Common schools and the fear of diversity

Horace Mann

Horace Mann (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first-ever state supreme court ruling finding charter schools unconstitutional continues to stir debate all over the country, and has inspired some choice opponents to raise questions about other charter school laws, including the nation’s oldest.

While there is little reason to think the Washington State Supreme Court’s legal reasoning could spread to many other states, it is the latest illustration of how an idealized past that never was continues to create barriers to a 21st-Century education system.

Opponents try to cast a romantic vision of free, universal public education as a foil against school choice, relying on a mythical conception of “common schools” that has rarely squared with reality.

Getting American common schools to serve all students required more than a century of political turmoil, countless lawsuits and no shortage of attempts — from Dust Bowl-era California farm towns to the Freedom Schools launched by the Civil Rights Movement — to create separate educational opportunities for religious and ethnic minorities who were excluded from, or under-served by, traditional public school systems.

In many ways, the fight for inclusion and equity continue to this day.

“[P]eople too frequently forget that those schools were at different times not open to blacks, religious minorities, or, until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities,” Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire wrote in a recent piece for The 74.

Common schools were first popularized in the mid-1830s by Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann. The idea spread through out the U.S. over the next few decades during a time when anxiety over waves of immigrants, many of them from Ireland and other predominately Catholic countries. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, magnet schools, discipline and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Lawmakers discuss automatic closure, recruitment of top operators, rural charter schools and more.  Sun-Sentinel. A Broward charter school fires teachers en masse. WPLG.

Magnet schools. Technical glitches delay a magnet-school survey in Pasco. Gradebook.

Private schools. Educators launch a small private school in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. Miami Herald.

Discipline. Pasco acknowledges racial disparities and vows to address them. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. How much is too much? Gradebook. Educators, officials and advocates grapple with how to score state tests. Orlando Sentinel. Miami-Dade’s superintendent is appointed to a national assessment board. Naked Politics. Superintendents prepare a show of force at the next state Board of Education meeting. Gradebook.

Teacher quality. Incentive pay continues at troubled Duval schools. Florida Times-Union. National Teachers Day was Oct. 5. Miami Herald.

Accountability. Alachua’s superintendent quits a state panel to protest school grading issues. Gainesville Sun.

Continue Reading →


Can Florida’s rural communities support charter schools?

While charter schools have proliferated in Florida, nearly a third of of the state’s school districts, most of them rural, don’t have one — a fact that got attention from members of a state House panel discussing charter school legislation.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, wanted to know whether home education and virtual schools were more popular with parents who had fewer charter schools available (maps of state data support this idea in some places; in others it’s less clear).

Since districts without charters tend to be rural, parents looking for other options could face a long drive to a neighboring county, said state Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. She wanted to know if the state could use one of its grant programs to lure charter schools to communities where none exist.

“We’ve got 22 counties that don’t have their first charter school,” she said, and then asked “if there’s a way that we tailor something for those counties… so that we can incentivize and grow choice in counties where there is none.” Continue Reading →


Proposed Fla. legislation aimed at attracting top charter school operators

A Florida House panel is drafting legislation aimed at drawing more “high-impact” charter school networks to the state’s most undeserved neighborhoods.

While the state is home to nearly 650 charter schools and more than 250,000 charter-school students, it’s attracted only a few schools operated by the likes of KIPP and Yes Prep, which have national reputations for helping disadvantaged students.

The proposed legislation, reviewed today by the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, would allow those networks to apply for “high-impact” status with the state Board of Education.

Under the bill, high-impact charter schools wouldn’t have to wait three years to qualify for state facilities funding. High-impact schools in areas with “critical” academic needs (meaning they’re served by D- or F-rated public schools) would also be exempt from the administrative fees school districts typically charge. Continue Reading →


‘Diversity. Pluralism. Variety.’


This is the latest post in our series on the voucher left.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic icon, was an unabashed supporter of school choice, as we’ve been happy to note.

For years, he led an effort to establish tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools – an effort that never became law but did, at one remarkable moment in 1977, draw 50 co-sponsors, 26 of them Republicans and 24 of them Democrats. Except for a massive expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program in 2010, which won backing from more than 40 percent of the state’s Democratic lawmakers, no major piece of private school choice legislation that we can think of has drawn that level of bipartisan support.Voucher Left logo snipped

But while we’ve noted Moynihan’s passion for choice, it’s worth taking a closer look at his rationale. Nowhere does he lay out his case more clearly than in this April 1978 essay in Harper’s.

For Moynihan, public support for private schools was a matter of historical fact and constitutional authority, and of being clear-eyed about the well-intentioned but still-smothering effects of government bureaucracy.

It was also about staying true to one of America’s most enduring principles:

I take pluralism to be a valuable characteristic of education, as of much else in this society. We are many peoples, and our social arrangements reflect this disinclination to submerge our inherited distinctiveness in a homogenous whole.

Our private schools and colleges embody these values. They provide diversity to the society, choices to students and their parents, and a rich array of distinctive educational offerings that even the finest of public institutions may find difficult to supply, not least because they are public and must embody generalized values.

Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too, and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed. We cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that that they be embodied in our national policies for American education.

Moynihan, of course, isn’t the only choice supporter who stressed diversity. Those arguments come from all points on the political spectrum. The Cato Institute makes them frequently and convincingly. So do some academics (see here and here). So does this rising political star, and fellow Democrat, from Moynihan’s home state:

“In every state in this country, we talk about diversity,” New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo said at a gathering of Hispanic school choice supporters in Florida last year. “We talk about the strength of our diverse communities, we talk about the diversity of faith, of cultures and languages that make the United States what it is, certainly New York what it is. But then we don’t translate that very concept into the way in which we provide opportunities. Ladies and gentlemen, one size doesn’t fit all.”

While Moynihan could be quite the maverick (and an inspiration for decades-long debates), he wasn’t a lone wolf when it came to school choice and the Democrats of his era. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Personalization, school boards, charter schools and more

florida-roundup-logoPersonalized learning. A Gates Foundation grant helps Pinellas schools try a new approach. Tampa Bay Times.

Charter schools. The Lake school board wants more time to decide a charter application. Leesburg Daily Commercial.

Principal autonomy. Legislation returns this year. Sun-Sentinel.

Lawsuits. The statewide teachers union might sue over a bonus program. Orlando Sentinel.

Class size. Lake school board members hope to avoid penalties incurred last year. Orlando Sentinel.

Audits. Lawmakers probe Palm Beach bus woes. Sun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post.

Supplies. Teachers bristle at having to show receipts for supply-assistance funding. Gradebook.

School boards. A Collier school board member avoids censure by the Republican Party. Naples Daily News. An Escambia school board member is set to resign. Pensacola News-Journal.

Continue Reading →


School choice expands opportunity for Hispanic children

This op-ed, by prominent Florida pastor Nino Gonzalez, originally appeared in Spanish in the latest edition of La Prensa. Here is the English translation.

Pastor Gonzales

Pastor Gonzales

A lot of people misread our poor communities. They think because people are financially poor, they must be intellectually poor. But we know all of our children have the ability to learn at the highest levels, and to live up to their God-given potential. We also know a key to making that happen is matching them to the learning environments that are best for them.

This is why I support school choice. And this is why I am so disappointed with the lawsuit that seeks to kill the Florida tax credit scholarship program.

A year ago, the teachers union filed suit to end the program, which is the biggest private school choice program in America. Never mind that it has been in existence for 14 years and serves 77,000 low-income children, including about 30,000 Hispanic children. And never mind that a judge ruled in May that the union did not have standing to sue, and that its claims of harm to public school students were “speculative.” The union decided to appeal, and its president promised to fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

This is wrong. Freedom and choice are core American values, so why is education an exception? Why does the union want to block poor parents from schools that work for their children? There are no good answers.

The suit is even more wrong when you consider how many Hispanic students struggle. In 2014, only 50 percent of Hispanic 10th graders in Florida passed the reading test they must pass to graduate. The numbers were even worse in Central Florida. In Orange County, 46 percent passed. In Osceola, 41 percent. In Polk, 36 percent.

I don’t bring this up to disparage public schools. Many of them are working tirelessly. But other schools can help our children succeed too. Continue Reading →


A new kid on South Florida’s charter school block is growing fast

Children play outside on Franklin Academy's new campus in sunrise, Fla.

Children play outside on Franklin Academy’s new campus in sunrise, Fla.

Sophia Salazar tried for nearly two decades to get her children into one of Broward County’s most sought-after school choice programs.

Her oldest, now 26, didn’t win the lottery for the district’s Nova schools. She sent her second-oldest to private school. But when one of her children finally gained admission to the district’s highly regarded partnership with Nova Southeastern University, she’d found a new first choice.

She started sending her three youngest children — a first grader, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader — to the newest Franklin Academy charter school, which opened this fall in Sunrise, Fla.

“Franklin gave them a little more,” Salazar said. She drives he children daily from Hollywood, in southeastern Broward, to the suburb near the western edge of the county. The commute, she said, is worth it. “If my kids are happy to wake up in the morning and be the first one here, that’s how I know.”

At a time when national charter school advocates are wondering how their movement can attract more suburbanites, Franklin Academy charter schools managed to thrive in the already-choice-heavy school systems of South Florida. In five years, the network overseen by the Florida Charter Foundation has grown to enroll more than 6,000 students on five campuses in Broward and Palm Beach Counties. Its combined waiting lists stretch into the thousands. Plans are in the works to add a sixth campus — its first for high school grades — and to roll out International Baccalaureate programs.

The relatively young charter school network has gotten some high-profile help, including a facilities investment backed by retired tennis star Andre Agassi. It’s caught on in part because it hits a sweet spot for parents like Salazar, providing a private-school feel with public-school oversight.

Daniel Sandberg, the principal at the new Sunrise campus, said parents come looking for one thing above all else.

“They’re looking for rigor,” he said. Sometimes, he added, they tell him: “School seems a lot harder here.” Continue Reading →