by Ryan Yablonski
Denisha Allen’s journey from a troubled student to a master’s degree graduate and leader in education reform is a model of the American Dream. Born in a poor neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, Denisha’s early experience with public schools was about as bad as it gets. Her life at home was a struggle, and going to school was like going off to battle. Her mom and uncles had already dropped out, and her teachers had already given up on her because she shared their last name. She was terrified of being called on in class because she was reading below her grade level and regularly had to avoid getting into physical and emotional fights with her classmates.
Then things began to change. She moved in with her godmother who applied for a state scholarship program to a small private school. It was a revelation. Her new school was immaculate, and every day, teachers greeted the kids with smiles and sunny personalities. She was able to let her guard down and for the first time felt compelled to compete in academics. She received one-on-one tutelage, and her reading and math ability jumped above her grade level. Denisha’s biggest concern became not achieving honor roll. In junior and senior year, she achieved straight A’s and went on to graduate with a master’s in social work from the University of South Florida. She worked in the U.S Department of Education for two years and then the American Federation for Children where she started Black Minds Matter.
Denisha went on to share her success story at her old school and church. While her family wasn’t thrilled about the idea of sharing her humble beginnings, the experience was a form of therapy. She felt like a celebrity when she was invited by Governor Charlie Crist of Florida to promote his program for education reform and an expansion bill to target corporate dollars at primary school scholarships. Things changed, however, when he ran as a Democrat and no longer supported the program. Denisha learned of the politics and common myths of school choice and why it is an issue that is divided along party lines. Her experience was undeniably transformative and motivated her to take on ownership of the education reform problem. She learned that it is a politicized issue, and it does not have to be.
School choice is known as the theory that parents can use tax dollars to send their kids to the best school that suits their needs. In the past, zip code discrimination was a common problem where parents could face fines and jail time for claiming residence in a better area in order to enroll their kids in a better school. Across the country, new legislation is now being passed every year which helps kids attend schools of their family’s choice by offering tuition assistance, tax credit scholarships, and educational savings accounts. The use of state funds makes this possible in contrast to the past by which school choice was conventionally done by buying an expensive house in a good neighborhood in order to secure those funds to educate a child. The new frontier of egalitarianism is treating access to primary school similarly to the college and day care model: providing a new version of Pell Grants and inviting private donors and corporations to support scholarships to primary school students.
This leads to the common misconception that charter schools and private school choice programs divert funds from public schools. In reality, charter schools are publicly funded as well, and often spend their money more effectively. Private school choice programs, meanwhile, have been shown to save taxpayer dollars while providing families with a needed option. Denisha comments that schools are not free, “An average of $15,000 is spent for each child in K-12 and you are paying regardless. When you go into a poor school ask yourself, ‘does it look like $15,000 is being spent on each child?’ Most people would rather have that money spent on students than on buildings and bureaucracy.” No one should have to put up with mediocrity in any part of their life, but that is the current state of affairs. A recent Project Baltimore study which indicated that despite $17,000 of funds being spent per child, 85% of black high school students are testing at elementary levels in math and reading. It has been said that the KKK couldn’t have devised a better plan to destroy Black America than the Baltimore education system.
“On the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education fight for freedom, we are still fighting today, but now it Is about entrance to good schools.“
School choice is very much a civil rights issue. Denisha is spearheading Self Determined, a multimedia art and history exhibit currently at the Marriott Metro Center in Washington, D.C. this June 7th-9th, which shows the legacy of Blacks undertaking the task of educating themselves against the odds. The exhibit documents their journey through Reconstruction and Civil Rights Eras and into the present, featuring archaeological finds such as writing tools and tablets from pit schools started by slaves in the deep south. After slavery, Blacks created one-room schoolhouses, which were converted from independent schools to public, but also many maintained their independence. After Brown v. Board of Education reforms, integration closed down many of these schools. Today new challenges of racial achievement gaps and the COVID paradigm have sparked a movement back toward independent schools. Denisha says the history of Black education is freedom on parallel tracks of the body and mind.
Today private school choice is taking on many new exciting directions. Not seeing enough agency for reform locally or politically, Denisha founded Black Minds Matter to raise awareness, and engage with and inspire Black school founders. BlackMindsMatter.net fundraises, supports, and organizes these founders in order to promote the highest levels of excellence possible. Although they often did not see themselves as such, these men and women are role models and entrepreneurs running Black-owned businesses. More importantly these are the people making the greatest progress in the achievement of modern Black students. It is a bipartisan effort: of the 400+ schools in the Black Minds Matter Network, 53% identify as registered Democrats, 73% are women, and 43% are former public school teachers. In April of 2023, Denisha received national recognition and was asked to testify before Congress about the success of her strategy and also to promote new education policy initiatives.
While the organization is realizing great results, Denisha says Black Minds Matter still struggles to activate change at the micro level. The greatest challenge is trying to get everyday parents to understand that they may have options to try different schools or engage in policy to expand options. There is currently a federal bill called the Education Choice for Children Act, which would provide for federal tax credits that would, in addition to other primary school scholarships, also give access to funds for tutoring and mental health therapy.
This is perhaps the most interesting angle of school choice. When we fund students rather than buildings, we allow fast-paced innovation to take place. These micro-schools provide everything from holistic classrooms in treehouses to virtual reality tech-based schools held on Oculus Rift. Denisha points to a financial literacy charter school in Maryland where second graders start investment accounts and learn to fund their own future.
This is only the beginning of the possibilities, because as evidenced in the American tradition, a rising tide raises all ships. The compounding benefits of educational experience have shown that test scores at public schools also rise when private school options exist in the same community. When innovation is free to cross-pollinate, unforeseen and glorious harvests can be shared by all. Please visit BlackMindsMatter.net to learn more or donate to the cause. Denisha references the Oprah Winfrey quote as her guiding mantra:
“Education is the way to move mountains, to build bridges, to change the world. Education is the path to the future. I believe that education is indeed freedom.“