Robert F. Smith and Generosity by Example

Generosity is never wasted and always the right choice.

Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest black man in America, used some of his commencement speech over the weekend to announce that he would be paying off the student loan debt of every single graduate of Morehouse College’s class of 2019. The debt varies by student but is estimated to be worth $40 million. His surprise news was met with cheers and tears, making a memorable day an even more significant one.

Before this weekend, not many people had really heard Robert F. Smith’s name before, but he’s been a quiet philanthropist for years. The New York Times reports that Smith has a long history of giving, including major gifts to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C. Back in January, Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse to fund student scholarships and a new park on campus.

“I’m putting some fuel into your bus, “ Smith told the audience at Morehouse. “I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”

When I read about this generosity – this extreme act of kindness – my heart was so full. Many of the students took on loans, with every intent to graduate and pay them back, and now they instead are charged with paying it forward. Finances aside, this is such a symbolic act that Mr. Smith and his family performed. He could have taken that same money and had a building named after him on campus, or a statue built in his honor. Instead, he found a functional way to use that cash that would have a significant, direct impact on the receivers. It was money he gave with no intentions of seeing it come back — money that he said he hopes is paid forward many times over.

Like many others, I was moved by this deliberate generosity — as a college graduate, a parent and an advocate for educational opportunity. It is important that those of us who have been in the trenches fighting for whatever our cause pay that hard work forward to the next generation. It’s why I am still so passionate about better school choice options for ALL children, even though my own children are grown and out of my home. I continue to fight for better educational opportunities because I quickly learned that they were all my children – the ones showing up to our community meetings with their parents, looking for better futures for their entire families. The children coming with us to the steps of the Capitol to petition for those brighter futures. The more than 11,000 children who have benefitted from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program since its inception in 2004.  They are all mine. All of their futures are my responsibility.

Robert F. Smith recognized this too – his responsibility to the young people who were not his by blood. He made the choice to improve their lives using the resources he has worked so hard to acquire – and the 400 graduates of the Morehouse Class of 2019 will benefit for years to come.

11 Tips for Organizing Parents to Push for School Choice

My journey from being one mother fighting for my own child’s education to leading thousands of mothers (and fathers and grandparents and supporters) pushing for more educational opportunities for all children has been incredible.

I have learned so much about the importance of hard work and dedication — but most importantly, I have learned that the most vital causes need an army of supporters to rally behind them. More educational opportunity for American children is not a political issue in need of “taking sides,” though there are some who would paint it in that light. Access to more educational options for kids from every neighborhood — from the poorest to most affluent — is something that ultimately benefits all children and the future of the country.  I challenge anyone who thinks differently to speak with the hundreds of parents I’ve spoken with, face-to-face, in my 20+ years trying to improve school choice. Those parents don’t care about the politics of school choice; they only want what is best for their children. 

I learned a lot in organizing D.C. parents to fight for better educational opportunities for their children and I hear from many parents all over the country who are frustrated by the lack of options in their own neighborhoods, in their own states, and who want some guidance on where to even start when it comes to improving outcomes.

Below are some tips I share with others who are trying to organize school choice activism in their own cities and states.

  • Go where the parents are — go to their neighborhoods, community centers, and churches. Do not ask them to come to you.
  • Communicate with parents regularly through letters, newsletters, media, churches, civic organizations, etc.
  • Talk regularly to community leaders on email and the phone: Local politicians, school administrators, tenant associations and more.
  • Build strong coalitions to create strong support in the community.
  • Treat parents with the utmost respect. Take time to listen and understand their problems as it relates to their children’s educational future.
  • Be honest with parents about why you are there and what you can do to help them.
  • Remember that all parents have something they can add: some make speeches, some pass out flyers. Each has his or her own way of contributing.
  • It’s all about the follow up. If you present yourself as helping parents, be prepared to go the extra mile to make sure that parents have you with them as they complete the process of finding educational opportunities for their children.
  • Make sure that parent meetings start on time, do not last too long, have childcare, refreshments and are structured to provide the best information possible in order to empower parents in attendance.
  • Choose your battles. Stay away from debates that tend to confuse and frustrate parents who are hungry for solutions to educating their children. They ultimately have to make the final decision for their children and have a right to hear all sides. When you encounter opposition, keep your dignity and give parents valuable information that will be helpful to them in their search.
  • Share your vision of where you are going and how those parents fit into that vision.

Laws are developed and passed by a select group of politicians – but do not discount the power of parents who team up for the better good. I know from experience that when parents raise their voices collectively, they can prevail.

Why Middle Class Families Need School Choice

I’ve met hundreds of families in the two decades that I’ve been fighting for educational opportunity for children and I have an insider’s look at the way school choice transforms lives — across economic, racial and religious divides.

