Archive | June, 2012

In America and abroad, no reason to fear faith-based schools

Editor’s note: America isn’t the only place where school choice raises questions about not only education, but pluralism, citizenship and social integration. Noted school choice expert Charles Glenn, a Boston University professor and American Center for School Choice associate, writes that European countries with far more evolved choice systems continue to wrestle with these issues – but have no reason to fear faith-based schools.

Early in June I was one of the speakers at a conference on educational freedom in The Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). It is no exaggeration to say these are the poster children of “school choice,” the two areas where its implications have been worked out most fully over the past two centuries (see my Contrasting Models of State and School, Continuum, 2011). Today, upwards of two-thirds of pupils in this area of some 23 million inhabitants attend non-government schools with full public funding.

Much of the discussion among the participants was about the details of how schools have been able – or not – to preserve their independence in the face of government regulation. I will not try to summarize that discussion here, except to note that as always the devil is in the details and we can learn a great deal from the experience over many decades of the interaction between schools seeking to maintain a distinctive religious or pedagogical character and government officials seeking to impose common standards. (The updated 2012 edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education will include, in four volumes, detailed descriptions of how this relationship plays out in nearly 60 countries, most of them written by leading education law experts from each country, including these two.)

My own contribution at the conference was to raise openly what is beginning to be debated in Belgium and The Netherlands: is educational freedom still relevant, given changing circumstances? Is there still a need for schools not owned and operated by government and promoting worldviews that are in contrast with that of the societal majority? And, is the growing societal pluralism created by immigration an argument for or against such schools? Some, in fact, have claimed that the justification for non-public schools no longer exists because (a) some of them have ceased offering a truly distinctive education as a result of secularization, and (b) to the extent that they actually distinctive, they are a barrier to the social integration required in the face of the growing presence of Muslims in Western Europe.

My paper confronted head-on the widespread fear, among European elites, of strongly-held religious views, and argued that in fact “communities of conviction” make an essential contribution to the health of civil society. I cited research on faith-based schools in the United States to show they have by no means had a divisive effect or made their students unfit for active and positive citizenship. Continue Reading →

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redefinED blog stars: The problem with vouchers, with teacher tantrums, with Parents Across America and more

Editor’s note: Here’s our latest round-up of interesting stuff from other ed blogs.

Rick Hess Straight Up: Self-Pitying Tantrums Are Poor Way for Educators to Win Friends, Influence People

Fact 1: Teachers feel like they’re getting a bad rap in the public discourse.

Fact 2: I’ve long since stopped reading the comments proffered on RHSU.

What in the world do these two statements have to do with each other? I think it’s simple. Self-proclaimed advocates of educators and public education have become so vitriolic, mean-spirited, arrogant, and unreasoning that it’s becoming inane to anyone who’s not a fellow true believer. This means that they’re poorly positioned to convince Americans, and painfully uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t agree with them already. …

I was enamored by the self-identified teacher who wrote, “I honestly wonder what you’re doing, writing about a profession that you so clearly despise. I also wonder about the integrity of Education Week, since it keeps publishing more and more hit-pieces by people like you, who openly brandish his anti-union, anti-public education, and anti-public school teachers attitudes, just to satisfy the whims and expectations of sponsors such as the Gates foundation and others…Unlike hacks like you, we can not charge over time, or demand to be payed [sic] by the column, or the word. You sir, are the worst kind of demagogue, attacking a noble profession, while disguising your broadsides as concerns over our benefits.” Another wrote, “Well, Rick anyone can blog on and on about the virtues of deceit. Pity the folks in Wisconsin who couldn’t quite get it together to alter the lopsided equation.” Truthfully, I’m not even sure what this means. Full post here.

Cato@Liberty: State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Read post here. Continue Reading →

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New report finds many academic trend lines rising in Florida’s public schools

Florida’s public schools were handed another solid but overlooked report card this week from another respected, independent source.

The 27-page, data-stuffed, “Decade of Progress” progress report from the Southern Regional Education Board is yet more evidence that Florida’s public schools are making steady progress despite the claims of some critics. The trend lines are often especially strong for low-income and minority students.

For example, between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of low-income eighth-graders scoring at the basic level or above on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose from 55 to 65 percent in Florida – a 10-point gain. Over the same period, the percentage of more affluent eighth-graders who reached the bar rose 5 percentage points, from 78 to 83 percent.

For each of its 16 member states, the SREB looked at a wide array of academic indicators to see how much the needle moved over the past decade, and how those gains or losses compared nationally and regionally. Besides commonly cited indicators like NAEP scores, graduation rates and AP results, the board looked at less-publicized statistics like college enrollment rates, ninth-grade “enrollment bulges” and grade-level progression in high school.

