Advocate Voices

podcastED: Pastor Robert Ward – Educational choice gives black parents hope

Pastor Robert Ward, founder of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in south St. Petersburg.

If anybody doubts the passion for educational choice in black communities, come visit Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in predominantly black south St. Petersburg, Fla. and chat with its founder, Pastor Robert Ward.

Ward started the private micro-school for grades 6-8 in 2011 with three students. Now it has 56. And now it’s routinely turning away children because there are waiting lists, both for the school and for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, the largest private school choice program in America. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

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“Parents are beating on our doors to get in,” Ward said in this redefinED podcast. “We actually have stretched even our level of comfort in terms of capacity, to try to turn away as few parents as possible. But we’re very limited in our capacity.”

Dejected parents cry in the lobby, Ward said, “really with the loss of hope for their child.”

Pastor Ward is representative of a core constituency for choice that is blatantly overlooked by critics and the press. In Florida, where choice has taken root like nowhere else, there are hundreds of community leaders like Ward who represent communities of color and who wholeheartedly embrace choice. Like Ward and south St. Pete, those leaders and communities lean heavily towards the Democratic Party.

All but one of the students at Mt. Moriah school are black. All but three use state-supported choice scholarships, including 39 who use tax credit scholarships. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given that the outcomes in the school district that encompasses St. Petersburg are especially bleak for black students.

Black students in Pinellas County perform far worse on state tests than not just white students in Pinellas, but black students in every urban district in Florida. In 2018, for example, 23.9 percent of black 10th-graders in Pinellas passed the 10th grade reading test – the test they must pass to graduate – compared to a statewide average for black 10th-graders of 34.6 percent. (Statewide, 65.1 percent of white students passed. In Pinellas, 64.3 percent passed.)

The tragic trend lines go back to when schools in St. Pete were more racially integrated then they’d ever been (under a court-ordered desegregation plan), and arguably the best funded they’d even been (before the Great Recession.) They’ve persisted, Ward said, “because there’s not enough focus on what the real need is.”

“It goes back to that one-size-fits-all mentality or approach to the learning process,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, that’s just not reality. One size does not fit all. Students come from different backgrounds, different environments, different problems, different issues, that all have an effect on how we behave, how we learn, how we feel in the learning process. So I think we have to take all of that into consideration. And I think we also have to establish an environment where parents feel there’s hope.”

Also on the podcast with Pastor Ward:

  • On why choice should be non-partisan: “Our kids are not Republicans. Our kids are not Democrats. Or independents. Or liberals. Our kids are kids. … My mother and father never focused me on a political position in terms of education. They simply focused me on the importance of education.”
  • On the importance of school staff who are community based: “It’s a huge piece. Because (the parent and teachers) don’t just see each other at school. They see each other in the community. They talk about issues that are going on in the community. They can relate to specific things within the community.”
  • On the benefits of empowering parents through choice: “When you give parents that option, and that ability, it frees up their spirit and their heart. It gives them hope. They light up, because they say, ‘Oh, here’s a place of hope. And I have the power to choose it.’ ”

Lorraine McBride: Wishing more students could benefit from choice, like I did


By Lorraine McBride

Lorraine McBride

Parental choice is the reason Lorraine McBride is not just another statistic.

I grew up as a minority student who was not finding success in the district school I was zoned for. I was often getting in trouble for playing around and not following the teacher’s directions in the classroom. My peers also influenced my behavior. School officials told my mother I would be placed in a different class because my behavior was too much for the teacher to handle. My mother was displeased. She knew there were more options. My mother asked around and eventually decided that private school would be a better learning environment for me. My mother found a second job in order to provide a quality education for me.

When I reached fifth grade, my mother enrolled me into St. Anthony’s Catholic School, in Dallas, Texas. It provided smaller class sizes, and a high emphasis on morals, religious beliefs and formal education. Those same principles were taught and practiced in my home.

