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Event Transcript
December 13, 2000

New York City Conference on School Choice

Panel Discussion: Report from the Grassroots: Responding to the Growing Demand for Alternatives

What are low-income parents around the nation saying about the educational options available for their children? How do families respond to scholarship opportunities and other school choice programs? Panelists will discuss the support for educational alternatives in communities around the nation and how it may affect politics from the ground up.

    Mikel Holt, Milwaukee Community Journal
    Teresa Treat, Children First CEO America
    T. Willard Fair, Urban League of Greater Miami
    Carol Reich, Beginning with Children Foundation
    Moderator: Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform

The next movement and the next agenda for the next decade in school choice is going to come as a result of what we know. We thank our distinguished panel for giving up a good synthesis of that. But equally or arguably more importantly, what happens from the bottom up to make this happen? That's going to be the focus of our next panel, which I would ask you to come back here for promptly at 11:20. And please join me in giving our panel a hand. [Applause]

MS. ALLEN: Good morning. My name is Jeanne Allen, I'm the president of the Center for Education Reform. We provoke activism and advocacy on behalf of the issues that you're here to discuss. And thank you so much for being very coachable [Phonetic] in my asking you to sit down. It's a good sign.

This is what I would call the real people's panel. How many people in the audience consider themselves real people? Not with any disrespect who I know and love on the governors panel or the academic panel, this is the panel in which you hear about what the real people are actually saying at the grassroots level. What is actually happening in the hearts and minds of people who these issues most affect. Never before has their role or the views of the grassroots been so important than now, particularly as we look at what has just happened with this historic election.

The grassroots level is going to be critical to governing across the country. You have people at a stalemate. Not just at the presidential level, but at the governors and state legislative level across the board who are only going to act and only going to do what's right for education reform if they are so informed by the grassroots.

That's why I am so pleased to have this assignment this morning. People in front of you are leading the charge in their areas across the board for real education reform. We will see more media wars, we'll see high-level efforts, we'll see efforts of governors, but without the informed activism of the grassroots, nothing will occur. And in fact, across the country, whether it be New York or Milwaukee or San Antonio or wherever else you may point to, if it hadn't been for the beginning, for the start of real parents and teachers, not the PTAs, not the chambers, but the P and the T in PTA, the actual individual business members of those chambers and people like yourself, we wouldn't have seen what we see happen today, which with the mayor convening this summit, it truly historic.

I can't think of a better person to start with than T. Willard Fair. T. Willard is the president of Miami Urban League. He is also a recipient of the much coveted Education Leaders Council rebel with a cause award. T. Willard and I go way back. He is a great friend of public education educating the public. He is with Governor Jeb Bush of Florida the co-founder of Florida's first charter school, and an early advocate of that state's A-Plus Program, accountability program which allowed children, they were in failing schools, for the first time to have an option to leave that school that was failing and pick another school of choice.

Now mind you, that program which in the first year only affected two schools, and about 150 kids chose, out of about 500 children, to leave that school, more than half went to public, and the rest went to private. I point that out because this is not about, as you've heard earlier, public versus private. This is about educating children. And the choices of parents, parents as children's first teachers are and should be paramount.

You've got the details in your book. I just wanted you to know that T. Willard is significant in Florida and nationwide for his leadership in the African-American community, for daring to be different. Daring to be courageous in leading his community that overwhelmingly supports this issue now. Tal. [Phonetic] Thank you. [Applause]

MR. FAIR: Part of the format is for us to talk about some personalized experiences that we've had to date with the children and with the parents. And hopefully, as we share with you those experiences it will place into another context the importance and the power associated with choice especially for children of color.

And I've chosen to share with you an experience that I think is the fuel that drives me in this whole game of trying to convince others that it's the right thing for us to do.

I was sitting in the bar in Jacksonville a couple of months ago. And as things go in the bars, as you begin to think and drink your mind begins to wander to things that may or may not be important. We began to talk, after the third drink, about the number of persons who are incarcerated who happen to looking like me. And one of the intriguing questions that I asked of those who were there is, it seems to me that since you guys are the business types that you understand the economics that are associated with the pursuit of justice. Tell me, how is it that you begin to determine how many prisons and prisoners' beds should be built so that as you go about the business of constructing them you will make the profit?

They gave me some of those Ph.D. answers. But being a social worker I didn't understand those, and I needed something much more grassrooted in its nature. And finally, they were brave enough to tell me that they project the number of prison beds needed based on the failure rate at the fourth grade in our public education system. I was drinking but I got sober. [Laughter] Because clearly, there was a message that was frightening there to me. That we are now beginning to clearly connect up failure to incarceration.

And you know, it makes a lot of sense. Because when you look at the prison system in this country and look at who's incarcerated, not only is it overwhelming disproportionate with people who look like me, but the common variable, whether they stole a car or robbed a bank or did something else is that all of them, with few exceptions, cannot read. So there is a correlation, it appears to be, between failure and the ability to read. And therefore, if that is correct then somebody makes a lot of money off of the failure of children beginning at the age of fourth grade, the pursuit.

I share that with you because my favorite student thus far in the struggle is a young man by the man of Neville, who came to us as part of our initial charter school, sixty students. Now you need to be in Liberty City to understand Neville and the importance of Neville because he's not unique. He simply represents in this conversation thousands of children in our community. Neville is being raised by his grandmother. That's not unusual. So when we talk about choice and we talk about who's going to make that choice, in our communities many of those persons would not be the immediate parents, but extended parents called quote/unquote "grandparents."

When we have our PTA meetings to talk about choice we see many, many grandparents now who are involved in this whole decision-making process. So Neville is not unusual. Neville's grandmother lives in public housing. So we're not talking about those who live in Weston and those who live in Miramar in South Florida. We're talking about those persons who still are third and fourth generations of residents who live in public housing.

