The real face of reform

The real face of reform

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My dad used to say, “The proof is in the pudding.” People can discuss theories, and politicians can pontificate, but in the end, what are the real results in people's lives? As the legislative session winds down, we have seen historic reforms made in education, building on a battle that emerged 20 years ago on behalf of children and parents. The idea then, as it was this session for Gov. Bobby Jindal and other reformers, was to provide parents more choices to help their children get a good education and pursue their dreams.

The battles for this cause have been hard, and one wonders some days, Is it worth it? Does it make a difference?

You may find the answer on this page.

David Thomas and his mother, Alean Thomas, were among the first in our state to have the choice of a charter school in the late 1990s, when Alean made the decision to enroll David at Children's Charter School in Baton Rouge. This May, they reached a glorious milestone, which I had the pleasure of witnessing and celebrating. David graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience.

That “pudding” has the sweet taste of success.

It was four years ago this month that I wrote about a party for David at the home of Dr. Fred Cerise and Shannon Cerise, celebrating David's graduation from Redemptorist High School. But this inspiring story actually began about 15 years ago, when Jim Geiser, then head of Big Buddy, was working with others to open a new school, Children's Charter School. David's mom made the decision that this was the right path for her son. And so began the journey.

I still remember when Geiser first introduced me to David, a young man with lots of energy and charm. He said, “This is David Thomas. He has a lot of potential. Depending on his choices, he could end up as president—or in prison.”

David was smart, and Geiser and the teachers at the charter school—at the time a school made up of portable buildings with a student body that was 95% black and at-risk—invested much in him. Through the school, David also met Cerise, who was on the charter school board. Cerise, who along with his wife, Shannon, founded Boys Hope, would become his mentor.

Cerise told me in 2008, “What is remarkable about David is his willingness to work hard to take advantage of the help offered him. That's not a given in many situations, especially with young kids. David recognized early on that education was his ticket to a brighter future, and he has never let go of that. He worked weekends for tuition to put himself in a challenging academic setting, and he excelled there. That's a very mature decision for a young man to make.”

Geiser agreed, telling me, “David is a special young man. He has fought the odds and now has the great opportunity to become whatever he chooses. He deserves great credit for what he has achieved.”

As you might imagine, Alean was overflowing with happiness and pride on graduation day this month at Rhodes College (as you see in the photo above). She says, “I am a super-proud mama and put it on Facebook. I'm a praying parent. I tell God what I need, and I know that He'll take care of it—and He always does. I can't stop thanking Him for this.”

Cerise and Geiser and numerous other friends all joined David and his family in Memphis for the big day. And all of us were so proud to see him pick up that diploma.

It seems David has been an inspiration, as Alean tells me she is now attending a technical college to get an associate degree in early childhood education—and she says her daughter is going to college, too.

David was like so many in our community today who have potential and face a fork in the road to their future. He proved that having the opportunity for a good education, the desire to work hard and people who love you—and a mentor—can make a huge impact. Fortunately for David, he was one of the lucky ones who had a choice and took it. Because of the reforms passed in this legislative session, after defeating the same unions and opponents from 15 years ago, there will be thousands more children who have the same opportunity with charters, scholarships and virtual schools—even more choices than David and his mom had. Thank God.

Looking back now on those choices and ahead to his future, David says, “Children's Charter School was where I got my real focus on education as the basis for my future. There was not time for distractions. We were there to learn. They told me they saw potential. Now that I have graduated college, I am thinking about graduate school and medical school.”

This summer, David is back in Baton Rouge and working at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. He is preparing to start graduate courses at LSU this fall.

Looking at David in that cap and gown with his mom is a real picture of reform—and proof the fight is worth it.

Long, hard battle

The success I highlighted above has been slow to develop, featuring fierce political battles in elections, in the Legislature and at our school board. Many have fought this battle for years, but I credit Geiser for being the catalyst for what developed into the “choice and charter” movement in Louisiana. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his vision, risk-taking and drive in the early 1990s. Of course he had help from many volunteers, foundations, nonprofits, organizations, donors, parents and teachers. Thank you all.

The growing list of supporters, elected officials and new organizations that have joined the choice and reform movement is invigorating and made a huge difference in its success this session. Kudos to them all.

But I want to recognize one group that has been fighting the fight—and putting their money where their mouth is—for almost 10 years now. The reform movement was often fought with ideas, but our opponents (the unions) had all the money at election time and they would use it to support the status quo. That changed in 2003 in Louisiana with the involvement of Dick DeVos, who headed the American Federation for Children (now chaired by his wife, Betsy DeVos). This national group was active in advancing school choice and education reform for children and parents, and they were going to support candidates who did likewise. Suddenly reform candidates had an ally that had funds. The playing field was starting to level. AFC has been involved in legislative races, BESE races and statewide races—and has made a difference. Many families and children have more choices because of their commitment and help year after year. AFC and its supporters deserve our gratitude.

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