Advocate Voices

Commentary: Why school choice transcends politics


By Joy Smith-McCormick

Among the most important choices families must make, education commands our focus, as it is the foundation upon which high-functioning, productive citizens are developed. The education sector has been religious in its practices for centuries, but over the last 20 years more options to deliver education have emerged. Just as other sectors have responded to public demand to improve, school choice has evolved to meet families’ need for a higher-quality education.

At the core of the school choice debate is a personal choice parents must make about the educational model that works best for their children. Most parents will agree that having different options is preferable to a one-size-fits-all approach. Because children must live with the consequences of a school that is not the right fit, this decision should be a parental responsibility, not one made by a committee.

Consider the issue of school choice within the context of Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution. It states, in part, that “[t]he education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education … ”

Nothing in this mandate excludes school choice. This provision seems to support the type of flexibility that now includes school choice options as part of an overall system to ensure a high-quality education for all students. Local district magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, or some hybrid of all these aid in that flexibility.

Dismissing education choice is most consequential for black and brown children, who suffer from an academic achievement gap with their white counterparts and are more likely to travel the pipeline to prison rather than the pathway to college or gainful employment. That should motivate all stakeholders to explore any and all options to reverse this course.

Charter schools have been a successful option for these students. The most recent annual charter school performance report compiled by the Florida Department of Education shows that charter school students outperformed traditional school students. The data reveal a lower achievement gap for black and brown students in charter schools, and that low-income students in charter schools performed better than low-income students in district-managed schools.

In some political circles, school choice might be taboo. But most parents don’t consider partisan politics when deciding about their children’s education. Choice parents, however, are taxpayers who deserve fair, fact-based representation. Choice parents are voters. Their experience shapes their voices on the issue and should not be ignored by politicians for the sake of upholding an anti-choice platform.

As a choice parent, an education lawyer, and the legal and compliance director for a company of non-profit charter schools, I am in a committed relationship with the law and facts about choice. Conversations among some stakeholders are not well-informed, and their views sometimes are steeped in political myths.

I propose a time out on the politics to appreciate the facts and the basic premise of choice. Parents own this choice. Parents should not be vilified if they do not toe the party line when the party just might be out of step. Political dictates and aspirations will never be more important than parents’ rights to choose what is best for their children’s education. We all must consider softening political absolutes to make room for the reality of people’s experience.

I encourage a movement to better educate all stakeholders and to dispel the myths around the issue of school choice. Whatever your politics, school choice is codified and a part of our public education system.


Joy Smith-McCormick is legal and compliance director and general counsel for Kid’s Community College Charter Schools (KCC). KCC’s five not-for-profit, public charter school campuses serve more than 1,500 K-12 students in Hillsborough and Orange counties. As an active member of the Florida Bar, Joy serves as Education Law Committee chair and is a member of the Governmental and Public Policy Advocacy Committee. She has been practicing law for 17 years. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/joy-smith-mccormick-esq-38829880 or on Twitter @joyisspeaking. 


Commentary: Free public schools won’t ever work for all children


Editor’s note: This opinion piece, written by the executive director of the Florida Parent Network, appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat March 27.

Imagine grocery shopping with your friend. She lives near a safe and convenient store with a wide variety of options that meet the nutritional needs of your family.

Now imagine that you can only shop in your neighborhood.

The store near you doesn’t have what you need, but that’s too bad. The only way you can shop with your friend is to move into her neighborhood.

This, in a nutshell, is the system championed by Sally Butzin. In her recent op-ed, she called it free, universal public education (created in the late 1830s!), even though it has never been free or universal. It’s a system that works quite well for those who can pay for it, which is precisely why they mourn its passing.

Welcome to 2019.

Florida Parent Network champions students over systems. Thousands of our parents have seen their children’s lives transformed thanks to scholarships, charters, magnets and vouchers. Others have found success in virtual or homeschools.

These options have not been around since the 1830s, but they’re helping more of today’s children, and growing in popularity each year. We help parents defend and fight for these options.

Butzin doesn’t really get it. The world she is describing, where taxes “fund a free public system for all,” is a fantasy world.

For eight years, I taught in district schools and my sons attended their neighborhood high school. Public education isn’t free. We paid a premium in rent and mortgage payments. And those who couldn’t were out of luck.

That doesn’t sound universal to me.

The op-ed is full of offensive tropes, like blaming choice (read: low-income, mostly minority parents who choose something other than their district school) for segregation. Has she been to Leon County schools lately?

