and a half– to lead the discussion was humbling.”
Egalite says that she would encourage others who are looking for the kind of space she was seeking out in 2010 to attend the Reform Leaders’ Summit–a place to discuss what educational policies are best for children and families without the burden of protecting political allegiance. “There are many personal and professional rewards associated with being a part of this group,” she says. “It’s good to surround yourself with people who think differently and can debate respectfully... Events like the Reform Leaders' Summit offer a safe space for participants to truly interrogate their feelings on this issue and to think through why they might oppose or support this policy. As so many private schools that serve the poor continue to close, these policy considerations matter a lot.”
Thanks to the impactful research Egalite now shares at the Summit, attendees may too hear a call to action that will shape the course of their professional lives. Egalite says that the opportunity to return to the Reform Leaders’ Summit as a presenter “reminds me why the school choice issue mattered to me back in 2007, when I started teaching in Florida. It reminds me why it still matters today.”
Learn more about thew Reform Leaders' Summit and apply to the next cohort at https://ace.nd.edu/reform-leaders-summit.