Bluegrass Institute President and CEO Jim Waters spoke on Friday to an excited group of school choice supporters at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro. The event was organized by EdChoice Kentucky as part of National School Choice Week, which was Jan. 26 – Feb. 1, 2020). The following are President Waters’ prepared remarks:
For more than 16 years now, the Bluegrass Institute has been making the case for school choice in Kentucky, and we’ve been privy to some pretty amazing stories about how the opportunity for a better education has changed the lives of many individuals.
But few are as remarkable as the story of Sylvie Umuhoza and her younger sister, Pacifique, two young girls living in the jungles of Rwanda in central Africa, where their parents and nearly 1 million people were killed within 100 days during a horrific genocide that occurred during that nation’s civil war in 1994.
Desperate to help her grandchildren, Helene Munyakazi, their grandmother, in a remarkable display of compassion and courage literally rescued them from the jungles and the terrible and rampant death and disease caused by the war in their country, carrying them hundreds of miles to safety in the Congo. Her ultimate goal was to get them to America, which she was eventually able to do. These poor orphans and their grandmother landed in Louisville with little more than what they could carry in a suitcase.
Like many children from poor families, Sylvie and Pacifique ended up in a poor school. They, of course, had – along with their grandmother – been just trying to survive.
But one day, an older couple – Mike and Sissy Spine – overheard a conversation between the girls and their grandmother at a bus stop in inner-city Louisville about their desperation. “Now that we made it here to America, what are we going to do?”
When the Spines heard their story, they knew what they were going to do. Sissy, who worked for an organization called School Choice Scholarships in Louisville, helped the girls get a scholarship.
School Choice Scholarships is a program that gives privately funded scholarships allowing children in grades K-8 from poor homes in Jefferson and Oldham counties to attend private and parochial schools. Receiving a scholarship from this organization allowed these sisters to escape a lifetime of certain poverty by receiving a better education with more chances to succeed. Specifically, this education allowed Sylvie to grow from not even knowing the English language to delivering the commencement address while graduating in 2015 with a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. Further, Pacifique graduated from the University of Louisville and is living the American dream.
Oh yeah, they ended up being officially adopted by Mike and Sissy. Isn’t that amazing? A scholarship made possible by generous donors and voluntary donations not only gave Sylvie and Pacifique the kind of education they needed to succeed, but it gave them a new family and a whole new life, as well.
It’s a remarkable story which could have ended much differently. Consider:
According to the Nation’s Report Card – only one in three eighth-graders in Kentucky can read at grade-level proficiency, only 28% of eighth-graders are proficient at math and less than half of fourth-graders are proficient in reading and math. These numbers are simply unacceptable, as is the fact that we have a huge achievement gap which is growing wider between black and white students, which also is really a gap between students from families with bigger houses and paychecks and those with a zip code that has lots of poor homes.
Imagine how tragic it would have been for these sisters to have gone through so much and to have moved 8,000 miles across the world – from Rwanda to Louisville, Kentucky – escaping war and disease only to end up in a failing school and a lifetime of poverty and lack.
Now, imagine the impact on all of Kentucky if we were able to make such scholarships available to families across our state. If a small, nonprofit organization can raise enough private funding in 20 years to grant more than $7 million in scholarships to more than 6,500 low-income children just in Jefferson and Oldham counties, imagine what could happen with a scholarship tax-credit policy that offers the opportunity of a private education to thousands of children and their families across the entire commonwealth, including the 6,000 who are on School Choice Scholarship’s waiting list?
If a program run by a small nonprofit in one city in Kentucky has the kind of success achieved by School Choice Scholarships – where the proportion of students proficient in grade-level mathematics increases, on average, from 28% to 81% and reading proficiency skyrockets from 40% to 96% after scholarship recipients have been in the program for just three years – imagine what could happen if struggling families across the entire commonwealth had such an opportunity?
Bringing tax-credit scholarships to Kentucky is OUR opportunity to turn their dreams into reality.
Thank you very much.