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Former school choice student: Keep fighting for kids like me

Denisha Merriweather and Gov. Jeb Bush at the Foundation for Excellence in Education conference on Nov. 21. (Photo by Eric Draper.)

Denisha Merriweather and Gov. Jeb Bush at the Foundation for Excellence in Education conference on Nov. 21. (Photo by Eric Draper.)

Gov. Jeb Bush offered the opening address at his foundation’s annual education conference last week. But the former school choice student who introduced him may have stolen the show.

Denisha Merriweather has been doing that a lot in recent months.

Since May, the former tax credit scholarship student and now college grad from Jacksonville, Fla., has been featured in a video for the American Federation for Children;  been spotlighted in another video that ran on TV during breaks in Florida’s gubernatorial debates; penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal; and sat down for interviews with local press in Jacksonville. Each time, she moved a debate too often stuck on myths and abstraction on to concrete ground: Her life.

Don’t let school districts and teachers unions kill the scholarship program, she told attendees at the Bush conference. (The program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Don’t let them throw nearly 70,000 scholarship recipients out of schools that are working for them.

“You can’t see them but you can see me,” Merriweather said. “And so you can see what is possible when you give a kid a chance at a quality education.”

Here are her remarks in full.

Good morning. My name is Denisha Merriweather.

This year I graduated from the University of West Florida with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social sciences.

I specialized in children and society, which led me to work in a Dominican Republic orphanage over the summer.

And there I learned how truly blessed we are to live in America.

Next year I will enter the University of South Florida’s joint master’s program in social work and public health.

After that I will let passion and opportunity be my guide.

Maybe instead of just being the first member of my family to have a college degree, I’ll be the first to have the title Doctor in front of her name.

You would hardly have guessed such an outcome from my childhood.

I was born into poverty in Jacksonville, Florida.

My life was disrupted by constant moves.

I was held back twice in school and felt out of place in classrooms with kids two years younger.

I was disruptive and often got into physical fights with the other kids.

I was failing in school because I hated school.

All too well, I could see my future. 

I would drop out and spend the rest of my life trying to make ends meet.

But that didn’t happen because of something my godmother discovered called the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

It provided tuition for me to attend the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning.

That changed everything. Continue Reading →


Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Parent empowerment, transparent transparency and sad, but happy birthdays

MrGibbonsReportCardGloria Romero  

Gloria Romero, a former Democratic majority leader of the California Senate, helped pass a bill that required parents to be informed if their child attended a school in the bottom 10 percent of all public schools in California. If they did, the parents could stick around at the school and try to transform it (for example, by converting it to a public charter school) or transfer to a different public school.

The teacher unions and school districts opposed the bill, sued to stop the program, and continue to fight the program to this very day.

Gloria Romero

Gloria Romero

According to Romero, the state department of education delayed releasing the list of lowest-performing schools until the last minute. With only a few weeks remaining before the transfer deadline, L.A. Unified finally posted the transfer application, but only in English and only online. Districts also denied parent groups from informing parents of their rights at school events such as PTA meetings.

Kudos to Romero and the California Center for Parent Empowerment for highlighting these obstacles and fighting with and on behalf of parents to knock them down.

Grade: Satisfactory


Carmen Farina

CFNYCCarmen Farina, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, recently accused charter schools of pushing out low-performing students just before statewide exams.

Charter schools responded by demanding the chancellor back up her claims with evidence. And the local union president more or less sided with them, saying enrollment data for both charter and district schools should be audited and disclosed. Marcus Winters even took her to task for misreading what little data is available.

Perhaps with some irony, Farina made those remarks while clarifying her position on how charter schools need to be more transparent. Now she has the opportunity to be transparent about her claims.

Grade: Needs Improvement


Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

“Polly” Williams

Happy Birthday! The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, America’s longest-running private K-12 school voucher program, is now 25 years old.

The program has not gone without controversies and critics but researchers generally find, at worst, no difference with traditional public schools and, at best, small but positive achievement gains, graduation rates and college attendance for participating students. Importantly, parents and students are happier going to the school of their choice rather than one assigned to them by the government. On a sadder note, Annette “Polly” Williams, a leading black Democrat and school choice leader who pioneered the program recently passed away. Her legacy, however, lives on.

Grade: Satisfactory



Florida schools roundup: School choice politics, magnet schools, testing & more

Tax credit scholarships. The Florida teachers union may have cost Democrat Charlie Crist the governor’s race by filing suit against the tax credit scholarship program and alienating black voters, writes Lloyd Brown at Sunshine State News. (The school choice program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools. Pasco begins taking applications Dec. 1 for its first magnet school. Gradebook.