My mother’s sacrifice paved the way for me to obtain my diploma from Bishop Dunne Catholic School. A few years later, I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcast Journalism from Florida A&M University. If my mother had settled for the alternative behavioral classes in my zoned school, I am not sure what path in life I would be on today.

There are millions of parents like my mom who want their children to excel academically. But far too many of them can’t access a school that is the right fit for their children, either because they can’t afford to move to the school zone they prefer, or because they can’t afford private school. Parental choice matters because it is one of the most important social justice issues of our time. It helps level the playing the field for these parents. It helps open doors of opportunity for their children.

Sometimes, the schools that are the best fit for an individual child may be non-traditional schools, in non-traditional environments, with different approaches to teaching and learning. Sometimes, these schools are criticized because they’re different. But I believe it’s the parent’s right to choose. And I trust that parents know better than anybody else what’s best for their precious child.

Parental choice motivates parents to become advocates to change the conditions of their child’s educational experience. Florida and many other states are fighting over how to better serve low-income communities and provide equal educational opportunities. Expanding parental choice isn’t the whole solution, but it’s part of it. My life is proof of that.

My mother had the freedom to choose the best educational environment for me. My holiday wish is for all parents to have that freedom to choose for their children.

Lorraine McBride is community affairs organizer for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers four state-supported educational choice programs in Florida and hosts this blog.

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of posts where various members of the education choice world share an #edchoice wish. For yesterday’s post, CLICK HERE.

COMING TOMORROW: Our #Wishlist series concludes with Step Up’s Strategic Communications Manager Scott Kent.

Greg Dolan: Wishing a new look for education choice advocates


By Greg Dolan

Greg Dolan, Director of Policy and Outreach for Catholic Education Partners

This Christmas, I am giving thanks for the recent election of so many supporters of the parental right to educational choice for their children. And if I had one wish to improve something for our movement, it would be for private school leaders to be more involved in policymaking and legislative advocacy for that right.

Public school superintendents, teachers (or teacher union officials), and school board members are the leaders in public debates over district school spending and regulations. In the debates over educational choice, however, think tank staff, professional lobbying groups, and tax-credit-funded scholarship organizations are usually leading the charge. The former group more earnestly represents the local community – adults entrusted with children for seven hours a day and neighbors selflessly serving on school boards. Meanwhile, the latter appear as outsiders – anti-public-school hired guns employed by the rich to create more tax benefits for the rich. These perceptions are unfair, as the former are not so disinterested and the latter’s financial benefit is paltry, but whoever said education choice proponents get a fair shake?

If the face of our movement became superintendents, principals, and teachers at private schools (instead of policy wonks), we would improve not only perceptions but also the details of policy.

There are professional organizations already doing some of this work. In the Catholic schools world, the National Catholic Educational Association is a member-organization for Catholic school professionals. Organizationally, they are outspoken advocates for choice in education. But that does not mean every member is out there speaking up for the cause.

As a concrete example, when an education savings account law with universal eligibility was up for referendum in Arizona, private school teachers were not marching the streets of Phoenix in support a la the #RedForEd episode. Instead, professional education choice advocates from national organizations were the ones defending the law with a failed attempt at “#YesforEd”, and their lawyers were making the most concerted effort to stave off repeal. Where was the fire and fury of thousands of teachers who wanted the chance to change lives? Where were the principals who had made space at their school in anticipation of the new law? (Perhaps some of this did happen in Arizona; I was not a perfect witness to the entire saga. But writ large, these types of things do not happen when proposals are attacked and choice programs are threatened.)

Our professional advocates also do excellent work highlighting the individual stories of families benefiting from educational choice. But there is a limit to the effectiveness as the parents are not the schools – and it is often the schools that are attacked as dubious indoctrination camps (redefinED readers are well aware of the Orlando Sentinel’s zeal for this task).

