03/2003 The Friedman Report: A Dynamic Duo in Indiana

Published March 1, 2003

Jackie Cissell and Barato Britt may be on opposite ends of the political-philosophical spectrum, but they are definitely on the same page when it comes to parental choice in education. They describe their relationship as “a team, to the end, no matter what.”

Cissell is a self-described “ardent Republican” whose two African-American male children encountered many of the problems in education systemic to that demographic group. She is one of the 17 founders of the national Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) along with Dr. Howard Fuller, one of the fathers of the school choice movement, whom she met 12 years ago. Cissell works on school choice measures from the same ethos as Fuller: equity of educational opportunity.

Her personal life has been a testament to the need for school choice.

“I spent $1,500 at Sylvan Learning Center one summer to get my son caught up to where he should have been, after he was socially promoted for years,” said Cissell. “My family has had many of the problems you hear about.”

She believes it is deeply wrong that certain groups of people are excluded from the American dream because of failure on the part of the educational establishment. She sees educational choice as the catalyst to solving the underlying problem of disempowerment of low-income parents.

“I get discouraged when we visit housing projects,” she said. “The sense of apathy there is palpable.”

Britt is an avowed “apolitical person who leans to the left.” Cissell’s long-time partner in school choice activism, he believes only a successful, broad-based coalition effort–like that demonstrated in Milwaukee–will yield school choice programs.

“We have to get on the same page,” he said.

As the president and CEO of BAEO of Indiana Inc., Britt is responsible for coordinating state-level efforts. He works for the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation in Indianapolis as well, which began its own charter school last year.

Britt is encouraged that his efforts in Indiana have evolved from “just promoting what we don’t have to defending what we have.” To him, this spells progress. Still, he knows there is much more to do. He has been instrumental in having Indianapolis chosen by the national BAEO organization as the site of its 2006 Symposium.

“This will produce a great deal of energy right here in Indiana,” he said. The BAEO Symposiums are large-scale outreach events that gather parents, activists, and decision makers in order to galvanize unity in the pursuit of more educational options for black parents.

Britt and Cissell agree that for school choice to become widespread will require a synergy of grassroots support and supportive leadership, in effect a great cooperation between the top and bottom tiers of power. They intentionally work on both ends of this “power continuum,” educating legislators and governors about the overwhelming African-American support for school choice and rallying parents to show the desperate need for it.

And, as a team, they promise they won’t stop until the job’s done.

Laura J. Swartley is communications director with The Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her email address is [email protected].