‘It is time we redefine public education’

Editor’s note: We’ve made the point many times: Public education shouldn’t be synonymous with public schools and increasingly, in this age of rapidly expanding options, it isn’t. In a new essay, James V. Shuls, the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, expertly riffs on that theme, using the moving story of a student growing up in a tough stretch of St. Louis as a hook. Here’s a taste:



As a child, Korey attended St. Matthew Catholic Church. In 2001, St. Matthew’s parish opened De La Salle Middle School. The small private school above Big Mo’s barbeque restaurant only had 20 students. Korey did not know what to think about the idea of attending De La Salle. In time, he would come to realize that this decision changed his life. With expected pride, he says, “De La Salle put me on a path to greatness.” This school was diferent from other schools he had attended. Class sizes were small, with more one-on-one attention. His teachers were passionate, not just about academics, but also about character. One in particular, Martha Altvater, pushed him harder than he had ever been pushed. From De La Salle, he earned a scholarship to Christian Brothers College (CBC) High School, a respected private school in Saint Louis County, and then attended Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. In 2012, he graduated with a degree in business administration; sitting in the audience was none other than Martha Altvater.

At a critical moment in his life, Korey had the opportunity to attend either a public school or a private school. He chose to attend the private school. In doing so, he chose the option that best served the public, as well as him. Had he chosen the neighborhood public school, Korey says he “might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and be in jail or dead today.” That has been the fate for many of his friends who attended the public high school. But Korey’s fate was different because he found a school that recognized and developed his potential.

Though it is a private school, De La Salle Middle School serves the public much more efectively than the district-run school, where fewer than half of the students graduate. However, instead of celebrating De La Salle as a venerable public institution, we label it as a private school and deem it unworthy of public funds.


This essay should not be construed to say that all private schools are great —they are not. Nor should readers think that I am saying that all public schools are bad — they are not. The point is that all types of schools — district, charter, and private — can effectively serve the public. Right now, however, we have put up an artificial barrier that prevents students from using public dollars to attend the private school of their choice. Never mind that these private schools can, as was the case for Korey Stewart-Glaze, serve the student and the public very well.

Korey Stewart-Glaze’s journey has come full circle. He now recruits students to attend the school that changed his life, De La Salle Middle School. Still, funding makes this a somewhat difficult task. Though the school provides privately funded scholarships to 100 percent of its students, they still have to pay some tuition. This severely limits the number of students the school can serve and creates a barrier for many families who simply cannot bear the cost. Our narrow definition of public education prevents De La Salle from receiving state dollars and prevents more students from experiencing the life-changing moment that Korey had. It is time we redefine public education. It should no longer mean assigning students to a specific type of school, regardless of quality, but rather that we provide access to a quality education, regardless of the type of school delivering that education.


A good education is a religious endeavor

Editor’s note: Craig S. Engelhardt is a former teacher and school administrator who directs the Waco, Texas-based Society for the Advancement of Christian Education. His new book is “Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal.”



Public education reflects some of America’s highest ideals and is based upon a belief in the value of both the individual and American society. Its existence reflects the belief that all children – regardless of their demographic status­ – should have the opportunity to grow in and pursue their potential. Its curricula reflect the belief that prosperity, liberty, and peace are rooted in individuals who are knowledgeable, skilled, reasonable, individually reflective, morally responsible, and socially supportive.

I support public education as both an ideal and a “good.” However, I claim public education harbors a systemic flaw that hinders and often prevents our public schools from fulfilling their ideals. Further, I claim this flaw has survived virtually unrecognized and unchallenged for over a century. Is it possible a scientific, astute, experienced, and democratic people could have missed a “flat world” sized flaw in a system so close to their lives and communities? I maintain we have. I have extensively written about it in “Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal.”

In this scholarly book, I attempt to “tease out” the roles religion has played in education from America’s conception to the present. To do this, I start with a functional definition that describes religion as a coherent and foundational set of beliefs and values that provides a framework for reason and a source of motivation for life. Defined functionally, religions are worldviews that may or may not have a deity.