According to my organization’s analysis of 28 different education choice programs in 20 states, released this month at EdNext and available on our website, about 1-in-5 students in those states are at a Catholic school due to a voucher or tax-credit-funded scholarship. These students are integral parts of their schools, contributing to and benefiting from the community. But only the school staff can tell that story convincingly. Lobbyists, think tank presidents, and media consultants will never be as believable as the staff who see the growth of these students and their impact on their peers. Teachers especially could put a human face on the care and attention they give each student regardless of how their tuition is paid. They are the real frontlines to the education choice fight.

Administrators could also be helpful in dissuading allied legislators from injecting burdensome and distracting provisions into choice legislation. Too often, lawmakers (and some policy wonks) are underprepared to counter the attacks on a choice program, leading them to offer unnecessary amendments to a bill in the hopes of quieting opponents’ objections. If they knew more about the relevant operations of the private schools likely to participate in a new program, they would be able to counter opponents more effectively.

But who can blame our legislative allies? When the lobbyist informing you about education choice one day is giving advice on business tax cuts the next, no wonder the details do not settle in. How much better would it be for school leaders and teachers to equip lawmakers with anecdotes of how a voucher student fit in and contributed to the classroom — or better yet, to that choice student’s learning success? To have that teacher offer heartfelt and passionate testimony at a panel hearing, instead of a numbers-and-figures talk from a paid advocate, would offer true insight into the efficacy of the program and disarm the opposition of its most relied-upon resource, public school teachers.

As the New Year and new legislative sessions approach, I remain thankful for my fellow advocates who do so much good and effective work for education choice. And if I had a Christmas wish, it would be to engage more private school teachers, principals, and administrators to replace us non-teachers as the face of education choice advocacy.

Greg Dolan is Director of Policy and Outreach for Catholic Education Partners.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts where various members of the education choice world share an #edchoice wish. For Monday’s post, CLICK HERE.

COMING TOMORROW: Step Up For Students’ Lorraine McBride explains why education choice kept her from being just another statistic.

Keith Jacobs: Wishing for equitable funding for ed choice


By Keith Jacobs

As both an educator and a parent, my wish this holiday season centers around an essential building block for ramping up success for low-income and minority students – equitable funding for educational choice.

Funding is often the centerpiece in debates on the quality of the educational experience. What is missing from this debate are the implicit biases that negatively impact families who benefit from educational choice. These families are rarely, if ever, adequately represented in these discussions. What is also missing are basic facts about the degree to which choice options are funded.

Quality education has always been afforded to families who have influence and resources. But what if these resources were distributed equitably to ensure that ALL students had an opportunity to quality education that meets their individual needs? While this is not a novel concept, it is often overlooked by pundits who contend the only way to success is through traditional public education.

What is missing from this equation is that low-income and minority families are often neglected in the “traditional” educational experience. Instead, they are forced to adjust to mainstream norms while contending with poor health, inadequate housing, accelerated crime rates, single-parent families and even substance abuse. Imagine if these students all had access to high-performing charter schools (or other non-district schools of choice). Imagine if those schools received the same level of funding as their district counterparts.

For all kinds of reasons, more and more parents are electing for their children to attend schools of choice. More equitable funding will allow those schools to invest even more in innovative technology and quality professional development. It will allow them to attract and retain even more well-qualified teachers, and continue to build on their academic successes. The evidence with test scores and college enrollment suggests schools of choice are already getting better outcomes with fewer resources. Imagine what they can achieve with more equity in funding.

In a season when we look to help those in need, marvel at the innocence of youth and generally praise the decency of humanity, it is time to put our children above politics.  I wish for equitable funding so every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, has an equal opportunity to be successful in the educational system that meets their individual needs. After all, this is the season of giving!

Keith Jacobs is manager of the Charter School Initiative for Step Up for Students.

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts where various members of the education choice world share an #edchoice wish. For Friday’s post, CLICK HERE.

COMING WEDNESDAY: Greg Dolan of Catholic Education Partners wishes for private school leaders to get more involved in policy and legislative advocacy for education choice.

