Soldiers and school choice

soldiers in prayerLong long ago I spent two years stationed at the Pentagon as a JAG officer. Early on I discovered that, daily at noon, a cadre of my fellows attended mass down the hall where a proper room had been set aside for the purpose. I was not surprised; even as a draftee in 1953 I had learned the Army provided opportunity, not only to visit the various chaplains, but for communal worship according to individual religious commitment. This was not just “released time”; the Army paid for it all. In 1985, a federal court of appeals held this to be a constitutional duty of government.

So far as I can see, little of this policy has changed in the military, though its justification today is supported as much by the free contract that constitutes enlistment; access to religious practice is a promise of the government that is a basic tool of recruitment. In my day, the military draft made this policy of the Army imperative, not only as a First Amendment responsibility but simply as a matter of justice. No Western nation would pluck a person from his home and family to serve any civic imperative without assuring that – as the requirements of his particular task allowed – he could pursue and perfect his own religious commitment through counsel, study and communal devotion.

Or would it? Consider the American system of state-imposed education and specifically the “public” school. Schooling is compulsory; the child is drafted to serve a civic imperative. It may not be full-time duty; but for the most receptive hours of the child’s days, for 12 years, the experience of being educated by unchosen strangers is intellectually and emotionally preemptive – and even dominant. Nor is there any lack of homework to conscript what remains of the day – and all of this for 12 years, a tour of duty three times that of all but a few soldiers. Schooling in this environment approaches a conscription of the mind; indeed, that is its point. Paradoxically, the experience can eventually be liberating, but within state schools it can be so only within a vision of life’s purpose narrowed by the absence of transcendence. Many Americans do not regard this as liberation.

By contrast to the Army – both that of 1953 and now — these state schools provide their intellectual draftees neither chaplains nor invitations to pray together in the manner of their parents (or even of their own). Nor do they receive instruction in the content of their own family’s beliefs. If the parents can afford it, the opportunity for a more inclusive curriculum is available in a less conscriptive private school. But for the rest of American families, there is only the daily seven hours absorbing the wisdom of the intellectual descendants of John Dewey.

The charter school, though a salutary reform, is no exception; the mind of the child is still to be carefully insulated from any suggestion that the good life implicates the transcendental or even that there is such a dimension to human existence. The school may teach that some people believe such things, but it may not prefer any such idea even in the ways so familiar to the soldier. It lacks even foxholes.

The public school draft could end its undemocratic and class separative effect with the most simple adjustment – the option for the charter school to teach religion. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, campaigns, tax credit scholarships and more

Lawsuits. Writers in the Tampa Tribune and National Review Online sharply criticize the lawsuit challenging Florida tax credit scholarships. A Tampa Bay Times columnist criticizes Gov. Rick Scott for opposing the lawsuit.  State Sen. John Legg declines an award from one of the groups suing. Gradebook. redefinED.

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Tax credit scholarshipsMy Fox Tampa Bay highlights a student attending a military-oriented private school his family feared would be out of reach.

Testing. The Lee County School Board may be poised to reverse its decision to “opt out” of standardized assessments. Fort Myers News-Press. More from the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald. The Palm Beach Post editorial board weighs in. The News-Press has live coverage of the school board’s meeting this morning. New state tests will change the way students are asked to write. Florida Times-Union.

Campaigns. School choice, Common Core, and partisan politics converged in Indian River school board campaigns that ousted incumbents. Indian River Press Journal.

Private schools. A private school adds a STEM center with the help of some high-profile donors. Bradenton Herald.

Charter schools. Bay County charter schools are preparing to set up their own shared busing system. Panama City News Herald. A rare charter conversion comes to Manatee. Bradenton Herald.

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Senator declines award from group suing to stop tax credit scholarships

The group that represents Florida’s school boards had planned to recognize the chairman of the state Senate’s education committee as its “Legislator of the Year.”

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

But after the Florida School Boards Association joined a lawsuit challenging tax credit scholarships for low-income families, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, announced he has decided to decline the award.

“It is now apparent to me that the Association’s stance on educating low income students and access to choice in education is too conflicting with my own,” he wrote Friday in a letter to Wayne Blanton, the association’s executive director. “It saddens me that the FSBA would take a position that looks to eliminate customization in education.”

Legg’s decision is another sign the lawsuit is creating a rift between top lawmakers and the groups bringing the suit. Both current and incoming legislative leaders began denouncing the case before it was filed.

As the Senate’s top lawmaker on education policy for the past two years, Legg has been known for working closely with school districts. He has often helped keep the peace between their associations and other advocates on issues from charter schools to accountability.