Let’s not blame minority moms for that one.

When she compares low-income parents choosing private schools with low-income parents abandoning their children or selling them for drugs — suggesting the state has a right to protect all their babies from “bad parent choices” — she disparages an entire population. Many of whom I doubt she even knows.

Moms who sit up with their children every night, children crying and scared because they don’t feel safe in school. Parents who often work multiple jobs to afford tutors after being told their children can’t learn like other kids. Parents researching schools that offer glimmers of hope. Parents who sacrifice and cut back to supplement scholarships and vouchers, putting their children’s needs ahead of their own.

Butzin is wrong. Money should not be spent on schools; it must be spent on children. Children who have parents. Parents who love them. Parents who have every right to make the same decisions Butzin was allowed to make for her own children.

What else has been around since the 1830s? Educational choice, for those who can afford it.

These days, we’re aiming to open that up for everyone.

The right of choice for black students

Keith Jacobs

by Keith Jacobs

The United States has a dismal history of providing inferior education for black students. Landmark Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 sought to eradicate this incongruency in educational access. Despite these efforts, many schools continued to systematically discriminate against students of color.

This institutional racism persists today. It has transformed from denial of access based on race to denial of access based on ZIP code. In both cases, black students are forced to be products of their environment — which often lacks the tools to provide them a quality education.

Opponents of educational choice are the most flagrant offenders because they prioritize systems over students. In some instances, choice opponents use Brown v. Board of Education to justify denying black students the right to choose a school that has a predominantly black population. This is counterintuitive given that Brown fought to end forced segregation in schools.

What this landmark case also established, but is often overlooked, was that a black family should have the right to choose which educational facility is best suited for their child, regardless of any racial implications. Furthermore, if a black child has the option to attend a high-performing school in their community, it is their right to explore that option without consideration of the racial makeup of that school.

If the current education system seeks to adequately prepare all students for postsecondary education, then why are there policies that don’t reflect the higher education landscape? Would opponents of choice deny a black student access to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University because it was predominantly black?

There is a sense of pride and dignity that accompanies a black student who chooses to attend a school where most students are black. There is a sense of ownership when black students choose the educational setting that best meets their needs.

Exercising this choice means working collaboratively with the school’s stakeholders on a shared vision of cultural responsiveness. This is empowering. In addition, providing a sense of cultural identity for black students is inspiring. By removing the barriers they face in schools based on their residence, choice necessitates ownership.

We must acknowledge that there are norms within a school setting that may not align with the cultural norms in these families. Providing educational choice options for black students can encourage self-reflection, promote culturally responsive teaching and curriculum, reinforce culturally responsive school environments, and engage the community. Black students take pride in their ability to choose a school that will enhance their identity while also providing a connection to their heritage, culture, and school from the lens of their community.

In addition, the curriculum would demonstrate to black students how their life experiences are connected to the great accomplishments of present-day black role models and the heroes who came before them. Black students develop a sense of commitment, pride and hard work seeing the accomplishments of these role models, despite the barriers society has placed on them. Educational choice can provide them a cultural identity that can’t be found in many traditional settings.

I challenge educational choice opponents to reflect upon their own biases regarding how they view black children, and how they meet the social and psychological needs of these children. The social injustice of our time will be that black students were the victims of institutional racism cloaked in the promise of equal education for all. This misguided idea of equality expects black students to conform to a system that does not understand their struggles as a race. This country can never atone for centuries of inadequately educating black students, but it can begin to move in the right direction by learning from the past and preparing these students for the future, through cultural awareness and empowerment.

Black students didn’t have a choice 70 years ago. Do they have a choice now?

Keith Jacobs is manager of the Charter School Initiative for Step Up For Students.

Parents unite to learn about, advocate for educational choice

school choice
Close to 500 advocates from across the state gather at the Florida Parent Network Annual Conference and Summit in Orlando held in Orlando March 2 to learn more about educational options.

Most national conferences dedicated to educational choice in this country are focused on lawmakers and policy wonks.

I love good debates over accountability measures with people who find white papers exciting as much as the next person. But I often find myself in fancy hotels, surrounded by hundreds of well-meaning think tankers, and wonder out loud, “Where are the parents?”

Parents are the foundation of this movement, and yet they’re often absent from much of the discussion.

I’d like to change that.

This past weekend, my organization held its first annual conference and summit. Almost 500 advocates came from all over the state to celebrate, protect and defend their educational options.

