Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

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.

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The end of “school choice”

change aheadThe annual American Federation for Children conference is one of the country’s largest gatherings of school choice advocates. So it was notable, during the most recent conference in Orlando, that speakers regularly used the terms “parental choice” and “educational choice,” but not “school choice.”

This shift in semantics reflects an emerging trend that’s a game changer – the expansion of choice in publicly-funded education is increasingly including learning options beyond schools.

Florida’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome, is a good example. In the PLSA program, public funds go into a bank account that parents can use for numerous state-approved educational options, including private school tuition, a suite of different therapies, curriculum materials, instructional technology, and postsecondary education and training.

This ability to use public funds to pay for learning options beyond schools allows parents to customize an education that is most appropriate for their child. To that end, there’s no doubt that in coming years, parent-controlled educational spending accounts will become more and more common. This shift from state control of education funds to parental control, combined with the movement toward customized teaching and learning, is going to revolutionize public education.

It’s also going to complicate many of our current education reform debates, and maybe make some of them moot.

For example, our current regulatory accountability systems assume students receive instruction from a single provider. But increasingly, parents are using public education funds to access instruction from a variety of providers at the same time. So, to take one hypothetical, future example, how do we assign school grades when children are simultaneously receiving instruction from a charter school, a virtual school, a magnet school and a personal trainer? When four instructional providers contribute to a child’s yearly learning gains, accurately assigning responsibility to each provider is challenging.

This same challenge extends to using yearly standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. If a child receives language arts instruction from several teachers over a 12-month period, which teacher should be held accountable for this student’s standardized test score in language arts?

Our current testing debate also feels dated. Continue Reading →

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Engaging teacher unions will accelerate transition to parental choice

This post first appeared on the Friedman Foundation blog.

Social movements such as women’s suffrage, black civil rights, and parental choice in education involve the redistribution of social, political, and economic power. Because few groups in control of that power at the time are enlightened enough to share it voluntarily, these power struggles are usually contentious—but they don’t have to be.

Although school choice opponents have used name-calling, character assassination, and misinformation as key strategies in maintaining their power, thankfully they have refrained from the physical violence that often accompanies disruptive social change. The bad news is their strategies still undermine our civic discourse and make it more difficult to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. Our children and our democracy deserve better.

Despite the opposition’s tact, school choice supporters should try engaging opponents, particularly teachers’ unions. I know that is easier said than done, but, in the long run, the willingness to search for common ground could accelerate the transition to greater school choice. I say this as someone who’s had a front-row seat on both sides of this debate.

I became a teachers’ union organizer in 1978, and, for the next 16 years, held a variety of local, state, and national leadership positions in both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Today, I am president of a nonprofit organization that helps administer our nation’s largest private school choice program.

Although neither side is without sin, I have been most disappointed by the discourse coming from the teachers’ unions and their anti-choice allies. When I talk with local, state, and national union leaders, I am stunned at how uninformed they are and how many falsehoods they have embraced as truths.

I recently had dinner with one of our country’s top teachers’ union leaders who told me there has never been research showing students benefit from school choice programs. And last month, I was on a panel with a top Miami-Dade union leader who erroneously said Florida’s tax credit students are not tested.

This level of ignorance is a reflection of how insular, polarized, and tribal our politics have become. People are increasingly retreating into self-contained echo chambers where they hear only the messages that reflect the positions of their political tribe. Without access to contrary views from sources they know and trust, people have no basis upon which to question the one-sided communications they are receiving. And few organizations are as insular and tribal as teachers’ unions.

Such insularity causes many union leaders to develop a mindset that says their positions are good and all contrary positions, and those who hold them, are evil—hence all the rhetoric coming from teachers’ union leaders.

There are also financial incentives at play. Continue Reading →

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New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions

Editor’s note: This is the first post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.

Tuthill

Tuthill

Public education has always existed at the crowded intersection of race, class, money and power. While both political parties have had to navigate the confluence of these cross currents, over the last 50 years the Democratic Party has been the most impacted.DONKEY1a

The recent Vergara v. California decision suggested teacher unions, which primarily represent a white middle-class constituency, are an obstacle to providing low-income children of color with a quality education. I spent the first 16 years of my professional career as a teacher union leader, and I agree. The industrial unionism teachers have been using since the 1960s is a major impediment to equal opportunity for low-income children. But the problem isn’t bad people; it’s a bad system.

