Parents Must Have the Power to Choose: an exclusive interview with Lawrence C. Patrick III

Published March 1, 2003

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. … Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
August 28, 1963

A hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the nation that its creed applies to all Americans: Regardless of race or religion, every American is guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, another 40 years later, a new generation of black leaders is reminding the nation that the doors of educational opportunity still are not open to all children. Choice in education is widespread, they say, unless you’re poor.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options

BAEO is a national nonprofit nonpartisan membership organization, formed on August 24, 2000.

BAEO’s mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children.

BAEO’s purpose is fourfold:

1. To educate and inform the general public about parent choice initiatives on the local and national levels.

2. To educate black families about the numerous types of educational options available.

3. To create, promote, and support efforts to empower black parents to exercise choice in determining options for their children’s education.

4. To educate and inform the general public about efforts to reduce or limit educational options available to parents.

BAEO information is available at

The voices of these new leaders find expression in the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a three-year-old national nonprofit nonpartisan membership organization, whose mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children. Twenty-seven-year-old Lawrence C. Patrick III, president and CEO of BAEO, is one of the organization’s co-founders.

Patrick brings an unusual perspective to BAEO since he received his education in an environment of public school choice in his native Detroit, attending an experimental public school where students were enrolled at the choice of their parents. At these “alternative schools,” as they were called, parents also had decision-making power over principal selection and teacher hiring. He also saw his father, a Republican who headed the local parent association at Patrick’s school, team up with three Democrats to lead a reform slate to victory in the school board election of 1988.

Having all of this reform activity take place around him as he was growing up helped shape Patrick’s thinking and impressed upon him the value of parental choice in education.

An early interest in journalism led Patrick to become the youngest city desk reporter at Detroit’s Free Press. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, he won a Knight-Ridder Scholarship, which he used to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in newspaper journalism from Florida A&M University. In addition to the Free Press, he has worked at the San Jose Mercury News, the Tallahassee Democrat, and with Knight Ridder New Media, where he created and managed e-commerce sites for the nation’s second-largest newspaper company.

Before taking over the reins at BAEO, Patrick co-founded and headed Megaschool, a Silicon Valley firm designed to help charter schools implement technology. He has been featured in several trade publications. Patrick recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Your background has been in journalism and e-commerce. How did you become involved in school reform and the formation of BAEO?

Patrick: Shortly after we started Megaschool, I got a call from my father inviting me to an education conference in Milwaukee that Howard Fuller and others had organized in February 1999. He brought in about 150 black people from all over the country to talk about school choice and educational options. This first symposium was the seed for the formation of BAEO.

Politically, it was a very diverse group. We had elected Democrats and Republicans, staunch independents, young people who were still in school, people who were retired, teachers, former superintendents of both large and small districts, people from education management companies, people who had started up their own schools–the whole gamut. But it became clear that the one thing we agreed on was that there was a crisis in public education. The other thing we all agreed on was that low-income black parents had to have more educational options.

When we came together, we realized that the conditions that some of us may have thought were local or were unique to our cities were actually happening all over the country.

Clowes: How did school choice emerge as the reform strategy to address the crisis you saw in education?

Patrick: It was because these were experienced reformers. They were former school district superintendents, school board members, parents who had put several children through school, people who understood the public school system and its intricacies. When you have all of these people in one room, you can cut to the chase pretty quickly.

I’d like to make a distinction between school choice and educational options, because, in some places, choice equals vouchers. What we’re talking about is parental choice and educational options–vouchers plus all of the other options, not vouchers exclusively. In fact, at that first meeting, there were some people who didn’t want to consider vouchers. But by the time we were done, we all agreed we had to employ a range of educational options–including vouchers–to give parents meaningful choice.

I came away from that first meeting totally energized and totally re-committed to parental choice and educational options as the mechanism to create large-scale improvement in the quality of life for black families.

We had a follow-up meeting in December of 1999 with about 50 people. Again, it was a totally diverse group, with different ages and different political backgrounds. We came to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, and locked ourselves in a room for three days to talk about whether we needed to have a national organization for black people who support parental choice and educational options.

The product of that meeting was BAEO, the Black Alliance for Educational Options. We agreed we did need to have an organization, we developed a mission and an agenda for it, and we put together a planning document. Our mission strikes a very narrow strip of unity among us. On just about any other issue–even on issues within education–the members of our group do not necessarily agree. We don’t have unity on anything other than our mission.

Then, at the beginning of 2000–after a symposium in Milwaukee on Expanding Educational Options for African-Americans–we had a meeting with about 90 people, where we laid out the mission, the proposed name for the organization, its agenda, its purpose, its organization, and its priorities. We then voted to formally create BAEO. We elected Howard Fuller as chairman of the board, and Dolores Fridge as vice-chair. We empowered Howard to appoint a board of directors that was diverse inter-generationally and geographically. We formally announced the organization in August 2000 at the National Press Club. That’s the birth of BAEO.

