Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

Testing Conflict Kills Scholarship Bill in Florida Senate

Step-Up-logo-2013Yesterday in the Florida Senate, the sponsor of an important tax credit scholarship bill withdrew the legislation. This means the effort to strengthen and expand this scholarship for low-income children is, in all probability, dead for this year.

The bill was withdrawn because of a testing dispute. The Senate President wanted all scholarship students to take Florida’s new state test next spring, which presented insurmountable logistical challenges and created political fractures with the Republican Caucus in both chambers.  Consequently, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Bill Galvano, had little choice but to withdraw his bill.

Currently, Florida’s tax credit scholarship students are required to take either the state test or a state-approved national-normed standardized test. This approach has been widely embraced by scholarship parents and schools across the political spectrum, and continues to be the preferred approach of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that runs this blog and is the scholarship program’s primary administrator.

Over the last several months, thousands of scholarship families have joined with community activists and faith-based leaders from across Florida to advocate for this bill. Their energy and passion for insuring all children have access to the schools that best meet their needs is extraordinary, and the political surge these newly empowered activists have created will continue to grow.

Even without this legislation, the scholarship program will add about 10,000 students this fall, and serve approximately 70,000 students.

While this is a disappointing legislative loss, we are already starting to organize for next year. The struggle for equal opportunity is never easy.

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School choice scholarships don’t hurt public education

Editor’s note: This op-ed by Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill was written in response to a March 10 column by Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino. The Post published it online last night.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

Sixty-thousand of Florida’s poorest schoolchildren chose a private school this year with the help of a scholarship, and this 12-year-old program strengthens public education by expanding opportunity.

The program, called the Tax Credit Scholarship, is one learning option for low-income students who face the toughest obstacles, and is part of an expanding universe of educational choices that last year served 1.5 million — or 42 of every 100 — Florida students in PreK-12. Those who suggest scholarships for low-income children harm public education are wrong. These scholarships and the opportunities they provide strengthen public education.

The state’s covenant is to children, not institutions, and these low-income students are being given options their families could not otherwise afford. That their chosen schools are not run by school districts makes them no different than charter schools or McKay Scholarship schools or university lab schools or online courses or dual college enrollment. That the state supports these scholarships is no different than the state paying for these same students to attend a district school. These scholarships are publicly funded, publicly regulated, public education.

Why, then, would a Palm Beach Post columnist suggest that scholarships for low-income children come “at the expense of public education”?

Independent groups and state agencies have repeatedly concluded that these scholarships, worth $4,880 this year, actually save the state money. The most recent projection came from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, which placed the savings last year at $57.9 million. While it is regrettably true that district, charter and virtual schools have suffered financial cutbacks in recent years, they were not caused by these scholarships. In fact, this scholarship program was impacted by those same cuts.

The bill the Legislature is considering this year helps reduce the waiting list for this scholarship, so it is important to know who it serves. On average, the scholarship students live only 9 percent above poverty, more than two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and more than half come from single-parent homes. State research also shows they were also the lowest performers in the public schools they left behind.

These students are required to take a nationally norm-referenced test yearly, and the encouraging news is that they have been achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. Continue Reading →

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Private interests abound for everyone in public education debate

Everyone in the debate over how best to improve public education has private interests. Our collective challenge is to manage these often conflicting interests in ways that best serve the common good.

Everyone in the debate over how best to improve public education has private interests. Our collective challenge is to manage these often conflicting interests in ways that best serve the common good.

We all have private interests.

People pursuing their private interests – individually or as a group – is what drives progress and innovation. But our private interests should never trump the common good.

Private interests usurping the public good is privatization. Privatization is bad. It undermines democracy and progress.

Encouraging the pursuit of private interests while avoiding privatization is a core challenge for our economic and political democracy. In pursuing their private interests, individuals and organizations often claim their interests promote the common good, while the interests of those they disagree with don’t. Politics derives, in part, from conflicting claims of whose private interests better align with the common good.

We see this regularly in our debates over how best to improve public education.

As a long-time teacher union leader, I sold financial services, insurance and advocacy services to teachers working for school districts. Therefore, maximizing the number of teachers employed by school districts served my business interests. Our union continuously asserted that more teachers working for school districts served the common good, as did higher teacher salaries and benefits. Our favorite marketing slogan was, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”

Our union’s political and marketing strategy was to tie the private interests of district teachers to a greater common good (i.e., the welfare of children). Of course, the private interests of teachers are often – but not always – tied to children’s interest, so this was, and still is, an effective strategy.

Teacher unions use a similar political strategy when attacking school choice programs that empower students and teachers to attend schools not covered by union contracts. The unions accuse these schools of furthering privatization. As the National Education Association recently stated about charter schools not under union contracts: “We oppose the creation of charter schools for the purpose of privatization.”