Now more importantly, Neville is a highly dysfunctional child, as we so label them today. In fact, in the summer there is a program designed by City of Miami Police Department for the purpose of taking those highly dysfunctional children off the streets into a camp-like experience for the summer. Neville is so dysfunctional in his behavior that Neville has one clear distinction. He is the only child in Liberty City in the third grade who got sent home from the police camp.

Now that's clearly an unusual kind of award. To be surrounded by people who are in charge of putting you in jail, and to be in the third grade, and to be so disruptive until their only recourse is to send you back home in this process. It speaks a lot to the environment that Neville is in, but it also speaks to the fact that is a product of that environment.

Neville was enrolled and accepted at our school. And I guess I can sum up my comments about Neville by saying that we have a rule at the Liberty City Charter School that parents, be they grandparents or others, have to actively be involved in the educational pursuit of the children who are enrolled. And that those parents must do certain things that would dictate to us their commitment and level of involvement.

One of those things is that they must actively aggressively do all of the paperwork that is associated with getting their child enrolled into the school. And they cannot send a substitute to make that happen. The last year that Neville was with us before he graduated, he thought that his grandmother was not going to be able to make it because she was sick, and she had sent word to his mother that she had to be at school in order to get Neville re-enrolled into the Liberty City Charter School. She didn't make it on time. Neville was standing outside crying, crying, crying. Wanting to be enrolled in Liberty City.

I'm going to close by letting that story sort of muddle in your mind. Here is a kid who got sent home from the police camp, who less than two years later is crying because he thinks he's not going to be able to go to school. A kid who was destined to occupy one of those beds in which the prisons are made up of children who look just like him.

MS. ALLEN: Thank you Tal.

We asked each of the panelists in a slight switch to talk about some personal experiences before we got into a greater discussion about how school choice is impacting their communities. And I'm happy now to turn to Carol Reich, who is the founder and president of the Beginning with Children Foundation. Carol and her husband Joe in the early nineties saw a huge void in Brooklyn for disadvantaged kids in their area and decided to start a public school. And have since then started a charter school that does a lot of what their well-acclaimed, alternative public school has since done. They are devoted to helping kids directly get into schools that they deserve and need. Carol.

MS. REICH: Thank you. I'd like to issue a disclaimer. This gentleman and I did not collude before we sat down. [laughs] and clearly, we come from different heritages. But our stories are going to be very, very similar.

It's very hard to grasp what the lives of the more than a million children are who are in the New York City public school system. We don't often hear the voice of a single child nor the voice of a single parent. So when Jeanne asked me to tell a story, I'm going to tell the story of Michael, who could be your child's younger brother.

Michael is six. And Michael came to school every day in tatters. They were clean, but they were tatters. And Michael could not, as one of my grandsons said, even sit on the rug to listen to a story. He could not do a task that was asked. And he became so frustrated by the end of the day that he ended up banging his head on the wall. Michael was clearly headed for the slot that you just heard about, and for failure by fourth grade. Because we have learned that once our children get to fourth grade and the slope of their learning has not increased they are destined for what is called the normal curve of declining scores.

I said to somebody before we started today that I think we need a new lexicon. The normal curve of declining scores is unacceptable. It wouldn't be acceptable for any of the children of the people in this room and it's not acceptable for the children in our city. It is a very difficult thing to turn around. So we knew we had to act immediately. The time in the life of a child is short. The time in the life of a bureaucracy is long. It's not easy to turn either one of them around.

We had a team of special needs people in the first school that you heard mentioned, which is a New York City public school. And we sent them over to the charter school to see what could be done for Michael. What they decided to do was praise Michael for doing well. It seems that many of our children don't know what doing well is. You get just as much attention for doing badly from an adult as you do for doing well. And they can't differentiate.

So some of you probably are at least as old as I am and you remember this in school. Michael got a star book. And in Michael's book went a star for every time he did well. Michael's book began to get filled up. Michael is now the leader of the students who greet the visitors to the school. He takes the foundations through the school. He presents himself and his school.

And one day a classmate came up to Michael and said gee Michael, look at all the stars in your book. It's almost filled. Like S&H green stamps. It's almost filled. That's just wonderful. You must be really, really good. Can I give you a hug?

That's the kind of story that needs to bubble up in the system. The child doesn't have time to wait for us to decide what to do or even, I guess I'll say this, get the law changed. You just have to do it. That's what you said. You just have to do that.

The first school is a public school under the Board of Education of the City of New York. They let us or permitted us to do what we needed to do in the school. Even the walls in the school are the wrong color. But when you think about the life of a child and what they come from, we needed a building that was welcoming. Our parents used to stand up out on the sidewalk and not believe that they were welcome in the school. You need parents in the school. You need them for their children and you need them to make the success of the school possible.

We have to start listening to them. They know what they want. We have ten or twelve applicants for every place, which in a decade of schooling in the first scholarship means that we've turned away a thousand children and their parents. That's too many people. Parents who get in, get in by lottery, and they're voting with their feet. We need a forum to hear the parents. They know what they want. They want exactly what you want. And we cannot provide the opportunity for it.

What I'd like, one of my dreams is that we get a new lexicon. That we get rid of all the words that are so volatile and look at opportunities for children and their parents. And I'd like to ask all of you to join in this fight. I think it's going to be long. It already is long. I think it's going to be very expensive. And I think we will eventually win. Not us, but our children and their parents. [Applause]

MS. ALLEN: Carol, thank you. I think we should put a sign up, sheet out for anybody so we don't let them leave the room without them putting their name down on that.

