March 2005 Friedman Report Profile: Stephen L. Gilchrist

Published March 1, 2005

As a South Carolina citizen with an interest in education policy and an influential position as founder and director of the South Carolina Center for Grassroots and Community Alternatives (SCCGCA), Stephen L. Gilchrist wants to make one thing clear: The debate on school choice is not about public school vs. private school.

“It’s about giving parents, especially those parents in low-wealth communities, greater control over the education of their children,” he says.

Gilchrist is the son of a public school principal and the husband of a public school educator, but his interest “has been from a policy standpoint.” He grew up in a South Carolina community where “you would graduate from high school and get a good job at the mill,” he says. “You could stay there for 30 years and live very comfortably.”

Higher education led Gilchrist to what he calls “a different world.” He received a scholarship to attend South Carolina State University, where he majored in music. As graduation approached, he asked himself what he was going to do with his music training during the next two years. “If I’m not at the level of Pavarotti, then I may need to try something else,” he decided.

Sought Political Involvement

Gilchrist decided to pursue another interest: politics. He ventured into an apprenticeship with the Legislative Black Caucus in South Carolina. He says now that he was the only non-political science major involved in the program and that he went in knowing nothing about politics.

That quickly changed. Gilchrist took the time to meet his own state senator, John Drummond, who was chairman of the State Senate Finance Committee. Gilchrist was offered the opportunity to come back and spend more time in the senator’s office. “Senator Drummond was a surrogate father to me,” Gilchrist says now.

He believes the greatest lesson he learned was that relationships are valuable. He also learned the nuances of Senate finance.

He went on to become one of Greenwood County’s youngest administrators, and later became executive director of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, where he was instrumental in assisting the caucus in crafting important legislative initiatives.

Today, as executive director of SCCGCA, Gilchrist calls this an “interesting time to be in South Carolina.” He is encouraged by the debate on school choice. In particular, he is “encouraged that the debate has shifted from whether or not we need to have school choice to how to make it work.”

Flexible Attitude Emerging

Gilchrist credits South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s Put Parents in Charge Act with opening up that debate, and he is pleased No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has put reform on the national radar screen. Thanks to the testing requirements implemented in NCLB, Gilchrist is able to look at South Carolina and say “on a national scale, we are not performing well.”

The positive side to that, as he sees it, is that “we have the room to be creative and innovative. I want all South Carolinians to have a real discussion about how to educate children.”

Gilchrist believes there are multiple reasons why South Carolina students are under-performing. He is convinced “we must try something new, because what we have is not working, especially for those that reside in low-wealth communities.” He was recently quoted in The State as saying, “If you’re white and rich, you have choice. If you’re black and poor, you don’t have choice.”

But Gilchrist sees some new trends emerging among the African-American community. He talks about a “generational split,” saying younger African-American parents “don’t really care what [education] system it is, as long as it works for our children’s needs.” That flexible attitude is leading the community to make new choices for their children’s educations.

Another exciting development Gilchrist and his organization found are the more than 40 independent black schools in the state. He says a lot of people would have said there weren’t any; his group was told there were three statewide. “We discovered all these black independent schools, operating with anywhere from 12 to 300 kids.”

Sharing Lessons Learned

It turns out the different schools often knew nothing about the others. That changed in a big way in January, when the group established themselves as the Southern Association of Independent Black Schools. Gilchrist believes many other schools will form and join the association as the school choice debate continues to unfold.

Gilchrist is pleased his “political experience helped give me the ability to establish these alliances.” He is interested in sharing the lessons he’s learned, “such as how to mobilize and excite communities about the need for reform,” he says.

“We get calls from people all the time, asking how we’re doing this,” he says. The answer, he tells them, is to “find the common interest.

“Because of the history of the south, South Carolina having a discussion about [school choice] is significant,” Gilchrist says. “And it’s important to start sharing the lessons we’ve learned.”

Sarah Faulkner ([email protected]) is an adjunct fellow with the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.