Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

A better way to define “public education”

Georgia’s first compulsory school attendance law was passed in 1916. Photo from

For the last 150 years, we have assumed “public education” meant publicly funded education, but in this new age of customized teaching and learning this definition is too narrow. Today, it’s more useful and accurate to define public education as all learning options that satisfy mandatory school attendance laws, including those that don’t receive public funding, such as private schools and home-schooling.

Education – especially public education – has taken many forms in the United States over the last 300 years. According to Pulitzer Prize winning education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, in the 1700s education encompassed institutions “that had a part in shaping human character – families and churches, schools and colleges, newspapers, voluntary associations, and … laws”, while public education referred to formal instruction in public settings outside the home.

Public teaching became increasingly common in the latter half of the 18th century, and by the early 19th century most communities had at least one free school open to all white children. These free schools, which operated independently much like today’s charter schools, became known as common or public schools. They combined with religious schools receiving public funding to educate the poor to comprise public education.  As Cremin notes, in 1813, most New Yorkers saw publicly-funded religious schools “as public or common schools.”

Over the next few decades, public funding for religious schools – most notably Catholic schools – became more contentious and rare. By the mid-1800s, free public schools and public education had become synonymous. Schools not receiving public funds were called private schools, even though they provided public instruction outside the home.

The birth of public education as we know it today occurred during the 1840s and ‘50s. Continue Reading →

“Vouchers,” faith-based schools expand opportunities for low-income kids

Editor’s note: This op-ed ran in today’s Orlando Sentinel.

This photo is from the St. Andrew Catholic School website.

Florida allocates five different scholarships from prekindergarten to college that allow students to attend faith-based schools. They don’t violate the U.S. Constitution because students choose, and government doesn’t coerce.

Both factors were why, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Cleveland school voucher did not violate the Establishment Clause, even as 96 percent of the students chose faith-based schools. To the court, in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, the program met three critical standards that also apply to Florida: The primary objective is education; students can choose among secular and sectarian schools; and parents exercise an independent choice that is not steered by government.

The article “Many church schools get tax cash” in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel did not mention the Zelman case or that the Florida Supreme Court specifically avoided religion in 2006, when it overturned the private-school portion of the Opportunity Scholarship program. Consequently, readers might have thought that these programs are constitutionally suspect, when they are not.

The tax-credit scholarship is one of Florida’s five scholarships. It strives to give low-income students access to the same learning options now available to more affluent families, via a $4,335 scholarship. This program complements other choice programs, such as magnet and charter schools, and is built on the truism that students learn in different ways. Last year, parents placed more than 1.2 million public-education students in schools other than their assigned district school.

In this new world of customized learning, encouraging differentiated instruction while maintaining quality control is a challenge. The tax-credit scholarship does this, in part, by requiring nationally norm-referenced tests that show these students are achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels. Continue Reading →

Know your history: George McGovern and the Democratic shift on school vouchers

None of the recent obituaries of George McGovern – the former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate who died Oct. 21 and was buried Friday – discussed his long struggle to reconcile loyalty to teachers unions with his belief that poor and working-class parents should be able to pick their children’s school.

McGovern, an end-the-war, feed-the-poor, liberal’s liberal, was for years a school choice champion. He once proposed his own tuition tax credit plan to help parents offset the cost of private school, and he was among 23 Democratic senators who co-sponsored a similar proposal from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another liberal lion. But over time, his position changed, mirroring that of the Democratic Party as it became more dependent upon teachers union support.

Adam Emerson, founding editor of redefinED and now school choice czar at the Fordham Institute, wrote more about McGovern’s shift in this post from December 2011, shortly after the release of McGovern’s book, “What It Means to Be a Democrat.” Here’s a taste:

“We cannot abandon these schools and we will not,” McGovern announced to a throng of Catholic high school students in Chicago in the fall of 1972, according to the Washington Post. Catholic schools, McGovern added, are a “keystone of American education,” and without government help, families would lose the right to give their children an education in which spiritual and moral values play an important role.