Everybody who's ever been involved in a movement or an effort to bring about change knows that you always look for some leadership in your community. Some place, some hope, some verifiable media to support your efforts. And Mikel Holt and Milwaukee Community Journal in Milwaukee and was that in the early days of that city's formation. As John Gardner called it, before kind of their dynamic choice and reform environment. Mikel Holt, unlike most of the other conventional press in the city, was willing to give ink to the stories of parents and children and teachers struggling to actually bring about change in a system that was impervious to that change. Mikel is also the author of "Not Yet Free At Last: The Unfinished Business Of The Civil Rights Movement; Our Battle For School Choice." Thank you Mikel for coming.

MR. HOLT: Thank you. [Applause] Good morning. I have a problem trying to identify a child. Because right now there are ten thousand children participating in school choice in Milwaukee. And I think I might know them all.

This is a civil rights movement that started long before 1988 or 1989 or 1990 when the legislation was finally passed. It's been going on for decades. My parents were part of it. It's about education reform and accountability. My parents chained themselves to bulldozers to try to bring it about with the Milwaukee public schools. And it wasn't successful. We started a movement twenty years later that was successful.

The participants in the school choice program in Milwaukee generally fall under three different categories. I'll give you a name of a child in each category.

The first category are parents, and they're all low-income, who are seeking alternatives to the Milwaukee public school system. There is a child name Pookie. Most black children are named Pookie. But this child is actually named Pookie. And he is enrolled in a school that I'm on the board of. Arombay [Phonetic] Community School. It has an African-centered curriculum. It has 80% low-income children. It also has a 98% graduation rate and 80% of these children going to college.

So some of the participants in school choice see those kind of opportunities, and even though they're low-income and that means according to some folks they don't have the intellectual capability to make decisions, they strangely make these decisions and they send their children to these schools. So Pookie is now in the fifth grade and he has an A average. He knows who he is. And chances are he'll probably go to college.

The second category are parents who are frustrated by the public school system, who often find that their children, for one reason or another, are put in special education or given Ritalin. This is very pervasive. Not just Milwaukee, but around the country. It may have something to do with the fact that many of the teachers in the public school systems either don't have high expectations for these children, or in many cases they're afraid of the children. I should note that several years ago the State Department of Public Instruction did a statewide survey of graduation rates for black children. In Milwaukee, several years ago, it was 38% for black boys. That means for every one hundred black children who go to a Milwaukee public school, only 38 will graduate. There's no coincidence will end up in that criminal justice system.

But the second child Tamesha, her parents were upset that she was put into a special education class without testing. She was upset that she went to the principal of the school and didn't get satisfaction. She was upset that she wrote letters to the school board, to the state superintendent, to the President of the United States, and nothing happened. So she took her child out of that public school system. Took advantage of school choice. And now she is in a private school and is doing fine. She's not in special education. She has, last I heard, a B average.

The third group of parents, and this is probably the largest category, are children who are on average two years behind in their studies. A study came out from the University of Wisconsin done by Sam S. White who did a profile of these kids participating in school choice. And it knocked down a lot of myths. They're not creaming [Phonetic]. I'm actually on the board of two private schools, Arombay and in Mezmer [Phonetic] which also has a 98% graduation rate, it's a Catholic school, and 85% of those kids go on to college. Mezmer is also the only school in the State of Wisconsin where the black and white GPA are identical.

It's interesting when they talk about, and I heard Dr. Peterson this morning talking about these children participating in the program, that was not factored in. They are on average two years behind in their studies and are destined to drop out. So this third child, Adrian, who's about eight years old was believe it or not, failing first grade. He was about to be set back instead of promoted to the second grade. His parents or parent in this case, because most of the participants are single parents, sent him to Arombay Community School. Miraculously, in one year his grades went up dramatically and he is at the top of his class. And now there is hope that this child who probably would have dropped out of school is going to graduate and be successful.

What all of these parents and all of these children have in common is that they are all part of what we call a civil rights movement. It's an educational civil rights movement. It's a freedom train that's been traveling around the country. In Milwaukee we've been very, very fortunate because it's not just black and Hispanic people on this train, and it's not just black and Hispanic people serving as conductors. We have a Democratic mayor who has fought hard for school choice. We have a Republican governor who has fought hard for school choice. We have Democrats, Republicans, independents. We have Catholics, atheists, Protestants, Methodists. We have people who all recognize and understand the importance of education in changing around the status quo in America.

They understand that there is no single problem or entity more important than education. And that in America, in New York, in Milwaukee there is a system of educational apartheid. There are two educational systems. One for the haves, one for the have-nots. That's why you're dealing with welfare reform today, and prison systems today. So we have to change that.

So our educational freedom train is traveling the country. And it's based on a very, very simple premise. That the civil rights movement my parents were involved in and I was involved in when I was a lot younger was to guarantee access. It was to get us to the lunch counter. The new civil rights agenda, since we're already at the lunch counter, is to make sure that our children can read the menu. Thank you. [Applause]

MS. ALLEN: Finally, I'm happy to introduce Teresa Treat who is from San Antonio. The director of the CEO program there. Teresa for several years has run that private scholarship program helping children who even in San Antonio are exposed to educational apartheid every day. For those of you who don't know, Texas is one of the leaders in educational choice in this country in terms of their private scholarship programs. They were the first to have some of these experimental programs which since then grew to as you heard earlier, sixty around the country. Teresa's been experiencing and been with these parents for several years, hundreds of them with hundreds more on waiting lists. And she'll give us her views of their experiences. Teresa.

