September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Frustrated with system, BAEO parents push for alternatives

Differing views on school choice emerge among African Americans

"We must open our worst schools, to let the light in and the kids out. The time for patience is over."

In these remarks at the February 2002 annual meeting of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a national organization that advocates for increased educational choices among low-income African American families, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige captured the essence of the BAEO agenda.

According to Keisha Hegamin, president of Philadelphia BAEO, the organization’s second-largest chapter, poor and working class Black parents should have the choice of leaving low-performing public schools for better public and private schools regardless of income, and they should have that choice now.

"This is [not just] about looking at the whole system, because we’ve been looking at the whole system for too long and it continues to fail kids," Hegamin said. "This is about looking at each child and saying, ‘What can we do for this individual child?’"

BAEO is at the forefront of a rising number of African Americans who are organizing around a market-based vision of education which argues that parent demand alone should determine what educational options exist for children – even if this means using tax dollars to pay private school tuition.

"One of the great hypocrisies in America is to talk about choice as if it’s some unknown thing," said Dr. Howard Fuller, founder and chairman of the board of BAEO at the annual conference of the National Charter School Clearinghouse, held at Villanova University in August. "The reality is if you’ve got money in America, you’ve got choice."

Hegamin and Fuller both emphasized that while BAEO supports publicly funded vouchers, it believes that only low-income families, which are disproportionately people of color, should receive them.

But BAEO’s platform is controversial.

Critics say that by focusing on alternatives to traditional public schools, the group is helping to advance an agenda – supported by President George W. Bush and conservative organizations – that denies adequate funding to public schools serving Black youth. The controversy about BAEO centers on whether expanded "choice" and vouchers provide real answers to Black families in neighborhoods where there are few good educational options.

‘Stuck’ in neighborhood schools

BAEO argues that the types of school choice that they support – which span from intradistrict public school choice, charter schools, and home schooling to publicly and privately funded vouchers for private schools – are vital to adequately respond to the frustrations of poor Black parents. They say these parents should not have to continually wait for the Philadelphia School District, which is largely composed of low-performing neighborhood schools, to adequately educate their children.

Kocoa Smith, a BAEO parent and local board member, says parents should be able to choose the kind of school that is best for their individual children. Her son attends a private school through the Philadelphia BAEO scholarship program, which currently enlists corporate sponsors to pay tuition for 43 black students (out of over 500 who applied during the last application cycle) who attend 18 private schools locally.

"That’s where we felt comfortable," Smith said of her son’s school in West Oak Lane. "It felt really good to actually have that choice."

Bush-BAEO alliance

Nationally, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation has set the tone of applying market-driven educational strategies to public education since President Bush signed it into law in January 2002.

In order to comply with NCLB, the Philadelphia school district had to notify 137,000 parents last spring both of their right to transfer their children out of 176 low-performing schools into higher performing District schools and of their right to receive free tutoring if they chose to remain in these schools.

Philadelphia is one of four cities where BAEO has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to launch a public education campaign using a variety of media and a parent hotline to publicize NCLB school choice options. This effort is funded by a $600,000 grant from the Bush administration.

For Lana Watkins, NCLB outreach coordinator at Philadelphia BAEO, NCLB school choice is about accountability.

"Public school systems take students and parents for granted because they have no other options," said Watkins. "If [parents and students] have choice and [school districts] start losing funding because of that, then maybe they’ll start being more accountable to delivering the services to neighborhood schools."

The School Reform Commission recently approved a $41,000 contract with Philadelphia BAEO to create a "comprehensive directory" of high schools to publicize the choices that the District offers to families.

"We [in Philadelphia] have a lot more public school options than a lot of the [urban] districts in the country," Hegamin acknowledged.

Some criticize free-market model

Some of BAEO’s most vocal opponents, such as the People for the American Way and the publications Rethinking Schools and Black Commentator, say that although the organization claims to represent disadvantaged Blacks, it is really being exploited by the conservative foundations which fund the group, all for the purpose of advancing the movement to privatize and eventually eliminate public education as a basic democratic entitlement.

Rosita Johnson, retired teacher and spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Black Radical Congress (BRC), a chapter of a national organization of progressive African American activists, said BAEO puts "the Black face" on movements supported "by right wing organizations who are against entitlement of any kind and who do not see quality public education as something that every child is entitled to."

A 2003 People for the American Way report links BAEO to both conservative groups and for-profit educational organizations. Three of BAEO’s strongest financial supporters, the Bradley, Walton, and Friedman foundations, are advocates of privatizing public education and support efforts to roll back both social entitlement programs and equity initiatives like affirmative action.

In addition, BAEO’s national board includes media pundit Armstrong Williams, a former aide to the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and opponent of affirmative action and gay rights, and two high-ranking Edison Schools Inc. officials.

In Philadelphia’s Black communities, BAEO critics are wary of applying market-based principles to public education.

"Competition in the free market is good," said State House Representative Curtis Thomas, but he argued that school systems are not corporations and do not function well when operated by market-based theories. Thomas represents 20 predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.

Philadelphia BRC spokeswoman Johnson expressed skepticism about the ability of "choice" to adequately address the challenges facing under-resourced public schools.

"There’s no choice in school choice," she said. "It isn’t for the majority of students. The students who need improved education are the least of anybody’s caring."

The voucher question

One of the most controversial parts of the BAEO platform is its ardent support of publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition, a position long supported by State Representative Dwight Evans of West Oak Lane, who sits on the board of Philadelphia BAEO.

Voucher opponents say that exercising this type of school choice would undermine the already fiscally challenged low-performing school districts. They point out that public school systems are communities which cannot be reduced to per-pupil allotments alone. They also maintain that vouchers will not be enough – financially or otherwise – to open the doors of the best schools to Black children.

Reverend Dr. Robert Shine, chairman of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, voiced his opposition to private school vouchers on the grounds that not all students would be able to take advantage due to private school tuition costs that steadily rise each year.

"Why not use this money to revamp the public school system?" Shine asked.

But Latanya Lewis, a Philadelphia BAEO parent whose son receives a corporate-sponsored scholarship to attend a parochial school, believes that individual parental choice, not the district-wide benefits, is more important.

"A parent should have a choice where their child goes," said Lewis. "If I get a scholarship or not, my tax dollars will still go to a public school, so why can’t I have a choice to send my three children where I want them to go?"

The divide between BAEO supporters and opponents will grow or shrink based on the ability of public school systems to address the frustrations of parents like Lewis.

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