“If you’re not at the table, you’re gonna be on the menu,” said Alisha Thomas Morgan, a former state senator from Georgia, who repeated this famous quote at Connecticut Parents Union’s Black History Month Celebration in honor of State Sen. Eric D. Coleman.
Sen. Coleman, the honoree of the event, resigned right before the start of this year’s legislative session, after serving over 30 years in the state legislature as a state representative and then a state senator.
This event wasn’t just centered around Coleman’s legacy of education advocacy, but also on ways to move forward: Specifically, how parents and grassroots activists can ensure their voices are heard.
“A Seat At The Table”
“Politics is hard,” said Morgan, speaking to a room of activists and parent leaders on Wednesday morning. “And, when you fight for children, people who can’t vote, who can’t write a campaign check, it is even more challenging.”
Morgan is well versed in how hard politics can be. The district she represented for 12 years as a Democratic state senator was in Cobb County, GA— the county that sent Newt Gingrich to congress and was once described as “a suburban Eden where the right rules” by the New York Times.
She was also one of the sole Democrats to push for the Georgia legislature to pass a constitutional amendment to allow the state to authorize charter schools — something that did not win her friends.
“People who had come to my wedding, my baby shower, who I sat with for eight years by that time, stopped talking to me… people started questioning my integrity, wondering who was paying me to do all this work”
During her speech, Morgan recalled when her point of view on school choice shifted.
“For so long I had been taught if it wasn’t a traditional school that you’re zoned in by your zip code, something’s wrong with it,” said Morgan, who retold the story of meeting students from Ivy Preparatory Academy during a legislative tour, which later inspired her to push for the state amendment on charter schools.
“This group asked me questions that I have never been asked before,” said Morgan. “Those little girls in green jackets continued to stay in my mind and made me think about what was possible for all of our kids in Georgia,”
To view Alisha Thomas Morgan’s Full speech, here’s a link
Putting Kids First
Morgan was among several speakers that spoke about self-advocacy, which included Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar, who was arrested in 2011, and charged with two felonies, merely because she wanted what was best for her daughters.
“You think every parent wants to put their kids first,” said Williams-Bolar. “That’s all I was doing,”
Williams-Bolar’s crime was “stealing an education,” or more specifically, using her father’s address, she enrolled her two daughters in another school district. For this, she spent nine days in county jail. Her father spent nearly a year in Ohio state prison for unrelated charges that came out during the trial, before he passed away while serving his sentence.
This isn’t just something that happens in the Midwest. In Connecticut, mother Tanya McDowell was sentenced to 12 years in prison for enrolling her 5-year-old son in Norwalk’s Brookside Elementary School.
While Williams-Bolar’s sentence was eventually dropped down to misdemeanors and the laws in Ohio (and Connecticut) were changed, schools can still sue parents in civil court.
“She did what people have done for centuries,” said Gwen Samuels, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union and organizer of Wednesday’s event. “You do what you have to do for your children.”
A Call To Action
Heartfelt speeches set out to motivate parents and activists, but the event was more than that: It was a call to action.
“Morality can not be legislated, but behavior may be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless,” said Samuels, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor.”
Several groups stepped forward with recommendations, including organizing a grassroots rapid-response team and advocating for the state to develop a child-centered education funding formula.
“A rapid response team would be to strengthen the voices of the community and provide a centralized grassroots movement,” said Robert Goodrich, one of the founders of RACCE, a Waterbury-based advocacy group. “We want these outside groups to come to us for our input, to share their resources with the people who need it the most.”
“There’s going to be a battle over resources this year,” said Suzanne Bates, the Director of Policy and Legislative Outreach for the Yankee Insitute, a right-leaning think-tank, and one of the sponsors of the event.
Bates is referring to the recent push to reform the state’s broken education funding formula, spurred on by the Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ground-breaking ruling in the CCJEF v. Rell school funding case, which found that the way the state doles out education spending was “irrational” and “unconstitutional.”
“I think what all of us need to be advocating for is child-centered formulas for education,” said Bates. “Right now we are not funding children, we are funding systems.”