MS. TREAT: Thank you Jeanne. As Jeanne mentioned, I've been with the CEO foundation for seven years now. We have two programs in San Antonio. One that is just two and a half years old called the Horizon Program. And through these two programs I have met and heard from hundreds of students and their families. In the past year we've started an organization where our parents can get together and talk to each other and realize number one, that they are not alone in what they are seeking for their children, but also more importantly, that we want to see school choice be a reality for all students in San Antonio and the state and the nation.

But of the things that I've learned from these families and from these students is why they had chosen other schools. There's always the three, one of the three main reasons. They are choosing schools, for one reason is safety. Another reason is they're looking for a more religious or moral environment for their student and child. And the number one reason that we have had parents look for something else for their child is academics.

Now, in speaking about academics, we have families who have children who have true learning disabilities. And their children have been in programs designed to help them, only to come to May and find out their child still isn't reading or still isn't doing anything and they want something else. We have students who are truly talented, gifted students who were bored, who were very unchallenged, and their parents were looking for an environment where their child could excel at their favorite subjects and in any way they can.

And that we have another group of students that are just simply your average student. But the problem being is that they were not in an environment that encouraged that level of learning, that do a little bit more, learn a little bit more, not just what you have to do to get by.

Of those three things I can tell you, of those categories I can tell you the stories of many families and their individual stories and how they were impacted. We have had students, one young girl on the safety issue, that was nearly very closely gang-raped in her classroom while the teacher stepped out for just a moment.

Just Monday I learned of a little boy, and this is more kind of moral issues, his mother pulled him out because she didn't feel that the school was truly addressing some of the problems that were going on in the classroom. For example, there was another boy in her son's third grade class that would urinate on the other students if he didn't like them. And no one would do anything.

As far as academics are concerned, we have students with learning disabilities who are now in schools that are truly addressing their individual learning disability and not putting them in a class with other students of different learning disabilities, and truly seeing advances in their education and in their level of learning.

We have students who have gone to schools that are primarily for students that are truly gifted and talented. That have an I.Q. level that you have to be in to participate in their program, and they were doing very well.

My favorite area is students that were just your average student. Were going to school just to get by because they had to be there, to find out books are really something that are going to show you something. They're going to teach you something. And encouraged and nurtured that love of learning.

Of all of these families, and I was asked to speak about just one, which was very difficult, I have one young man who's been on my mind the past few weeks, mainly because it's Christmas. Last year we received a Christmas card from him. It was his first year in our Horizon program. He was a seventh grade young man named Luis. And his card was pretty average, you know, thank you for the scholarship. I hope you have a nice Christmas. But further down in his letter to us he said, and I'm going to quote here, "My mother wanted me to go to your school so I thought I'd try it." And then he goes on and says, and I quote, "I thought I was a loser, but my teacher here, he don't believe that. I like it here."

Now anytime that we can take a student or a child out of a system where the value of that child is the last rung on the ladder, in a system where there's simply an afterthought in what goes on, and we put them into an environment where they're number one, what they're learning day to day and how they're being influenced day to day, we are helping not only that child, but we're helping every child. We're helping that family.

We have families now that say my son comes home and tells me about what he learned. Not what happened to the other kids at school or what happened on the playground, but what he learned. Anytime that we can impact these students like this we are doing what we need to do.

And we aren't just impacting the students that are in our program. Through our parents' organization group at our meeting last week I had one parent come back to me Thursday and say, "I'm going to go ahead and pull my child out and put him back in public school, but can I keep coming to the meetings?" I said of course you can keep coming to the meetings. She goes, I'm going to go back there and I'm going to tell them what I want. And I thought good for you.

We know we're impacting not just our students, but all of the students. And that is where we need to be. Thank you. [Applause]

MS. ALLEN: I'd like to explore this idea of impact a little bit more. T. Willard, starting with you. I mean, there's one of the arguments against this issue is that okay, you're helping those few kids, fine. What about everybody else? Which kind of ignores the fact that everybody else sees these programs and these successes, don't they, T. Willard? I mean, how have you seen your school and the A-Plus program itself impact the environment or the communities in Florida?

MR. FAIR: I've been in South Florida for 37 years. Up until my 35th year, each year when the test scores came out one would go to the bottom of the page and find all of the test scores of the kids who were in Liberty City. No one ever got excited about that. No one was ever disturbed about that. Until my good friend, Governor Jeb Bush decided that every child needed to have a chance to succeed, and instituted the FCAT plan.

Now let me tell you what happening with that, is that now we began to grade schools. And now everybody knows that the schools in Liberty City are F schools and D schools. And for the first time people are embarrassed. And it's sort of peculiar what people do when they get embarrassed. They try to straighten up and fly right. So for the first time in my 37 years, because of the FCAT, because we all know exactly who is doing what and who is not doing what, we have seen people working hard for the first time. We've seen principals and teachers and superintendents and district superintendents now really excited about making sure that they are no longer embarrassed. Embarrassment can be a very, very stimulating motivator. And in this case we have seen it occur in our community.

So now we understand that it really is not the children. It's about the fact that prior to the FCAT, whether or not the children succeeded was not important to anybody. That's no longer true.

MS. ALLEN: Carol, jump in here. Do you see people now looking at you and looking at your school saying oh gosh, gee, those kids can learn?

MS. REICH: We have to talk about what people were talking about, looking. Joe and I go around the country, thanks to some of the people in this room, and talk about how to start a school for kids who have never had a chance. Somebody said here that the children are two years behind. That starts long before they get to the school door. They, most of them are from single families. They come in not knowing the alphabet. Now, think about that. If you don't have that skill then what's going on in the room around you? So by the time you get to pre-K you don't know the alphabet. You all knew the alphabet.

