Courts are redefining public education

What, exactly, does "public" mean in "public education" and who decides?

What, exactly, does “public” mean in “public education” and who decides?

The school-choice movement has just surmounted one of its most pervasive challenges. A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that state’s voucher program, which makes some 500,000 low- and middle-income kids (or, about 62 percent of its families) eligible for state aid to help pay for a private or religious school. The decision cuts to the core of the most profound education debate: What, exactly, does “public” mean in “public education” and who decides?

The court ruled that Indiana is serving valid educational purposes, both by maintaining a traditional public school system and by providing options to it. In other words, that government’s role is to ensure that essential services are available to the people – but the government itself does not always need to be the actual provider.

Thus, with voucher laws such as Indiana’s, “public” money follows the “public,” which is the family directly – not the “publicly” operated schoolhouse. Hence, families get to choose where to spend the public money: on a schooling choice made by them, or on a schooling choice made by a government official.

Historically, the fight over funding in K-12 public education has been interpreted as the strict allocation of public, taxpayer dollars to publicly operated institutions only. Essentially, this has resulted in the protection of monopoly rights of government-run schools. Students are assigned by government officials to a “local” public school, based on ZIP code. This ZIP code-restricted system has largely given rise to today’s parent empowerment movement, where more and more parents – especially in inner cities – have fought back against a system that not only assigns them to a particular school, but restricts them from leaving – even if that school chronically underperforms.

Indeed, few incentives exist to transform these schools, which sometimes seem to operate more as massive public-works programs for adults. Charter schools, open-enrollment policies and parent trigger laws have all been based on the fight for greater parent rights in public education. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: diploma tracks, school spending, virtual school funding & more

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Virtual schools. In the wake of concerns about funding cuts to Florida Virtual School, the Senate Rules Committee approves an amendment that would require the DOE to study funding for online courses and offer recommendations. StateImpact Florida.

Charter schools. The town of Juno Beach says no to allowing a charter school to open in a shopping center. Palm Beach Post.

Parent trigger. Miami Herald columnist Daniel Shoer Roth doesn’t like it, calling it a “scam” and part of the “crusade to privatize public education.”

Diplomas. The Senate okays more options for earning a high school diploma, including tracks that emphasize career education. Coverage from Orlando SentinelGradebook, News Service of Florida, Tallahassee Democrat,  Panama City News Herald.

School spending. The Senate approves a proposed budget that includes a $1.2 billion increase for public education, reports The Buzz and the Associated Press. The Palm Beach County school district is facing a $35 million capital budget deficit, reports the South Florida Sun Sentinel. But that’s better than the $60 million initially predicted, reports the Palm Beach Post. The Pinellas school district is cutting some high school librarians, reports Gradebook. In Pasco, no raises for a sixth year in a row, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Escambia district employees will get 2 percent more, reports the Pensacola News Journal. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: charter schools, course choice, Common Core & more

florida roundup logoCharter schools. Both sides postpone the sale of a former Pinellas middle school to a charter school operator that plans to serve black students in south St. Petersburg, reports Gradebook. A Miami charter school is looking for a new home because its landlord, the Archdiocese of Miami, abruptly ended its lease, reports the Miami Herald. South Tech Academy, the biggest charter school in Palm Beach County, is adding a middle school this fall, which will essentially make it a school district unto itself and eligible for more federal funding, reports the Palm Beach Post.

Parent trigger. The Tampa Tribune editorializes against it.

Course choice. The Tallahassee Democrat writes up Sen. Jeff Brandes’ course choice bill, now headed to the Senate floor.

Rick Scott. Education excerpts from his interview with the Palm Beach Post editorial board. He doesn’t say much beyond talking points on teacher pay, the Post editorializes.

Common Core. Tony Bennett says he will have more information next week about implementation plans. StateImpact Florida.

Employee conduct. A Broward bus driver who said she was only using cell phone while driving because her son, a U.S. Marine, was calling from Iraq now says she made it all up, reports the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun Sentinel. From the Sarasota Herald Tribune: “The Manatee County School District has hired a private investigator to look into whether Palmetto High Principal Willie Clark knew of an alleged sexual assault of a student last year and did not report it to law enforcement, as required by law.”  More from the Bradenton HeraldTampa Bay Times columnist Dan Dewitt says of a guidance counselor who was suspended for not diligently reporting a case of suspected child abuse: “If they can’t make protecting children their top job, they shouldn’t have a job at all.” Continue Reading →


Parental choice is part of accountability

words matterAccountability in public education derives from a combination of government regulations and consumer choice.  Historically, because we’ve had so little consumer choice in public education, regulations have been the dominant component of accountability. But now that school choice is becoming more ubiquitous, consumer choice is assuming a more prominent role.

Unfortunately, some of our most important public education policy wonks are devaluing the importance of consumer choice by using the term accountability as a synonym for regulations.

My friend and former colleague here at Step Up For Students, Adam Emerson, in criticizing the lack of required state assessments in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, recently wrote on his Fordham Institute blog that:

“Virtually no accountability measures, however, exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.”

Parents choose to apply for and use a McKay Scholarship. If their needs are not being met at one of the more than 1,100 Florida private schools accepting the McKay Scholarships, they can vote with their feet and go to another school. To suggest this level of consumer choice equates with “virtually no accountability measures” is wrong.