A frustrating misconception that I face a lot is the idea that school choice options are only intended for lower income families. It is true that scholarship programs, like the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that I helped fight to establish, benefit families that would have no other way to afford private schools for their children. It is also true that charter schools and magnet schools offer opportunities for children from the toughest neighborhoods to choose something other than their assigned public school. Yes, children from lower income families benefit from school choice options but the opportunities those children experience should not be quarantined to one segment of the population.

In a lot of cases, higher-income families have the means to create their own educational opportunities through paying tuition at private schools or living purposefully in high-performing public school districts. This is not to say that higher income families do not benefit from school choice — they most certainly do and for a variety of reasons including differences in individual learning styles of children — but the urgency is not always as high as a collective group.

In my opinion, the group that most desperately needs more school choice options, at this point in the fight, is middle class families.

Most working-class, middle-class families make enough income that they do not qualify for scholarships to private schools. The public schools in their neighborhoods may or may not be high performing, and even the ones that offer high academic ratings for students may not be the right fit for individual children. For middle-class families with charter or magnet school options, the chance at finding a better fit for their children is higher but still not as wide as if private schools were also an option.

Middle-class families are often so steeped in the everyday — from busy work schedules to family obligations — that settling for the status quo when it comes to school options is easier. In most cases, these middle-class children are not in dangerous schools or neighborhoods but since when were those the only criteria worth fighting to change for our children? Every child deserves the education that fits him or her the best. Period. And middle-class families are simply not seeing enough choices when it comes to how their children should learn.

Middle-class families are a group that needs more attention when options for school choice are discussed. It is a group that deserves better from policymakers and legislators. It is a group I am still fighting to help provide a voice for when it comes to improved educational opportunities for children. I hope that you will fight alongside me because every child, not just the poorest and richest among us, deserve the education designed for them.

5 Obstacles Parents Face in Working for Opportunity in Education

When I saw my son failing and getting into trouble in the school where he was districted, it scared me. I knew I needed to do something to make sure he didn’t go down the same road I saw too many young people go in D.C., one that led to despair. My older two children had navigated the public school system with minimal turbulence but my youngest son was a different story. The district public school system did not fit him or what I believed he needed to thrive.

I had no idea what I would go up against in my fight to find more opportunity for my own son, and for other children who needed more options too. I spoke with other parents who were like me — single moms and low income families, struggling to raise children in the inner city. They too knew that their children deserved more educational opportunity than they were receiving but there were a few things in common that held back our voices. The general consensus was this:

  1. No one listens to poor people – we have no voice. There is a misconception that parents from lower income brackets do not know enough about their children to make educational decisions for them. It is better, according to so-called experts, for educators and legislators to make those decisions. If you are poor and uneducated yourself, you are not treated as if you have an equal voice at the table when it comes to making decisions about your own children.
  2. Speaking out could affect whatever assistance we are receiving if we talk too much about how terrible it is for our kids. I know many parents who are very grateful for whatever assistance they receive for their children, whether that be individual educational plans (IEPs) through public schools or partial scholarships to private ones. That attitude of gratitude does not negate the fact that more choices for families benefits everyone. Parents can appreciate what is being done to help their children but not be satisfied with limited options.
  3. Even if we speak out, nothing will change. This mentality is helplessness at its finest. I get it because I’ve been there at various points in my life and for various reasons. With other parents by my side, raising their voices with me, I was able to overcome my doubts that we could move mountains. I knew we could – but I continued to encounter parents who felt overwhelmed by the task at hand.
  4. Education is for the wealthy kids who can go on to college and live the American Dream. Our kids won’t have those chances or choices. This point is similar to the first one I made but goes a little further. In some cases, the poor feel overlooked but know that they can propel their children to a higher status with enough hard work and guidance. The parents in this category are disenchanted with the promise of the American Dream. They do not believe it is attainable for everyone because they have been made to feel this way. Fighting for school choice and opportunities for their kids is futile for them. I’ve met some of these parents and I feel their pain acutely. Their families deserve access to the American Dream through educational opportunity.
  5. Politicians will eventually fix the schools. We just have to wait. The promise of public school reform has never seen fruition and if we wait for it to sort itself out, generations of children will miss out on the education that is custom-built to meet their needs. There is no reason to sit back and wait when there are educational options worth fighting for already available.

I list these challenges that parents face in the fight for school choice to bring to light the types of doubt that we are up against when looking out for the best interest of our children. When we know more about the struggle, we can face it head on and reach better solutions for American families.

I will continue fighting for educational opportunities for all children, including yours, no matter what doubts you may have along the way.

 

Educational Opportunity Means Better Options For Kids

There’s a misconception that school choice is anti-public schools, or about just one form of choice – whether that be charter schools, private schools, or any other specific type. The truth is that school choice for families means extending educational opportunity to everyone and finding the right school fit for EVERY individual child.