And so we go around the country talking about it. I wasn't sure what was happening in New York City. So through a lucky accident I became superintendent for a day in the district where our school sits. And I went around looking at other schools. Well, it was really kind of odd. They had programs that looked like ours. Now they could have arisen de novo, and maybe they didn't. But every room we walked into knew about the school that was five blocks away. They had libraries, they had gardens, they had art. And that was what mattered. And everybody in the building wanted to be in that building.

I think that's the point of a good education. The teachers want to be there. And in the first school our teachers are UFT teachers. They want to be there, the children want to be there, the parents want to be there. And somehow the street word gets out that this is something worth doing. So if you can't get into the building and stand on the sidewalk crying, you can then go into the other public schools and say they have that; I want this too. And it's possible to make it happen. It's very, very slow. And it still seems to be one child, one parent and one building at a time. But that's not a reason not to do it.

MS. ALLEN: Mikel, compare Milwaukee ten years ago to now. What's the difference in the climate?

MR. HOLT: Well, as I said, ten years ago we had a system of educational apartheid. Those walls have come down. I think the, you know, ten thousand children are benefiting from school choice. They're participating in the program.

But I think there's a hundred thousand children actually really realizing a better education. Today Milwaukee probably has more educational options than any city in the United States. School choice has opened up the door for public-private partnerships, for charter schools. I think the public schools just awarded seven more charters a couple of weeks ago. I think they're going to have twenty thousand children participating in charters, which I just refer to as public school choice. We now have site-based management, which is reality.

One of the things it didn't do was hurt the public school system. It really seriously benefited the public school system. I think John Gardner mentioned in his speech that the public school system has put $25 million dollars in its pocket because of school choice because they were able to keep those property tax dollars, even though they're not educating those children anymore. It's also effectively taken from the public school system at-risk children who are now educated in the private school sector.

And additionally, it has actually helped to lower class sizes in the Milwaukee public school system. Because through the various programs there's probably twenty thousand children who are no longer in the public school system. That means that the pupil-teacher ratio has actually closed, which is benefiting the public school system. For the first time in my life grade point averages have gone up in the public school system, and all of this is directly related to school choice. And I think you heard earlier, it's actually helping to integrate some of the public school systems, et cetera.

So the children participating in choice benefit, but the entire city benefits. As a result of this mass movement, because we've been steadily losing population in the City of Milwaukee, now all of a sudden people are actually looking to move back into the City of Milwaukee because that's where the educational options are.

And lastly, I think Milwaukee led the nation in relationship to McDonald's hamburger chain, because I think Milwaukee was one of the first cities where they removed numbers from the cash registers and replaced them with pictures because our kids couldn't add. Now all of a sudden they're putting the numbers back on the cash registers, which must be a direct result of this process as well.

MS. ALLEN: Teresa, what did the public school officials do in San Antonio when you started? Didn't they start doing like programs of choice and they didn't claim that there was an impact, but wasn't there some ripple?

MS. TREAT: Number one, the first thing that they did was criticize us, of course. There have been some changes that we feel that we are responsible for. Our Horizon program was in the Edgewood school district which was known for some court rulings as far as equalizing, funding for education. But that was thirty years ago and nothing had been done. The educational outcome there was still very poor.

Once our program came in we received immediate criticism that the funding that we were being given should be given to the school and to the district. And when asked well, what would you do with it, they said everything that had nothing to do with students. They talked about buildings and sidewalks and salaries. But there was no mention of what would happen to the students. So we knew we were on the right track with that.

As far as differences that have happened, standardized testing in Texas is controversial. You know, there are tests that are going on. Grades have improved, but has the test improved and is the test really relevant to what the children are learning or should be learning? So that's really not a good situation.

The district has claimed that they are accepting more parental involvement. Through our own parents, who speak with us about parental involvement, we have learned, just going to the class and helping the teacher clean up is a lot different from our parents who in private school go to class every day and say what did my child learn today? Why not? How about this? Let's do that. Can we change this for my child? There's a totally different term for what parental involvement is.

Other things that have changed within the district is they're claiming that they are doing more for the student, providing more for the student. But our enrollment through the program has increased so I'm not sure that it was enough.

MS. ALLEN: What can you tell those elected officials in the room there are people who are influential with elected officials, there are people all over the country that say yeah, but I can't, you know, no one really supports it, or there's a lot of political pressure. Can you send a message out there that tells them whether or not there would be parents supporting them?

MR. HOLT: Visit Milwaukee. There's overwhelming support. I think most of the surveys around the country show that there's overwhelming support. Among black folks it's close to 80%. And I think it's similar for Hispanics. It's high among the have-nots. You know, and if you want to take money away from the prison system and you want to take money away from welfare and social welfare, if you want to take money and put it in a place where it's going to benefit your city, then you need to start looking at some educational options. If you want to improve the quality of life for everyone so everyone can contribute to that society, then you need to look at these educational options.

And I also suggest tell them, we're not opposed to public education. We are in the process of redefining public education. Those private schools that I talk about are public schools. Because they deal with the public and it's public money, which is our money. So what we're trying to push for is no longer what they call this public school system, but a system of schools.

MS. REICH: I have something a little more crass to say than that. Speaking to elected officials who care about votes. Our parents started to learn that they could participate and that their voices were heard and that their votes could be heard within a building. So what happened? They organized a voter registration for local elections. And it went I don't even know if this is legal it went on in the public school. You can have voting machines, why can't you have voter registration? And it was fully participated in. And all our kids were wearing signs that said "We are future voters." So if you want to know where your votes are coming from and who the next cadre of voters are, go into a school building and get it organized.

