Rare for an engineer, Robert Severns had a real nose for politics and policy. And rare for a retired businessman, he was extremely ambitious politically.
From 1993 until his death in 2003, he launched a frontal attack on two of the most powerful special interests in America: the education establishment and the environmental movement.
Bob Severns was deeply troubled by the mediocrity — and worse — that was smothering our public school system. He recognized at an early date the harm bilingual education was doing to Hispanic students, and American society at large, and led an intense research and press effort to alert policymakers to its destructive nature.
As a result of his perseverance the federal No Child Left Behind Act eliminated a $300 million bilingual grant program, and replaced it with block grants tied to teaching students English. The same could be said when Arizona passed a 2001 law giving bonuses to teachers for each English learner successfully transitioned to fluency. And through his resources and activism, the National Education Association lost its property tax exemption and was compelled to pay millions of dollars in taxes for its headquarters complex in Washington, DC.
He was also at the early edge of the effort to bring cost-benefit analysis to the federal regulatory process. Severns had a special recognition of the harm many environmental regulations were doing not only to job creation, but to the environment itself. His instinct that some government regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency were misusing science to falsely persecute businessmen and landowners led to Congress passing a new law, the “No Fear Act of 2001,” to protect EPA whistleblowers from agency retaliation.
Through his strategic insights and financial backing, tremendous gains have been made in these areas. Bilingual education is being rolled back across the country, and cost-benefit analysis is now the paramount tool in the White House and many federal agencies. While no one would claim these victories were Bob Severns’ alone, he stands out among a handful of players who had dominant roles in making them happen. And as school choice has spread dramatically across the country through charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers, Bob’s role in that historic movement has been powerful as well. And he never cared for or asked for personal credit where it was due.
In a perfectly symmetrical, and autobiographical, move, Severns endowed a chair at the University of Illinois to help engineering students learn more about the humanities. If the country is lucky, one or two more such leaders might emerge from this unique program.
Severns was a self-described “glass half-full guy” who always pushed his colleagues to do more, and better. He got big results, in business and politics, and they were striking.
His friends will greatly miss his wisdom and courage, and his country has lost a selfless advocate for freedom and self-government.
It is for these reasons that the Lexington Institute selected Robert Severns to receive its Lexington Leadership Award in 2003.
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