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Published in Print: March 13, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

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Growth and Expansion Highlighted at BAEO's Second Symposium

Gathered here recently for their second annual symposium, members of the Black Alliance for Educational Options took a moment from a busy agenda to reflect on the group's rapid growth.

With nearly 750 members, BAEO has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding two years ago as a national organization seeking to offer minority children greater educational options, including publicly funded vouchers and public magnet schools.

The group drew more than 600 people to the conference, which was held Feb. 28 through March 3.

Boyce Slayman, the vice president of BAEO, said in one session that the Washington-based organization, which spent $6 million on advertising last year, will be adding two key administrative positions. National directors of communication and development will be appointed soon to assist local chapters in outreach and fund raising. BAEO wants to "change the conversation about choice," he said.

Meanwhile, BAEO President Kaleem Caire advised local chapters not to spend a lot of time trying to clarify where the group parts ways with political conservatives, and focus instead on "what's best for kids."

After listening to Mr. Caire describe many alternatives to traditional public schools, from privately financed scholarships to charter schools and home schooling, one audience member rose and asked if BAEO favored universal vouchers. No, Mr. Slayman said, the group favors vouchers only for poor children.

Mr. Caire, whose two school-age children attend public school in a middle-class Maryland neighborhood, said he would love to use vouchers to expand his own children's educational options. But, noting that he "grew up dirt broke," he said he is "willing to make a sacrifice" to ensure vouchers help those who need it the most: poor families.

Between his serious presentations, Mr. Slayman doubled as a model for the "new spring line" of BAEO merchandise. Wearing chinos and sneakers, he kept popping up in one room or another, sporting a white sweatshirt embroidered with BAEO's insignia and a black BAEO briefcase. He spun delicately around, showing off each item and listing its assets, in an effort to drum up business for the "BAEO boutique," a table of the group's merchandise.

During a panel discussion about school systems that narrow achievement gaps between various racial and ethnic groups, Superintendent Ron Ross, whose Mount Vernon, N.Y., district has made stunning gains in test scores in recent years, recounted how he went to war against the two problems he believes cause the gap: ineffective, uncaring teachers and uninvolved parents.

"I went into black churches and said to the parents, 'You are the problem,'" Mr. Ross said. " 'You expect white people to love your kids more than you do? You say you work hard? So did my mom, cleaning floors, and she still got up off her knees and looked to her kids at night.'

"The public schools haven't failed us, we've failed the public schools," Mr. Ross told his audience. "We've allowed lousy superintendents, lousy principals, and lousy teachers and school boards."

The achievement gap has been caused in significant part, he said, "by black folks not caring about their own."

The minute the words were out of his mouth, the audience stood and cheered.

Rod Paige

In a quiet room where he relaxed before delivering an evening speech to parents, teachers, administrators, legislators, researchers, and others at the conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was asked by a reporter why he came to Philadelphia to talk to BAEO.

"I'm here because I believe parent choice is a necessary condition of authentic school reform," he said, using a line that would get some of the biggest applause of the night 45 minutes later. "I know of no other monopoly the size of the public school system that works effectively."

Here in Philadelphia, where the school district is under a state takeover and being considered for large-scale privatization, Mr. Paige urged reformers to be "aggressive, bold, and mindful" of this maxim: "I think it was Einstein who said the definition of insanity is the belief that you can get different results from doing the same thing."

Mr. Paige, formerly the superintendent of schools in Houston, is unafraid that alternatives such as vouchers and charter schools will weaken the public school system. "The whole idea is to make the system stronger," he said. "If the public schools could do their job properly, they'd be the winner."

After 75 members of the orchestra from a New York City charter school finished a dinnertime set of pop tunes for an appreciative roomful of conference-goers, Howard L. Fuller introduced Mr. Paige as "a brother who leads our children." Mr. Paige called Mr. Fuller, who founded BAEO, "a national hero." He praised BAEO for "doing the right thing."

"This nation is going to stand up and salute you someday," Mr. Paige said. "Just keep on pushing."

—Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 21, Issue 26, Page 9

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