Pitbull, rapper and charter-school advocate, gets the party started at education conference

July 1, 2013

The man with the shaved head and the slim-cut three-piece suit took the stage at the National Charter Schools Conference, eyes sparkling as the crowd cheered. For once, he wasn’t wearing his trademark shades.

“I know you guys might be thinking,” he rasped in that husky, radio-friendly voice. “‘What’s Pitbull doing here?’”

Pitbull at the National Charter Schools Conference Monday. (Courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)
Pitbull at the National Charter Schools Conference Monday. (Courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

Well, yes, thank you — exactly! Mr. Worldwide, Mr. 305, isn’t the first name that comes to mind when it comes to education policy. The Miami rapper’s most conspicuous forays into politics have been a gig at a Democratic convention party and a tune defending Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba.

But he has signed on as a major backer of a new charter school in his old inner-city neighborhood — and if his unlikely keynote at the Washington Convention Center Monday was light on policy, it had a get-this-party-started appeal for his audience of a thousand-plus educators and wonks from across the country.

Billed by his given name, Armando Christian Perez, the star, 32, said he was speaking “not just as an advocate” but as a charter school parent as well. (He told reporters later he has six kids — who knew? — and three are in charter schools. He could afford private, no? “I believe in the system,” he said, “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”)

His role in the new SLAM Charter School — it stands for Sports Leadership and Management — was vague. Opening this fall, it will be run by non-profit Mater Academy, which has several Miami-area charter schools, and Academica, a large national charter school management company, whose president, Fernando Zulueta, welcomed Pitbull to the stage. His role, he said later, won’t be day to day, but “coming up with different ways to get people involved.”

But he had no shortage of applause lines for an audience of charter-school faithful. The schools, he said, “are fundamentally about freedom, and freedom is what America is all about.” His parents, as most of the audience knew, fled Cuba before he was born. “Like I said in one of my songs, ‘Freedom is what we fight for, freedom is what we die for.’”

“My mom struggled,” he said, so he could get a good education — though, as he told reporters later, that journey involved hopscotching among a couple dozen schools. “I don’t want any mom in America to have to lie about where she lives so her kids can attend a better school,” he said.

So, Pitbull, charter-school advocate? Sure, why not? “Making something from nothing is something I’ve done in the music business.” Coming up in hip-hop, he said, “being a Miami boy was strike one. Being a Cuban boy, strike two. Being white with blue eyes — okay, that’s four strikes.”

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Roxanne Roberts · July 1, 2013