MR. FAIR: I think one of the things that we have learned very clearly in South Florida is that grassroot parents like grasspop parents, they care about their children. We had a program during the last presidential election for George W. Bush. And the children from the Liberty City Charter School were invited to participate. And all of my parents were Al Gore supporters. And one parent got up in the meeting and decided that the children should not go because this was for those Republicans. I need not tell you what the other parents told her. That this was not about politics; it was about identifying with the people who had their children's interests at heart. And when that is the case then politicians need to understand that grassroot people got good sense also.

MS. ALLEN: I want to invite up our audience to ask questions. There are microphones in the aisles. While you're doing that let me just throw this out at panelists.

Public schools, we're told every year, a Phi Delta Kappa Gallup poll, overwhelming support. It's growing, we're turning the corner. Does that connect with what you're seeing in your communities?

MR. HOLT: They turn the corner when they're forced to turn the corner. Otherwise there's no reason for it. As long as they hold children hostage then they'll continue to maintain the status quo. That's been the experience nationally.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm Michael Myers, New York Civil Rights Coalition. I guess I want to address my question to Mikel Holt from Milwaukee. And the question is really what are the legal and educational and moral boundaries of education of choice? I think you made reference to the, or on the institute or school. And do you believe that either parents or children should be able to choose the peers in that school based on their race or skin color if racial esteem can be shown to improve academic achievement, or is there something that broader than questions of racial esteem, or Afrocentric curricula where children are supposed to be encouraged, in a public school in particular, to have an interactive truly horizon-building educational experience where they get to know each other across racial boundaries and class lines.

So to what extent do you think that people can pick and choose skin color or race or an Afrocentric curriculum as a legitimate basis or boundary for school choice?

MR. HOLT: Well, we use it at Arombay because we found [Interposing]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is that a hundred percent black school?

MR. HOLT: No, it's about 90% black. About 10% are racially mixed children. There's a few white children and a few Hispanics. But we've used this curriculum because we found that if you can build the self-esteem of children then they learn easier. So we tell them, for example, that they can do math because algebra came from an individual named Aljabar in northern Africa. It seems to help them.

Conversely, at Mezmer, which is a Catholic school, they seem to learn at the same pace or accelerated pace. We found in essence there is really no secret or a quality education. That if you have three primary ingredients, which are teachers with high expectations, teachers who love the children, and there is a nurturing environment there, and parental involvement, then you have success.

You know, I'm a cultural nationalist so I think it is important for us to push children in the area of self-esteem, because many black children, many black people have low self-esteem. So it's proven to be very, very successful to us. But I'm not adverse to any of the other methods. You know, I simply say that, you know, if I can show you that children learn in a tree house, and if you all really love children then all of us should go to the lumber yard and get some wood.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, could I follow-up with Carol Reich to ask, because you're a psychologist, to ask the psychological implications of defining self in terms of race, or defining one's self-interest in terms of racial interest in a particular educational setting.

MS. REICH: I'm going to answer you two ways. One with a story and then the textbook answer. We have a mixed population in the first school and not in the second school. And the history of their development was exactly the same. White parents were very anxious to get these schools started. When they saw the mix in the school initially the white parents took their children out. In the year 2000 that still happened.

When they begin to see that the school is successful then they come back in droves. And they are committed to this kind of education.

The other story I want to tell you is I walked in the classroom one day and there was a little girl standing there in corn rows very sad. And I walked in with the principal of one of our schools. Fourth grade. How old are you? Eight, nine? And I said well, what are you doing here? And she said all the white kids got to go to the park. And that was kind of stunning because there weren't any. So I said well, I got to talk to you about something. Are the principal and I the same? She said yes, your skin color is the same. The principal is a Latina. I said yes, but if the people who came by and thought that was important started to count us, she would be a Latina and I would be white. And the child looked at me and said I guess I don't know any white people then.

Now I just told her how I would be counted but she had already learned the lesson that black children do not have and white children do have. So the haves and have-nots were learned in the street, not in the building. She achieved self-esteem by success. We haven't figured out a way to do it the other way around. We want all our children to succeed, and they do. The first graduating class has all gone on to good high schools in this city. They do succeed. And they know who they are. And I'm not so sure that a curriculum helps if it doesn't address the needs of the individual child as well as the child's identity. So that's my psychological answer.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Frank Russo, I'm the state director for the American Family Association of New York. We produce a weekly public access cable program that airs throughout New York State. And we've often discussed this subject and have had African-American guests on the program. When we ask them the question why do they think that African-Americans don't rise to the same levels in the business community as whites, do they think that racial discrimination at the 20th century was the primary reason or not, they say no longer. Fifty years ago yes, but, you know, that's, it's still a problem, but it's not a serious problem. The two big problems they mention are the status of the black family, 70% illegitimacy and so forth, and educational opportunity, lack of educational opportunity.

Then I ask the question, and the two can be linked together because the absence of teaching moral values in schools can be related to sexual promiscuity and problems of children born with no fathers at home, so the two are related we ask them then why on earth, since the African-American community and the Hispanic community are so overwhelmingly pro school choice, much more so than white suburbanites, why do these same African-American parents vote so overwhelmingly for politicians who are anti-school choice? For President, for Congress, for state legislator, for governor. Other than, I'd except Milwaukee and I think Jersey City is another exception. Other than those two cities, why does this happen?

They gave answers. I won't go into their answers because I don't know if they're right or not. I'd like to hear your the two black gentlemen, I'd like to hear your answers, your opinions on that.

MR. FAIR: I'd like to sit with you at lunch. [Laughter]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'd love that.

MR. FAIR: It's really not a simple answer. I just finished a debate this past Friday with the state chairperson of the NAACP in the State of Florida on the relevancy of affirmative action to achievement of blacks in the 21st century. I suggest to you that there are a lot of what we call psychology of performance issues that have to be dealt with. I suggest to you that we can't even talk about the answer to your question until we talk about the power that has been used over the years to communicate intellectual inferiority to the people that I happen to look like.