According to the report, the percentage of recent high school graduates enrolling in college in Florida increased from 57 to 71 percent between 2000 and 2010. Nationally, the numbers rose from 56 to 67 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of college freshmen in Florida who returned for a second year remained steady at 86 percent.

The SREB report comes as Florida faces mounting criticism for its testing and accountability regimen, which many critics, including local school board members and parent groups, say has been ineffective. Despite that backdrop, the report was all but ignored by Florida media (an exception here), as was this recent report that found Florida’s graduation rates are among the fastest-rising in the nation.

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Science literacy, the Loch Ness Monster and the evolution of public education

What’s more off the wall? A Christian school teaching students that the Loch Ness Monster is a living dinosaur and proof of creationism? Or science supporters who continue to believe that public schools can significantly boost science literacy?

The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey suggests it’s a toss-up. He responded yesterday to the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who predictably skewered vouchers after reports surfaced about some private schools using a biology textbook that says, “Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland?”

“I can certainly see why paying for this sort of thing would disturb a lot of people … ,” McCluskey wrote. “Let’s, however, use this to confront another, extremely dubious belief that many would never challenge:  Government schooling leads to good science instruction.”

McCluskey efficiently lines up the evidence. A Gallup poll this month found only 15 percent of Americans believe human beings evolved without any involvement from God. National test scores show more private school students are proficient in science than public school students. And surveys show many public school biology teachers give short shrift to evolution because it’s too much of a mine field. “The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction,” McCluskey wrote.

I took a whack at this issue a few weeks ago, after a New York Times piece on tax credit scholarships cited examples of creationist teaching in private schools. Continue Reading →

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More customization in public education can ease tensions over testing, accountability

Discussions about how best to improve student learning often get contentious, so at redefinED we try to make a positive contribution by identifying areas of possible common ground and clarifying the historical record when we see errors or omissions. Rita M. Solnet’s recent Huffington Post column on how Florida might better utilize its standardized testing data gives us an opportunity to do both.

Rita is a founder of Parents Across America, a group that opposes excessive reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. And since Rita lives in Florida, she is particularly unhappy with how Florida uses – or, she would say, abuses – its state testing data. Rita ends her column with some ideas that provide the basis for common ground, but her piece also includes some erroneous Florida history, which I want to correct.

In 1991, the Florida Legislature passed the Education Reform and Accountability Act, commonly known as Blueprint 2000. Florida had experimented with giving teachers and schools more decision-making power in the late 1980s, and Blueprint 2000 was intended to accelerate this effort.  The grand bargain was that state and local government would stop micromanaging schools in exchange for individual schools being held accountable for results.

While the legislation passed with strong bipartisan support, the primary advocates were all Democrats. They included Gov. Lawton Chiles, Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, Rep. Doug “Tim” Jamerson and Sen. George Kirkpatrick. 

Two months after the legislation passed, the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability was convened to create the legislatively mandated standards, assessments and accountability system. I was the teachers union president in Pinellas County in 1991, and Commissioner Castor appointed me to be one of three teacher representatives on the commission.

The U.S. Department of Labor released the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report in June 1991, outlining the knowledge and skills students would need to succeed in the 21st Century. Our commission was impressed and decided to base Florida’s standards on the SCANS recommendations, which included literacy skills (reading, writing, mathematics), thinking skills (problem solving, decision making), personal qualities (honesty/integrity), resource management (time, money), information management (organizing, processing, interpreting),  and technological competence.

Several commissioners argued that we could measure the SCANS standards using an International Baccalaureate-type assessment system that included multiple internal and external assessments, but the Florida Department of Education’s student testing staff strongly disagreed. Its concerns were legal and operational. Continue Reading →

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Zelman’s significance grows as school choice battles rage on

Editor’s note: This is the second of two posts we’re running this week to commemorate the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the landmark Zelman Supreme Court case, its implications are widely visible in the expansion of voucher programs, such as those in Indiana and Louisiana, as well as the growth of tax credit scholarship programs from Florida to Arizona. But the primary Zelman principle – that parents can utilize scholarship funding to enroll in any qualified school that they believe will best educate their children – is also at the heart of an important court battle in Douglas County, Colorado.

Conceivably, Zelman could not only lead to the reinstatement of an innovative voucher approach that local school districts could adopt more broadly, but also provide a pillar for arguments to overturn Colorado’s discriminatory and prejudiced Blaine Amendments.