Coco Llenas: Wishing all families had education choice, now


By Hergit “Coco” Llenas

I wish tomorrow was here already. I wish we could look at today’s school system from the vantage point given from 30 years into the future.

Let’s imagine it is 2050, and in the United States of America every child, rich or poor, has access to a high-quality education, and the parents have become accustomed to deciding what is the best environment for their little ones. The arbitrary lines that forced a child to go to a particular school is a concept long gone and forgotten. In fact, people remember those rules and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

While taking a tour inside a gray, prison-like building turned into a museum of an old school, a child asks:

“Mom, who lived in these cages?”

“I don’t know,” Mom says. “I just don’t know how human innovation and imagination was cultivated in between these rows of chairs lined up like an assembly line.”

In silence, everybody in the tour group asks themselves: “Why did we allow this system to go unchecked for so long? For 150 years!”

“Well,” says the museum guide, as if he heard the group’s thoughts, “change may take forever if it does not come from the people. The people decide when it is time to crawl out of the sunken place and move into the light.”

If it is not serving you, my child, then GET OUT! That was the cry which inspired the ed-reformers. Those brave pioneers fought to provide a conduit for children trapped in schools that weren’t working for them, so they could flee to a new world in K-12 education, just like the underground railroad shifted slaves from captivity to freedom.

Finally, the system started to readjust, to accept the healthy co-existence of more and more school choices, until freedom of choice emerged as the new normal.

Change in public education came, just like change in other arenas, such as acceptance of biracial marriage, the right of women to vote, and the desegregation of schools. Oh, wait! …

Why is the achievement gap never closed? Why does the school-to-prison pipeline continue to be fed with dark-skinned youth? And why does the union fight so hard to stop progress from arriving?

The logic that supported the persistence of such a monolithic public school system would sound barbaric to the ears of the audience in 2050. Just like it sounds barbaric to us that in medieval times, doctors didn’t know about bacteria, and, as a result, went into surgery without ever washing their hands.

This Christmas, I have a wish: That we won’t have to wait 30 years to see that school choice has been on the right side of history all along.

School choice can be adopted across this land now. And then, finally, families could enjoy the right to choose any kind of high-quality school for their children as one of their many other rights, regardless of their socio-economic status or race.

Hergit “Coco” Llenas is Director of Latino Outreach for the American Federation for Children.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts where various members of the education choice world share an #edchoice wish. For Friday’s post, CLICK HERE.

COMING WEDNESDAY: Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill shares a bevy of education and criminal justice wishes. 

Virginia Walden Ford: Parents should lead choice movement


By Virginia Walden Ford

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts where various members of the choice community share an #edchoice wish.

As we fast approach 2019, I have been doing much reflection and taking a long look at the school choice/parental choice movement. I have remembered my own journey, which began by fighting for my son, and I have been in awe of the thousands of parents who joined me, in D.C. and around the country. In the 20 years I’ve been involved, so much has happened, mostly positive for children and families.There are 62 educational choice programs currently and successfully operating in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

It’s been such an wonderful and encouraging 20 years. The parent soldiers of those early years are now seeing the children from those first programs, now young adults, go on to be successful in their lives. We fought hard and now we are seeing incredible results and receiving our rewards. But there are certainly some worries that we must be aware of in the future and we must address them.

When I became involved in the 90’s, parent voices were insecure, anxious, sometimes not heard, often angry. Seldom did we hear positive stories about parental involvement in schools.

We went into the community and spent hours listening to the concerns of many parents who felt hopeless and helpless to do anything about the miseducation of their children. We spent a lot of time telling them to raise their voices and become involved in the process. We told them they had every right to speak up on behalf of their children and share their worries with those people who could make a difference … and to our joy and delight, parents listened to us!!!!

Then, as we began the school choice journey in earnest in the 90s, all of a sudden, parent voices were being heard clearly and loudly and suddenly they were empowered and respected and proudly participating in school choice legislative fights. Parental anxiety about how children were being educated in America’s schools was finally being heard by teachers, administrators, legislators … everyone! It was a wonderful time and as a result many programs that worked best for children materialized in this country.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard fewer and fewer of those excited, empowered voices of parents crying out for the best education possible for their children. Parents, unfortunately, have begun to feel that they are no longer needed in the fight to improve the education of Americas’ children.

