WASHINGTON, DC–Declaring it unacceptable and un-American to deny parents the right to decide where their children are educated, a new coalition of African-Americans from across the United States gathered in the nation’s capital on August 24 to launch an active and aggressive campaign to lift the persistently low achievement levels of black children. Their plan would expand the range of educational options available to black families: not just school vouchers but also charter schools, private scholarships, tax credits, and home schooling.
“This is a crisis about our children and our future,” warned Dr. Howard Fuller, the coalition’s leader and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools. Fuller, who founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, pledged, “We cannot, we must not, and we will not allow this condition to continue.”
The new nonpartisan coalition, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, is the product of two years of organizational effort that has brought together a committed group of educators, legislators, parents, clergy, and community activists who aggressively support parental choice to empower families and increase options in education for black children. More than 500 participants from 28 states attended planning symposiums in 1999 and 2000 that resulted in the formation of BAEO, which views itself as a catalyst for change in the continuing struggle for many African-Americans to gain access to quality education.
“These historic gatherings produced an intergenerational coalition of black leaders, from all political and ideological persuasions,” said Fuller, noting a budding network of BAEO chapters in 35 major cities and 28 states will network thousands of blacks across the nation.
BAEO’s campaign was launched the same day the U.S. Department of Education reported that the gap between test scores of black and white students–which had narrowed during the 1980s–had widened during the 1990s. Now, the reading level achieved by the average white student at 13 years of age is not reached by the average black student until he or she is 17 years old.
“You cannot have a country where some children are being educated and some are not,” said Fuller. “So we’re here today to declare war on a fundamentally un-American condition. We will fight to support parents’ right to choose and to introduce a wide range of options. We will struggle as long as it takes to change this unacceptable situation.”
A Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University and a long-time parental choice activist, Fuller added that while BAEO’s mission is to close the gap between black and white students, the group sees choice as the starting point for empowering parents and getting them more involved in the educational process. While the issue of choice remains controversial, Fuller noted choice is not a new idea, as critics claim. Choice in America is widespread, he said, “unless you are poor.”
“What’s new is we want low-income parents to have the same cherished options as the rest of us,” Fuller explained. “This is about empowering parents to decide what works for their children.”
“Our people want freedom,” he added. “We want to make sure they realize those aspirations. There’s nothing more just than allowing parents to choose which schools they think are best.”
While choice advocates see this growing focus on parental choice as a means to redefine “public education,” the issue remains hotly debated nationally and in African-American communities. A frequent charge against school choice is that the movement is being led by rich, white conservatives with little or no stake in the black community. Fuller said any organization that wanted to aid BAEO’s mission would be welcome, but that BAEO would maintain its goal of empowering low-income parents through parental choice.
BAEO will form alliances and coalitions “across the political and racial and ethnic spectrum” with other groups interested in working towards that goal, said Fuller, noting that all parents–black, white, Hispanic, Native American, and others–share a common interest in the education of their children.
“We have to be committed to purpose,” he said. “This is what we think represents our best possibility for success at this point.”
BAEO also will engage in a massive public information campaign to advocate its goals. This campaign began at the end of August with a quarter-page ad in The Washington Post and will continue in African-American news media around the country. BAEO will continue to promote its message throughout the fall and winter and already has established a website, www.schoolchoiceinfo.org, to provide information and commentary on the school choice debate.
To make it clear there’s no intent to destroy public education, BAEO officials said the group would work aggressively inside various public school systems to ensure that students who remain in public schools also are adequately served. “It is not in our interests for the public schools to fail,” said Fuller, responding to a question from a representative of the National School Boards Association.
“Our organization is not anti-public schools,” he said. “We will not be trapped into that demagoguery. We understand we will be criticized, but if you confront the status quo, you’ll be criticized.”
BAEO’s Board of Directors
Criticism is nothing new to the bipartisan group of choice advocates and educational leaders who make up BAEO’s 29-member board. They span not only the country’s political divisions, but also its geography and its generations.
Board members include the Rev. Eddie K. Edwards, cochair of the Kids First! Yes! ballot initiative in Michigan; Pennsylvania State Representative Dwight Evans, a pro-voucher Democrat who has helped bring major school reforms to Philadelphia; the Rev. Floyd Flake, community renewal leader and a former Congressman; Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell; and Willie Braezell of Colorado Springs, whose advocacy of school vouchers upset the NAACP.
A long-time Detroit activist, Edwards is president and founder of the Joy of Jesus community outreach ministry. With the foundation of BAEO, he believes black religious leaders will become the vocal leaders to guide their communities out of their educational crisis, just as they have done effectively in past times of crisis.
“BAEO gives us the national infrastructure to unite around our cause to eliminate the separate and unequal educational opportunities between black and white students,” said Edwards. “Urban families across the nation are asking for help in educating their children,” he added. “We cannot be content to stay on the present course and simply talk about reform.”
While BAEO’s media campaign will take the group’s message to the grassroots, expanded educational options have to come from the legislature. Rep. Evans believes that as BAEO’s information reaches the community and creates interest, legislators will have to address the issue in a manner that supports the consensus, regardless of partisan interests.
“If we are to move forward, we have to recognize that this is about children, not Democrats or Republicans,” said Evans. “We have a crisis in America, we need to empower people, [and] we need to get legislators to understand that it is all our responsibility.”
Another BAEO board member is Kaleem Caire, whom Fuller introduced as a member of the “hip-hop generation.” A husband and father of three from Madison, Wisconsin, Caire knows first-hand the plight facing African-American youth.
Raised by his aunt and grandparents, Caire told how he watched his fellow black students disappear from a public school system that loses an average of 75 percent of its black males between ninth and twelfth grade. Only 5 percent graduate college. “People ask where all of our black teachers are. Well, when you have four or five out of 100 graduate per year, what do you expect?” asked Caire. “There’s always been an established order, but one thing we need to look for is an order that allows us to choose.”
BAEO officials believe their initial fight will be to change the mind-set that pervades many urban, low-income African-Americans. But while they are prepared to take on any opposition in this fight, they believe very soon the dialog will shift from being an argument for or against choice to a discussion about how to take advantage of different types of choice.
“BAEO is prepared to take up this fight; we will not be deterred,” declared Fuller. “No social movement has started with zillions of people. It starts with people who will work to make this happen. We are committed and we will make an impact.”
Barato L. Britt is a freelance writer associated with the GEO Foundation. He covers education, focusing primarily on parental choice issues in Indiana and Colorado.