I learned that when I needed a different educational option for my youngest son but faced obstacles in being allowed to choose a school that fit him better than our district school. In the two decades that have passed since I started my personal quest for school choice, I’ve fought for more educational rights for all parents.

For me, it’s about parents and children – not politics.

The terms “school choice” and “parental choice” are really interchangeable when talking about picking what is best for kids. Yet, so many people do not understand what school choice (parental choice) means.

To me, it means finding an educational environment that best meets a child’s needs.

My children all had different learning styles so I looked for schools and programs that would nurture their particular needs. I realized that traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online schools, homeschooling and hybrids of these all have qualities that parents should look at in determining the best education for their children. After all, we are our children’s first teachers.  We know what they need.

Offering different options to parents through school choice programs is just what is needed to make sure every child receives a quality education. That is what “school choice” actually means. It’s not about preferring one type of school over another. It’s about offering many excellent options that parents can utilize to best develop their children.

 

Let’s take a look at the rundown of the most common kinds of school choice and what it looks like in various forms:

Traditional public schools

Traditional public schools exist in communities all across the nation. They are funded by taxpayers and do not charge any tuition to attend. They are managed by public school districts. People typically think of the “neighborhood school” concept when it comes to public elementary, middle and high schools and in some areas, children are assigned to a traditional public school based solely on geographic zones.

In other places, parents have the flexibility to send their children to any public school within a district, or even to a public school outside of their district. This is actually a form of school choice. These public school choice options, which are referred to as “open enrollment” policies, are becoming more popular.

Public charter schools

Charter schools are another form of public school choice. These public schools are funded by taxpayers and cannot charge tuition. Charter schools must accept all students who enroll, as long as space is available. In the U.S., 44 states currently allow for the creation of public charter schools.

There are some differences between charter and traditional public schools managed by school districts, though.

For example, charter schools are not always created or managed by school districts. In many states, state authorizing boards, universities, mayors, and nonprofit organizations can also authorize the opening of a new charter school. Specific metrics and goals are outlined by these entities in contracts with the school. Those items must be met for the school to remain open.

Charter schools must follow the rules set in place for them, but in exchange they can tap innovative themes, educational strategies and curriculum. Right now, nearly 7,000 charter schools are open across America and they serve 2.6 million children.

Public magnet schools

Magnet schools are also public schools that do not charge tuition to families and are funded by taxpayers. These schools are the result of teamwork between individual school districts or groups of school districts. In some cases, public school districts partner with colleges or universities to create magnet schools.

Magnet schools have a specific focus, or theme. There are some magnet schools that zero in on performing arts, while others have a math and science focus. Magnet schools can magnify technology, robotics, aviation, foreign languages, and other topics. The schools are not limited to the theme topic though. Proficiency in all subject areas is required.

Many magnet schools are open to all children, no matter what their academic achievement or history.  Some magnet schools do require students to pass tests to attend.

Currently, there are 3,200+ magnet schools or programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and they serve 2.6 million children.

Private schools

In America, there are more than 33,000 private, or nonpublic, schools that serve 5.4 million students. These schools charge tuition to attend but that’s where the similarities end. Though most people immediately think of religious schools when the topic of private schools is broached, there are many different types of these nonpublic entities. Independent schools, programs that serve children with special needs, and boarding and military academies are a few other examples of private schools.

Unlike traditional public, charter and magnet schools, private schools are not accessible to all families based on tuition costs – but that is changing. More than half of US states have created scholarship programs to help increase access to educational opportunity through make private, nonpublic schools.

These state-approved programs include:

  • Opportunity scholarship programs, which allow parents to use all or part of the tax funding set aside for their children’s education to choose private education.
  • Tax credit scholarship programs, which allow individuals and corporations to receive state tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations that provide tuition assistance for children.
  • Personal tax credits and deductions, which allow parents who send their children to private schools to receive state income tax credits, or deductions.
  • Education savings accounts, which allow parents to access the state and/or local funds set aside for their child for a variety of educational needs, including private education.

In some cases, any family can apply for these programs. Others are limited to low-income families or those families whose children have special needs.

Online schools

Online academies (also known as virtual/cyber schools or e-schools) teach students through a structured online curriculum. Many of these are public online schools that do not charge tuition and are funded by taxpayers. In fact, more than half of US states allow students to attend online schools full-time, statewide, with no tuition. In those states that do not offer public online schools, online learning is still available but families must pay tuition.

Online school students are assigned teachers and they complete assignments and take tests just like students in traditional, bricks-and-mortar schools.

Full-time online schools are just part of the bigger picture. Many other schools – from traditional public to charter to magnet to private – offer online learning components to their curriculum. This is called “blended learning” and allows students flexibility to be in typical classroom settings but have only options built in.