In his statement responding to the lawsuit Thursday, he indicated the lawsuit betrayed the spirit of cooperation that has generally marked the Senate’s approach to education.

“Over the years and in particular the last legislative session, I have worked, in good faith, with many that now wish to eliminate school choice for all,” he said. “It is apparent that these groups were disingenuous with their efforts and have put their political views over that of our students’ needs.”

In his letter to Blanton, Legg writes that he has a “sincere hope” the school boards association “will abandon this hostile view toward low income students and customization.”

“Please know having grown up in a very low income household, my position will always be to advocate for access, quality, and customization for all students, but especially for those who don’t have the resources to access a quality education,” he wrote.

The tax credit scholarship program helps low-income students afford private-school tuition. It is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, tax credit scholarships, testing and more

Lawsuits. Florida’s teachers union and other groups launch a legal attack on the 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program that serves nearly 70,000 students. Associated Press. Times/Herald. Scripps/TribunePalm Beach Post. Orlando Sentinel. News Service of Florida. WFSU. Education Week. Daytona Beach News-Journal. US News & World Report. Reuters. Creative Loafing. The same day, a tax credit scholarship program in News Hampshire survives a legal challenge. redefinED. Concord Monitor.

florida-roundup-logo-300x114Testing. Lee County’s district-wide “opt out” revolt against standardized testing creates legal uncertainty. Fort Myers News-Press. Naples Daly News (more here). Tampa Bay Times. Associated Press. Millions of dollars in state funding are at stake. Naples Daily News. It has educators talking. Tampa Bay Times. Naples Daily News. Columnists and local editorials pan the move in the Fort Myers News-Press and Naples Daily News. A Palm Beach Post columnist weighs in.

Discipline. The Florida Times-Union struggles to obtain records dealing with expulsion cases involving sexual assault and guns. A private school expels a student whose mother complains on Facebook. WFTS.

Budgets. The Marion school board beefs up spending on classroom supplies for teachers. Ocala Star-Banner.

Elections. Two Orange County School Board races are headed for recounts. Orlando Sentinel.

Early learning. Art and scence centers work with Central Florida preschoolers. Orlando Sentinel.

High School. A Pasco program helps students transition. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher conduct. A Manatee football coach retires instead of fighting an administrative complaint. Bradenton Herald.

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Nation’s largest private school choice program now under legal attack

The Florida teachers union and state school boards association made good on their threats Thursday, asking the courts to shut down a 13-year-old school choice scholarship program that is serving 67,000 of Florida’s most economically disadvantaged schoolchildren. As if to punctuate their fervor, union vice president Joanne McCall tweeted to her followers as school choice supporters gathered: “A hit dog will holler … we are hitting a nerve!”

Scholarship supporters crowd outside union headquarters Thursday, protesting the announcement of the lawsuit.

Scholarship supporters crowd outside union headquarters Thursday, protesting the announcement of the lawsuit.

The complaint – filed by the Florida Education Association, Florida School Boards Association, Florida PTA, Florida NAACP and League of Women Voters of Florida, and others – argues the program is unconstitutional because it funds education options outside the state’s traditional public school system, and because the funds in many cases help children attend religious schools. The groups announced their lawsuit at a morning press conference in FEA’s capital headquarters in Tallahassee.

Many of the legal arguments hinge on a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling which sidestepped the religious question. In Bush v. Holmes, the court shut down the state’s first voucher program, deciding it was unconstitutional for a program funded in the state budget to support children in a private K-12 education system outside the public schools.

The groups filing suit Thursday were greeted outside the teachers union headquarters by about 50 students from nearby private schools, as well as educators and religious leaders who support the scholarship program. (The rally was organized by a new group, Florida Voices for Choices.) Most were minorities, reflective of the fact that nearly 70 percent of the scholarship students are either black or Hispanic.

One of those in attendance was Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which supports a middle school that caters to many of those students. Independent studies of the program have repeatedly found that tax credit scholarship students are among the most academically and economically disadvantaged of the students in the public schools they leave behind.

Ward said the vast majority of Florida’s students will continue to attend public schools, but the scholarships have provided a “saving grace” to children who need a different environment to learn.

“We can’t leave them behind just because it’s the smaller percentage, or the under-privileged. We can’t say they’re not worthy of being given a chance, or an alternative,” he said, adding that when he heard about the lawsuit, “I was shocked. It makes me then think this thing must ether be politically driven, or just all about money.”

Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP and a member of the state NAACP’s executive board, was also on hand. He heads a private school that serves tax credit scholarship students.

“When a child needs help, every means should be brought about to help the child, and that’s what this is about for me,” said Sykes, who stressed he was speaking as an individual and not as an NAACP leader. “We’re not in competition with public education. Our mission is to augment it for those for whom it has not been successful.”