Since then, we’ve seen the creation of a number of local BAEO chapters. In most cases, the people who are starting these chapters are individuals who already are leading local reform efforts. For example, Dwight Evans in Philadelphia already was making a difference locally before he started a BAEO chapter there. But what BAEO does is to give us a national network. It’s not just that we’ve got chapters out there in different cities which all have the same brand name. With BAEO, we have a real communications infrastructure that we’re able to use for sharing information on things like best practices, and that we can use to empower families in those cities.

Clowes: What are your near-term aims for BAEO?

Patrick: We have to focus on our communications infrastructure and on building capacity locally to be able to communicate with parents. That’s why it’s so important that we got the grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pilot a communications campaign in four of our cities. The grant calls for us to educate and inform parents in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia about the No Child Left Behind law. Our job is to get the word out to parents and make sure they understand what options are available to them under the new law, and what their rights are.

In the short term, our efforts are going to focus on communications. We want to strengthen both our internal and external communications structure, and build capacity so that we are able to communicate with parents in each one of these cities and get messages out to parents. The key is getting the word out to parents. If they don’t know that they have a choice, or that options should be available, or who to be angry with when choices aren’t available, then it’s difficult for us to advance our mission.

Clowes: How do you respond to critics who claim parental choice would harm and divide society because parents would pick schools for the wrong reasons, leading to segregation by race, religion, and income?

Patrick: Those arguments have been dissected and debunked in a number of studies, including one last year from the American Education Reform Council that was co-authored by Howard Fuller and Debbie Greiveldinger. They looked at the effect of school choice on integration, and showed the effect was positive, not negative.

However, BAEO doesn’t deal with integration as a goal of public education. Integration may be the goal of some people but we do not have unity among our members on that issue. We have some people in our organization who couldn’t care less about integration. We have other people in our organization who feel very strongly that integration is a very important and noble goal of public education. But all of those people set aside those different views to embrace the mission of BAEO, which is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children.

Whether children are in segregated schools or integrated schools, we want parents to make that decision, not us. At the end of the day, we all agree that the most important thing is that the parent must have the power to choose.

Clowes: While pubic opinion polls show very high levels of support for parental choice in black communities, that doesn’t seem to translate to high levels of political support for vouchers and tax credits when they’re offered as options on the ballot. Can you shed any light on that disconnect?

Patrick: That disconnect occurs for a number of reasons. The first and most important reason–and this is why communication is so critically important–is because the teacher unions and those who oppose parental choice have hijacked the words ‘voucher’ and ‘choice.’ Essentially, they have hijacked the brand. They have spent a lot of time and money branding vouchers in people’s minds. Since most people don’t know much about school choice and vouchers, they saw an opportunity to “brand” these concepts in people’s minds. If they could get out first with their message, they could brand “school choice” any way they wanted.

What the teacher unions did was to come up with a series of negative arguments that they found would resonate best against vouchers, and they throw up those arguments any time that vouchers are mentioned. The arguments are erroneous, basically lies and distortions. In fact, Howard Fuller has published a paper that details the specific lies that get repeated over and over and over again.

But we have to recognize that the opponents of school choice have done a very good job at marketing those lies. For example, if you go up to a person on the street and ask them about vouchers, they often can tell you at least one of the top five arguments about why vouchers are a bad idea–even though they don’t know much about vouchers or school choice.

So you have that disconnect because people have been sold the lies and in most cases there’s nothing on the other side to rebut them and help people understand the logical truth. But BAEO is starting to do that. Dealing with the lies that are out there is clearly part of what we have to do.

Another big reason for that disconnect is the fact vouchers and parental choice in various different forms have been embraced by conservatives as part of their political agenda. But the overwhelming majority of black people associate with the Democrats, who for the most part distance themselves from parental choice. Even though the Democratic Party formally supports charter schools in its platform, there are still lots of Democrats out there who are trying to crush charter schools.

Clowes: Do you have any problem with for-profit schools being involved in education?

Patrick: No. We support government-run schools and market-based schools–parents should be able to have both. At the end of the day, no one should tell a low-income parent that they can’t have a particular choice or a particular option. Education should be the one area where how much money you make should have no bearing on your access to a quality education. We’re realistic enough to know that people who have enough money will always get what they want, but our goal is give all children the opportunity to access a quality education.

Now, I do believe that, if you created the right mechanism, even super-expensive elite schools would find ways to accept low-income students. After all, if Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford can do it, K-12 schools should be able to do it. People don’t have a problem with the concept of scholarships, and they don’t have a problem with the concept of financial aid. The only reason we have any kind of a hang-up when it comes to K-12 education is because there’s a powerful, organized opposition. If you take away the powerful, organized opposition, then there’s no reason that we couldn’t have all those options available.

Clowes: What is your advice to parents who find their public school just isn’t working for their child?

Patrick: The most important thing they can do is get active and get involved. Nobody’s going to fight harder than they are for their own child. The best thing parents can do is to channel their energy into organizing with other parents who are in the same situation. You’re much more likely to be successful, not only for your own child but also for making permanent changes, if you’re part of an organization working for a common purpose.