Charter schools. Nearly 50 have shut down in South Florida in the past five years. NBC 6.

Testing. State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, files a bill to limit to 10 the number of days districts can set aside for standardized testing. Orlando Sentinel.

Teacher conduct. A former high school band director in Osceola is arrested for reportedly having sexual relationships with two students. Orlando Sentinel.

Campus crime. A second Sarasota County student is arrested for operating a prostitution ring involving students. Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Students with disabilities. River Ridge High in Pasco offers a club that fosters friendships between students with disabilities and students without disabilities. Tampa Bay Times.

Science. Middle school students in Miami-Dade show off science and innovation skills by designing new shoes. Miami Herald.

Middle schools. Duval looks for ways to boost the performance of its middle school students, among the most struggling in the state. Florida Times Union.


Leading minister: Why are FL school boards attacking options for poor kids?

Bishop Curry

Bishop Curry

Efforts to defend Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the country, have gained a powerful new ally: Miami Bishop Victor T. Curry. One of Florida’s most influential ministers, Curry used his radio program Nov. 11 to rally supporters against the lawsuit filed in August by the Florida teachers unions, Florida School Boards Association and other groups. You can read excerpts below.

Until the suit was filed, Curry had been a quiet supporter of the 13-year-old scholarship program; the school he heads, Dr. John A McKinney Christian Academy, serves about 120 scholarship students. But it’s clear from the remarks he made during the radio program that he is now all in.

It’s also clear the lawsuit is getting more attention in the press and beyond. A number of media outlets have noted exit polls that show Republican Gov. Rick Scott gained ground among reliably Democratic black voters (see herehere and here). The latest: This Nov. 22 op-ed in the Miami Herald by Christopher Norwood, a member of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida. Scott’s gains among black voters, he wrote, are “remarkable for a candidate who had no urban agenda, except for corporate scholarships for low-income students, an issue that’s overlooked by Democratic strategists … ”

Curry’s comments have been edited slightly for length and clarity. (You can hear some of them by clicking on the audio box below.) As always, we note the scholarship program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

We can’t keep talking out of both sides of our mouths. Some of the very people that vote against this, and those who are a part of this lawsuit, parade themselves in our churches and in our communities and they tout that they want the best of education for our children. Well, we have to be holistic in our approach. We never said that private is the only tool. Or public is the only tool. For some children, private is the best fit. I am hoping and praying that there will be a change of minds and a change of hearts and hoping that someone will have the sense to just drop this suit …

I believe, fervently, in public education. I was just given a major award (by the Florida Education Association) … I have always supported United Teachers of Dade and I’ve always supported the Broward Teachers Union. Listen, I worked as a teacher’s assistant at South Area Alternative School right across from Hallandale High. I was a teacher’s assistant at MacArthur Senior High School. Yes I was. And I also spent a few years in Miami-Dade County in a classroom at Civil Bluff Elementary and part of a year at Madison Middle School.

I am not, and I will never, ever be, anti-public education. I am able to walk and chew gum at the same time. … These scholarships that we’ve been talking about are very much a part of our collective moral commitment to provide equal educational opportunities for our children. They strengthen public education, not diminish it.

We named (the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy) after a man who spent 35 years in public education. Dr. John A. McKinney was the first principal who opened Turner Tech. His wife spent over 25 years in public education as a principal, as a school teacher. Ronda C. McKinney. Our whole education wing is the Dr. John and Ronda McKinney Educational Wing.

So we support public education but at the same time there has always been private education as well as public education. This is not a competition. It is not about public or private. It is about matching each child with a school that works best for him or her. It’s about giving children, and their parents, options so they can find the one that works best for them.

I have a question. Why would the school boards association wait 13 years to file a lawsuit against this program? If it claims the constitution restricts children to attending only schools that are operated by the district, why not challenge the charter schools, or McKay scholarships for disabled students, or vouchers for 4-year-olds. Why single out poor children? Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Testing, teacher conduct, campus crime & more

Testing. StateImpact Florida answers questions about the Florida Standards Assessment, the test that will replace the FCAT.

florida-roundup-logoTeacher conduct. A jury decides a fired Palm Beach County teacher should get $337,000 in back pay and damages. South Florida Sun Sentinel. A Lee County teacher accused of sexual misconduct lied about his criminal record on his job application. Fort Myers News Press. A former Manatee County School District employee settles with the district over charges the district retaliated against her for reporting inappropriate behavior on the part of a former assistant football coach. Bradenton Herald.

