Florida pastor symbolizes new face of vouchers, school choice

If you read the papers, you know the story. People who like vouchers and tax credit scholarships are right-wingers. They don’t like public schools. They’re corporate pawns.

Now meet the Rev. Manuel L. Sykes.

He’s a Democrat. He’s president of the NAACP in St. Petersburg, Fla. He thinks public schools did a fine job with his kids.

Privatizing schools? Mention the idea to Sykes, who is pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, and you’ll get a slow burn about elitism, resegregation and crony capitalism.

But Sykes, 55, also supports vouchers and tax credit scholarships. And for folks who think they see a contradiction, he offers a quip and a laugh: “Stereotyping is a function of a lazy mind.”

Sykes isn’t a leader in the school choice movement, but like thousands of others he quietly defies the story line. In that respect, he is symbolic of the new face of public education. It’s not public or private. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s pragmatic.

“You can’t plant roses in every environment,” Sykes told redefinED. “You have to find the right environment for that flower. Or that orange tree. Or that apple tree. If we’re wise enough to know that with trees, why don’t we have the same common sense with children?”

The small, no-frills school owned by Sykes’ church is representative of changing definitions too.

It has 28 students, most of them African American. All but a handful use either McKay vouchers for students with disabilities or tax credit scholarship for low-income kids. The school uses the A Beka Christian curriculum. It also partners with Florida Virtual School for English and math classes.

Nowadays, schools have to become more diverse, Sykes said. Two of his four children attended Perkins Elementary, a highly prized arts magnet that always has a waiting list. They thrived. But Sykes said while school districts have done a good job customizing programs for high performing students, they’re still falling short with the rest.

The result, he said, has been devastating for struggling, low-income kids.

“If you don’t fit this cookie cutter, you don’t fit. That’s the message kids are getting,” Sykes said. “I think it’s violence. Their whole self esteem is destroyed.”

The statistics for the Pinellas County School District, which includes St. Petersburg, are especially grim for black students. They rank last in reading and math compared to black students in the state’s other big districts. And in 2010, a widely publicized (though hotly disputed) report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education determined that Pinellas had the lowest graduation rate for black males of any major district in the country.

Despite that stark backdrop, the school district, in Sykes’ view, isn’t willing to think outside the box or switch gears with more urgency. He calls it “institutional arrogance.”

That’s where vouchers and tax credit scholarships come in, he said. And little schools like Bethel.

“This is a poor Christian school that’s taking struggling kids who aren’t doing well elsewhere,” Sykes said. “If we had the same resources the public schools had, we’d do even better. (But) we’re able to make bricks out of straw because it’s a labor of love.”

Sykes isn’t without concerns about school choice. He wonders if there is enough accountability. He worries about fly-by-night operators and teacher quality. He wants more proof that student outcomes are truly improving.

But on the whole, he’s glad choice is expanding. So are the parents he serves.

Before they enroll their kids at Bethel, Sykes said, “Our parents tell us, ‘I don’t think my kid is as slow as they say (in public school). I want them to be where they will thrive.’ Or they say, ‘I know they’re behind. But I don’t see them catching up in the situation they’re in.’ “

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.


Rev. Sykes,you may not remember me from the old SPJC days (back when SPC was a JUNIOR college lol), and being the leader of the Black Student Union..You were an inspiration to me then,and i’ve tried to follow your example now..I currently attend Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church,and i play an active role as a volunteer assistant teacher and a tutor in math and reading enhancement for grades 3-5..I use my artwork to keep the children interested (If you remeber i was quite the cartoonist even then,this was back during the OJ trial,just to give you a timeframe),and my son benefits from the Step Up For Students scholarsihp @ Yvonne C. Reid Christian Academy,which is located @ our church..If i remember correctly it used to be located @Bethel on 34th st. s…He attended kindergarten there,and i believe that young children in OUR communtiy can benefit from these scholarships AND private schools.Don’t get me wrong,my belief is’nt one sided,butmy expirience is from the time i wasn’t going to graduate in Baldwin N.Y…but with those same credit that i had or didn’t have,i was able to gradute from Lakewood High after ONE semester of English Literature and Art..So i realize there’s a difference in Pinellas county schools and their standards..I’m glad your children were able to benefit from their education in public school,but unfortunately this isn’t always the case for most young Black students.I have grown to enjoy my role as a teacher even though i’m not a professional,and again you are one of my inspirations to continue giving back for God’s gift that i have received as an artist..Hopefully you read this and we will able to talk more about it..i can be reached @ blacktitanrising@yahoo.com

Hi Mr. Hamlett, I just emailed your comments to Pastor Sykes. Take care.

Robert Lloyd

What you wrote abour Robyn Blumner of the 24th. private schools should not be given any any money at all. We know many of the are closing and they do not have to pass the same test as public schools. Rubio wants to destroy public schools as does the republican party. I went to a Catholic school growing up in the 50’s. They teach the same properganda today as they did then. This was when the church required black Americans to sit in the back of the church and were last to get communion. There were no black children in our school. This was grades 1k to 12k. The problem in Florida school system is in Tallahassee. Teachers are disliked underpaid. A garbage person makes more money. To suggest Rubio is not against education shows you have no understanding of the issue in Florida sad to say.

At 72 I fear our entire public school system is being lost and private and religious schools taking public money hastens the problem. Now I understand you have a stake in the pork barrell

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