House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and basketball star Lisa Leslie joined hundreds of middle school students at a charter school in Washington D.C. on Wednesday to rally for school choice.
Neighboring students from the area filled the gymnasium at Friendship Chamberlain Elementary, a high-performing public charter school in southeast D.C., to hear from speakers that delivered a uniform message: every child deserves the freedom to gain a quality education.
"In our country they don’t tell us what church to go to, they don’t tell us what grocery store to go to," Leslie said. "So why should they have to tell us what school we should go to?"
"We need to make a change, and it’s up to us to do that," she said.
The rally was one of the thousands of events held across the country for the fourth annual National School Choice week, which raises awareness about expanding educational options for kids. The American Federation for Children and 18 other groups organized the event.
"I am here to say we believe in you," said Cantor. "All of the students here, you represent our future, and that’s why we are here."
"We want to make sure each and every one of you has an opportunity to learn each and every day with a quality education, with great teachers, with supporting administrators so that you can be sure to have access to every bit of opportunity that America provides," he said.
Leslie said her activism began in her teens, when she realized the school she attended was failing to meet her educational needs. She was struggling with the SAT, even though she had a high GPA. and was on the honor roll.
"I had to ask the school, the district, the state, our country, why am I struggling with this test? Why are so many students struggling with this test?" she said.
"And I didn’t know what that answer was then, but I now know it was because I went to the school that was in my zip code," Leslie said. "That was the only school that I knew I could attend—I was qualified enough from an educational standpoint to go to a better school, I just didn’t have that option."
Leslie’s passion only grew after she had her own children, who were districted to attend some of the worst schools in southern California.
"I thought, how is this possible? How is it that every student in this area that’s attending all these schools are schools that are underperforming?" she said. "And it’s not that I want to say that there’s anything bad about the schools, but isn’t that unfortunate? That’s unfortunate that these are the only options that our children have."
Leslie and her family were able to move to a better school district, but she worried about families who do not have that option.
"Here I am with an opportunity to move clear across town to go to the best school, but what about all those children that we left behind?" she said. "What about all these children in every state who may not financially have the opportunity to move? It’s not right."
Leslie now uses her celebrity status to promote school choice. She said she is teaming up with Deion Sanders, Vivica A. Fox, Kathie Lee Gifford, and other stars in a PSA to call for more educational options that will be unveiled on Thursday.
The rally featured performances by the Friendship Chamberlain marching band, and the Dupont Park Adventist School Boys Choir, who sang, "I Will Bless the Lord at All Times." After the event, students headed to Capitol Hill to visit offices of senators and representatives to ask for their support for school choice programs.
Leslie ended her remarks by encouraging children to work hard in school and make the most of the opportunities they have.
"There’s no shortcut to success," she said. "Every person that you know who is successful, whether it’s a singer or a songwriter, or a rapper, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a basketball player, it doesn’t matter who you look up to. The people who are most successful are usually the hardest workers."
Cantor warned that school choice is under attack, referencing the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the voucher program in Louisiana, which provides scholarships for students to flee failing public schools.
"Unfortunately there are some who don’t necessarily share our enthusiasm," Cantor said. "That’s why we’re doing this today."
"We need to empower every single child, no matter who you are, where you come from, to get the best education so you can have the best future, too," he said.