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Parents and advocates for school choice went to the House Education Committee Tuesday and painted a grim picture of what is a reality for many families in North St. Louis:
The advocates testified in favor of House Bill 1733, a proposal from Rep. Phil Christofanelli that would create a scholarship program to help families find the best school for their children.
“Everything in the world has changed except for how children are taught,” said Ma’kayla Gray, a 21-year-old advocate who is trying to improve the system before she has children of her own. “Allowing a parent and child to choose a school means the child can learn in an environment where they have the greatest opportunity to thrive.”
She said she knew first-hand that that opportunity is hard to find in district schools in her community.
“My freshman year in high school I was a victim of bullying and no school support. Because of this my grades and even my mental health suffered,” she said. “I persisted and eventually graduated as a scholar-athlete by my school standards. But when I started college I was required to enroll in remedial courses. I can tell you that many of my classmates didn’t make it to graduation and part of my purpose being here today is to speak up for them.
“I don’t want to see my nieces, God-children, cousins or any other child trapped in a school that isn’t giving them their best chance to succeed,” she added. “I don’t want any child trapped in a school like I was. With my father’s single-income, my family was not in a position to move to a better school district or enroll me in a private school. The only option I had was to stay in the school that watched me struggle and helped me to fail.”
Carmen Ward, a parent who found a better option for her son in a charter school, said the state government needed to wake up to the fact that other families who did not have the same options needed help.
“We are in a state of emergency,” she said. “Education is in a crisis and, with all due respect, you sit here in Jefferson City you make these decisions and you do not come and talk to the people.
“We deserve to be a part of a conversation,” said Ward. “So right now, we’re coming to where you guys are and saying we know you are the gatekeepers for everything that matters in our state and we’re in a state of emergency. While you guys are debating the semantics of it, our children are graduating and they cannot read, they cannot write, and they’re going to college in remedial courses. But, I bet you each and every one of you have a choice and the choices that you make make sure that your children get to and through college and on a solid foundation that gives them a chance to live the life that they deserve. You are ripping that away from us here debating your semantics.”
Krystal Barnett told the committee that her son was proof that getting to go to a private school could save lives. She said that when her son was born she knew 21 other women who were having kids at the same time.
“When I checked back in with them 17 years later to see how their kids are, only six of them are doing well,” said Barnett. “Nine of them are in jail, two of them have died and some of them are just out of school and working.”
“I’m looking at my son ready to graduate next year and I don’t have to worry about whether he’s gonna get into college,” she said. “When we think about the value of a child it can’t always be about budgets. I want to ask Missouri how many more kids have to die before you understand that we need choices. Not having choices in our demographics means death.
“People in my demographic, they work two or three jobs and they might have five or six kids at home,” said Barnett. “When you give them options, they can put all their kids in safe places, know that they’re being educated well, and not have to worry about their safety.
“I know what choice has done for me,” she said. “I’m not stuck. My kids are not stuck in failure factories like other parents. I’m fighting for all of those families who never had the option of what I had and this bill opens up a floodgate for people not to have to go back and choose failure as their only option.
Rep. Nick Schroer, who grew up in North County, said he had also experienced how much of a difference having educational options could make.
“I look back to my friends who are now in prison, are now dead, or are working five jobs to make ends meet because they weren’t given the tools that we as legislators promised to give them,” he said. “We need to expand on what choices can we give these kids and I think this bill is one great step in that direction. I want every kid to have the same opportunity that I had without their parents working extra shifts.”
Barnett added that the state needs to trust parents to make the best choices for their children.
“You’re not in my home,” she said. “You did not raise my child. You do not feed them. You never worked for them like I did. You cannot tell a parent what they know about their own kids. There are things and influences that parents have that teachers and administrators and states will never understand. If you would partner with us and give us choice options you will find out how smart and intelligent parents really are because no one cares about their child more than the person who gave birth.
“99 percent of the parents you go talk to,” she added, “we might not agree what the solution needs to be, but we all agree on the fact that other people should not be making the decisions for our kids without having a discussion with us.”
Barnett said her organization, Bridge 2 Hope, is working with parents throughout St. Louis to help improve education.
“We’re talking to parents every day, we are out canvassing and knocking on doors in all areas,” she said. “The consensus is the same. We are all sick of the status quo. We are over our children failing and dying. “We will do whatever it takes to get choice options so that we can save our own kids even if that means voting people out.”
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