Rep. Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform

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

Rep. Brandon

Rep. Brandon

I consider myself a proud progressive Democrat. However, I find myself on the outside of my party while defending the most progressive stance I have ever taken.

Tackling the injustices of education, and the outcomes that such injustices present, has been at the forefront of my legislative career. So I was taken aback by the opposition I received from my Democratic colleagues. Though I expected some opposition from those who reflexively oppose any change, never did I imagine the level of pushback I actually received. After supporting lifting the cap on charter schools, and sponsoring opportunity scholarship legislation for children with special needs and low-income students, I was ostracized by my party and progressive institutions in North Carolina.DONKEY1a

This pushback has gone beyond policy disputes. Many times I have received personal slights. In an action reminiscent of high school days, the legislative black caucus has sought to exclude me from their traditional lunch table in the cafeteria. There have been senior legislators, from my own party, who came to my office and threatened me politically and personally. I had the teacher’s union, a group ostensibly devoted to harmony among members, call me and say things I thought only happened in the movies.

To say I was unprepared for such pushback is an understatement. It hurts me to be accused of being a false progressive. I once worked for Progressive Majority, and was a senior staffer for Congressman Dennis Kucinich, arguably the most progressive member of Congress, and certainly the most progressive presidential candidate we have had in over two decades. Despite my proven history, I was called a token, a sell-out, and naïve, among other names.

So why does my party take such a conservative stance on an issue with such big implications? Why does my party feel comfortable doing the same thing over and over again, when they know the outcomes? I think there is a historical reason for this opposition, on two fronts. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, lawsuits, migrant students and more

Charter schools. The Tampa Tribune writes about the Hillsborough school district’s threats to close three charter schools. More from WTSP. A MacDill commander writes about the benefits the school would bring, also in the Tribune. Four proposed charter schools apply in Sarasota County. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Lawsuits. Matthew Ladner takes on a reporter’s characterization of parents involved in a school choice lawsuit as “pawns.”

florida-roundup-logoMigrants. The Palm Beach County school district works to accommodate students from Central America. Palm Beach Post.

Campaigns. The Naples Daily News profiles a school board candidate who helped found a charter school. The Orange County teachers union endorsement process for candidates proves messy. Orlando Sentinel. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce endorses two candidates in Duval. Florida Times-Union.

Turnarounds. The Escambia school district hires an outside firm to help a school improve. Pensacola News-Journal.

Superintendents. Alachua’s new chief fields questions from an African-American community group. Gainesville Sun.

Common Core. Teachers get trained on the state’s new standards. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Continue Reading →


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.



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 →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, virtual schools, sunshine and more

Charter schools. The Tampa Bay Times follows up on a simmering dispute between Charter Schools USA and the Hillsborough County school district. More from redefinED. The Palm Beach County School Board chairman comes out against a proposed municipal charter. Palm Beach Post.

Private schools. Title I services for Palm Beach County private schools hit a snag. Palm Beach Post.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual schools. Florida Virtual School’s new rule relaxing must-pass end-of-course exam requirements irks some school district officials in Pasco County, home to one of its largest district-run competitors. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher quality. The Florida Times-Union takes a deep dive on Duval County’s efforts to lure top-rated teachers and administrators to schools where they are most needed. Perhaps the program will get more districts to take pay incentives seriously for teachers in sought-after math and science fields, Paul Cottle writes at Bridge to Tomorrow.

Tenure. The Panama City News Herald takes a critical look at Florida’s switch to annual contracts for teachers. More here.

Campaigns. A Pinellas school board candidate is behind on her property taxes. Tampa Bay Times. Eight candidates are running for three Orange County school board seats. Orlando Sentinel. The Palm Beach Post makes its school board endorsements. Collier candidates discuss concealed weapons in schools. Naples Daily News. Common Core is an issue in a Sarasota race. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A teacher is challenging a longtime incumbent in Leon County. Tallahassee Democrat.

Continue Reading →


Supporters try again for charter school for MacDill Air Force Base

A group that backed an earlier effort to open a charter school at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base is back – this time with a retooled application intended to address an issue at the heart of its rejection by the Hillsborough County School Board late last year.

The new application, submitted Thursday afternoon, calls for a school of up to 875 students in grades K-8. It would be aimed at the thousands of students whose parents work on the base but may live in school zones farther away. Its programs would be tailored to the needs of military families, who have to cope with combat deployments and frequent moves.

Under the revised plan, the proposed MacDill Charter Academy would be overseen by a local organization of the same name. The previous proposal, which the school board rejected, called for a local advisory board, but the school would have been governed by an organization based in Fort Lauderdale.

“Our local board was an advisory board and they had some concern about that, so we have corrected that,” said Stephen Mitchell, chairman of the MacDill Charter Academy. “Our local board is no longer the advisory board. It is the board.”

After supporters withdrew their initial application, the Hillsborough school district began raising questions about the governance of three other schools that, like the proposed MacDill charter, are run by Charter Schools USA.

This week, around the same time the new application was being submitted, the district again began raising questions about the schools’ governing boards in letters obtained by a local TV station and later the Tampa Bay Times.

