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Harriet Tyson, former Montgomery County Board of Education member, dies at 80

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Friday, September 24, 2010; 8:42 PM

Harriet Tyson, a champion of education reform who served as a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education during the 1970s, died Sept. 15 of complications from treatment for esophageal cancer at the Washington Home and Community Hospices in the District. She was 80.

Ms. Tyson became involved in shaping Montgomery schools' policies after the system failed to identify her son's learning disabilities. Elected to the school board in 1972, she served until 1976 and was an ally of parents seeking to exercise greater choice in their children's education.

"Some students learn better in innovative schools, and others do better in traditional schools," she told The Washington Post in 1972. "People should not be forced to go to one or another simply because it is in their attendance area."

She was an advocate for children with disabilities and their parents. In 1973, she led a charge to protect such children from Maryland's efforts to collect information about their diagnoses, citing privacy and civil liberty concerns.

Among the categories of disabilities listed by the state were "mental retardation," "multiple handicap" and "schizophrenia."

Ms. Tyson, known then by her married name, Mrs. Bernstein, remarked that symptoms of those conditions "are often displayed by board members."

Reading from the state's form, she cited "constant daydreaming," "mild temper tantrum" and "limited reality awareness."

After leaving the board, she continued to work on education reform issues for nonprofit organizations and government task forces, including the D.C. Committee on Public Education.

She was a freelance writer and wrote two books, "A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco" (1988) and "Who Will Teach the Children: Progress and Resistance in Teacher Education" (1994).

Harriet Agnes Tyson was born in San Antonio. She graduated from George Washington University in 1953.

She was a member of Foundry United Methodist Church in the District.

Her marriages to Royal Voegele and David Bernstein ended in divorce. A son from her first marriage, Mark Voegele, died in 2007.

Survivors include her husband of 18 years, William Willcox of Washington; a daughter from her first marriage, Anne Voegele of Alexandria; and a brother.

Emma Brown

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