School crime. A Sarasota County student is charged with running a prostitution ring with students from two high schools. Sarasota Herald Tribune.

School security. Districts statewide may be able to hire private, armed security guards in the wake of a legal opinion from Florida’s attorney general. Bradenton HeraldState Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, is bringing back a proposal to allow some school employees or volunteers to carry guns on campus. News Service of Florida.

School calendars. The St. Johns County School District considers starting the next school year Aug. 10 so the first semester can end at holiday break, but that would likely bring a wave of complaints. St. Augustine Record.

Superintendents. Seminole County Superintendent Walt Griffin and Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho are among 100 superintendents who meet with President Obama to talk about school technology. Orlando Sentinel.


Why I went from teachers union president to school choice leader

Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the nation's largest private school choice program (and co-hosts this blog).

Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the nation’s largest private school choice program (and co-hosts this blog).

I often get asked how I went from being a teachers union president to the president of the country’s largest private school choice organization. It feels like a natural transition to me, but when I step back I can see how others might find it an unusual journey.

My wife likes to tell everyone how boring I am and that I’ve been giving the same empowerment speech since I was 22. She’s right on both counts.

My world view has changed little since I was first elected a local teachers union president in 1978. I was 22, and believed strongly that organizations and societies work best when they maximize the value of their greatest asset – their people.  And since individual empowerment is a necessary condition for healthy human development, my work in public education has always focused on creating well-managed education systems that empower individuals.

As a teachers union leader in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I was a strong advocate for teacher empowerment.  I traveled across the country on behalf of the National Education Association, our nation’s largest teachers union, preaching the gospel of school-based decision making.

But while the NEA leadership regularly highlighted my views in speeches, publications and press events, most of the NEA bureaucracy thought I was naïve and wrong. They saw teachers unions as being in the business of protecting teachers from bad administrators, clueless politicians and dysfunctional school districts. They saw decentralization of power as antithetical to their efforts.

These teachers union traditionalists believe teacher power should be centrally controlled and used by the union for the greater good of teachers collectively, which is where I split from them. I believe a primary function of collective teacher power is the empowerment of individual teachers.

A good example of this difference is how teacher compensation is determined. I believe in free agency.  That is, teachers should be able to sell their services to the highest bidder. I would use the collective power of teachers to strengthen free agency, similar to what the professional sports unions do. Teachers unions strongly oppose free agency. They believe all teacher salaries should be determined centrally through a one-size-fits-all salary schedule.

Another good example is found in how teachers unions think about charter schools. I believe teachers unions should help teachers start and run their own schools, while the traditionalists think all publicly-funded schools should be centrally owned and managed by school boards and district bureaucracies.

The school choice movement is founded on a belief in parental empowerment, so adding that to my lifelong commitment to teacher empowerment feels natural to me. I believe in giving teachers the power to create and manage new and innovative learning options for families, and I believe in giving families the power to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. For me, both are necessary components of a highly effective and efficient public education system.

I’m a strong advocate of teachers organizing themselves and using their collective power to promote the public good. I’m convinced teachers unions will eventually embrace a model that does that. But this shift is still years away. Until then, teachers unions will continue to be one of the biggest obstacles to improving our country’s public education system.


Florida roundup: Charter schools, testing, Common Core and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. New authorizing standards are intended to help improve the quality of Florida’s charter schools. Naples Daily News. A Manatee charter celebrates its success. Bradenton Herald. Charter schools are growing. Tampa Bay Times.

Common Core. New math lessons may go viral and stoke parent outrage, but that’s “more bluster than substance,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab writes. She encourages parents to take a sample test. Jeb Bush continues to back the standards. Sun-Sentinel.

Elections. Democrats’ opposition to school choice cost them among minority voters, a Miami Herald guest column contends.

Testing. The Brevard school district backs an anti-testing petition. Florida Today. What’s the point of an anti-testing resolution? Gradebook.

Teacher evaluations. Orange schools plan to hold teachers harmless for the first few years of new state assessments. Orlando Sentinel.

Technology. An Episcopal school’s tech director wins a national award. Florida Today.

Grading. PolitiFact checks former Bush’s criticism of an Orange County schools policy, and finds it “mostly true.”

Continue Reading →