Black Alliance Is on the Move

Published September 1, 2001

Recognizing that time is of the essence where the education of children is concerned, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has moved quickly over the past year to encourage the creation of a national network of state and city chapters. The chapter structure allows local community leaders to focus on local solutions to the national crisis in achievement among minority students from low-income families.

A similar sense of urgency possesses BAEO chapters: Two months after the formation of BAEO’s Indiana chapter in May, the organization hosted its first education reform conference, in Indianapolis.

The national Black Alliance group was formed in early 2000, held its first national conference almost immediately, launched a public information campaign in November 2000 to educate parents about school choice, and soon will move its national headquarters from Milwaukee to the nation’s capital. BAEO now has 20 chapters established or developing in cities across the U.S.

A $1.3 million campaign involving television, radio, and print media is well underway in Washington, DC, where it has attracted criticism from more established African-American advocacy groups, such as the NAACP and the National Alliance of Black School Educators, which oppose vouchers. In Indiana, too, chapter organizers report the primary opposition has come from local black organizations with long traditions of advocacy in the African-American community. On the bright side, recent passage of an unusually strong charter school law in Indiana has prompted greater public interest in school choice.

“We fully understand the politics behind this movement,” said Joe Epps, chairman of the Indianapolis Black Chamber of Commerce and a board member of BAEO of Indiana. “We will work with who we can and where we can. At the end of the day, this is about the children, not political agendas.”

Flake Keynotes July Outreach Event

The Black Chamber of Commerce cosponsored BAEO of Indiana’s July 16 outreach conference, “Education Reform and the Black Community: Understanding Your Options.” The Indiana Black Expo, Light of the World Christian Church, the Urban Christian Schools Coalition, and The Indianapolis Recorder were also cosponsors.

Held in conjunction with the week-long Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration, the day-long BAEO event drew attendees from across the state and culminated with the Expo’s annual Ecumenical Service. This was keynoted by former Congressman Rev. Floyd Flake, president of Edison Charter Schools and a member of BAEO’s national board of directors.

“We needed a forum to show African Americans in this state that there is a national movement to change the state of education in our communities, and it’s not just a voucher movement,” said Jackie Cissell, president of BAEO of Indiana. “Our goal was to present all of the issues we support in a manner which people would feel comfortable asking tough questions. We also wanted to show our community that we are here as their resource and advocate.”

Indiana’s charter school law, approved in May, permits potential school organizers to seek sponsorship from local school boards, public universities, and the mayor of Indianapolis. Assistant Deputy Mayor David Harris explained to conference attendees that Mayor Bart Peterson was the only mayor in the country to be given that authority. Peterson wants to see mayor-sponsored schools up and running by the 2002-2003 academic year.

As well as charter schools, conference panelists provided information on a broad range of education reform options such as school vouchers, privately funded scholarship programs, education tax credits, and homeschooling. Indianapolis Public Schools board members Delores Brents and Michael Brown explained that the city’s public schools had a variety of options for students, such as magnet schools, but acknowledged many parents were not aware of all the options.

Panelists providing a national perspective on education reform included national BAEO board member Lawrence Patrick, a Detroit-based lawyer who specializes in school law; Virginia Walden Ford, director of DC Parents for School Choice and also a national BAEO board member; Joyce Burges, of the National Black Home Educators Resource Association, based in Baker, Louisiana; and School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

“We have to stand up and support quality education for our children,” declared Ford. “School choice is not about public versus private, it’s about empowering parents.”

This echoed a theme established by BAEO president and CEO Kaleem M. S. Caire at the start of the conference. He made it clear school choice for low-income black families is the primary focus of the organization. The dollars need to follow the child, he explained. When the dollars follow the child to a school of choice, that school is much more responsive to parents and it has money for maintenance and textbooks.

“Parents should be the ones who decide where their children attend school,” said Caire. “Their child is their responsibility and no one else’s.”

But school choice advocacy is not the only goal of BAEO of Indiana, according to president Cissell. The organization aims to become a resource and advocate for parents in a number of ways: helping them solve problems they encounter with their public school system; facilitating communications within the black community; and improving communications between parents and legislators. Electronic and fax communications already go out to over 2,000 people weekly.

“We do not want to be just another organization that agitates for black people,” said Cissell. “We want to give citizens in this state an organization that is proactive in its approach, and effect some real changes.”

Barato Britt is executive director of BAEO of Indiana. His email address is [email protected].