So when you begin to talk about the psychology of my behavior you've got to understand the awesome impact had in my socialization process. So I'll sit with you at lunch.


MR. FAIR: Anybody that would like to join us, it's going to be exciting, stimulating [Laughter] provocative.

MR. HOLT: Yes, I agree. It's really hard to quickly explain this. You know, I have a, those of you who, she announced it anyway, I have a book called, "Not Yet Free At Last," and they've been circulating posters around the country of the book, and it says, "The book that the NEA, neo-nazis and negro-ocracy don't want you to read." And we have a serious problem in this country. And I'm politically independent so I blast both sides. We have a serious problem in this country in dealing with misleadership. And we also have a problem with black paranoia and fear. We are afraid of the other side.

And historically, you know, if you look at the Republican Party then, you know, you see that they really just totally, totally ignore the black community. That's been a little bit different in Wisconsin where the Republican governor actually pushed school choices, pushed some other initiatives that we were supportive of. And after school choice his vote went up. Now, during welfare reform his vote went back down. And people couldn't make the link there. But, you know, we always point out, and it's effective in Milwaukee, that for example, many of those entities that push us in that direction also benefit from maintaining the status quo.

You know, Jesse Jackson, for example, comes to Milwaukee with a forty thousand dollar check from the teachers union talking about the evils of school choice, but he sent all of his kids to prestigious private schools. So we have to point out the hypocrisy of that. You know, eventually I think all of these walls, these political walls fall down because we keep stressing to put people before parties. And then we can all benefit.

MS. REICH: I have something to say and I'm the wrong color to answer you.

PANELIST: But if you got the right answer it's okay.

MS. REICH: I got an answer. [Laughter] I am part of what is loosely described, used to be a minority. Women. In the categories that you said, that the people on your program construct, are hidden prejudices. Just because you had a child without the blessing of the civil or religious system in this country doesn't mean you don't care. And when we construct those kind of categories we are sending a message: you don't count. Well, you do count. You thought enough to raise this child, to guard this child and to bring it to a school where you want it to succeed. So I also object to the category of single women. They are mothers. We all had them. And I think we shouldn't forget that.

MS. ALLEN: I think as we'll hear later also, there's a lot to be said for political leadership. More people would be willing to actually stand up and vote if political leaders were much more less hesitant. Let's put it that way. Yes ma'am?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Denise Goad [Phonetic] and I'm a parent advocate. I'm also a parent with children in New York City public schools. Over 80% of the children in New York City are of African-American or Latino descent. And we are here today, and we are calling it talking about parents choice. Yet I can guarantee you 99.9% of the parents in New York City knew nothing about today's event.

When you think of the Board of Education, there are seven members on the board, and five of them send their children to private school. Our Chancellor sends his child to private school. We tell parents when they are pregnant, you have a right, you have a choice to abort that child. But once our children are born we then say you no longer have a right as to how your children are being educated. I would challenge any of you today, that if you would take a poll in New York City today you would find, I can unequivocally state that you would find over 99.9% of the parents want choice.

And for the politicians that are in this room today, it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat, education is a billion dollar business. You are free to build prisons, but there is no accountability to our schools. Like one of the gentleman said, that our children are about to vote. They'll be voting real soon. And we need to put the interests of children first. I'm asking all of you, give parents a choice. We need choice. We will make choice. And if you cannot help us make choice we'll probably make choices about a lot of you. Thank you so very much. [Applause]


MS. ALLEN: Quick question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name's John Taylor Gaddo [Phonetic]. I write books about school reform. The latest is, "The Underground History of American Education." I'd like to ask each of you specific to your own situations, what obstacles could be removed immediately or imminently that would improve what you're personally doing for school reform. And I would like to eliminate money as any portion of the answer.

MS. REICH: I'll start with that. Bad publicity. Negative publicity is so detrimental to us because it's the same arguments over and over that we've already proven are not arguments, but local newspapers, television. Any time we have a reporter we can go on and on and on about the benefits of it and they will bring up one of the nine lies [Phonetic].

MS. ALLEN: Okay. Bad publicity. One obstacle. Mikel.

MR. HOLT: You have truth. I mean, if you could knock down these myths. You know, I go around the country and I hear all these people speaking about, you know, school choice and they're speaking of hypotheticals. Come to Milwaukee, we can show you. Because most of what the people say are out and out lies. I was sitting there reading some material this morning and they're out and out lies. You know, they're talking about it creams the best student, steals money from the public school system. They have record hiring.

John Gardener said something about a week ago that kind of like stunned me. He said ten years ago the Milwaukee public school system, this, you know, relates back to the stealing money part, Milwaukee public school system had a student enrollment of one hundred thousand children and a budget of $501 million dollars. This year the Milwaukee public school system has an enrollment of one hundred thousand children and a budget of one billion dollars. So we asked a question, where is the lost money?

You know, we can show emphatically that this program works. And it not just works for the students but for the whole system. For the city. So if we have an opportunity in forums like this I just saw this movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger about cloning folks [Laughter] if we can clone a thousand people to get here and just tell the truth and get an opportunity to debate these people and that's another secret, find out what vested interest these people have in maintaining status quo. They're padding their pockets most often. They have a vested interest.

Many of them, to be quite honest, are bigots. [Applause] That's why we call it a civil rights movement. They do not want poor black children to have the same opportunities as white children. And there's some black bigots within the black community as well, middle-class. Because there's fewer jobs. And they don't want these young kids competing with their children. This is about economics and empowerment and giving everybody the same. This is the ultimate affirmative action program, if you want to look at it that way. Giving everybody an equal chance for success in life.

