A radical’s take on educational freedom

Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.

Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.

This guest post is part of our continuing series on the center-left roots of school choice.

It may be hard for younger readers to imagine a time when to be anti-establishment was a position of the political left.

Today, of course, the left is so well-ensconced in positions of power and influence in academia, media, the professions and government that those who criticize any of these bastions are immediately labeled as belonging to a neolithic right that does not appreciate the ever-unfolding benefits of the new establishment’s guidance.Voucher Left logo snipped

In the 1960s, though, to be critical of the establishment was the hallmark of the left. And no one did so with more radical intellectual sophistication than Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and influential activist born in Austria in 1926.

Illich was best known for his leadership of the Centro Intercultural de Documentación at Cuernavaca, Mexico, which he founded in 1961 and shut down in a storm of conflict in 1976. Ostensibly a language school, CIDOC was chiefly known for its critique of the “neo-colonialism” practiced, Illich argued, by missionaries, the Alliance for Progress, and the Peace Corps, and it drew notable educational reformers of the era, including John Holt and Paul Goodman. In 1967, I staffed a conference in Puerto Rico of Christian Social Relations staff from across the United States. Illich was the primary speaker, and I can testify to his passionate eloquence in private conversations as well.

In “Deschooling Society” (1971), Illich directed that eloquence against the American educational system. He portrayed it as an unreformable bureaucracy devoted to the forced-feeding of conventional ideas into passive youth. The various reforms proposed at the time, including progressive “alternative schools” and “new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils,” he wrote, would not provide the education needed by contemporary society, nor would “the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes.”

“School,” Illich insisted, “has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times. The modern state has assumed the duty of enforcing the judgment of its educators through well-meant truant officers and job requirements.”

What was needed instead, he continued, were “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” Specifically, individuals should be enabled to acquire the skills currently taught in schools (badly, in Illich’s view, and with accompanying bad habits and attitudes) through other routes, including individual or group tutoring and mentoring by those competent to teach a particular skill.

Of course, “free and competing drill instruction is a subversive blasphemy to the orthodox educator,” but Illich argued it would be both efficient and liberating. Above all, it would deprive government of a major instrument for regimenting its citizens. “The first article of a bill of rights for a modern, humanist society,” he wrote, “would correspond to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: ‘The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.’”

Illich supported school choice, with caveats. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Magnet schools, lab schools, special needs and more

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools. Pasco seeks parent input on new programs. Gradebook.

Legislation. Key Florida lawmakers on education issues also have jobs in the field, but that doesn’t always mean they have conflicts of interest. Politico Florida.

Special needs. A second-grade student with special needs is left on a school bus for hours. Sun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post.

Partnerships. UCF stages “takeover week” at Central Florida’s Evans Community School. Orlando Sentinel. The Orange County school district might partner with university on a new lab school. Orlando Sentinel.

STEM. Institutions in the Panhandle come together to address a shortage of qualified teachers. Pensacola News-Journal. A bill would make computer science mandatory for students who want Bright Futures scholarships. Bridge to Tomorrow.

Email. Collier students could soon get school-sponsored addresses. Naples Daily News.

Integration. Decades later, students at the center of a racial integration effort get diplomas. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Continue Reading →


The numbers behind a charter school in crisis — and a possible fix

Teachers fired. Parents confused. Warning signs debated. Last week, turmoil at Paramount Charter School became the latest South Florida crisis to draw a rash of media coverage, complete with an adversarial TV interview in the school parking lot and attention from charter school critics on liberal blogs.

There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s happening at the school, which seems to have fallen on hard times almost immediately after opening its doors to students for the first time this fall. Paramount administrators haven’t returned calls seeking comment.

But financial and enrollment records tell a story of their own, and can help shed some light on proposed legislative changes aimed, in part, at stopping sudden charter school failures.

When the Broward County School Board approved Paramount’s charter application last year, the school said it planned to enroll more than 1,000 students in grades K-6 during its first year of operation. When the Broward school district took “benchmark” enrollment counts for the school year, enrollment stood at 293. District spokeswoman Nadine Drew said as of last week, enrollment had fallen to 250.

Fewer students means less per-pupil funding. In July, the charter school received two payments from the district. One was for slightly more than $213,000, and one for more than $237,000. In August, it received less than $149,000. In September, it received less than $142,000.

The gap between the school’s projections and the actual number of students enrolled might not explain all the school’s difficulties, but it likely explains some of the problems detailed by South Florida news station WPLG, which described mass teacher firings and other signs of financial trouble.  Continue Reading →


How one Colorado school district hopes to strike a legal blow for school choice

A 19th-century constitutional provision, born during a period of anti-Catholic bias, has long threatened school choice programs in most states by banning state aid to religious organizations — including parochial schools.

