“It’s a disgrace” that a country claiming to value education “hasn’t powered it up with the energy of choice,” declared U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, addressing the second annual meeting of the Black Alliance for Educational Options on February 28 at Symposium 2002 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“This city is the shrine of American liberty and American independence, and there is no better place to celebrate the liberty and independence that educational options give to American families,” said Paige. Like BAEO, Paige supports expanded parental choice through publicly funded vouchers, tuition tax credits and deductions, charter schools, open enrollment, home schooling, and private management of public schools.
The four-day BAEO Symposium was attended by approximately 600 school choice activists, parents, and educators from black communities around the country. Just 50 or so attended BAEO’s first meeting four years ago. There now are 14 local BAEO chapters, with another 15 being formed.
That first BAEO meeting was called by former Milwaukee Public School Superintendent Howard Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Frustrated by the frequent experience of finding “whites talking about African-Americans” at school reform conferences, Fuller spearheaded the formation of the national organization to give blacks a voice in the growing school choice movement.
“Our mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children,” said Fuller, adding that low-income parents of all ethnic groups—black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American—”ought to have the right, the capacity, the power to send their children to the schools they feel will work best for them.”
It’s not an issue of public versus private schools, explained Kaleem Caire, BAEO’s president and CEO. “It’s whether the school is meeting the child’s educational needs or not. When dollars follow the child to school, parents have the option of leaving if their child’s needs aren’t being met.”
Secretary Paige related how, as Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, he had provided parents with more choices by creating charter schools and starting a program to let children in low-performing schools take their share of school tuition—some $3,750 a year—to a private school. That expansion of parental choice strengthened public education rather than hurt it, he said, noting choice “is an expectation” in other aspects of life in the twenty-first century.
“Americans control their environments through choice from the moment their favorite radio station wakes them up, through a day of reading and driving and eating what they choose, until they watch a video movie of their choice before going to a bed that is just the right size,” explained Paige.
But the “glaring exception” for most people is when they send their children to school, he noted. After picking out their child’s clothes, book-bags, haircuts, and doctors, “some big bureaucracy” makes decisions about their child’s school. Parents aren’t excited by this, many don’t understand it, but others—like BAEO—want to change the system to give everyone choice.
“You are the prophets of parental choice,” Paige told the Symposium attendees. “You have a great American message. Preach it boldly.”
No one preached more boldly than Fuller when he addressed a criticism from other black leaders—who oppose parental choice—that BAEO doesn’t represent the interests of the black community.
“Who made them kings?” he asked, conjuring up the deferential subject-monarch model the assembled delegates of the Continental Congress had rejected in the same city 226 years earlier. There comes a time in history, said Fuller, when people have to decide whose side they are on: on the side of those who believe low-income parents do not have the capacity to make decisions for themselves, or on the side of those who believe they do.
“How can our opponents claim they are on the side of the people when they are afraid to empower the people?” he asked. “Since when is it in the interest of low-income parents not to have control over the allocation and distribution of money?”
Fuller also raised the question of who had “decided” that vouchers and other forms of school choice were right-wing issues.
“You know who decided it,” he told the Symposium attendees: “The people who stand for the status quo, the ones who have mis-educated and undereducated our children for years.”
Speakers at the Symposium included two Philadelphia Democrats, State Representative Dwight Evans and State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who both helped establish charter schools in the city. In 1998, the Philadelphia teacher union unsuccessfully targeted Evans for defeat because of his support of school vouchers and for his role in crafting the bill permitting the state to take control of the city’s public schools.