There are many great organizations out there who are leading these legislative fights, but not really including parents as partners. Though parents respect the work being done for their children, they truly want to understand what’s going on and how they can help – but up front, not on the sidelines. Parents have said to me that unless there is a need for parents to be in “attendance” at a big rally or hearing, their role in the fight appears to be somewhat diminished.

That really makes me sad because those beautiful voices were and are still really vital in passing future legislation. Nothing makes me happier than seeing scores of parents standing shoulder to shoulder with supporters and legislators on behalf of their children.

So, my WISH is that once again, we, as parents, rise up together and make our voices heard. After all, we are the first teachers of our precious children and we must be their advocates because we know them best. And as always, we will stand tall and strong with all those who love and support our children.

Virginia Walden Ford is a leading national advocate for parental empowerment who helped spark creation of the Opportunity Scholarship school choice program in Washington D.C. She is the author of “Voices, Choices, and Second Chances” and the subject of an upcoming movie about her life.

COMING TOMORROW: redefinED’s Assistant Editor David Hudson Tuthill implores his fellow progressives to stop the folly of fighting education choice for all.

Coming Monday: Giving thanks to #edchoice

All Thanksgiving week, we’re turning over our blog to the voices that really matter in ed choice – parents and students.

Across America, millions of families now benefit from charter schools, private school vouchers, home education enrichment programs, education savings accounts and other learning options that didn’t exist a generation ago. Many of those options are “controversial” – yet the voices of students and parents who love them are rarely in the conversation.

We’ll keep trying to change that.

Beginning Monday, we’ll be running a week-long series of guest posts about ed choice – from ed choice parents and students themselves. We asked them to help readers understand how options made a difference in their lives, and, in keeping with Thanksgiving, why they’re grateful to have them.

You’ll hear from:

  • The mother of a student with learning disabilities, now on the verge of graduating, whose prior struggles were so intense, he wanted to end his life.
  • The mother of a student with autism who was neglected in a prior school, but now, with help from an education savings account, is making strides as a homeschooler.
  • A middle school mom who wrestled with a district school for years before turning to a charter school to help her son finally get on the path to success.
  • A former tax credit scholarship student, now in college and aiming to be a veterinarian, whose grandmother worked until she was 85 to provide for her family.
  • The mother of a tax credit scholarship student, a quirky child with a thing for crazy knee socks, who’s now thriving in a quirky mix of a school.

It’s no coincidence these are Florida stories. In the Sunshine State, 46 percent of all students in PreK-12 – more than 1.7 million – now attend schools their parents chose. Perhaps more than any other state, ed choice has become the new normal in Florida.

We’re grateful to live here. We’re grateful to have this blog to help foster fair-minded debate. We’re grateful to all of you for reading us.

Enjoy the series next week, and enjoy the time with friends and family!

School choice parents make their case – and win

charter school
In response to overcrowding concerns, the Lake County School Board approved a new charter school, Seven Lakes Preparatory Academy, in Clermont. After some advocacy by residents, the city council finalized the plans.

Tuesday night, city council members in the beautiful Central Florida town of Clermont had to decide whether to put children’s needs ahead of adults’ needs. We were told beforehand it wasn’t looking good.

For a few months, dozens of parents had attended information nights, sponsored by Florida Parent Network and run by Keith Jacobs, our manager of charter school initiatives. During these sessions, parents discussed their need for more educational options in fast-growing Lake County.

They talked about overcrowded classrooms, portables that smelled of mold and mildew, lunches scheduled at 10 a.m. because the sheer number of students required staggered, and far too early, breaks.

Parents told us about the lack of one-on-one attention their children were receiving and the low grades and behavior problems that were reported as a result.

Something had to be done.