Working from this definition, I discover pre-modern (roughly pre-20th century) public and private education leaders consciously held religion to be central to their efforts. In other words, they believed individuals were shaped by their religious beliefs and the educational nurture of individuals relied upon teaching the foundational beliefs of their communities, extrapolating from pre-existing beliefs, and integrating new facts with those beliefs. The question within 19th century common schools was not whether schools should be religious, but which religious tenets were most integral to and supportive of the American way of life. This educational discernment was not merely due to prejudice or self-centered majoritarian preferences (though these played a role), but to a reasoned, experiential, and historically evident understanding of the roles of religion in society. The exclusive public support of common education seems to have been an attempt to educate non-Protestants toward many of the morals, beliefs, and perspectives considered to be “American” and indebted to the Protestant faith.

So how did secular public education become an “ideal”? First, I note it never was the ideal for the majority of the U.S. population. Even now, given a choice, I believe most parents would likely prefer to send their children to a school reflecting their “religious” views. Secular public education developed in America as a result of the confluence of two mutually supporting public commitments and a national trend – all were philosophically based, but one carried the overwhelming force of law. I believe the complexity of their interplay and the slow pace of change allowed the “flaw” of linking public education with the secular paradigm to survive to our present day with little challenge. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Tony Bennett, school budgets, safety nets & more

Tony Bennett: Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli weighs in on the Florida education commissioner’s decision a year ago to change an Indiana charter school’s grade: “Bennett worked to fix the problem—not, I believe, because the school was connected to a donor, but because no one would trust an accountability system that labeled even excellent schools as worthy of C’s or worse.” Flypaper. florida roundup logoThe Foundation for Florida’s Future also throws its support behind Bennett, saying “he fixed a problem to be accurate and fair – any accusation otherwise is false and
politically motivated.” Meanwhile, Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz, issues a public statement saying she already had concerns about Indiana’s A-F system and that the Associated Press report on the grade switch demonstrates the seriousness of the problems. It’s a story that may linger into 2016, says the The Maddow Blog. Bennett tells reporters in a conference call Tuesday that the AP report will not affect his ability to serve as top education official. Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

Budget talks: The Broward County School Board’s tentative $3 billion budget would give teachers $47 million in salaries, hire a dozen new school-based police officers and buy 100 new buses. Sun Sentinel. Orange County Public Schools has approved a tentative $1.8 billion budget – an increase of $150 million over the previous year. Orlando Sentinel. The Seminole County School Board moves to increase property taxes for a $735 million budget. Orlando Sentinel. The Polk County School Board gives initial approval to a $756.9 million budget. The Ledger. The Clay County School Board adopts a tentative $300 million budget. Florida Times-Union. The Duval County School Board OKs a $1.71 billion budget. Florida Times-Union. The Lee County School Board approves a tentative $1.29 billion budget — a decrease of about $37 million from the previous year. Fort Myers News-Press. Collier County school leaders vote to increase property taxes. Naples News. The Sarasota School Board voted to raise the property tax rates to help pay for teacher raises. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Hernando County School Board approves a $279.5 million tentative budget. Tampa Bay Times. The Pasco County School Board gives initial thumbs up to $1.05 billion budget. Tampa Bay Times. Hernando County School Board members have asked the district to re-examine the $15 student activity fee that was designed to raise money during a time of shrinking budgets. Tampa Bay Times. Hillsborough County school leaders are still hashing out their proposed $2.8 billion budget. Tampa Bay Times.

Union talks: Palm Beach County teachers expect a raise this year, but just how much remains unclear. Palm Beach Post.

School grades: StateImpact Florida looks at which districts have the most safety net schools, noting the state average is 17.2 percent. The Florida-issued grades gives districts a chance to check the state’s work. StateImpact Florida. Polk County schools Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy vows to turn around the district’s six failing schools and save others on the brink of becoming low-performing schools. The Ledger. The Pensacola News-Journal takes issue with the grades in an editorial, saying, “Schools won’t improve until the state gets serious about funding education.” Fallout continues with four Pasco County elementary schools avoiding “F” grades only because of the state’s safety net. Tampa Bay Times.

Do-over: 290 Escambia County students will repeat first grade. Pensacola News-Journal. Continue Reading →


Next week: A chat with Doug Tuthill



School choice in general is in the news a lot nowadays. And lately and more specifically, so is Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. Administered by Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog), it’s the largest private school choice program in the country; it will serve about 60,000 students this fall; and as a number of stories in recent weeks have noted, including this one by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald capital bureau, it continues to grow rapidly.

We know there are many questions about the program and its expansion, so we’ve asked Step Up President Doug Tuthill to do a live chat on the blog next week. He’ll answer as many questions as possible over an hour or so.

