A Swift return
Former GOP governor back in Boston to helm ed tech organization
IT’S BEEN A long time since Jane Swift left the public stage, retreating home to Western Massachusetts after a rocky 21-month tenure as governor.
Just how much time has passed? Earlier this month the twin daughters she delivered a month after being handed the gubernatorial reins — making history and national headlines as the first governor to give birth while in office — graduated from high school.
It’s no coincidence, Swift says, that her decision to accept a position running an education tech nonprofit in Boston and jump back in the public policy mix in Massachusetts coincided with that milestone.
“I have jealously guarded my daughters’ and my family’s privacy because their entrance into the world was such a big deal,” she said. “The fact that my twins are getting ready to head off to college in the fall makes it easier for me to be back in a more public role.”
LearnLaunch is a seven-year-old effort to grow the education technology sector and help shape public policy to bring tech advances to the K-12 and higher education systems. The organization serves as an incubator for ed tech startups, helps link investors and firms, providing, in Swift’s words, “the connective tissue” that brings together various players in the sector. It does that most prominently through an annual ed tech conference the organization sponsors, which keeps outgrowing the locations where it’s been held. To accommodate that growth, the next conference, slated for January 2020, will be held at the Hynes Convention Center.
Part of Swift’s focus will be engaging with public policy leaders to “elevate some of the promising aspects [of education technology] and extend them more broadly across Massachusetts and New England,” she said in an interview last week in Boston.
“This is the most public policy focused thing I’ve done since leaving office,” said Swift. But it’s hardly her first foray into the education sector.
After leaving office in January 2003, she worked at Arcadia Partners, a venture fund focused on education-related companies, and more recently she spent seven years as CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages in Vermont, a foreign language program for high school students jointly operated by Middlebury College and education software firm K12 Inc.
Swift says education policy was, in fact, the driving force behind her entry in politics. In 1990, the North Adams native became the youngest woman ever elected to the Massachusetts Senate, claiming the Berkshires-based seat at age 25. “I got involved in politics because I believe that education is the path to opportunity,” she said.
Swift was seen as a rising Republican star in the state, with a smart policy-focused lens. She landed a spot on the education committee in the Legislature, and served on the six-member conference committee that crafted the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act.
It was a bruising ride. She had already taken heat from critics who said she abused her powers as lieutenant governor, most famously when she rode home to Williamstown in a State Police helicopter for the Thanksgiving weekend in 1999. (She said she needed to get there quickly to care for her older daughter, who was home sick.) In early 2002, with polls showing she would lose badly in a Republican primary against Mitt Romney, who was making no secret of his interest in running for her job, Swift announced she would not seek a full term as governor and left office the following January.
Electoral politics seems far back in her rear view mirror, though Swift can’t quite resist the time-honored response that keeps that door opened the tiniest crack when asked if she might ever run for office again. “I would never say never but can’t imagine any scenario where that would be a possibility,” she said.
As for her work at LearnLaunch, where she officially takes over on July 1, Swift says there’s a valuable role “for innovators to play alongside educators,” bringing technology into education in ways that can help students at all levels succeed. Though the Middlebury program she directed offered foreign language instruction, Swift describes the role she’s often played in the education sector as that of “an English-to-English translator.”
“A lot of companies have really good ideas and really good products, but really don’t always fully understand how to work with folks in the education system,” she said of the role she’ll play reaching out to superintendents and state education officials.
She’s mindful of the pushback education technology has faced, particularly from teachers unions who fear districts may use it to replace teachers. “I’ve been very careful in talking about technology as being a tool, and using it in concert with teachers,” she said. “If you understand the challenges that teachers are facing in the classroom, and you looked at technology as a tool to help them meet the needs of learners more effectively, then by and large you can win over teachers.”
Notwithstanding the slings and arrows she experienced on Beacon Hill, Swift says the ability of leaders to work productively across the political aisle remains as healthy at the state level today as it was when she left office. At the national level, she says, it’s a different story.
Swift counts herself among those Republicans who feel adrift in the face of a national party that has fallen fully under the sway of a leader they can’t stomach. She was a Jeb Bush backer during the 2016 primaries, and a strong John McCain supporter during his 2008 run for president. But Swift said she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and may well vote for the Democratic nominee in 2020.
“I have no respect for Trump,” she said. At the same time, she adds, “I have been trying very hard, and will continue to, to understand why he reaches the voters that he does. Almost by definition you’re going to have to get some Trump voters if you want to win,” she said of the effort to turn him out of office next year.
Asked about Weld’s quixotic bid for the Republican nomination, Swift said she’s not yet supporting anyone in the 2020 race.
“It is a disheartening time for your children to be coming of age politically,” she said. Everyone remembers who was president when they first voted or began following politics, she said. “I’ve tried to guide them to see alternative views of Republicans,” she said of her three daughters, Elizabeth, 20, and 18-year-old twins Lauren and Sarah.“None of them are registered as Republicans,” she said. All three are registered independents, “but that was probably only out of some kind of respect to me, at least with one of them,” she said, suggesting at least one daughter could easily have registered as a Democrat.
Trump was “the outcome of a lot of things that have been going on in our political system,” she said. “I think the bigger question will be whether he’s an anomaly or a sustained sort of reaction to our system.”