COMMENTARY: Portrait of Black School Founders: A survey of Black education entrepreneurs and how they are demystifying education freedom

By Denisha Allen

In mainstream media, school choice is often framed as taking money away from public schools or being elite, white, and only a conservative policy issue. Yet Black school founders’ very existence directly debunks these common myths. My own experience does, too. That’s why I founded Black Minds Matter, a national movement to support education freedom. We launched the first-ever Black-founded schools directory in 2020. Today, the directory houses over 400 schools that are owned or operated by Black education entrepreneurs, and recently, I joined up with colleagues Dava Cherry and Ron Matus at Step Up For Students to conduct a survey of the 100-member Black School Founder Network. The 61 founders who participated in the survey give us incredible insight into the reality of school choice.

First, most school founders surveyed identify as Democrats. That’s not surprising because school choice is not a conservative issue; it is a human issue. Most of the respondents surveyed also stated that they are actively involved in school choice advocacy on the state level, thus bringing in more educators, Democrats, and people of color into the school choice arena. Why is it, then, that many opponents of school choice ignore or hide the fact that there is strong support among the Black community for school choice policies?

If school choice opponents were to admit that strong Black support for school choice exists, then they would also have to admit that their attacks that private, charter, and independent schools only serve affluent, white, or gifted students are simply not true. When we surveyed the Black Founders Network about who their schools served, these myths were clear. The majority of the school founders served predominantly Black student bodies, with many respondents also working in schools that have a high percentage of low-income students, students from traditional public schools, and those who were below grade level when enrolled. What’s more, 25 of the 61 respondents also stated that 20 percent or more of their students have special needs – that’s compared to the nationwide average in public schools of 15 percent.

This survey shows that if the school founders really are cherry-picking the best students with the least struggles, they are missing the mark repeatedly. The reality is, schools of choice work hard at creating diverse learning environments and accepting students of all backgrounds.

School choice opponents often frame the issue as public versus private, but many of the founders surveyed have previously worked in traditional public schools. When asked what motivated them to create their own schools, reasons given included things like better serving the community, Black students and all students, and better including Black history and Black experience in their curriculum. The goal of offering educational freedom is to ensure that students are getting the best education possible, no matter the type of school. The founders surveyed do not just run private schools. They also have founded charter schools, microschools, and homeschool co-ops and hybrid homeschools. The point is to provide families with options and the ability to choose.

This process isn’t always easy. The survey showed educators faced many barriers and challenges along the way. The biggest challenges faced include finding start-up funds, paying themselves and their staff adequate salaries and benefits, and finding a facility. Policy makers and donors who want to improve outcomes should pay attention to Black educators who are ideas and goals for bettering their communities into action every day.

This year, more states than ever have passed or expanded school choice. For Black families who have fought for generations to have high-quality education for their children, this is the first major step. There are many educators who want to open schools or utilize the resources from school choice programs in their states, and policy makers and advocates must work to ensure that entrepreneurs and educators have the right tools at their disposal to go out and make a difference in the lives of children in their communities.

Denisha Allen is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, a school choice beneficiary, and the founder of Black Minds Matter.

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