DeVos visit was right! Hanna was wrong!
Last Wednesday, at the Bethel Family Life Center here in Tallahassee, we hosted an extremely positive conversation with the United States Secretary of Education, the Honorable Betsy Devos. It was definitely a risk to invite the honorable secretary to Tallahassee in general, and specifically at Bethel. It was the right thing to do. We needed to have a dignified conversation with the Secretary. We needed to provide a forum and space for her to share her vision and thoughts on the critical hot-button issues in education, without name calling, booing and trying to score partisan political points. I am of the opinion that talking with a person is far better than talking at a person. We had a viable and vibrant conversation. This conversation was not a monologue, but a dialogue.
There were approximately 75 people in attendance. Among those invited persons present were several school superintendents from very diverse communities including: Florida Senator Bill Montfort, who is also the esteemed Executive Director of the Florida Association of District Superintendents; United States Congressman, Al Lawson; Rodner Wright, the provost from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and key members from Interim President Larry Robinson’s leadership cabinet; President Nate Glover of Edward Waters College; Attorney Jolinda Herring, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Florida Memorial University; Dr. Freddie Groomes-McLendon, the vice-chair person of the EWC Board of Trustees; Former FAMU presidents, Dr. Henry Lewis and Dr. Fred Gainous, and a host of other key supporters and advocates for education. President Robinson was unable to attend because of a previously scheduled meeting with The Florida Board of Governors.
The conversation with the Secretary was undergirded by the theme, “Pursuing Educational Excellence, Building Positive Dialogue for the Future!” We were blessed to have in the room a cadre of well-versed and well-qualified people who asked the Secretary profound and insightful questions. As I stated, this meeting was a “dialogue” and Secretary Devos was engaged and attentive. The Secretary took copious notes and responded with transparency and thoughtfulness.
The participants, rightfully so, were deeply concerned about her philosophy of equity of opportunity and outcome across all grade levels, ensuring that all students receive the best education possible. Accordingly, the participants outlined challenges and offered strategies on how to recruit and retain highly qualified classroom teachers, particularly in urban schools and rural areas. We all know that the Secretary is a strong supporter of school choice, particularly charter schools and vouchers. Many speakers adamantly stated that charter schools and private schools must be held accountable to the same standards required of public schools.
It is no secret that I support non-profit charter schools. As a matter of fact, Former Governor Jeb Bush and the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church established the first two charter schools in this state in 1996. Bethel has, by the grace of God, operated the Bethel Christian Academy (BCA) for over twenty-six years. Bethel Christian Academy first opened its doors in 1992, long before the voucher and charter school movement were on the horizon. Accordingly, Secretary DeVos and I have a similar vision about schools of choice. I don’t apologize for trying to offer all students a chance to access a quality education regardless of their zip code, income, race, religion, or national origin. I must agree with the Secretary – “one size,” educationally speaking, does not fit all. Thank God for diversity. I think the first Black female mayor of Tallahassee, Mrs. Dorothy Inman – Johnson, perhaps, gave great insight to the issue of choice when she stated that “All schools must strive for excellence – charter, private or public schools.” And just for the record, charter schools are public schools! Over 100,000 Florida students receive vouchers to attend private schools. These students’ parents are tax payers. Their tax dollars support public schools.
The superintendent of Leon County Schools, Rocky Hanna was very “insulted” because the Secretary did not visit any public schools in Leon County. He also attacked Bethel Christian Academy as “that voucher school.” My question to Mr. Hanna is this: Did you invite the secretary to visit one of these schools, and if not why not? I am not going to address Mr. Hanna’s insults at this time, but it is definitely coming. Regardless, I think my record of supporting public education is well documented and proven; we shall have that debate in the very near future. Stay tuned!
In reference to the Secretary’s visit, one of the major discussions focused on her support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The HBCU stakeholders in the room made it crystal clear that we need her voice, her commitment and her energy to articulate the critical need to save, strengthen and sustain HBCUs. Listen, she heard us loudly and clearly. Most importantly, she made the commitment to support and advocate for HBCUs. I believe she will.
We presented Secretary DeVos a vision notebook that laid out our vision and prospectus for HBCUs. We were able to do this in an atmosphere of peace, clarity, respect and dignity. Secretary Devos spent close to three hours listening, discussing and responding in a firm and positive voice to our concerns. I truly commend her for her time and patience. We look forward to having a follow up meeting with her and her staff by the end of this year to turn our conversation into positive action.
Also, let me apologize to my friends at the Tallahassee Democrat and their outstanding reporter, Ryan Dailey, for not allowing him to cover this amazing event. The Secretary’s staff was under the impression that this would be a closed door meeting. Ryan and St. Clair, I am sorry for the misunderstanding.
Finally, let me thank all those who traveled far and near to make this such an historic event. Also, to my wonderful staff and core team of volunteers led by Dr. Linda Fortenberry, you all did a masterful job. Madam Secretary, thank you and your outstanding staff for visiting Tallahassee. It is my fervent prayer that the conversation will continue.