Only 76 miles separate the Step Up For Students office in Tampa and the Orlando hotel where the Black Alliance for Educational Options held its annual symposium last week. But my Corolla must have hit a black hole on I-4, because I landed on another planet.
I didn’t see anybody from the American Legislative Exchange Council on Planet BAEO. But at lunch, I did sit next to a sad-eyed woman from Kentucky whose grandson recently graduated from high school even though he can’t read.
I didn’t see anybody itching to privatize public schools. But I did learn about Papa Dallas, a black man whose eyes were burned out as a slave because he was caught learning the alphabet.
I didn’t see the Koch Brothers. But I did see, just minutes after arriving, an image of black men hanging dead from a tree while a crowd of white people loitered.
I learned as a reporter, years before joining Step Up, what BAEO was about. But it was still jarring to see, up close, how much reality clashes with “the narrative.”
The symposium drew 650 people from 20 states, including 50 current and former elected officials, the vast majority of them Democrats. All night Thursday and all day Friday, I heard them talking parental empowerment, black empowerment, achievement gaps, equal opportunity. I heard a lot of thoughtful, passionate people. I heard frustration and desperation too. If it was all a front for profiteers, then BAEO orchestrated more actors than a Star Wars flick.
Critics “call me a corporate reformer all the time,” said Sharhonda Bossier, a former public school teacher who helps lead Families for Excellent Schools, a school choice group based in New York City. “I’ve been told that I’m being duped. I’ve been told that I have an interest in undermining the black middle class. I’m like, ‘Are you looking at me?’ “
Leon Gaither, a U.S. Army veteran and former public school teacher in Orlando, was attending a BAEO symposium for the first time. He said he and his wife – who continues to teach in a district school – slowly came around to the value of parental school choice. “We’ve seen the fallout from the system that doesn’t take into account different ways kids learn,” he said.
I asked Gaither why there was such a disconnect between what school choice supporters like him believe and how they’re portrayed. “I haven’t figured that out,” he said. I tried to press him, but he kept wanting to talk about grad rates, career education, relevant curriculum …
Diana Haynes taught in traditional public schools for 30 years before becoming director of a charter school in Baton Rouge, La. I asked her the same question about the disconnect. “If I could answer that, I could answer anything,” she said. She smiled and shrugged: “The only thing you can do is keep working with the children.”
Time and again during the symposium, I found myself wishing it was being piped, live, straight into the homes and offices of school choice opponents – to Democratic lawmakers, to groups like Fund Education Now and Parents Across America, to everyone else who continues to portray supporters as right-wingers and corporate executives bent on raiding public education. These are the privatizers you’re talking about?
I wish they could have heard BAEO Chair Howard Fuller. He addressed first-time attendees during the orientation session with remarks that were a lot more Malcolm X than Milton Friedman.
It was Fuller who put up the image of the lynching. He riffed on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and a Georgia law that once mandated whippings for any black person caught teaching another black person how to read. He rolled through George Wallace, Brown v. The Board of Education, the 1960s book “Black Rage.” He concluded with a reference to the day students from historically black North Carolina A&T sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
“It hurts my soul to know that on Feb. 1, 1960, four students from A&T sat down at a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And in 2013, four black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcome and can’t read the menu.”
“You know who that’s on? That’s on us. That’s not white people, white people, white people. That’s on us. We allowed this to happen to our children.”
As far as I could tell, no traditional news reporters covered the BAEO symposium. I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, but they could have benefitted from the experience. I think it would have helped them see the whole school choice thing is richer, more nuanced and – I know, I know, I’ve said this before – more fascinating than it’s portrayed in their stories.
Here’s one last example: During one of the break-out sessions, a California parent who participated in turnaround efforts in the town of Adelanto described trying every possible way to get help for her child, a special education student stuck in a classroom with a teacher who had lost control. Nothing worked. Nothing moved. Then a school official – perhaps tired of feeling helpless, too – told her about the parent trigger law. “We finally saw hope when we had none,” she said.
She stopped to wipe away tears.
I can’t help but bookend that image of a crying parent with what I read before and after the symposium. The day it began, the Stop Senate Bill 6 facebook page – a popular venting room for parents and teachers in Florida – threw another dart at the parent trigger. It linked to a Parents Across America map that shows “the states who have introduced ALEC-Peddled Parent Trigger bills that support corporate welfare not parents or children!” The day the symposium ended, the Palm Beach Post, one of the biggest newspapers in Florida, called the trigger a “weapon in the scheme to privatize public education.”
There’s nothing extraordinary about these lines. They’re repeated every day. But after the BAEO Symposium, it’s even easier to see who’s really on another planet.