Embracing Educational Freedom
Family North Carolina MagazineMay/June 2007
by David N. Bass
Having a say in where their child attends school is a foreign concept to countless parents across North Carolina. Due to financial and regional limitations, many families have only one educational optiona public school system that at times fails to meet the needs of each individual student.
While the harmful social atmosphere, reduced academic standards, and plummeting graduation rates in some public schools may worry parents, many do not have the tools or resources to choose another option. But a new statewide organization is working to change that unfortunate fact. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), a non-profit group incorporated in July 2005, is bridging political and racial lines to advocate policies that aim to bring the benefits of school choice to every family across the state.
In its first major event held on March 6 at the Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh, PEFNC drew a diverse crowd of parents, children, educators, and legislators from nearly 20 counties across the state. The event served as a rallying point for citizens who are supportive of broader school choice and frustrated with the public education system. According to Darrell Allison, president of PEFNC, staff members only expected 300 to attend the school choice event, but the final headcount was over 1,000, causing standing-room-only conditions.
“We were blown away,” Allison said. “Thousands have responded to the message. That message is freedom. Freedom for our students, freedom to give them all the tools necessary to succeed in society, and freedom for parents to choose the education that best fits the needs of their children.”
Howard Fuller Keynote
Dr. Howard Fuller, chair and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, delivered the event’s keynote address. In his speech, Fuller addressed failures in the public school system, particularly for minority students. “An education is about preparing people to be socially and economically productive,” he said. “An education is about giving you the capacity to engage in the practice of freedom. Unfortunately, too many of our poorest children, a disproportionate number of which are children of color, will never realize the blessings of education because our system fails them. Too many of them will not be able to participate in the mainstream of society.”
Fuller also stressed that the wealthy already have choice in education, a choice that poorer families cannot afford. “If you’ve got money and the school isn’t working for your kid, you’re going to move…or put them in a private school,” Fuller said. “The only people who are trapped are those who are poor, who can’t move. Think about the hypocrisy in America. You’ve got teachers teaching in schools where they would never put their own children.”
Fuller tapped into a concern shared by many familieshow to avoid having students languish in a failing public school. In fact, a widening achievement gap, mixed with lackluster graduation rates, were factors that prompted the creation of PEFNC in the first place, according to Allison. “I consider this the 21st century civil rights issue, for our working poor and for our working middle class,” he said, adding that his goal is to bring educational options to all North Carolinians, regardless of race or place of residence.
Allison not only views the struggle for school choice as a social justice issue, but one of religious faith as well. Describing himself as “very strong” in his Christian faith, Allison has previously worked in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He also worked for an organization that supported faith-based initiatives. Directing PEFNC is just an extension of the path that God has directed him down, Allison said.
“I think that we’ve really tapped into something here as it relates to parents having greater freedom to choose an education that best fits the needs of their children,” Allison said. “And when you look at our one-system model, it’s just not doing very well for what I believe is a growing minority base of folksnot just race…There are just real issues there, and people are doing their best to vocalize their concerns, their frustrations. There’s a real hunger for change.”
Allison is disturbed by the track record of the public schools on graduation rates, specifically in minority communities. “You can’t argue with the facts, and the facts are that only 68 percent of our children graduate on time in the state of North Carolina,” Allison said.
According to the results of a study recently presented to the N.C. Board of Education, just 60 percent of black high school students who began ninth grade in the 2002-03 school year ended up graduating in four years or less. The numbers are even more alarming for Hispanic students only 51.8 percent of first-time ninth graders graduated on time. The graduation rates were substantially higher for white (73.6 percent) and Asian (74.1 percent) students.
“This confirms what we’ve been hearing from families and community members,” Allison said in reference to the study. “There has always been some unease with our public education system not meeting the needs of all of our children, but when this recent report came out, it just reconfirmed that.”
Other research indicates that minority students often face major hurdles in the public education system. A report published by the Education Trust found that schools predominantly composed of minority students were twice as likely to have novice teachers on the faculty compared to schools without many minorities. The same study found that about 70 percent of math teachers in high-poverty and high-minority middle schools do not have a college minor in math or a field of study related to math.
Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the North Carolina Education Alliance, an organization dedicated to reforming the state’s education system, said that one of the reasons public schools are failing is because they cannot meet the individual needs of each student. “I think that one of the fallacies that government schools have to work with is this whole idea of assignment,” Kakadelis said. “You live here, you’re assigned there, and that’s just the way it is. That’s the quickest way to make a parent feel hopeless and helpless and not empowered at all in their child’s education.”
Kakadelis added that another cause for frustration with public education is the sheer size of the system. Schools try “to be all things to all people at all locations,” Kakadelis said, but end up failing to meet the needs of students on an individual level.
Witnessing shortcomings in the educational system was what prompted Raleigh businessman John Bryson to become a PEFNC board member. Bryson said that he was initially attracted to the organization from an economic standpoint, seeing the impact that poor education has on the world of business. But as he became more involved with PEFNC, he began to see the issue of school choice from a variety of angles. Bryson was able to send his four children to private schools, but he emphasized the fact that some parents, particularly in minority communities, don’t have that option.
“The more I got involved with the movement, I saw some of these statistics and it just made me realize the importance of being able to choose,” Bryson said. “From my standpoint, I feel like I paid twice for my kid’s education in taxes, plus also having to come up with the tuition to send them to school. Whether that’s fair or not, I made that choice. Some people don’t have that option…so they’re stuck with the system, which may work for them and may not.”
PEFNC supports a broad array of programs that provide parents and families with greater educational options. Allison points to a tax credit bill currently being considered in the General Assembly as a good example of the bi-partisan nature of the push for school choice. The legislation, H.B. 388, would provide a tax credit for disabled students to attend a special needs school.
“It’s a very unique approach, and a laudable approach as well, in that you have Republicans and Democrats working together and trying their best to meet a need among North Carolina citizens and those families that have children with certain disabilities,” Allison said.
Kakadelis said that she has witnessed increased interest in school choice among minority communities across the country. “Usually, when the African American Democrat policymakers join with Republicans who do not receive money from the education establishment, school choice is a done deal,” she said. Kakadelis added that the state legislature could make school choice easier for minorities by raising the cap on charter schools, offering a tax credit so that families will not have to pay twice for their child’s education, and allowing individuals and corporations to receive “dollar for dollar off their state taxes” when giving to scholarship granting organizations.
Increasing interest in school choice has also translated into more minority parents choosing to educate their children at home. According to Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute, 85,000 to 105,000 homeschool students in 2002-03 were African American. Joyce Burges, an African American woman who, along with her husband, founded the National Black Home Educators in 2000, said that she has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in the number of homeschool black families over the last seven years.
Burges said that home education is beneficial because it is flexible, builds strong family relationships, gives children an opportunity to own their education, and allows parents to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of each individual child. “The public schools have failed our black families, and that’s the main reason why they are choosing to homeschool,” she said. “A lot of younger African American families…don’t even want to go through the headache [of the public schools].”
Burges added that many of the objections that parents raise against homeschoolingsuch as financial and career limitationsare not substantial reasons to reject home education. “There are so many of us who are homeschooling who are actually doing itsingle fathers are homeschooling, and single moms who have entrepreneurship jobs, or they have their own cottage industries and are able to bring their children along as part of their work,” she said.
The school choice movement in North Carolina is still in the infant stage, according to Kakadelis. Many North Carolinians view public education as a sacred institution, she said, and are therefore automatically opposed to school choice if they believe that it will harm public schools. Still, Kakadelis said that the idea of school choice is beginning to take root. “In the marketplace of ideas, school choice wins,” she said. “It’s just getting someone there who can debate it, can discuss it, that understands it, that has the facts and not the myths. The education establishment is great at coming up with myths.”
For the future, Allison said that he wants to continue meeting with small groups throughout the state and building on what PEFNC did on March 6. “We’re planning a two-focused approach: Continue to build the grass roots, continue to get the message out to the every day man, as well as to ratchet up and carry that message to our elected officials,” Allison said.
David Bass is a research assistant with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. For a footnoted copy of this article go to www.ncfamily.org.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.