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.

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