Towards a united front on school choice

Hage

Hage

Vouchers, here. Charters, there. Virtual, over there. Politically, school choice sectors have been islands. But there are signs the movement is building bridges to advance common goals.

Florida’s lead here surfaced at this week’s American Federation for Children summit, during a panel discussion on just that topic. In the Sunshine State, charter schools and supporters of vouchers and tax credit scholarships have teamed up to advance legislation, said panelist Jon Hage, founder and CEO of Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

“We realized it was time to join forces,” Hage said. “We felt we were sort of the Army, and they were the Navy … What we’re trying to do is have a common Department of Defense.”

The Florida school choice coalition doesn’t stop at two sectors. Through a group formed in 2010 – the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education – it includes online providers, home-schoolers and district school choice options like magnet schools. In the middle of this year’s legislative session, the group held a rally that, for the first time, brought parents together from across the spectrum.

Panelists suggested the benefits of a united front included strength in numbers, a more focused message and crossover appeal.

In response to a question from moderator Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Hage said some Democratic lawmakers in Florida were more willing to support charter bills this year because they had supported tax credit scholarships in the past. Plus, the coalition offered a tighter, more compelling argument – one that emphasized school choice options even more and better deflected the usual criticisms.

“It became less partisan,” he said. “People realized this was less about business interests and was all about the children.”

Efforts to build similar coalitions are underway in other states, but not without some hitches. Shree Medlock, national advocacy director for BAEO and another panelist, said ties between voucher and charter supporters in Louisiana are strong. But at a recent rally, voucher supporters went it alone.

“It would have been great to have charter folks out there,” Medlock said. “We have a strong coalition but it was like, ‘Can’t touch that right now, because you know this has nothing to do with charters.’ “

In Georgia, tax credit scholarship and charter supporters did rally together this year, said panelist Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. But afterwards, an association board member asked him, “Don’t you think that’s sending a bad message … that we’re for vouchers?”

Roberts’ response: “The message I want to give is I want what’s best for children.”

There are some tensions between school choice sectors. From the audience, Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, noted trend lines that suggest charter growth is coming, to some extent, at the expense of private schools, particularly Catholic schools. Private schools, he said, are anxious about the possibility of choice sectors “cannibalizing each other.”

The sectors could work together to push for a “level playing field” and true competition, he said.

Roberts said the idea of a choice coalition may be less urgent once more parents learn about vouchers, charters and other alternatives. “When the public learns there are options, we’re going to have to bar the door,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about this anymore.”

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