As a kid, I was surrounded by people who were making awful choices—choices that led to many of my friends and family members being in prison or six feet under before I reached adulthood. And I was well on my way to following in their footsteps.
Our environment, including the zoned public schools we were forced to attend, played a role in the destructive path many followed. But I was one of the lucky ones. School choice not only made it possible for me to attend a better school, but it also gave me a lifeline to a better future. That’s a lifeline millions of children are still waiting for today.
To me, this is pretty cut and dry: I had a chance to go to another school because the one I attended wasn’t meeting my needs. Even as a fifth grader, I knew this was a chance for something better. What I didn’t know was how hard so many people fought so that I, and millions of children like me, could have that chance.
I have been shocked by the skepticism swirling around this idea of enabling kids to go to schools that work for them. To me, it’s a no-brainer—not only should parents be able to make such a crucial decision for their child, but they should also be encouraged and empowered to do so. My parents knew exactly what I needed in order to be successful in school. And they knew my zoned public school wasn’t cutting it.
Fast forward to my high school graduation. My plan was in place: Go to college and become a sports analyst. I applied to elite internships and took courses that would put me on track to achieving this goal. I wanted to be the next Steve Smith or Max Kellerman. I wanted to rub shoulders with the best athletes in the world.
But during college, I also started speaking out about my school choice story and the impact it had on my life. As college graduation neared, I realized one dream was turning into another. Instead of fighting my way up the ladder at ESPN, I could fight for others to have the same opportunity someone fought for me to have. The thought of impacting children's lives and helping put them in a position to succeed meant more to me than reporting a story on LeBron James or the Browns winning a Super Bowl (one can dream…).
I realized my voice could not only help keep kids out of underperforming schools, but it might also help them become the next generation of leaders. Maybe that little kid from Ohio who was once bullied every day in his Spider-Man shirt and was two grade levels behind in math and reading could prevent kids like him from suffering the same fate he would have faced without school choice.
I’m Bettering Myself to Better Others
As a college senior, I was welcomed into the first cohort of the American Federation for Children Future Leaders Fellowship. The Fellowship provides graduates of school choice programs with professional development and training in communications and advocacy. It has taken me, and six other members of the first cohort, into another stratosphere of this movement and introduced us to some of the changemakers who define it.
We’ve met Dr. Howard Fuller, who fought to pass the first private school choice legislation in the country and continues that fight today.
We’ve listened to Kevin Chavous, who took on monumental political forces as a D.C. city councilman in order to give kids a shot at a better education.
I’ve interviewed Ms. Virginia Walden Ford, who organized thousands of parents and was instrumental in making school choice a reality for families in Washington D.C. and beyond.
And I’ve had the opportunity to learn from Derrell Bradford who, like me, credits access to a private school for changing his life trajectory, and who has served as a role model for using his story to better the lives of others.
These individuals have been fighting for students like us long before we knew what education freedom was. It would be a defining achievement, and no small undertaking, for us to affect the sort of change they’ve made for children and families across America.
The biggest life lesson I have learned thus far is that you better yourself to better others. My life has changed drastically because of school choice. Reforming the system that still fails too many children is not only a profession—it’s an obligation. I will keep fighting for kids who are in the same position I was in not too many years ago.
Photo courtesy of American Federation of Children.
Walter Blanks Jr. is the Press Secretary for American Federation for Children (AFC) and a private school choice program beneficiary. From a young age, Walter recognized that many children are still stuck in underperforming schools and wanted to do something about it. Before joining AFC full-time, Walter was chosen for the first cohort of the American Federation for Children Future Leaders ...