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?’ “