Dale Landry, one of the NAACP’s regional directors in Florida, said its statewide organization joined the lawsuit because it wants to bolster support for traditional public schools.

“The public school system has been set up to fail,” he said, saying children would benefit from more time in the classroom. “We need to go back and reinvest in our public school system.”

News of the lawsuit swirled statewide Wednesday, after redefinED broke news about its pending filing and noted that two FSBA leaders – the president and president-elect – were defeated at the polls Tuesday night in races where school choice organizations left their imprint. After the story, a chorus of state lawmakers, local school board members and school choice advocates condemned the suit and urged the FSBA to with draw it.

On Thursday, the suit drew another sharp rebuke – this time from Gov. Rick Scott, who called it “unconscionable.”

“Quite simply, this careless action could have terrible consequences on the lives of Florida’s poorest children, who with the help of this program have a chance to escape poverty,” he said in a written statement.

In a show of confidence in the face of protests and denunciations by elected officials, McCall, the FEA leader, responded with a saying she said she picked up when she taught in rural Sumter County.

Continue Reading →

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Tax credit scholarships survive challenge in New Hampshire

As the Florida teachers union and school boards association announced a lawsuit this morning against the Florida tax credit scholarship, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously upheld that state’s tax-credit scholarship program, arguing the plaintiffs had no standing.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sued to terminate the New Hampshire program. They argued the program violated the state’s Blaine Amendment, prohibiting aid to sectarian schools and institutions.

Since the scholarships are paid for by donations backed by an 85 percent tax credit, rather than direct state appropriations, the plaintiffs had to argue that tax credits were akin to a tax expenditure. It must be noted that the loss in revenue due to the tax credit is also offset by an equivalent reduction in expenditures toward K-12 education as students enroll in private schools.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011), defendants in New Hampshire argued the tax credits are not tax expenditures and, as such, the plaintiffs had no standing to file suit. They also argued the plaintiffs lacked standing since they could not demonstrate that any individual suffered any harm.

Although the New Hampshire Supreme Court did not touch on the Winn decision, it did agree the plaintiffs did not have standing.

The court could not find that the plaintiff’s rights had been “prejudiced or impaired as a result of the program’s implementation.” The court further held that “petitioners fail to identify any personal injury suffered” and that “there is no evidence that by granting tax credits to other businesses, the program alters the amount of taxes [a business] is or will be required to pay.”

Not even potential reductions in revenue to the state or to individual schools as a result of tax credit scholarships was enough to establish standing. Continue Reading →

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FSBA leader twists truth on tax credit scholarships

Blanton

Blanton

If truth is the first casualty of war, then Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton may have been suiting up back in June. His Capital Dateline interview then with Steve Wilkerson described tax credit scholarships for low-income students as a financial drain not only on public schools but on all state government services.

Blanton, a seasoned educator, knows better. So let’s assume the association’s planned lawsuit against the scholarship, to be announced today, was his motivation.

Blanton’s financial assertion is short enough to quote in full:

“We are not a big fan of those type of scholarships. There’re a couple of reasons. No. 1, it’s taking a substantial amount of money every year away from public schools. But the bigger issue, I think, is over the next two years those corporate scholarships are going to siphon off about 2 to 2 ½ billion dollars from the state. Now making my assumption earlier that we get 36 percent of that, for every $1 billion that would be $360 million that public schools do not get. But then there’s over $600 million that doesn’t come into the state at all. It doesn’t come in for child care, it doesn’t come in for health services, it doesn’t come in for the Division of Family Services and things of that nature, it doesn’t come in for corrections. Those dollars not coming into the state are not just detrimental to public schools, it’s detrimental to a lot of other services the state is trying to deliver and has a hard time getting those dollars to them now. So I think we’ve got to take a real close look at that in the big picture – not just education but how those dollars are disappearing from a lot of other entities.”

Readers should be aware that I’m the policy director for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that co-hosts this blog and helps administer the scholarship that Blanton calls into question. But his misstatements are at such odds with the fiscal reality that they are rebutted by basic state revenue reports and fiscal evaluations.

Let’s begin with the “siphon.” Under state law, the amount of tax credits that can be used toward contributions for the scholarship is capped every year. The Department of Revenue is responsible for overseeing the cap, and here is the link to its latest calculation. The maximum possible amount for scholarships in the next two years is in fact $805.1 million – not $2.5 billion. That’s one-third the amount that Blanton claimed.

Now let’s look at how the loss of those dollars is “detrimental” to all those public services, including schools. Continue Reading →

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