Doug joined Step Up in 2008. Before then, he had been a college professor, a classroom teacher, the president of two teachers unions and a driving force behind the creation of Florida’s first International Baccalaureate high school.

At redefinED, we strive not to be an echo chamber, so we’re hoping we’ll get questions from a wide range of folks, including (and maybe even especially from) people who are skeptical or critical of what we do. We also strive not to be a promotional vehicle for Step Up, but we thought the recent news coverage justified a spotlight. Quite frankly, we’re also new to this live chat thing, and Doug is our guinea pig. :)

To participate in the chat, come back to the blog on Tuesday, Aug. 6. We’ll start promptly at 10:30 a.m., so click in to the CoveritLive program a few minutes before then.

In the meantime, if you have questions for Doug that you’d like to send in advance, please email them to rmatus@sufs.org, tweet them to @redefinedonline or post them on our facebook page.


Florida schools roundup: Tony Bennett, school budgets, Common Core & more

Hot seat: Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett faces hard questions about his role as Indiana’s former education chief in a grade boost last fall for a charter school run by an influential Republican donor. Associated Press. In an interview with StateImpactIndiana, Bennett stands by his decision to raise the Indiana charter school’s grade.

florida roundup logoLonger days: The Pinellas County School Board will vote today on adding an extra hour of instruction for the district’s seven schools that were among the lowest-performing in the state. The Tampa Tribune.

Cost-cutting: The Pasco County School District tells principals to use email, Twitter, Facebook and other online methods to communicate with parents to help cut costs. Tampa Bay Times.

STEM for teachers: New science teachers check out a satellite launch at Cape Canaveral with the National Association of Science Teachers and Lockheed Martin during a fellowship to help educators see real-world applications of science, technology, engineering and math. StateImpact Florida.

Second chance: Excel Leadership Academy charter school in Palm Beach County will get another chance to make its case to the school board to stay open. Palm Beach Post. 

Budgets: Lake County School District officials preliminarily approve a $530 million budget with $16 million in cuts that affect teacher and guidance counselor jobs, and courtesy buses. Orlando Sentinel. Broward County school officials grapple with a tight budget despite $93 million in additional state funding. Miami Herald. The Duval County School Board is set to vote on a $1.7 billion budget today that brings back after-school and magnet transportation. Florida Times-Union. Manatee County school leaders approve a tentative $565 million budget. Bradenton Herald. Hillsborough County schools’ tax rate is likely to fall, but the district also expects less funding from the state. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →


From the Silver State to the Sunshine State: A look at how far you’ve come

(books on tape and caffeine are highly recommended for long road trips in western states!)

(books on tape and caffeine are highly recommended for long road trips in western states!)

After 2,500 miles through high deserts, forested mountains, windswept prairies, and boggy woodlands – and 190 gallons of gas and one flat tire – I’ve reached my education destination. For the past five years in Nevada, I made a consistent pitch to my colleagues and lawmakers and the governor: “Copy Florida.” Now I live here in Tampa.

Resident Floridians may not realize how well their state actually performs on the education front. You may not even recognize the similarities between Nevada and Florida.

Yes, Nevada and Florida have a very different geography and climate. For one thing, Nevada is the driest state in the U.S., and Florida will receive twice as much rain in July as Nevada gets in an entire year. Florida’s tropical climate is thick with forests, swamps and beautiful beaches. Meanwhile, Nevada occupies the Great Basin and Mohave Desert; a dry desolate place known for prickly Joshua trees, barren mountains and temperatures that soar above 120 degrees.

The landscapes aside, Nevada and Florida share similar public education students and challenges. Both states have a student population that is majority minority today.  Student poverty rates and disability rates are also comparable, though Nevada has a larger English language learner population. Nevada and Florida also spend about the same amount per pupil. Interestingly, both states are vacation and retirement destinations with more tourists than residents.

Not surprisingly, education attainment rates were once very similar.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam shows that Nevada and Florida had virtually indistinguishable achievement rates just 15 years ago. That has changed dramatically. While Nevada in the past few years has started to catch up with Florida on math, the Sunshine State has soared past the Silver State in reading. NAEP’s 4th grade reading scores are also a good barometer for education success and graduation rates.