Teacher unions are often criticized – unfairly in my opinion – for advocating for the private interests of district teachers. Continue Reading →

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It’s not easy balancing school choice and regulatory accountability

tight ropeAs public education increasingly organizes itself around customized learning, determining how best to regulate this expanding diversity is a challenge. Fortunately, the Fordham Institute has been a thoughtful participant in this discussion over the last several years, and it made another valuable contribution today by releasing a policy toolkit to assist those of us on the front lines.

Fordham’s policy recommendations are based on three assertions.

1)      Students who use vouchers or tax credit scholarships to help pay tuition and fees at non-district schools should participate in the state assessment system.

2)      School test results should be publicized, except in cases where a school enrolls fewer than 10 testable voucher or scholarship students.

3)      The regulatory consequences of a school’s test results should be related to how much voucher or tax credit revenue the school is receiving. More revenue should lead to more regulatory control.

As a nonprofit organization responsible for helping to manage Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, Step Up For Students has been in dialogue with our state’s elected leadership about these types of regulatory issues for more than a decade now, and we have often relied on Fordham’s insights to help inform these discussions.

We agree tax credit scholarship students should take a standardized test to help gauge their academic progress, but schools that cater mostly to private-paying students seldom take the state-approved assessment and making the conversion is no easy chore. Often, the parents who are paying for tuition prefer a nationally norm-referenced test such as the Stanford Achievement, which means these schools might be forced to give two different tests to two different sets of students. That’s a tall order, and one where the incremental benefits of having scholarship students take the same state test as public school students are not great enough to justify the cost.

Florida requires that scholarship students take approved nationally-normed referenced tests yearly, and issues an annual report on how the students are performing. This report includes comparisons with students nationally, as well as comparable students in district schools. Allowing students to choose from a list of state-approved assessments, which includes the FCAT (the state’s standardized test), has never seriously hindered the state’s ability to gauge how well scholarship students are performing.

Step Up is now working with more than a hundred private scholarship schools that are voluntarily implementing  the new Common Core standards, which Florida district schools are also implementing.  Consequently, we can foresee a future in which district and non-district students might one day be voluntarily taking the same state assessments. Continue Reading →

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On school choice, teacher unions & McDonald’s franchises

While doing my end-of-the year inbox purge, I came across a few interesting items.

In a Sept. 30 column in Human Events, Jeb Bush offered the nation’s teacher unions a grand bargain: “If unions released their grip on political levers, and parental choice was absolute, many public school reforms would be unnecessary because the desired results would be achieved through market forces.”

Eventually, teachers unions will accept this deal and embrace full parental empowerment in exchange for full teacher empowerment, but only after membership nationally slips below 25 percent. With market share in the low twenties, financial necessity will force unions to expand their business model to include educators working in charter, private and virtual schools. And once they develop successful business relationships with educators in these non-district schools, the unions will be fully supportive of parents using public funds to access these schools. The unions already support students using public funds to attend unionized private colleges and universities, and unionized private pre-K programs.

In a somewhat related event, last September AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka convinced fellow labor leaders to invite “millions of non-union workers into the labor movement even if their own workplaces are not unionized.” Trumka called for the AFL-CIO to become a place where progressive organizations and individuals come together to develop and promote a common agenda.

Trumka’s vision provides teacher unions with an excellent rationale for dropping their opposition to full parental choice and forming partnerships with parents and educators in non-district schools.  Empowering low-income and working-class parents to access the schools that best meet their children’s needs is a necessary step toward reducing our country’s widening inequality gap, and progressives say reducing inequality is one of their top priorities. Nonetheless, as I previously mentioned, teacher unions will put inequality concerns on the back burner and refuse to find common ground with parents and educators in non-district schools until forced to by internal financial pressures.mcd vs bk

There was more evidence from my local school district last month that district school superintendents are increasingly thinking and acting like McDonald’s franchise owners. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Pinellas County Superintendent Mike Grego is “studying the number and location of charter and private schools” in the district to fine tune his strategy for recapturing lost market share. “I believe as a public school system we ought to compete,” he said.

Part of Grego’s strategy includes putting new magnet programs in closed school buildings so he won’t be pressured to sell these buildings to charter school operators. That this will waste tax dollars by creating excess capacity in several neighboring district schools is apparently not a concern.

School districts should not be competing for market share. Continue Reading →

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Mostly agreeing with Andy Smarick, but …

In his keynote speech to a national gathering of faith-based educators in New York City last month, Andy Smarick offered several thoughtful ideas about how to regulate and expand access to faith-based schools. I agree with some of these ideas. I disagree with others.

agree disagreeHere’s a rundown. I paraphrased Smarick’s positions for the sake of brevity.

Smarick: Faith-based educators need to assume some responsibility for the decline in student enrollment in their schools. Families today have many schooling options and faith-based schools need to become more effective and efficient if they are to survive.