Now, a small suburban Colorado school district is looking to fight its state’s so-called Blaine Amendment in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the provision leads to religious discrimination in a case that has the attention of school choice choice watchers all over the country.

The legal challenge might be a long shot. There’s no guarantee federal justices will even agree to hear Douglas County’s appeal of a Colorado supreme court ruling that struck down its voucher program.


Douglas County School Board members discuss their legal options at a press conference this summer.

But there are quirks in the Colorado case that some observers say give them one of the best shots they’ve had at their ultimate goal: Ending the use of Blaine Amendments to hamstring publicly supported private-school scholarships.

The case, which the district is expected to appeal before October 30th, could have widespread impact if it succeeds. Blaine amendments remain in force in 37 states, and they are being cited in lawsuits against school choice programs in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Nevada.

In other words, supporters hope this summer’s court ruling, which cited Colorado’s Blaine Amendment to strike down the Douglas County voucher program, may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for school choice opponents. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, drug testing, standardized testing and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Duval school district officials find fault with a Charter Schools USA application. Florida Times-Union. Five charter schools apply to open in Manatee County. Bradenton Herald. A Sun-Sentinel column weighs in on the Palm Beach County charter school debate.

Catholic schools. Miami business leaders praise their alma mater. Miami Herald.

Athletics. A Miami-Dade drug testing plan stalls. Miami Herald.

Testing. More tests could not be scored in the this year’s administration of state assessments. Orlando Sentinel.

STEM. A Pasco principal returns to the math classroom to stem a teacher shortage. Tampa Bay Times. A student’s science and robotics success earns him a trip to Boston. Ocala Star-Banner.

Growth. Santa Rosa schools grapple with it. Pensacola News-Journal.

Nutrition. Palm Beach schools turn cafeterias into “restaurants.” Palm Beach Post.

Uniforms. Volusia residents are close to evenly divided on whether schools should require them. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Continue Reading →


This week in school choice: Measures of success

This week, Congress began work on a plan to renew private school vouchers in Washington D.C.

The Washington Post reports this has rekindled a debate about the program’s effectiveness.


Supporters of the program say it is successful because 90 percent of voucher students graduate from high school, and 88 percent of the Class of 2015 enrolled in some kind of higher education. In surveys, parents report great satisfaction.


[T]here is no evidence that the D.C. voucher program has resulted in academic gains for students, [city council members opposed to the program] wrote.

And District residents are tired of members of Congress treating the city as “their own personal petri dish” to experiment with public policy, the letter said.

Beneath the rhetoric lies a deeper question about how, and by whom, school choice programs should be judged and regulated (see more here). The D.C. voucher program may not be causing a major jump in test scores, but it’s helping more students graduate high school and reach college. And the low-income parents say they’re benefiting.

More context:

Meanwhile… Continue Reading →


Bill would create new choice schools for Florida students with dyslexia

There’s a growing recognition among educators and lawmakers that some students need learning environments tailored to their individual needs.

Case in point: A bill filed yesterday would create new schools of choice aimed at children with dyslexia.

The legislation by Jacksonville-area Sen. Aaron Bean would expand Duval County’s GRASP program, and create similar institutions in five other school districts.

The K-8 schools would have small classes, curriculum especially tailored to dyslexic students, and mentoring support from the Duval school district, which started a standalone program this school year, as the Florida Times-Union reported. Continue Reading →


Public school choice could soon become the norm

Public school choice graph

Open enrollment and public school choice have become more widespread in districts covered by Brookings Institution’s Education Choice and Competition Index. Graph via Brookings.

Over the past 15 years or so, a pretty big shift has taken hold in America’s largest school districts. A growing number of students who attend what are still called “traditional” or “neighborhood” public schools are doing so by choice.

The above graph comes from a pair of posts by Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, who notes the rapid rise of open-enrollment policies and other forms of public-school choice in the country’s largest districts.

[C]hanges over time in the availability of intra-district school choice have been dramatic.iv The graph is based on data my colleagues and I have compiled from a retrospective analysis of school choice in the 100+ largest U.S. school districts, which are the districts that are covered in our annual Education Choice and Competition Index.v Only 24 percent of districts in 2000-2001 afforded parents school choice (20 percent through easy transfers from default schools and four percent through a full-fledged open enrollment process). Today, that number has more than doubled to 55 percent of districts allowing choice. Put another way, in 2000-2001, 75 percent of the nation’s large school districts made it difficult or nearly impossible for a child to attend a public school other than the one assigned based on place of residence. Today that number has dropped to 45 percent.

Continue Reading →