Popular literature is full of praises for “the common man,” but I am much more impressed by the men and women who stand apart from the crowd. Some wise observer once said that only three kinds of people exist in the world: a very few who make things happen, a somewhat larger number who watch things happen, and then the vast majority who find out later what happened.
To be sure, some people are uncommon because of the harm they do, but the ones I’m grateful for are those who are people of peace, character, initiative, and goodwill—the exemplars who make change for the better. They are notable not for what they take, but for what they inspire, create, build, and improve. They can be motivated entirely by material self-interest; or they may derive enormous personal satisfaction by simply making others happy. They include inventors, entrepreneurs, and social activists. They often are dismissed at first as boat rockers and then acknowledged later to have been ahead of their time.
The uncommon person I want to tell you about is a humble black woman from Philadelphia named Alberta Wilson, whom I’ve come to know over the past two years. She saw a grievous problem firsthand—atrocious government schools—and is doing all in her power to help the victims escape. And she does it on a shoestring.
The “city of brotherly love” is one of the most violent cities in the United States. As of October there had been 339 murders this year. In such an environment the safest school may not be the “free” one the government assigns you to because of your zip code.
Safety is a prime concern of Philadelphia parents, but educational quality can’t be far behind. In October 2006 Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg authored a revealing commentary with the pithy title, “Is Our Kids Learning?” Pennsylvania, he says, spends more on government-run education per-student than all but five other states (adjusting for cost-of-living differences) and ranks fourth in average teacher salary. Taxpayers spent about $11,000 per government-school student in 2004–05, an increase of 46 percent in eight years. Yet in the state’s inner-city schools, the results are appalling. In Philadelphia, only 33 percent of 11th graders are proficient in reading. For math the figure is a dismal 27 percent.
Alberta Wilson bears the scars of that urban environment and a tough family upbringing to boot. As a child she received little affection or attention from an aloof father and an alcoholic mother. When she reached junior high, her neighborhood was torn by race riots. She became a ringleader of a violent neighborhood gang. At 16 she was an unwed mother and dropped out of high school. Her life was drenched in sex, alcohol, and drugs—exacerbated by dependency on government welfare. She wore a bracelet made from shotgun shells.
Though tough on the outside, Alberta on the inside was a troubled soul searching for a better way. In 1976 she attended a church at the invitation of a friend and became a born-again Christian. Four years later, on Christmas Eve 1980, she married Woody Wilson. Her life stabilized and her faith deepened. Woody’s naval career took the couple to San Diego and then to Virginia Beach, where Alberta earned three degrees, including a doctorate in religious education. By 1997 they were back in Philadelphia and Alberta was looking for a school-administrator position.
That very autumn Alberta was interviewed and offered the position of principal at the new Beulah Baptist Christian Day School. It started with just five children, but by the time she left five years later, the school boasted nearly a hundred, many of them from broken homes. Parents who wanted discipline and focus for their children found it at this school, just as Alberta had found purpose in her personal life. It was there that she came face to face with a stream of parents dissatisfied with government education yet unable to afford a private alternative. Wanting to tackle that problem head on, she decided to get involved in the school-choice movement by founding Faith First Educational Assistance Corporation in 2002. In the five years since, it has provided private scholarship help to hundreds of children who would otherwise be forced into the failing Philadelphia school system.
Alberta’s inspiration comes from an Old Testament proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” She saw no way parents could abide by that admonition within the confines of government schooling. She sees herself as “allowing God to use me to see that children be given a chance at a quality Christian education.” A Mackinac Center summer intern, Ben Stafford, notes in a recent essay that in Pennsylvania a business can donate to educational scholarship organizations and receive a tax credit of as much as 90 percent, up to $200,000. With the tax credit, almost $300 million has been donated by businesses to organizations similar to Faith First.
Faith First grants scholarships to low-income parents and then helps them make informed decisions about private schools and curricula. Alberta, with her husband often at her side, spends much of her time raising the contributions that make it all happen. Faith First awarded more than 100 school-choice grants at an average of $500 each to low-income children in Pennsylvania and Virginia in 2006, and has provided nearly 400 scholarships since its inception.
Makes the Difference
A $500 scholarship may not seem like enough money to make a difference, but because tuition at a private school can be as little as $3,000—still a steep challenge for a poor family—a scholarship from Faith First often tips the balance. The organization’s volunteers build strong personal relationships with the recipient families. Educating for character, not only for knowledge, is a central feature of the program.
Watching Alberta Wilson in action for any length of time leaves one breathless. When she’s not holding a “parent engagement meeting” in Philadelphia, Scranton, or northern Virginia, she’s working to open a new Faith First office in San Diego or sitting down with anyone who will listen to her case for supporting private alternatives to government schools.
Other local school-choice leaders are making a difference across the country: Virginia Walden-Ford in Washington, D.C., and Pilar Gomez in Milwaukee are two more good examples. Like Alberta, they understand the value of a good education and strong character and have been willing to stand up for those values at no small expense to themselves.
Someday, when entrenched interests and government-knows-best notions are finally swept aside, parents will be seen as customers, not captives, in the matter of educating children. Schools that fail them will shape up or go out of business. No child will be left behind for the sake of keeping a bureaucracy well paid. We will all look back in puzzlement at how we could have ever expected government monopolies, minions, and mandates to produce a quality product in a modern competitive world. Alberta Wilson will be among the heroes we will thank for helping to pave the way when it was clogged with daunting barriers.