Mike Madigan is a businessman, a tea party activist and vice president of an organization that considers education the civil rights issue of today.

It’s that last hat he wears that Madigan says prompted him to run for Congress.

“We need to break the cycle of poverty,” says the Grand Island Republican. “And one way to do that is to relook at what we’re doing with education.”

As vice president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a Rochester-based public policy group dedicated to free-market ideals, Madigan refuses to let conservatives take a back seat on the issue of how to reform public schools.

In his eyes, there’s a direct link between unemployment and violent crime and what he sees as a failing system of public education.

He’s quick to suggest that the federal government has done more harm than good when it comes to educating young people, especially African-American males.

And he’s just as quick to accuse his opponent, incumbent Rep. Brian Higgins, of being part of the problem, not the solution.

“He ignores them,” Madigan said of Higgins and the schoolchildren he represents. “I know they’re not donors. I know they’re not contributors. But they are his constituents.”

Higgins tells a far different story.

The Buffalo Democrat points to his support of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, a two-year-old initiative designed to improve three schools in the Kensington-Amherst-Bailey section of the city, and his work in helping the group behind the project secure $1.5 million a year for five years from the U.S. Department of Education.

Higgins also claims that while Madigan pretends to be an ally of public school teachers, parents and students, he comes from a wing of his party that has tried to kill some of the nation’s most basic educational programs.

“He’s part of a an element of the Republican Party, the tea party, that wants to destroy urban education,” Higgins said.

As Madigan enters the final weeks of his race for the 26th Congressional District seat, a battle he acknowledges is an uphill struggle, he’s making education reform the centerpiece of his campaign.

He points to the sky-high dropout rate among African-American males in the Buffalo school system to suggest that the status quo is obsolete.

His ideas for remedying the problem are rooted in his conservatism and his leadership role in the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

At the core of his platform is a federal voucher program similar to what GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is proposing.

Under Madigan’s proposal, families would receive a voucher of about $3,000 to use at a private or charter school of their choice.

“It would be a wake-up call,” he said. “We need to do something different.”

Like Romney, Madigan thinks choice and competition are essential to reforming public school systems here and across the country.

He knows “voucher” is an evil word among a lot of educators and represents for some a step back from the education policies of the last Republican president, George W. Bush.

While some studies have found a correlation between vouchers and higher test scores – a number of states currently have some type of voucher program – critics say the improvements are minimal.

That doesn’t bother Madigan, who is no fan of Bush’s most notable education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.

He says that the law gave us good data but that the unintended consequences – an over-reliance on standardized testing and teaching to those tests – have been disastrous.

Talk to Madigan about public schools for any length of time and he’s sure to mention their failure in preparing students who want to work instead of go to college.

If elected, he’s promising to lobby the state for a repeal or suspension of a law that prevents Buffalo and other large city school districts from joining BOCES and using its skilled trade programs.

“Buffalo, because of this law, is barred from taking part in this very effective program,” Madigan said.

He also wants to repeal or suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, the federal law that ensures prevailing wages are paid on most federally funded construction projects.

He thinks African-American workers would benefit if the law was repealed.

“It is slanted against low-income minority workers,” Madigan said.

Higgins claims Madigan’s emphasis on public education is nothing more than a tactic to win votes in Buffalo’s African-American community, a ploy he’s convinced will backfire.

“I have a solid record of supporting public education in Buffalo,” he said.

After five months on the campaign trail, Madigan is still the acknowledged underdog. He hopes to raise $150,000 by Election Day but expects Higgins will raise and spend even more.

He also is running in a district that is heavily Democrat but, thanks to redistricting, is considerably smaller in size, a change he thinks could benefit a grass-roots campaign like his.

Madigan has never run for political office before, but he has served as a Republican committeeman on Grand island and has worked with Tea New York, a large tea party organization, and former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino.

And yes, he’s heard the reports that he’s running against Higgins because of a political feud between Paladino and Higgins, a report he insists is way out of bounds.

“Am I running because of Carl? No.” he said. “I’ve known I was going to run for Congress since the beginning of time.”