Perhaps the timing is purely a coincidence. District officials have not responded to a request for comment. Continue Reading →

Ed reform, divided Dems & paths to common ground

The recent ruling in Vergara v. State of California once again highlighted growing tensions in the Democratic Party between two key constituencies: Teachers unions on the one hand; low-income, black and Hispanic families on the other.

DONKEY1aIs there a path to reconciliation? We asked folks who have thought about that a lot. Next week, we’ll run their responses.

Here’s the prompt:

In the Vergara decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu took a clear-eyed view of teacher employment policies that too often saddle low-income students with the least effective teachers. “The evidence is compelling,” he wrote. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” Yet those policies have long enjoyed full-throated support from teacher unions and their Democratic allies.

A similar rift exists over educational choice. Blacks and Hispanics are embracing charter schools, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships, which parental choice supporters see as expanding opportunity and empowerment of low-income families. But teacher unions, facing loss of market share and political power, are fighting every step of the way.

Democratic lawmakers are increasingly caught in the middle, and increasingly torn. Straddling the divide is becoming more and more difficult as more and more black and Hispanic parents benefit from charters and vouchers – and publicly raise their voices in support.

So, what’s the solution? Can Democrats continue to stiff-arm minority constituencies on ed policy without repercussion? Is there real risk in black and Hispanic voters turning to the more reform-friendly confines of the Republican Party? How long before something gives?

Should/can Democrats write off the teacher unions? Should the ed reform community more actively recruit reform-friendly Democrats for primary challenges? Or should they more aggressively push unions to modify their organizing model to better align with a public education system that is becoming more customized and decentralized?


Read the Dem Divide series below

Gloria Romero: Money leads Democrats to put teachers unions over poor kids
Ben Austin: Democratic leaders will follow parents on ed reform, eventually
Richard Whitmire: Houston & D.C. offer paths for ed reform Democrats
Joe Williams: Suburbs hold key to resolving Dem tensions over school choice
Myles Mendoza: Rahm Emanuel offers lesson for Democrats on ed reform
Rep. Marcus Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform
Doug Tuthill: New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions

Florida roundup: Scholarship accounts, lawsuits, charter schools and more

Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. The Orlando Sentinel takes an in-depth look at the newest education option for special needs students.

florida-roundup-logoLawsuits. Parents of children with special needs ask to be allowed to join the state in defending Florida’s new school choice law. WFSU. Saint Petersblog. Gradebook.

Charter schools. The backers of a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base try again with a new application. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Tribune. The Hillsborough superintendent threatens to close three charter schools with the same operator. WTSP. Gradebook.

Campaigns. The Pinellas school district asks gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist to pull an ad shot at one of its schools. Tampa TribuneThe Buzz. WTSP. School board candidates debate in Pinellas and Brevard. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Today.

Back to school. New choice programs will be available to Pinellas students when school starts again. Tampa Bay Times. New standards will change the way students learn in the coming year. Tampa Bay Times. The Martin County district sets up a “university” to inform parents about policy changes. Palm Beach Post. A sales tax holiday starts today. Tampa Bay Times. Ocala Star-Banner.

Continue Reading →

Special needs parents enter legal fray over Florida parental choice law

Special needs presser

John Kurnick explains why several parents of special needs children are intervening in a lawsuit over parental choice legislation.

The parents of six special needs students announced Thursday that they are intervening to defend a new Florida parental choice program from a lawsuit by the statewide teachers union.

At a press conference in Tallahassee, the parents said the state’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts would help them get services for children with conditions like autism and cerebral palsy.

The program was created by wide-ranging school choice legislation signed last month by Gov. Rick Scott. The union is challenging the law in court. The accounts would allow parents to use state funds to pay for a mix of therapies and education-related services.

John Kurnick, of Tampa, said parents are often forced to “triage” educational and therapeutic services for children like his twelve-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism and other disorders.

He and his wife, Mary, have chosen to educate their son at home because he struggles in a traditional classroom. The accounts, they said, would help him get more services recommended by his therapists, and help him reach his potential.

“The funds provided for (by the scholarship accounts) will do untold good. We’re convinced of this,” Kurnick said. “It will give families access to many key treatments and specialty items that are necessary to help that dream become a reality.”

The union sued to stop the new law earlier this month, the same week applications opened for the scholarship accounts. So far, parents have started nearly 1,800 applications.

The lawsuit contends the law violates the “single-subject” rule in the state constitution. In addition to creating the scholarship account program, the final version of SB 850 contained provisions that expanded collegiate high schools, created an “early warning system” for struggling middle school students, and placed new regulations for scholarship funding organizations like Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The union focused most of its ire on portions of the bill that expanded eligibility for tax credit scholarships. Ron Meyer, the FEA’s attorney, has said the special needs scholarship accounts could be a “collateral casualty” of the case. If the lawsuit succeeds, it could invalidate the entire law.

Throughout the spring legislative session, the union helped rally opposition to both the tax credit and scholarship account programs, as well as an effort to combine them into a single bill. Continue Reading →