Beginning in June 2010, the Douglas County School District’s School Choice Task Force began a series of community discussions to align its programs with its overarching policy of “universal choice.” The purpose: to create “multiple pathways for educational success” and then to assist families in choosing the best educational program for their child. This led in March 2011 to the adoption of a pilot Choice Scholarship Program (CSP) whereby in the 2011-12 school year up to 500 families could receive either the lesser of a private school’s tuition or 75 percent of the per-pupil revenue the district received. This amounted to a scholarship of $4,575 for 2011-12.

Just before its implementation in fall 2011, the Denver District Court issued a permanent injunction against the program because it caused state funds to flow to religious schools, violating the Blaine Amendments in the Colorado constitution and the Public School Finance Act. The appeal to overturn this decision attracted high-powered support from the Colorado Attorney General, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, the Institute for Justice on behalf of families that had received scholarships, and the school district itself. Zelman is at the heart of their legal briefs.

The Institute for Justice notes that neither the school district nor the state has any role in selecting the school in which the family enrolls, i.e., this is a private choice program that Zelman specifically endorsed as constitutional. Citing the Zelman decision, when a scholarship program “permits government aid to reach religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients, the circuit between government and religion is broken,” and any “incidental advancement of a religious mission…is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government.” This principle of parental choice, which state supreme court decisions upholding voucher programs in Wisconsin and Ohio recognized even prior to Zelman, led an Indiana court this year to reject a challenge to the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program. Yet, for some reason, the Colorado trial court chose to ignore this precedent. Continue Reading →

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Zelman was a step forward; now empower all parents to choose

Editor’s note: This is the first of two post we’re running this week to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld the constitutionality of the voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio and kicked open the doors for expanded school choice nationwide.

Zelman made clear that the federal constitution allows states to give money to parents that they can use for tuition at religious schools. So long as states don’t directly finance the school itself, no foul. Sadly, some states have constitutions with “Blaine Amendments” that do forbid helping parents this way. These are relics of bigotry; hopefully, the federal courts or sheer political shame will one day erase them.

Would a national commitment to parental choice be a good thing? Think about it. First, remember that the choice of a religious school by parents who pay is a long settled constitutional right. It is widely exercised by those who can afford it. Middle class people in fact have considerable control over where their children enroll and what they learn; they can move to a house in their favorite suburb or they can pay private school tuition.

Clearly, our society is committed to the proposition that parental choice is a social good—at least when made by those who can pay for it themselves. The real issue, then, is whether choice is a good for kid, kin, and country when exercised by families of ordinary means and by the poor.

More bluntly—do we or don’t we want inner-city citizens exercising their rights over their own children? Why have we made it so hard for them? And even where we do allow them to choose a bit (as with public charter schools), what do we, as a society, gain or lose by excluding religious private schools as one among many choices?

Long ago Plato gave arguments for having the state seize complete authority over the child at birth from all families—rich and poor. He thought he knew the one true way and simply did not trust any parent to do right. Maybe there are some platonic arguments for various goods that America achieves when it frustrates choice to the extent it does. Is it somehow productive to snatch the child the child from the authority of ordinary parents for the prime hours of the day for 13 years? What magic is worked by government monopoly over the core experience of the child outside the home?

Is it right that we assume that ordinary parents who cannot afford to pay tuition do not deserve that choice, even if they believe the choice would be best for their children? Crime is, to be sure, more common among lower income groups. But is it less common than it would be if the government were to allow choice? What is cause here and what is effect? Do kids (and all of us) really improve by having complete strangers decide what is worth learning? And do these unchosen strangers do a better job at transmitting the ideas that all of us think important? Continue Reading →

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redefinED roundup: D.C. voucher revival redux, tax credit scholarship veto in New Hampshire and more

Washington D.C.: The Obama administration relents on funding for the D.C. voucher program and okays a deal that will allow a small expansion. (Washington Post)

New Hampshire: Gov. John Lynch (pictured here) vetoes a legislative proposal for tax credit scholarships, but some expect an override. (Concord Monitor)

Florida: Former Gov. Jeb Bush stresses school choice, accountability and common ground in a speech to Latino officials. (Associated Press)

North Carolina: A legislative proposal for tax credits scholarships has been rolled into a broader education reform bill in the state House. (Associated Press)

Pennsylvania: A proposed state budget would expand the tax credit scholarship program from $75 million to $150 million a year at the same time public school funding levels are kept the same. (Associated Press) The state senate passes a bill that would make it easier for traditional public schools to be converted into charter schools in financially troubled districts. (Bloomberg)

Colorado: Debate arises over the validity of a survey that finds a lack of support for the Douglas County School District’s voucher program. (Education News Colorado) Continue Reading →

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