Black Alliance for Educational Options: Promoting school choice and empowering parents through No Child Left Behind

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been working since August of 2000 to actively support parental choice in education, empower families, and increase educational options for black children.

For years, community leaders, educators, policymakers and parents have attempted to improve schools for financially disadvantaged and at-risk children, with limited success. However, by linking the African American community with the broader school choice movement, BAEO is opening minds to the idea of parental choice and educational options for low-income black families - minds that might have been previously closed to the idea of educational choice.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options seeks to address the question: Should children be subjected to an inadequate education, simply because they are poor?

Critics of school choice programs answer "yes" by fighting against programs such as vouchers and tax credits that allow poor students to escape failing schools.

Fortunately, the new federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, offers more opportunities for families to have real school choice. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of this year, the new law mandates that school districts and states develop strong systems of accountability based upon student performance.

It also gives parents of children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds options to participate in public school choice programs or obtain supplemental services such as tutoring programs.

What does this mean for BAEO and the low-income black families it supports?

Up to now, the school choice movement and its supporters have gained slow, but steady ground in the fight for educational options. But now, with the law on its side, BAEO and the school choice movement expect to make greater progress than ever on behalf of choice.

Before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, superintendents of school districts could deny children the right to an adequate education with few consequences. But, the new law's choice options increase competition, making it more difficult for school officials to offer a poor quality education without losing students and funding.

School districts now will be held to several new accountability measures.

For example, if a school district claims it doesn't have the facilities or the space to remove children from a failing school, then those children can go to school in a neighboring district - it's the law.

If a school is failing, the school district must provide transportation to those children whose parents exercise their right to school choice - it's the law.

If a school continues to fail for three or more years, the district must allow parents to choose tutoring or other supplemental after-school services and pay for those services - it's the law.

These choice options will spur competition, forcing improvement in failing schools.

Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, said it best during his back-to-school address entitled "Confronting Challenges to Change": "We have got to stop with the excuses. We have to remember that the children are our main concern - we have to put them first."

The new Act will provide opportunities for organizations such as BAEO to expose academic failure and demand a better education for every child.

We at BAEO admit that the law is not the be-all-end-all of school reform, but it will open the door for more choice and change.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options plans to launch major public information campaigns across the country to promote these new choice options and inform parents of their rights under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The cities of Detroit, Dallas, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, have been selected by BAEO as pilot cities for the informational campaigns. We hope to reach at least 20,000 eligible parents and community members in economically disadvantaged, at-risk communities in the four cities, explaining their rights under the law and giving them action steps to take to demand quality education for their children.

Our full-scale media campaign will use direct mail, television, radio, newspapers, the Internet, and door-to-door visits. We also will provide direct assistance to eligible parents through call centers and local volunteers.

With help from the U.S. Department of Education and the enforcement of No Child Left Behind, BAEO will succeed in its mission to promote parental choice and empower parents to "vote with their feet" - leaving failing schools behind.

Opponents of choice will continue to balk at the changes that come with each school reform effort and attempt to remove the focus from children. They will cry poverty in school budgets, claim teachers are being shortchanged, and suggest that administrators must be given more power.

We at BAEO encourage parents and community leaders to remember school reform is not about teachers, school officials, or the schools themselves. It's not No School Left Behind or No Teacher Left Behind. It's No Child Left Behind.

Andrea T. Williams is the Director of Communications and Education for the Black Alliance for Educational Options ( BAEO, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has 30 chapters in 20 states and the District of Columbia.