At the heart of the progressive divide over school choice

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Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, "It was like we could breathe." (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)
Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, “It was like we could breathe.” (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on the center-left roots of school choice.

Gainesville, Fla. is a liberal college town that prides itself on being “green.” And if there’s a classroom that channels that vibe, it’s Wanda Hagen’s at Heart Pine School.

Hagen’s seventh graders raise tadpoles, hike in a park where buffalo lounge under live oaks, and hunt for shark’s teeth in Gainesville’s cherished urban creeks. On a whim, they might go for a stroll before a storm, to see if they can smell the change in the air. When children overcome the “nature deficit” of modern life, Hagen said, they and the planet benefit.Voucher Left logo snipped

Plenty of folks in Gainesville would agree. And yet, the fingerprints of Gainesville progressives are all over two lawsuits that sees to end a school choice program that helps Heart Pine parents. Both take aim at the Florida tax credit scholarship for low-income and working-class students, which 26 of 62 Heart Pine students use.

Hagen, a self-described “independent liberal,” calls the suits “a real shame.”

“It’s Fahrenheit 451,” she said, referring to the classic novel about repression of dissent. If the lawsuits succeed, “The thinkers outside the box are not going to be appreciated.”

Heart Pine is another ripe example of the political left’s rift over school choice.

Despite a long history of center-left support, today’s progressives, especially white progressives, suffer from split personality disorder. Some still recoil from uniformity and bureaucracy. But others accept a warped view of school choice as a front for privatization, a position tied to the teachers union’s rise in Democratic Party politics. The ironic result is the biggest threat to a colorful school like Heart Pine, a school for grades 1-8 that follows the Waldorf model, isn’t conservatives. It’s fellow progressives.

In Gainesville, the fight pits neighbor against neighbor, even if neither side realizes it.

The lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit is Citizens for Strong Schools, a Gainesville group founded to push for higher property taxes for district schools. Its members include the president of the local teachers union, the spokesperson for the school district, and the woman who heads the Florida League of Women Voters’ “School Choice Project.” The plaintiffs are represented by Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville firm co-founded by Jon Mills, a high-profile Democrat and former Florida House Speaker. Their legal arguments are anchored in changes Mills helped engineer into a constitutional amendment that voters passed in 1998.

Filed in 2009, the suit blasts Florida’s entire education system, charging it has failed to live up to constitutional directives for “adequate” and “high-quality” schools. More funding is the big goal, but the plaintiffs are also firing at school choice programs, including the McKay Scholarship, which serves 31,000 students with disabilities, and the tax credit scholarship, which serves 95,000 students whose family incomes average 4 percent above poverty. (The latter is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.)

The second lawsuit trains its sights solely on the tax credit scholarship. It was filed in 2014 by the state teachers union and other plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters. In August, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal dismissed the suit, finding, like the circuit judge who did the same in 2015, that the plaintiffs provided no evidence to back claims of harm to public schools. The union requested last month that the Florida Supreme Court hear its appeal.

Many Heart Pine supporters want an alternative to mainstream schools, both public and private. Their school is housed in a former Presbyterian church, a replica of a Seminole chickee, covered with thatched palm, conspicuous on its playground.

Emily Thornbury calls the school an extension of the community that drew her family to Gainesville. “We found like-minded people who were consciously trying to live sustainably,” she said. “Growing their own food, caring about the water, mindful of where they were buying their products … ”

Thornbury’s son attended a pre-school affiliated with Heart Pine, but his family could barely afford it. When they secured a tax credit scholarship, “it was like we could breathe,” Thornbury said.

The first Waldorf school opened a century ago to serve the children of factory workers, and today’s supporters appreciate the power of vouchers and tax credit scholarships to continue giving low-income families access. They believe school choice is good because it respects the endless variation in what students need and parents want.

Salina Briseno is a member of Heart Pine’s board of trustees. Her son, who is autistic, is doing well in public school. But her daughter, who has attention deficit disorder, struggled there and now uses a McKay Scholarship to attend Heart Pine. Briseno, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat, said she initially “squirmed” about the scholarship, fearing it was at odds with her support for public education. Ultimately, she said, she did what was best for her daughter.

“I would guess the people who file these lawsuits either don’t have kids, or have kids who fit perfectly into the system,” Briseno said.

Sunflower Robertson has two children at Heart Pine: Ocean, an eighth grader, and Skyler, a fifth grader. A single mom and massage therapist, she drives 100 minutes to and from the school every day. Without the tax credit scholarship, she said she couldn’t afford the $6,650 tuition. (The scholarship is worth up to $5,886 this year.)

The plaintiffs in both suits are “looking at each kid as a number, as a certain amount of money,” said Robertson, a former Marine. “It’s like asking everybody to shop only at Publix and never go to another grocery store that might have something else they might like, or have a better price.”

Robertson sees public schools as too structured. She tried home-schooling, then private school. The first one didn’t work for Skyler, who has a learning disability. But Heart Pine did.

In many respects, her story is typical. By law, scholarship students are required to take state-approved standardized tests, and the results show the typical student 1) struggled in public school, and 2) is now making steady progress. Parents seek out scholarships because they want options that may be a better fit for their child.

“I look at school like food,” Robertson said. “Heart Pine is like organic and conscious and creative, where public school is a bit more processed.”

Processed isn’t bad, she said.

But it’s not for everybody.