Advocate Voices

From the Vault: MLK and God’s schools


Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in redefinED on Aug. 26th, 2013, as part of a series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We are reprising it as the nation prepares to celebrate what would have been King’s 90th birthday.


I grew up in a Minnesota city of 100,000 with – in my time – one black family. My introduction to the reality of public school segregation came in 1962 as – now at Northwestern in Chicago – I agreed to probe the public schools of the district on behalf of the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The racial separation was there as expected, but there was one big surprise; I was astonished to find enormous disparities, not only in taxable local wealth – hence spending – among the hundreds of Illinois districts, but even in individual school-by-school spending within the Chicago district itself. I wrote about both problems, sprinkling research with “action” including marches and demonstration both in Chicago and in Selma (prior to the main event there).MLK snipped

My interest in deseg politics had already provoked a law review article on the risks of anti-trust liability for King et al. who were planning boycotts of private discriminators. On the strength of that essay, Jack Greenberg, then director of the NAACP Inc. Fund, invited me to meet with King and his lieutenants at dinner in Chicago to discuss the question. We spoke at length – mostly about boycotts but also about schools. By that time I was already into the prospects for increasing desegregation in Chicago, partly through well-designed school choice.

I won’t pretend that I recall the details of that evening. What I can say is King’s mind was at very least open to and interested in subsidies for the exercise of parental authority – which clearly he valued as a primary religious instrument. I took my older boys next evening to hear him at a South Side church and, possibly, to follow up on our conversation, but he had to cancel. We heard sermons from his colleagues, some to become and remain famous. I did not meet King again.

King’s “Dream” speech does not engage specific public policy issues – on schools or anything else. Essentially a sermon, it is a condemnation of the sins of segregation and an appeal to the believer to hear scripture, with its call for indiscriminate love of neighbor, as the life-task of all who recognize the reality of divine love for us – his image and likeness. It is purely and simply a religious appeal that declares the good society to be one that rests upon benign principles that we humans did not invent but which bind us. I don’t know King’s specific understanding of or attitude toward non-believers, but this document clearly rests the realization of the good society upon its recognition of our divine source and its implication of the full equality of all persons.

Given that premise and the Supreme Court’s insistence upon the “wall of segregation” in the public schools, plus – on the other hand – the right of parents to choose a private religious education, the logic is rather plain.

Private schools live on tuition, and many American families couldn’t afford to enroll then or now. If low-income families were to exercise this basic human right and parental responsibility enjoyed by the rest of us, government would have to restructure schooling to insure access to an education grounded upon, and suffused with, an authority higher than the state. Given the economic plight of so many black parents, the only question would be how to design the system to secure parental choice without racial segregation by private educators.

And that possibility was to be the principal crutch of “civil rights” organizations in hesitating about subsidized choice.

Of course, many of their members were public school teachers who wondered about their jobs. Still, in the early 70’s, both the NAACP and the Urban League were sufficiently interested in parental choice to engage the usual suspects, including myself, to describe solutions to the apparent problem. In 1971, Steve Sugarman and I published a book which was a first crack at designing a structure that would preserve the integrity of the private school while assuring non-discriminatory access. Others made similar proposals. The civil rights groups still dallied.

One political difficulty was media domination of the argument for choice by free-market libertarians who fretted at – and opposed – every suggestion that would in the least diminish private school control of admissions. Their narrow focus forfeited a good deal of centrist support. But the more fundamental problem was the teachers’ unions, which froze at the prospect of competition and gave the civil rights groups plausible (and tangible) reason to balk. One example: in a long private conversation, Cesar Chavez expressed to me his regret that the Farm Workers couldn’t sign on for a popular initiative for school choice in California, because the UFW would risk the annual 200k they enjoyed from the AFT.

The idea thus remained largely a specialty of the market enthusiasts for 30 years. My guess is King could have changed all this, precisely because of his theological focus. The problem has not gone away, and we miss him.

Education choice helped break the cycle of poverty


By Keith Jacobs

Keith Jacobs credits the IB program, an early form of education choice, as breaking him from a cycle of poverty.

Always look a man in the eyes.  Stand up and give a firm handshake.  Remember your manners.  These simple yet effective rules instilled by my parents have been a pillar in my overall success.  I am blessed to work in a field I love and to help raise two beautiful children who are reaping the benefits of hard work and education.

But how did this journey begin?  My success is a product of how school choice provides opportunities for low-income families to escape the clutches of generational poverty.

I am the second youngest of six kids.  I was raised to believe that the key to success is education.  What was missing was an example of what this success looked like.  Both of my parents worked three jobs, and neither of them attended college.  Growing up in a low-income household in Tampa, I was not afforded the same opportunities as my peers.  While they were focused on new clothes and shoes for school, I was focused on whether I was going to wear clothes that were too small, or if my brother had any clothes that he could hand down to me.

You see, education was an idea, a philosophy.  It was not a tangible reward that I could see and understand given my surroundings.  As a young, black male, the statistics would say I had a greater chance of being dead or in jail than graduating and going to college.  I saw drugs, alcohol, and crime that plagued the streets around my middle school and wondered if there was a way to escape this reality.

Thankfully, the school choice movement that began brewing in the 1980s and ‘90s offered a lifeline: magnet schools. During this time, magnet schools were viewed as competition to traditional schools because they provided an opportunity for students to attend a school outside their neighborhood that met their individual needs.

My parents noticed my intellectual abilities but did not think they had options for me to excel in a high school. For low-income families like mine, the opportunity to attend the best schools seemed unattainable without the financial resources. There was no scholarship program that would have provided me with a quality education outside my ZIP code.  This all changed with school choice.

Going into my freshman year, I applied for an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a magnet school that was 10 miles away from my house and was accepted.  This gave me a chance to experience what I would not have otherwise been exposed to in a traditional curriculum.

The thing about growing up in poverty is that even though I viewed school with the same enthusiasm as my peers, the difference laid in my ability to understand and adhere to cultural norms that were necessary to succeed in school.  Poverty is a societal ill that is rectified with innovative ways to provide quality education for all students.

Today, these choices come in many forms: magnet schools, charter schools, vouchers and scholarship programs, education savings accounts, even virtual schools and micro-schools. They have proved popular with families. In Florida alone, some 1.7 million students – about 46 percent of all PreK-12 students – attend a school of choice.

Through school choice, I not only graduated from the IB program, I also was able to attend one of the most rigorous universities in the nation, the University of Florida, becoming the first college graduate in my family.  It allowed me to pursue a master’s degree.  Ultimately, it helped me provide a better quality of life for my children and end the cycle of poverty.

While legislators are debating who is cheating whom in education, there are millions of low-income children like I was who just want an equal chance to succeed. School choice gives them what they lack due to their economic circumstances — ownership.

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

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.)

Listen on iTunes

“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.