Kirkwood, Alabama Director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), joined me for a frank discussion about school choice in Alabama in the most recent installment of “Get Connected” on The Alabama Way.
When asked about what types of school choice BAEO supports, Kirkwood was quick to say, “We support traditional public schools.” BAEO also supports magnet schools, homeschooling, scholarships for students “trapped” in failing schools, and public charter schools.
Kirkwood is adamant that families need a way out of underperforming and failing schools. “People whose children are trapped in unsuccessful schools are doing everything they can to ensure their kids are getting a quality education.”
Kirkwood believes that no one option can be a magical solution, but that having options empowers parents to make a choice about what educational setting is best for their children.
“People who have money have access to these options, and they always have,” Kirkwood said. “But people who do not, who are low income, who are in the working class, don’t always have access to these options.”
Distrust About School Choice in Alabama
When asked about the pushback from the black community about school choice, Kirkwood said the parents of children who want a way out of underperforming public schools aren’t the ones pushing against choice because they are only concerned with getting their children into better schools. “If you’re a family trapped in a failing school, you want an option. You want the options that folks with money already have.”
Acknowledging that there is pushback about expanded school choice here in Alabama, he explained that the black community in general distrust the white Republicans who are pushing charter schools and tax credit scholarships. That distrust comes from years of racism that white leadership in Alabama has shown toward the black community.
He added that many wonder why white politicians seemingly out of the blue want the best education for black children. “It sounds disingenuous. It sounds like it’s just not true,” adding “the messenger matters.”
In spite of the messenger, though, Kirkwood believes that communities “have to look at these schools (choices) as an opportunity for us to educate our children. The system is not working disproportionately for low-income families of all colors. And we need to look at how we can fix it. What we are doing right now is not working.”
As an example, Kirkwood said he knows that some boards of education of public schools have flat-out said they will not support charter schools. BAEO is trying to work with those boards to help them understand how charter schools work.
He wants those board members to understand that charter schools are not something that’s happening to them, but rather something they can be a part of to improve education in their communities.
Acknowledging that traditional teachers’ professional associations are fearful of charter schools entry into Alabama, he believes the addition of charter schools doesn’t need to be adversarial. He sees teachers as part of the solution.
There is too much at stake to accept the status quo. Kirkwood warned “of every two black boys you see, only one will graduate.” The Schott Foundation released a report showing that 56.7% of black males graduated on time (within four years) in 2012-2013.
While the Alabama State Department of Education does not provide graduation rates by gender, a look at graduation rates for the class of 2014 showed that on average, 8 out of 10 black students graduated from their Alabama high school in four years. But the graduation rate for black students ranges from 67% to more than 95%, depending on the school system. Again, this rate is for males and females together.
After delineating the many ways that Alabama’s public schools are failing low-income and black students, Kirkwood declared, “We have a crisis. Going along, just doing the same thing …that’s not an option. BAEO has a sense of urgency. Not that charters or vouchers or scholarships are going to be the magic answer, but they are part of the solution.”
“If you are a family trapped in an underperforming or failing school, you want an option. Just like the people who have money have options.”
Knowing that working families don’t often have the money available to pay for private school or to move to an area with better public schools, Kirkwood said that families “want an option that you don’t have to pay for, to improve a child’s education to change the trajectory of that child’s life. There’s only one way to break generational poverty, and that’s through education.”
Alabama Accountability Act and Tax Credit Scholarships
Kirkwood’s frustration over what he sees as misinformation surrounding the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) is evident. After explaining the parts of the law, including the flexibility and innovation portion, he shares BAEO’s experience with tax credit scholarships.
BAEO helps low-income families determine whether there are better educational options for their children, noting that there are many good public schools and that “every private school is not great. Every private school is not better than the public school that you’re in.”
BAEO assists parents with that decision-making process and takes families on site visits to help them better evaluate private school options.
“We’re not giving people choice for choice’s sake. We want families to have high-quality options.”
If the family chooses to send their child to a private school, BAEO will help the family obtain a scholarship through one of the scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) in Alabama.
While he prefers that education not be politicized, where politics is concerned, Kirkwood is encouraged because after having zero black Democrats vote for the AAA when it was passed in 2013, sixteen black Democrats voted to raise the cap from $25 million to $30 million during the 2015 legislative session.
Public Charter Schools
When the discussion turns to charter schools, Kirkwood starts with “Charter schools are public schools. Let me say again: charter schools are public schools”.
He sees charter schools as a place where teachers and school leaders are free to teach and reach children in a way not available in traditional public schools.
He gave examples of charter schools that are serving their students well, including 100 Black Men of Memphis’ Academy of Health and Science, a KIPP school in Atlanta that teaches children about African culture, and Delta Sigma Theta’s charter school in Detroit that focused on social justice.
He wants Alabamians to look at these types of schools and determine if these types of schools can help improve education in their communities.
Kirkwood’s passion about school, um, parent choice is infectious, and when he speaks about the oft-repeated lamentation that charter schools “cherry-pick” the best students, he tells us we should be offended.
He explains why: when people see low-income students be successful in charter schools, they assume that the only way those low-income children could be successful is if the charter school “skimmed the top” and took all of the straight-A students.
To Kirkwood, that means that folks didn’t believe that the kids in the public non-charter school could be successful.
“What you’re saying is ‘y’all’s kids can’t learn’.”
And further, that the charter schools took the “rarities, the anomalies” and that the other kids left behind just can’t learn.
Kirkwood rejects that premise and believes that if kids are failing, and schools are failing that changes need to be made, period. “We don’t need to accept it and blame parents”.
According to Kirkwood, opening up the public education landscape to charter schools is good for Alabama’s families.
“It’s a great opportunity for Alabama, and we’re finally moving in a direction of passing policy that is in the best interests of children.”
To that end, BAEO will continue to convene families to educate and empower families to make the right educational choices for their children.
He wants to see charter school operators, such as KIPP or Rocketship, who are experts in educating children in low-income families come to Alabama. He believes these organizations can make a real difference for Alabama’s children.
Kirkwood believes in the possibilities that great charter schools could bring to Alabama and hopes folks will keep an open mind. “If we could tell you a provider would come in and they would make, within three years, a school in the lowest income area, in the most at-risk community where they’d have a graduation rate of 100%, a college acceptance rate of 100%, every year, why would someone fight that?”
Time will tell. Until then, let’s stay on top of this, okay?
Here’s the entire segment. While I’ve transcribed much of our interview here, there is much that I didn’t include. Worth your time to listen in.