Presidential candidates were born to flip-flop, but McGovern’s newest manifesto reminds us how far Democrats have strayed from a movement they once breathed life into. Moynihan was prophetic in 1981 when he wrote that as vouchers become more and more a conservative cause, “it will, I suppose, become less and less a liberal one.”

Teachers unions are private corporations too

A Miami Herald story this week about the political contributions of teachers unions and for-profit education companies in Florida offers another opportunity to consider the term “privatization.”

The word has become a potent weapon in debates about the continuing customization of public education. But it’s being misused, and needs to be accurately defined so we can have a more meaningful dialogue about the best way forward.

Herald reporter Kathleen McGrory devoted most of her story to the political contributions of charter and virtual school interests. After noting the total contributions from those interests, she framed the piece this way: “Some observers say the big dollars foreshadow the next chapter of a fierce fight in Tallahassee: the privatization of public education.”

McGrory only briefly noted that those contributions pale in comparison to the donations from teachers unions, which are private corporations that sell memberships to teachers employed by school districts. According to the story, a variety of for-profit education interests, including those in the higher ed realm, collectively contributed $1.8 million in this election cycle. Meanwhile, national, state and local teachers unions kicked in $3.2 million.

The Herald story seemed to suggest that teachers unions are not private interests, which is false. And it listed this season’s top private contributor as Academica, the Miami-based charter school company, even though teachers unions contributed far more than the company did.

Privatization occurs when government allows private interests – in whatever form they take – to usurp the public good. Hopefully, the millions put into Florida political campaigns by teachers unions will not cause elected officials to put teacher concerns above those of the public good.

This privatization would be bad for everyone, including teachers.

It’s school boards that are furthering the privatization of public education

Public education is implemented by private entities – textbook publishers, teachers, building contractors, software developers, teachers unions, parents – with private concerns. Privatization occurs when government allows these private concerns to usurp the public good.

Republicans often blame teachers unions for privatization, but these criticisms are unfair. For more than 15 years, I was a teachers union leader responsible for helping negotiate teacher employment contracts with school boards. In these negotiations, I was legally obligated to represent the private interests of teachers. Albert Shanker, a long-time national teacher union leader, was often criticized for stating his job was to represent teachers and not students or the public, but he was simply asserting a legal fact. Teachers unions sell memberships to teachers and in exchange are legally required to represent them. School boards are responsible for representing the public. If a school board signs a union contract that promotes privatization by allowing the private interests of teachers to trump the public good, that’s the school board’s fault.

Democrats, on the other hand, like to blame for-profit corporations for privatizing public education, but these criticisms are also off target. For-profit corporations have the same legal obligation as teachers unions to advocate on behalf of their stakeholders. If a school board negotiates a contract that puts the interests of a for-profit corporation above the public good, again, that’s the school board’s fault.

School boards also further privatization when they respond to parental choice by acting like private corporations more concerned with protecting their business interests than the public’s interest.

In Indiana last week, The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne reported that its local school board discussed how it could more successfully compete for students against charter and private schools. Board members were unhappy about potential losses in market share “because losing students means losing funds.” Board member Steve Corona worried about competition from charter and private schools putting district-owned schools “out of business,” and board President Mark GiaQuinta said the district needed to do a better job making the case against charter schools.

Here in Florida, the Florida Times-Union reported last week that school board members in Duval County rejected two charter school applications because they feared losing additional market share in district-owned schools that were already losing enrollment.

Similar discussions are occurring at school board meetings around the country. Continue Reading →

Know your history: Both Democrats and Republicans have switched on vouchers

Long-time Democratic education activist Jack Jennings, in a recent Huffington Post column, argued that Republican support for private school choice is a somewhat recent (i.e., the last 45 years) phenomenon, driven by a political desire to appeal to segregationists and weaken teacher unions.  Jennings writes, “The Republicans’ talk about giving parents the right to choose is a politically expedient strategy …  Just beneath the surface of the education rhetoric are political motivations to thwart integration, weaken the Democratic coalition, and cripple the teachers’ unions.”

