‘This Battlefield Is America!’

Published April 1, 2003

The battle for expanding school choice options is being fought city by city across the United States, declared Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), delivering an impassioned speech to more than 600 invited guests at the Alliance’s third annual symposium in Dallas, Texas, on March 1. Among the cities he identified as battlegrounds were Buffalo, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Dayton, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; and Washington, DC.

“This battlefield is America!” proclaimed Fuller. “This battlefield is wherever our children are being undereducated, miseducated, or not educated. … This battlefield is wherever there are low-income and working class black families who cry out for options to better educate their children and are told that they have no right to choose by people who have choice for their own children.”

“Power to the People”

BAEO’s mission, he told the audience, is “to rescue our children from the depths of these educational wastelands that are taking away their spirit, vacating their minds, and consigning them to a life of poverty.”

The battle is not to acquire power for ourselves, emphasized Fuller, but to give “power to the people”: the power to choose schools and educational options, the power to direct money to those schools and those options. When people have their own power like that, “they can fight the bureaucracy.”

The idea is not simply to replace one bureaucracy with another. “Let me be clear,” Fuller said. “Black faces in what used to be high white places does not give us freedom.”

Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, is a distinguished professor of education at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he founded and currently directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

BAEO is a national, nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to actively support parental choice to empower families and increase educational options for black children. Established in 1999, BAEO announced its formation at the National Press Club on August 24, 2000.

In October 2002, BAEO received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a public information campaign to educate parents about their rights and the school choice options in the No Child Left Behind Act. In his opening speech to the symposium, Lawrence Patrick III, president and CEO of BAEO, announced the award of another grant: a $4 million commitment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create 15 small alternative high schools over the next five years for students whose needs are not being met by traditional large high schools.

Wide Range of Options

“This money, this grant, has been earmarked for an issue that speaks to the heart of what BAEO represents,” said Patrick. “We’ve been working hard to offer alternatives for low-income parents whose children have been stuck in failing schools. These alternative schools may offer yet another outlet for frustrated parents.”

BAEO supports a variety of educational options, including publicly funded vouchers, privately financed scholarships, charter schools, homeschooling, and innovations in traditional public schools. The Gates Foundation has committed more than $31 million to focus attention on smaller schools and create a nationwide network of 168 alternative schools.

“BAEO revolves around a very simple yet powerful idea,” explained Patrick in his opening speech, “the idea that every parent–especially low-income, struggling, working class, black parents–should have the right to send their child to a school that works for that child, and that every parent should have access to a wide array of excellent educational options from which to choose.”

While “disarmingly simple,” this idea is “very threatening to those who are advantaged under the status quo,” continued Patrick. “That’s why it’s a struggle.”

Challenging Political Leaders

The struggle is an especially difficult one for black reformers since the school choice battle often involves challenging older black political leaders. The complex nature of this battle was addressed by former Newark, New Jersey city council member Cory Booker in a session on changing political leadership.

Booker described how a new generation of young black leaders, eager to run for political office, often find themselves vigorously opposed not by a white power structure but by an established black organization. While the younger leaders embrace school choice, the older leaders embrace the traditional public school system.

“It’s amazing how vitriolic the opposition to school choice is in the black community,” said Booker, noting that one black-identified Web site is devoted solely to attacking school choice.

Such attacks on school choice are not going to stop, noted BAEO CEO Patrick. Since becoming head of the Alliance a year ago, his efforts have been devoted to building a strong, permanent organization capable not only of gaining ground, but also of defending it. During his first year, BAEO membership has increased by 400.

“People say, ‘What are you going to do about the children that are left behind?'” said Patrick. “They are against parental choice and against increasing educational options because they don’t help everyone.

“My response is: The children who will benefit from educational choice and increased educational options are already being left behind. All the parents who have the means already have exercised choice. They’ve already left.”

BAEO’s Symposium 2003, which ran from February 27 to March 2, was held as part of a continuing effort to expand the network of black people committed to the parental choice movement. Attendees included parents, ministers, community leaders, schoolteachers, school founders, and school operators. Workshops at the symposium included sessions on understanding different educational options, the No Child Left Behind Act, chapter organization, facility financing, Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, the Piney Woods school, the Accelerated School, and closing the achievement gap.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Information about the Black Alliance for Educational Options and school choice is available from the Alliance’s Web site at http://www.baeo.org.