Me: I agree. Many of the faith-based schools our nonprofit, Step Up For Students, works with in Florida excel at providing children with safe and loving environments, but they need to improve their instructional practices. We recently launched an ambitious statewide partnership with scholarship schools and families to enhance their teaching and learning.

Smarick: Faith-based schools need to be more transparent with their student achievement data and do a better job using these data to help communicate their schools’ effectiveness.

Me:  I agree, but I also think faith-based schools and parents need to better integrate standardized test results into their improvement efforts.

Every Florida tax credit scholarship student is required to take a nationally normed standardized test yearly. But faith-based schools seldom, if ever, use these test results to inform instruction, and parents in faith-based schools seldom, if ever, review their children’s results, either. The limitations of standardized test data are well documented, but these limitations do not justify ignoring these data.

Smarick: Faith-based educators must become more politically engaged if they want government to enact public policies making faith-based schools more accessible to low-income and working-class families.

Me: I agree. Money to pay tuition and fees is the primary obstacle blocking low-income and working-class families from accessing faith-based schools. Thanks, in part, to the political engagement of Florida’s Catholic and Orthodox Jewish communities, Florida is slowly eradicating this impediment through two voucher programs (i.e., Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten and McKay Scholarships) and a tax credit scholarship. Florida’s faith-based school enrollment is increasing as a result. The tax credit program is serving 30,000 more low-income students this year than it did just four years ago.

Smarick: The school should be the unit of analysis and improvement. Our goal is not to create great school systems, but great systems of schools.

Me: I agree and disagree. Continue Reading →

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An argument for school vouchers amidst fight over Obamacare

Linda Greenhouse

Linda Greenhouse

Arguments supporting parental school choice can crop up in unexpected places. Even in a left-leaning take on a particularly controversial piece of Obamacare.

In her Nov. 28 column, Linda Greenhouse, the esteemed former New York Times reporter who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years, discussed two current Supreme Court cases focused on whether corporations can be required to provide health benefits that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs. The cases are part of a flood of litigation challenging whether the government can force employers, including churches, to provide employee benefits such as birth control.

Greenhouse concludes her column by suggesting that forcing employers to provide a prescribed set of health benefits does not violate their religious beliefs since the employees are choosing how to use these benefits, not the employer. She cites parents using publicly funded school vouchers to pay private school tuition to bolster her argument:

“By paying employees as the law requires, neither a corporation nor its owner is endorsing the employees’ choice of what to spend their money on – no more than a local government endorses a parent’s choice to use a taxpayer-funded voucher for religious-school tuition. The Supreme Court for  decades has embraced the notion that an intervening private choice of this sort, even when a government program is clearly designed to channel public money to religious institutions, avoids what would otherwise be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

Greenhouse isn’t just any legal observer. She won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Supreme Court. She now teaches at Yale Law School. As a longtime Greenhouse reader, I feel comfortable describing her as a left-of-center progressive Democrat. For someone of her stature and political persuasion to acknowledge the constitutionality of parents using school vouchers to attend faith-based K-12 schools – an argument more often advanced by the political right – is another small but significant milestone in the redefinition of public education. Continue Reading →

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Time for school boards to stop competing, start regulating

The latest evidence that school districts are increasingly acting like commercial businesses comes from the two urban districts in the Tampa Bay area.

McDonald’s would love to control whether a Burger King opens in its community, but giving McDonald’s this power would hurt consumers and undermine the public good. The same goes for school districts that have the power to authorize charter schools.

McDonald’s would love to control whether a Burger King opens in its community, but giving McDonald’s this power would hurt consumers and undermine the public good. The same goes for school districts that have the power to authorize charter schools.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that, “Increased competition for students, declining enrollment in the middle grades, and a need to offer more attractive options to families is leading Pinellas County Schools to open new magnet programs at four middle schools next fall.”

According to Bill Lawrence, the district’s director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity, “It’s important in this day and age, with competition in public education, that we have to do this. Some of our children are choosing other options, so it’s important we do it.” And Amie Hornbaker, the district’s new communications specialist, said, “We try not to say we’re selling (to parents), but essentially, we are.”

This concern with market share is a logical response to the expanding array of schooling options now available to families, including low-income families. But I’m uncomfortable with school districts becoming businesses in a competitive market place.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, or even hypocritical, coming from the president of the country’s largest private school choice organization.

I believe public education should operate as a well-regulated market. Educators should be empowered to own and manage schools and all parents – not just the affluent – should be empowered to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs. And I’m pleased many district school leaders are increasingly seeing families, and not their bureaucracies, as their primary customers. But if school districts become competitors in a market-driven public education system, who is going to objectively regulate this system?

Good regulatory oversight is a necessary component of an effective school choice system, but that’s not possible if the primary regulator is focused on maximizing its market share. And that’s what is increasingly happening in public education today. A good example is how Florida school districts are treating charter schools. Continue Reading →

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