MS. ALLEN: Carol, obstacles.

MS. REICH: It is a civil rights issue. And I won't speak about money, but I'll speak about accountability. Where are the resources going? There is enough money. Listen to these numbers. There is enough money in the system. And when you can reapply it within a given building, which a lot of these educational options allow us to do, the children get what they need. If everybody could hear our children and our parents, there is no forum for them. They still are the littlest appellates without a voice. They need a voice.

MR. FAIR: I've identified all the obstacles. And I'm in the process of removing them. [Laughter] There are people in my community who fit Michael's description, who use my community, who exploit our misery index to their own selfish end. They may be Jesse Jackson, they may be the president of the local NAACP, they may be Al Sharpton. I have a special award that I give out each year for them. It's called the Nigger of the Year award. One of the things that has to happen is that we must stand up and expose these people and call them what they are. They are prohibiting us from making progress. And I'm about the business of removing that obstacle.

They are policymakers who run and talk out of both sides of their mouth about how committed they are to us. And when I see those policymakers I stand up and I rally people to vote them in or to vote them out of the process. You can't talk about the obstacle if you're not willing to take some risk to remove the obstacle. And you can't take the risk unless you got some courage. This is serious business. It's dangerous business. And there are no excuses for us to tolerate anybody that will not assist us in making sure that every child gets an education.

MS. ALLEN: I've just been given the high sign. We have time for one more question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, my name is Rodriguez. Miguel. And I'm a parent also. I just wanted to piggyback off of what the young lady said earlier, in terms of why aren't the parents notified about this. One, we talk about vouchers, and yes, we do hear that as parents. Vouchers, choices in education. But yet the information is not being filtered to the parents. In terms of choices, where do they go? What's the procedure? How do they apply for this?

In terms of scholarships also, the information is not being filtered. They have no clue. I myself, like I said, I'm a single parent. In '95 my career ended with the Department of Corrections became I became disabled. My kids have been going to a parochial school. At that time I was no longer getting an income. I was on Social Security Disability. And I heard about the Children's Scholarship Fund.

In the meantime I was using my pension money, because I had pulled out whatever monies I had in my pension and I was paying for that. And I was reluctant to apply for the scholarship because of my pride. Okay. I've always worked. I've always paid for everything. I paid for my kids' education. Their uniforms. But it came to a point where I had to put the pride to the side. And I got the Children's Scholarship Fund.

But I also notice, speaking on choices, children are leaving the public school system and they're going to private schools. And the private schools are also taking advantage of this because they're also increasing their tuitions. More kids want to come to private schools so therefore tuitions are going up. And like the gentleman has said earlier, when you talk about a voucher that's a thousand dollars, twelve hundred dollars, that doesn't cover one year every tuition for going to a school.

Now, my question is where do parents go, how do they inquire about applying for a scholarship or for a voucher? Where do they go? Is there a listing? Is there a Web site that maybe I can take this information back down to Brooklyn, since I'm an advocate for families and children, and give this information and kind of filter it out since apparently nobody else is doing it. And I think this is very important when we talk about choices. And they talk about oppressing the minority and the Latinos. This is oppressing. Because we're not getting this information.

MS. ALLEN: Thank you. I think there are some people in the audience that might be able to find this gentleman during lunch, from the various choice organizations and parent organizations in New York that might help direct you. Don't forget, there are a lot of people that don't want you to have that information. But I'm sure these other folks can hook up with you and get you that information.

We have to close. This has been a wonderful panel. I want to thank all of the guests. This is the grassroots. These are the real people. [Applause] These are the folks you need to hear from and work with us.

I want to also remind you please after lunch, the afternoon remarks, we have panel sessions by Mayor Norquist and Mayor Brad Schundler from Jersey City. They can help solve these problems. As well as this afternoon, don't forget, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich will be here to talk about his views on school choice. Very exciting afternoon. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

[next section] [previous section]


Center for Civic Innovation.



This conference also available as MI CONFERENCE SERIES #4


Introduction and Opening Remarks

Welcome by Henry Olsen, The Manhattan Institute

The Honorable Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mayor of New York, with brief video presentation

The Honorable Gary Johnson, Governor of New Mexico

The Honorable Frank Keating, Governor of Oklahoma

Panel Discussion: Synthesizing the Evidence: What Research Tells Us about the Effect of School Choice on Student Achievement

Jay Greene, Manhattan Institute

Paul Peterson, Harvard University

Eugene Hickok, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education

Moderator: John Gardner, Milwaukee Public Schools

Panel Discussion: Report from the Grassroots: Responding to the Growing Demand for Alternatives

Mikel Holt, Milwaukee Community Journal

Teresa Treat, Children First CEO America

T. Willard Fair, Urban League of Greater Miami

Carol Reich, Beginning with Children Foundation

Moderator: Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform

Afternoon Remarks

The Honorable John Norquist, Mayor of Milwaukee

The Honorable Bret Schundler, Mayor of Jersey City

Panel Discussion: Choice and the Constitution: Debating New and Old Questions about the Constitutionality of Vouchers

Clint Bolick, Institute of Justice

Robert Chanin, National Education Association

Charles Fried, Harvard Law School

Elliot Mincberg, People for the American Way

Moderator: Joseph Viteritti, New York University

Afternoon Remarks

Professor Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor

Panel Discussion: The Future of School Choice: Learning from Michigan and California and Considering New Models of Increasing Educational Opportunity

Matthew Miller, syndicated columnist

Joe Overton, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

John Coons, University of California at Berkeley Law School

John Faso, New York State Assembly Minority Leader

Moderator: Bruno Manno, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation


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