These reading achievement levels are also striking when we zero in on low-income students who are on free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). In the charts below, we compare Nevada and Florida’s FRL students on the NAEP 4th grade reading exam. In this way we examine only the attainment for the most disadvantaged students in both states. Continue Reading →


Florida private school “voucher” parents join PTA

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

Earlier this month, the Florida PTA held its annual convention with at least 20 new members in attendance: parents of children who receive tax credit scholarships to attend private schools.

Many of them took time off from one or two jobs to attend. And in doing so, they participated in what is, if not a historic first, certainly very unusual – private school inclusion in an organization that  historically has been devoted to public schools.

Who knows where this will lead. But good things can happen when people who are supposedly on different sides of an issue actually meet face to face. Even when the issue is something like private school “vouchers.”

As an organizer for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the scholarships (and co-hosts this blog) my job was to attend the convention as well and facilitate a meeting between PTA leaders and scholarship parents.

One of the first things we all noticed was the PTA’s platform, included in the tote bag that participants received. The platform explained that while the PTA opposes vouchers in all its forms, including tax credit scholarships, it urges the Legislature to impose strict eligibility requirements and accountability measures on all private schools participating in these programs.

“What does this mean?” one mother asked me.

“It means they’re against our program, but believe private schools should administer the same standardized tests, like FCAT,” I said.

It’s easy to be against a program you don’t know about or really understand. So, I told our parents, go to the sessions, visit the vendors, and attend receptions. “Meet with these folks and make sure they put a face to this program,” I said. “You’re our ambassadors and I’m sure this weekend will lead to understanding and a better relationship between Step Up For Students and the PTA.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: School grades, Common Core, charter schools & more

School grades: Florida has a record-high 107 F-rated schools this year. Miami Herald. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando all earned overall “C” grades. Tampa Bay Times. Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie says the district’s school grade drops mirror declines statewide, but students still performed better or as well as last year. Sun-Sentinel. florida roundup logoFor the first time in nine years, the Palm Beach County School District is not getting an A on its report card. Palm Beach Post. The Polk County School District has six “F” schools and received an overall “C” from the state. The Ledger. Two of Duval County’s “F” schools rose in the state’s ranking system to a “D” while the other two received another failing grade. Florida Times-Union. Brevard elementary schools earned 21 “A” grades, 25 ”B” grades, eight ”C” grades, one ”D” and one ”F” - Endeavour Elementary in Cocoa. Florida Today. Lee, Charlotte, and Glades school districts dropped from a “B” to a “C”; Collier dropped from an “A” to a “B”; and Hendry County dropped from a ”C” to a “D.” Fort Myers News-Press.

Tax credit scholarships: The number of students attending private schools on tax-credit scholarships, administered by Step Up For Students, jumped 27 percent last year, reaching a record high of 51,075 kids. Miami Herald.

Disabled students: The Palm Beach County School District plans to spend $18 million during the next 10 years to fix nearly 100,000 disabled access issues. Palm Beach Post.

Recruiting: Despite the lure of extra cash, teachers aren’t fighting to get into some of Pinellas County’s lowest-performing schools. In many cases, they’re trying to get out. Tampa Bay Times.

Common  Core: Sen. Marco Rubio has joined growing criticism of the education standards known as Common Core, putting him at odds with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The Buzz. And Bush, once a strong force in shaping the state’s education policies, is taking some big hits, lately. The Buzz. If Education Commissioner Tony Bennett agrees with legislative leaders that Florida should create its own assessments, his proposal has to be better than PARCC’s. Tampa Bay Times. The standards registered little excitement when Florida adopted them three years ago, but now … . Palm Beach Post. We don’t need to panic about the new national standards, writes columnist Beth Kassab. But we do need patience. Orlando Sentinel.

Charter schools: More students are going charter in Hillsborough County. Tampa Bay Times. Lauderdale Lakes is reconsidering its decision to allow the new Ivy Academies Charter Schools to open in August. Sun Sentinel. Lake Wales Charter Schools has a $700,000 surplus. News Chief. There’s mounting evidence that charter schools aren’t a panacea in public education and are enabling our return to racial segregation, writes columnist Bill Maxwell. Tampa Bay Times.

Budgets: The complicated formula used by the state to match local property tax dollars with state money has required a tax increase for nearly 20 out of the state’s 67 school districts. Associated Press.  Pinellas County School District’s upcoming operating fund reflects an additional $38.2 million - one of the biggest increases in recent years, but that doesn’t mean an easier year for the district. The Tampa Tribune. Continue Reading →