Homeschooling

As the name implies, homeschooling happens within the family unit, at home. Parents provide curriculum and instruction but often other outside entities help, including homeschool groups/co-ops or online support groups.

Homeschooling is regulated by each state, though it is permitted in all 50 states. Specific legal requirements for homeschooling vary by state but common requirements include homeschool notification, record keeping, and academic assessment.

As one of the original types of school choice, homeschooling continues to gain in popularity, with 100,000 new students graduating from home education each year. More than 2.3 million students are educated at home.

(hat tip to National School Choice Week for the information I compiled on types of school choice)

There is so much value in each of the school choice options I’ve listed above, with each offering different opportunties for individual families, and within those families.

For me, having more choices to meet the needs of our children is a priority. It’s why I started fighting for school choice and continue to vocalize my support for it today.

One Child: Why I Decided to Fight for Education Options for Children

My fight for school choice for all children started with a much smaller population – my own three children, and more specifically, my youngest son.

Life was challenging, raising three children in Washington D.C. in the 1990s. There was always the worry of the mean streets attracting my children.

I decided as a young mother that I would do all I could to make sure that did not happen and I made sure to stay closely in my children’s lives. That wasn’t always an easy task. I was a single mother, working hard to make ends meet while still being an involved mother. It was hard but my two older children Michael and Miashia found their places in life and school and, working together as a family, they excelled.

    With my daughter, Miashia

My youngest son, William, started off with some speech problems and as happens to many young black and brown boys in the inner city, the education system wrote him off as not capable of learning. This started a downward spiral for him that eventually started to pull him towards the rough streets.

I watched him align himself with the negative influences of our community. Drugs were prevalent around our neighborhood and the drug dealers targeted our young boys to work for them with the promise of expensive items (shoes, clothes, etc.) that they knew their single, struggling parents (mostly mothers) couldn’t afford. I saw my son choosing to run with the kids who were getting in trouble and when I asked him why, he told me that he felt safer being a part of the thug world. He said that smart kids got beat up. This was a real fear since we knew of at least one child who had been attacked because he was acting “too smart.”

William began skipping school and getting into all kinds of trouble in school with teachers and administration. He truly believe that if he acted “bad,” he would be safe. He seldom did homework because he felt like it didn’t matter to anyone whether he passed or failed.

Though a really good kid, it became harder for me to rein William in and I feared for him. When he was 13 years old, a neighbor offered us a partial scholarship to attend a private school. It meant that I would need to get a second job to pay the remaining amount, but it was a way out for him and I knew I would do whatever I could to keep him safe and ensure him a quality education. I took an evening job as a recording studio night auditor. After a nine hour day at my normal job, I’d work three nights from 9 p.m. to midnight. It was the only way I could afford this opportunity for my son and so I did it with gratitude.

          With my son William in the spring of 2018

My neighbor saw something special in my child and wanted to help. He had grown up in our neighborhood, left for a time and returned with his family. With the help of his parents, he had done well for himself in real estate. Upon his return, he saw how so many of these fatherless boys needed support from a man who believed in them and he helped them learn work ethics, working with him or with other business people he knew. With my William, this neighbor truly believed a quality education was what he needed. And he was right.

My son excelled in his new school and it was the beginning of a happy ending for our family. Yet as happy as we were, my neighbors children were not doing so well — and their neighbors’ children weren’t either. It became clear to me that something needed to be done to help all children have better educational opportunity, regardless of where they lived or where they were districted to attend school. I knew that I wanted to help and when the opportunity arose to speak out for the district’s low income and working class families, I found my voice and ultimately was joined by thousands of parents who wanted only the best for their children, too.

At the beginning, I had no idea where to start. I attended D.C. Board of Education meetings but found out early on that I was not going to be heard. Then in August 1997 I was directing a Summer Program in Southeast DC at the Fishing School, a faith-based program for low income children and got a call from the Center for Education Reform asking to speak with the parents of the children we served about a possible scholarship program.

I planned the meeting, no parents showed up and the CER Representative and I realized that the most direct way to garner attention for more educational opportunity would be to share my story of my son’s experience after receiving a scholarship.

I spoke for the first time before U.S. Representative Dick Armey and the House Education and Taskforce Committee, and the members actually listened to what I had to say. It was empowering. I knew at that moment that I could really make a difference and began to go out into the community and talk to parents about their dreams and hopes for the education of their children.

I didn’t set out to fight for school choice or speak up for other children; I started out as an everyday mother, wanting the absolute best in opportunities for my kids. I quickly found that drive was reflected in the hearts and minds of other parents who also felt trapped in an educational system that was failing their children.

I decided to fight for school choice because of MY child but I continued to fight for the children of others who deserved so much more than they were receiving.

 My kids, with their kids and loved ones