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.)
“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.’ ”