Adam’s gifted colleague at Fordham, Mike Petrilli, made a similar error a few days later. He wrote that “Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades,” then ignored consumer choice and equated accountability only with required student testing and school grades. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Jeb Bush, teacher conduct, school technology & more

Charter schools. The Pinellas school district could lose $6 million next year if the school board approves a new charter school and the proposed expansion of several others. Gradebook.

florida roundup logoJeb Bush. Digital learning, Common Core and empowering the parents of students with disabilities top the legislative agenda for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, says executive director Patricia Levesque. StateImpact Florida.

School spending. Lawmakers consider bringing back the “critical needs” millage, reports Gradebook. The Lee school district is auctioning off two unused buildings, reports the Fort Myers News Press.

School safety. Lawmakers are poised to pass legislation that would allow school nurses to use EpiPens for students without a prescription. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →


Teaching values in schools of choice – and maybe, regulating them

This brief essay is the fifth in a series describing forms of legislation available to any state that considers adopting vouchers for private school tuition. The previous essays focused upon rules governing admission to private schools, the dollar amount of the voucher, information required of participating schools, testing and disclosure of scores and related issues. These can be accessed here. My present subject is legislation that affects private school curriculum – with emphasis on rules that affect the teaching of virtue and civic values.

All states – sometimes with federal incentive – require the teaching in their public schools of what we can call “basics.” The education codes differ, but predictably include English, math, computers, and aspects of science that are not controversial. However, this relative uniformity diminishes with respect to value-laden subjects such as marriage, health, civics, history, sex and literature. Our media swarm with conflict over the values curriculum – what is required and what is forbidden – in public schools. And, quite apart from the statutory rules, what actually gets transmitted behind the classroom door of any public school can be a matter of mystery; it is sufficiently unpredictable that I have preferred to call it the “Bingo Curriculum.”

This gamble with the minds of children is, of course, another good reason to pity the fate of families whose relative poverty conscripts them to “free” schools of the state.

Private schools have been less burdened either by law or by complaint of those customers who, after all, have freely chosen them. State law does require such schools to address the secular basics, but generally in the broadest language; and they are left free – at the parent’s direction – to teach their own specific value systems and of course, religion. The private school can and does hire teachers who represent its distinctive vision of the good life. It does this in order to attract customers (parents) who share that view and who expect the school to help them pass it on to their child. The Waldorf, Montessori, Muslim, Catholic, Hebrew, and Lutheran school exist precisely for this purpose. The U.S. Supreme Court long ago recognized this distinctive power of parents – deriving outside secular law – to employ educators who transmit their own vision, which may well include basic ideas that are unavailable to the state.

But, if the state here lacks power, it does carry two kinds of responsibility. One is to protect the right of the child to a basic education; the other is to protect society from the risk of intellectual corruption that is always present in the adult-child relationship, including that of teacher-student. The state subsidy for the parent’s school choice thus will not be usable at schools that are either dysfunctional as basic educators or that consciously promote contempt for values foundational to civic order. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: charter schools, school choice lotteries, gifted education & more

florida roundup logoCharter schools. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano uses the specter of for-profit charter schools to slam state lawmakers who support parent trigger: “They say tomato, I say morons.” Times columnist Bill Maxwell, meanwhile, highlights the success of Urban Prep Academies, a high-performing, all-male, all-black charter school in Chicago where, for four years in a row, every graduate was accepted into a four-year college.

The Palm Beach Post looks at lawmakers with charter school ties. The Lake Wales Charter School system is considering adding a second middle school, with the waiting list for the existing one at 360 and growing, reports the Winter Haven News Chief. The Athenian Academy charter in New Port Richey and the Pasco school district are clashing over whether the school has the right to expand, reports the Tampa Bay Times. A charter school in Miami Shores is getting better at private fundraising, reports the Miami Herald. The state’s charter school appeals commission recommends approval of a proposed Orange Park charter school twice rejected by the Clay County School Board, reports the Florida Times Union. Lawmakers should limit charter school to districts with failing schools, editorializes the St. Augustine Record.

School choice lotteries. A lot of parents in Palm Beach County are about to get bad news:  They did not get their children into the district school  choice they wanted. According to the Palm Beach Post, “At more than half of the choice programs, less than 1 in 3 students that applied got a seat. At four of the 185 choice programs, fewer than 1 in 10 students won a seat.”

Vouchers. The League of Women Voters asks if McKay vouchers and tax credit scholarships are constitutional in a Gainesville Sun op-ed.

Parent trigger. Former Board of Education member Julia Johnson responds to critics in this op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat: “I don’t understand what a critic of parent empowerment meant when she recently wrote that it would use parents like “cheap napkins.’’ But I do know that low-income kids were used as a cheap paycheck and their schools were oftentimes used as a training ground for novice teachers and a depository for ineffective ones.” The Tampa Tribune writes up the debate. Pensascola News Journal columnist Shannon Nickinson doesn’t like it: “How about the state fulfilling its obligation to the public education system, rather than working to pass off that responsibility under the guise of “parental choice.”

Virtual schools. The Miami Herald writes up the bills that will expand digital education. Continue Reading →