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of teacher union leaders from across the country. With very few exceptions, they are all wonderful people who care deeply about meeting the needs of low-income children. But they are tethered to an early 20th Century model of industrial unionism that is taking them down, and dragging public education, low-income children and the Democratic Party down with them.

Today’s relationship between teacher unions and low-income communities of color, and the influence teacher unions have over the Democratic Party and black elected officials, can be traced back to a contentious political struggle that occurred in 1968 in New York City.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a predominantly black and Hispanic low-income community in Brooklyn. Community members were unhappy with the education their children were receiving from the New York City school district, and they won the right to manage their community’s public schools.

Local control, though, conflicted with the NYC teachers union’s model of industrial unionism, which required a centralized, command-and-control management system. So the primarily white teachers union went on strike in May 1968 to force NYC to take back control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville public schools.  The strike continued until Nov. 1968, and the struggle was intense. But ultimately, the union prevailed.

During the strike, most black middle-class leaders sided with the union. This class-trumps-race dynamic is common in U.S. politics and education. A similar alliance famously arose in 1964, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City. That’s when legendary black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell joined white liberals such as Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey to oppose seating the majority black and working-class Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation.

The political alliances and organizational models that emerged from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict are still prevalent today. Continue Reading →

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Surging applications shows why parental choice movement is here to stay

big waveYesterday, at 4 p.m., Step Up For Students stopped accepting tax credit scholarship applications for the 2014-15 school year. We had almost 120,000 low-income students start applications for the new school year, but we’re only able to serve about 67,000 because of a state-imposed fundraising cap. Continuing to accept applications throughout the summer would have given later-applying families false hope.

During the last legislative session, we told state officials we thought there were about 120,000 low-income children statewide who would be on scholarship if there was no cap. Maybe that guess was too low. We’ve received 26,000 more student applications this year than last, and we’d probably have at least another 20,000 applications in the system if we stayed open all summer. To be sure, not all the students who start an applications finish the application, and not all of them who do are eligible. But when the number begins to reach 140,000, it certainly gets our attention.

Every year, we have a few thousand children return their scholarships during the school year. We started a waiting list last night and as students give back their scholarships we will give the remaining portion of their scholarships to students on this wait list. This will allow us to serve an additional three or four thousand students by the end of the 2014-15 school year. Hopefully, the Florida Legislature will eventually allow us to serve every low-income child who wants a scholarship.

Much was written last spring about the Legislature’s decision to allow working-class families earning up to 260 percent of poverty to receive partial scholarships beginning with the 2016-17 school year. The Legislature did this, at least in part, because of data showing a drop of 85,000 private-paying students in K-12 private schools since 2004-05. Some private school administrators have told us and legislators that much of this drop is from working-class families who make too much to qualify for tax credit scholarships but not enough to afford private school tuition and fees. Continue Reading →

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Customization in education will become the new normal

customized apple 2This spring’s legislative sessions have not been kind to the parental choice movement. Important bills have died in New York, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arizona, and a modest Florida bill had a bumpy ride before clearing the Legislature last week.

But while choice advocates fear these setbacks signal that the movement is losing momentum, I don’t. Parental choice in K-12 education is part of a larger cultural transition that is rooted in new digital technologies.

As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explain in their recent book, “The Second Machine Age,” we are living through a second, technology-driven industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution made urbanization and mass production possible, and led to the creation of our current one-size-fits-all, assembly line model of public education.

This second revolution is being driven by new digital technologies that are changing how we organize and manage ourselves and our organizations. These changes include increased customization of products and services, more decentralized management systems, and greater empowerment of workers and consumers.

Because they are government monopolies, school districts have been able to resist these systemic changes better than others. But ultimately, public education will succumb to the transformational powers of digital technology, and customization will replace uniformity as public education’s primary organizing principle.

Magnet schools, charter schools, vouchers, open enrollment, virtual schools, dual enrollment, tax credit scholarships and homeschooling are all part of public education’s embracing of empowerment and customization. But despite all the contentious debate around parental choice programs, the new online state assessments are the primary vehicles that will drive public education’s digital and organizational revolution. As formative and summative online assessments become ubiquitous, teaching and learning will become more digitally embedded since we can’t teach students in non-digital environments and then assess them digitally. This digitalization of teaching, learning and assessment will then lead to greater customization.

As this shift to customization accelerates, many current ways of work will be redesigned. Continue Reading →

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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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