Jennings is being disingenuous by not acknowledging that Democrats have also changed their position on public funding for private school choice over the years. Democrats George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey both ran for president on platforms supporting tuition tax credits for private schools, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., was the U.S. Senate’s leading advocate for giving parents public funding to attend private schools. The Democratic Party reversed its support of public funding for private school choice in the late 1970s – as a political payback to the National Education Association for giving Jimmy Carter its first ever presidential endorsement.

Jennings’ assertion that Republican support for publicly-funded private school choice didn’t exist prior to the 1960s would be news to the founders of the Republican Party, most notably William Henry Seward. Seward (pictured here) helped create the Republican Party and was one of Abraham Lincoln’s primary rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. After losing, Seward served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War.

Prior to seeking the presidency, Seward was elected governor of New York in 1838 as a member of the Whig Party. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, in his 1839 New Year’s Day inaugural address, Seward attempted to broaden his party’s political base by reaching out to “the Irish and German Catholic immigrants who formed the backbone of the state Democratic Party” (p. 82). As part of what Goodwin describes as Seward’s “progressive policies on education and immigration,” Seward “proposed to reform the school system, where the virulently anti-Catholic curriculum frightened immigrants away, dooming vast numbers to illiteracy, poverty, and vice. To get these children off the streets and provide them with opportunities to advance, Seward hoped to divert some part of the public school funds to support parochial schools where children could receive instruction from members of their own faith” (p. 83).

Seward’s attempts to give Catholic children access to more appropriate learning options drew a sharp rebuke from anti-Catholic Protestants. They accused him of tearing down the wall between church and state. At this time in U.S. history, the word “church” in the phrase separation of church and state meant the Catholic Church. Continue Reading →

Imagine an Arab Spring in public education

After spending time at the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte, I needed to decompress, so I headed to Montana where I am now sitting on a hill watching a herd of deer graze in the meadow below. These deer have no funny hats on their heads, buttons on their chests or noisemakers in their mouths. They seem peaceful and, as best I can tell, nonpartisan. I’m a little jealous.

I was fortunate to speak with lots of smart and interesting people at both conventions, but I’ve decided the most intriguing speaker, other than Bill Clinton, whose speech seems to have ended the suspense over whether President Obama will be re-elected, was Daniel Barnz, the director of the new education movie, Won’t Back Down. Barnz spoke after a screening of his movie at both conventions. Each time, he expressed bewilderment that his movie is being attacked as anti-teacher and anti-public education.

Even before the movie was released to the general public, AFT president Randi Weingarten sent out an open letter accusing Barnz of “using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen.” She asserted the movie “is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers,” although she neglected to explain how these millions of teachers could be demoralized by a movie neither they nor the general public have seen.

Barnz comes from a family of public school teachers. He wanted to make a fictional movie about teachers and parents working together to improve a struggling school. His sin, at least from Weingarten’s perspective, is that the teachers and parents in his movie saw freeing themselves from the control of the teachers union as essential to their improvement efforts.

Barnz’s fantasy of a community of empowered teachers and parents working collaboratively to raise student achievement, and Weingarten’s vitriolic response, illustrate the power struggle at the heart of today’s efforts to improve public education. Continue Reading →

The ‘quietest revolution’ in Florida education

Editor’s note: This op-ed was published today by Sunshine State News.

Teacher tenure, performance pay and standardized tests often drive the Florida public education debate, but the quietest revolution may well be the growing legion of parents who now choose their children’s schools.

The learning menu in Florida keeps expanding, and nowhere is that trend more compelling than in Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest school district. For superintendent Alberto Carvalho, parental choice has become an operational credo.

“We are now working in an educational environment that is driven by choice,” Carvalho recently told a television reporter. “I believe that is a good thing. We need to actually be engaged in that choice movement. So if you do not ride that wave, you will succumb to it. I choose not to.”

Dade is setting a blistering pace. The number of students it accepted into magnet and choice programs last year – 39,369 – was larger than the total enrollment in each of 46 other school districts. But that only scratches the surface. An even larger number – 42,367 students – attended charter schools that were approved by the district, and another 22,000 were allowed to choose other public schools through “open enrollment” options. Nearly 15,000 students with meager incomes or learning disabilities chose scholarships to private schools. Continue reading here.