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Tennessee chapter breaks off from national black education advocacy group

Mendell Grinter speaks at a 2016 school choice rally in Memphis organized by the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, now called the Campaign for School Equity.
Mendell Grinter speaks at a 2016 school choice rally in Memphis organized by the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, now called the Campaign for School Equity.
Micaela Watts

A Tennessee organization promoting school choice for low-income and working-class black families is parting ways with its national parent.

The Tennessee chapter of Black Alliance for Educational Options, which is headquartered in Memphis, is growing while the national organization is sputtering, according to state director Mendell Grinter.

Effective Friday, the Tennessee group will operate as The Campaign for School Equity, or CSE, according to an email sent Tuesday to supporters of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, known as BAEO.

“As BAEO embarks on a new journey, the Tennessee team will chart its own course with CSE, while upholding the BAEO organizational values that have guided the work to protect the educational interests of Black families since our founding in 2000,” said the email from Grinter and Jacqueline Cooper, national BAEO president.

Tennessee’s BAEO chapter has become an increasingly strong voice both in Memphis and at the state Capitol in promoting charter schools and tuition vouchers as avenues to strengthen education options for black children. It has eight employees in Memphis and recently hired a staff member in Nashville.

With the transition, Grinter said the state organization will continue its parent advocacy work and add student engagement to its roles. Grinter will remain as the group’s executive director.

The breakaway comes several months after Tennessee’s chapter transitioned to full funding from philanthropic organizations such as Hyde Family Foundations, The Poplar Foundation and Pyramid Peak Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat, which is a nonprofit news organization, also receives funding for its Tennessee newsroom from some of those same groups.)

BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)
BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

BAEO was founded by Howard Fuller, who served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools during the 1990s and has continued to advocate for school choice, including tuition vouchers to enable low-income children to attend private schools.

The departure of the Tennessee chapter will leave BAEO’s national organization with chapters in New Jersey and Louisiana. At one time, the Washington, D.C.-based organization had chapters in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, home of the nation’s first voucher program aimed at low-income families.

The national organization was in limbo for about a year while searching for a new president until Cooper permanently took the helm in February. Most of the national staff was laid off in March, Grinter said. Fuller announced earlier this year that BAEO would discontinue its formal operations to launch a Social Innovation Challenge that would help determine the organization’s future endeavors.

Grinter said the urgency of work being done by the organization in Tennessee outweighs the desire of its leadership to weather the storm of uncertainty with the national organization.

“There’s definitely a need for more black-led organizations like BAEO,” said Grinter, 25, who came to Tennessee last summer after serving as its Kentucky director. And “it’s definitely time for a change. … For us on the ground, with the national stuff, we don’t have time for that.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, Grinter added: “I have such tremendous respect and love for the national organization and [am] so thankful for the experience. It is true that we’ve achieved tremendous growth and success for our work in Memphis, but it wouldn’t be possible with out the structure that BAEO provided.”

In Memphis, BAEO has pushed for expanding two initiatives aimed at turning around low-performing schools — the state-run Achievement School District and the Innovation Zone operated by Shelby County Schools. Its team also lobbied the state legislature earlier this year to pass voucher legislation, a proposal that had early momentum but ultimately failed.

The Campaign for School Equity describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan grassroots organization with a mission of expanding high-quality education options across Tennessee.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Grinter after the announcement.

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