Marie Gladney, a single parent from Indianapolis, had never before seen such a diversity of African-American constituencies aligned behind a single issue. She and over 600 other enthusiastic parents, advocates, and educators from 35 states converged on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in early March for the first annual meeting of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).
Though barely eight months old, the new organization’s explosive growth confirms that the drive for increased educational options for poor and minority children has gained national momentum.
“We must give poor parents the power to choose schools–public or private, non-sectarian or religious–where their children will succeed,” declared BAEO President Howard L. Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and now director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning.
“Is there anything more painful than seeing our children being mis-educated, under-educated, dropping out of school, or being pushed out of school?” he asked. “It is a pain that none of us, not one of us, should allow to continue for another day,” he declared, pledging that BAEO would do everything in its power to help people fight back.
A Battle in the Trenches
As the BAEO annual meeting opened, Gladney and over 50 parents representing the Indiana BAEO Chapter admitted to being unprepared for the task ahead of them. But after a long weekend of information-gathering and coalition-building, they were certain that change would come to how children were being educated in their neighborhoods.
“This fight will make us a stronger community,” said Gladney, who recounted her own experiences with the failure of the public school system. “If we don’t get on our jobs, our children will continue to get left behind. We’re willing to stand up, all of us, from all across the country.”
That was exactly the kind of response Fuller was hoping for. At a pre-conference seminar, he had made it clear that while BAEO would form a national organization, it would become a force for change only through local BAEO organizations that would fight at the state level.
“Talking about options doesn’t get the options,” Fuller explained. “It’s going to be fought at the state level,” he added, urging participants to build new BAEO chapters when they returned home.
New Leadership Welcomed
While spearheading the effort to build a national organization that would stand the test of time, Fuller made it clear that BAEO was an organization destined to be run by an emerging generation of young black leaders. He expressed his willingness to make room for new leaders on the stage beside him, and to step aside when necessary. He wants young people to get involved in the struggle and to be at the table, arguing and discussing issues, so they will be ready to take over when the time comes.
BAEO, a nonpartisan coalition of educators, legislators, parents, clergy, and community activists, was formed last August with the aim of lifting the persistently low achievement levels of black children by aggressively expanding the range of educational options available to black families. Those options include not just school vouchers but also charter schools, private scholarships, tax credits, and home schooling. (See “New Black Alliance for Choice,” School Reform News, October 2000.)
The March BAEO meeting was held in conjunction with the Third Annual Symposium on Expanding and Enhancing Educational Options for African Americans, which exposed participants to the different options currently available around the nation. This year’s theme was The New Agenda for Black Children: Parental Choice, and was designed to amplify BAEO’s national voice for choice and to make the black presence felt in that dialogue.
Big Show of Support for Choice
BAEO organizers noted its meeting represented the largest-ever show of nationwide black support for school choice–a turnout they believe will provide a substantial boost to choice efforts across the country. With more than 600 attendees, the BAEO event proved interest in all forms of school choice is alive and well, despite the recent defeat of voucher initiatives in California and Michigan.
That certainly was the view of a reporter from The Economist, a British magazine that regarded the event significant enough to give it positive international coverage. With the notable exception of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, however, U.S. newspapers and magazines uniformly ignored the gathering.
The Economist’s observer noted, “the emergence of a younger generation of black leaders in their late 20s and 30s” is changing “the center of gravity of the voucher debate.”
One of those young leaders is Kaleem M.S. Caire, BAEO’s executive director. He recounted how the group has been engaged since November in an aggressive media campaign to inform parents about the benefits of school choice. While the ads were intended to inform and educate, Caire said, they also had stirred up pleas for help from black families desperate to educate their children–clearly demonstrating the importance of BAEO’s efforts to create more educational options for parents.
A Cry for Help
“I need help!” wrote a mother whose eight-year-old child still had not been taught to read, despite being held back twice in second grade and having Reading Recovery teachers. Now her child no longer wanted to go to school. “Please help me,” pleaded the mother.
The public schools have an agenda of repeated failure, Caire noted. “Our children are dying,” he said, pointing out that for every 100 black students who enter elementary school, only 25 graduate high school, only 12 take the SAT, only 10 get into college, and only 5 graduate from college.
“BAEO’s agenda is different,” he said. “We have determined what our agenda will be.”
BAEO’s independence from the public school establishment also was emphasized by Dolores Fridge, BAEO vice president and associate vice chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and University’s Equal Opportunity Division.
One of the most common misconceptions in the school choice movement, Fridge explained, is that African-Americans are not speaking for themselves on the issue. She said the bipartisan complexion of BAEO’s membership debunks the notion that the push for choice comes from the right wing.
“We no longer need caretakers, we can take care of ourselves,” said Fridge, who was instrumental in the successful campaign to pass education tax credit legislation in Minnesota. “This is not a partisan issue, this is about the children,” she added. “We have agreed that this movement is about making sure our children are in environments where they will be educated.”
Nevertheless, BAEO faces a significant battle within the African-American community. Black political leaders traditionally have taken a position against school choice options, despite continuing polling data documenting overwhelming support for such options in the black community. With a board and membership that reflects the diversity of the African-American community, BAEO officials believe they will be well-equipped to address school choice issues and to dispel the many misconceptions that deter minorities from buying into choice.
Chapters Up and Running
Since BAEO’s formation last August, local chapters have been organized and are operational in Milwaukee, New York, Denver, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia. Chapters in nine other cities are being organized.
Led by civil rights attorney Dale Sadler, the Denver-Aurora chapter already has called upon the state’s civil rights commission to look into claims of discrimination and disparate treatment of African-American students enrolled in the Denver Public School System.
In Indiana, where state legislators are battling over charter school legislation, BAEO is poised to promote the passage of a strong charter school law. The need for these alternative schools was highlighted recently by the release of standardized test results for the state. Only 16 percent of sixth-graders enrolled in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) passed both the English and math sections of the standardized tests. In some IPS schools, the passage rate was less than 5 percent.
“Regardless of your stance on the issues, you cannot deny the facts,” said BAEO board member Jackie Cissell, community relations director for the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation. “Parents are mad, and we are demanding better. That’s what this trip is about: to help us figure out what we can do as a community to change this horrific trend.”
While parents are the ones who know first-hand the educational problems their children are experiencing, they are too often left out of the conversation. “We’re working to change that,” said Cissell.
BAEO plans to continue its media information campaign at an increased level in Washington, DC, and in states where BAEO chapters have been organized. The group also plans to engage opposition groups head-on, through forums, debates, and conventions targeted at black and minority communities.
Barato Britt is communications director for the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, an organization that promotes school choice in Indiana, Colorado, and New Jersey.
For more information . . .
about the Black Alliance for Educational Options, visit the group’s Web site at www.baeoonline.org. There you can find the BAEO mission statement, list of board members, position papers, news releases, print ads, and TV ads.