Thanks to them, we have more options in Florida than anywhere in the nation. Yet we still have thousands of children waiting for scholarships, private schools and charter schools. I wanted to bring parents together who’d fight for those children.

Florida Parent Network and Step Up For Students planned the conference to take place a few days before our legislative session began.

To get everyone ready.

Parents attended workshops for media training. They discussed options and schools. They learned how to advocate effectively and spent a lunchtime session writing letters to lawmakers.

There’s more.

Parents and other choice advocates attending the Florida Parent Network Conference and Summit in Orlando March 2 write letters to their legislative representatives, urging them to end scholarship waitlists.

They learned positive parenting techniques and tips for helping kids transition to work, the military or college after high school.

Parents attended sessions dedicated to Florida Tax Credit Scholarships and the Gardiner Scholarship that helped with applications and answered questions.

One of our most popular sessions was Minorities among Majorities, a discussion about inclusion in private schools, with a focus on black children and LGBTQ students.

Another session focused on immigrant students and their unique needs.

Our keynote speaker was Steve Perry, a national firebrand and avid parent power supporter. We were also fortunate to have with us Stanley Murray, crime prevention deputy from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who talked about bullying prevention.

The best part of the weekend summit for our staff was interacting with families.

Moms telling us about a scholarship that has, quite literally, saved their child’s life. Dads talking about feeling empowered and filled with hope for the first time. Foster parents whose children have never experienced a resort hotel with a pool. Teachers with undocumented students who now know how to help them. Principals sitting and bonding with their parents and teachers, writing to senators, demanding more options for the least among us.

Homeschooling parents advocating for tax credit scholarship parents. Gardiner parents speaking up for charter parents.

All of us in this together.

Step Up’s chairman, John Kirtley, and Step Up’s president, Doug Tuthill, mingled almost anonymously and witnessed parents rising up to defend their right to choose the best school for their kids. A few recognized John and Doug and posed for selfies.

The most popular question I got wasn’t about applications or policies.

Parents wondered how I reconcile my personal political views, as a 30-year left-leaning activist, working in a movement that so many Democrats oppose.

I got this question from parents who also identify with the left.

I talked candidly about the difficulty of agreeing with a candidate on many issues, but not the most important one. The one I work in every day. The one to which I’ve dedicated much of my life. The one I’ve witnessed, firsthand, change the lives and trajectories of hundreds of thousands of children.

Our conference didn’t have easy answers. Brave parents struggling every day don’t take kindly to lawmakers attempting to force kids back into schools that don’t work for them. The vast majority of our parents listened and learned last weekend and are committed to advocating effectively for this legislative session and beyond.

They are ready.

I hope our lawmakers are, too.

Guest post: The puzzling outcry over reducing a waiting list for low-income students

school choice
Pastor Robert Ward is the founder of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in south St. Petersburg.

By Pastor Robert Ward

The Tampa Bay Times says it is “absurd” for Gov. Ron DeSantis to say spending public money on private school tuition is still public education.

The only thing that’s absurd is the Times’ selective scrutiny.

Florida has been spending billions of public dollars on private school tuition for years, through a variety of programs beyond the one the newspaper disparages. Yet the only time the Times sees a constitutional violation is when the governor proposes to use public money to expand learning options for children in poverty.

Has the Times ever thundered against use of state-funded Bright Futures scholarships at private and faith-based colleges? Has it ever waxed indignant about the public dollars that have been spent on VPK, which more than 100,000 4-year-olds use each year to attend private, and often faith-based, pre-schools? Why is it silent about the public dollars that have been spent on private school tuition through McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities and Gardiner Scholarships for students with special needs? Why is it okay with the Times when the state spends billions of public dollars on private school tuition for college students, for 4-year-olds, for students with autism and Down syndrome – but not okay when the governor proposes a similar program for low-income students, mostly of color?

There is no good answer.

In its thundering editorial on Feb. 19, “DeSantis redefines public education,” the newspaper chose to attack a new scholarship aimed at reducing the waiting list for a program that serves the most underprivileged students in our state. That program, the Tax Credit Scholarship, is providing private school options to 100,000 students whose average household income is $25,700. More than two-thirds are black or Hispanic and more than half live with only one parent. The ones who come directly from a public school were among the lowest academic performers from the schools they left.

Rather than recognize these struggling families, the Times instead turned to a rather selective listing of school choice supporters. Yes, former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos support Gov. DeSantis’s new scholarship program. But why would the newspaper ignore the masses of black and Hispanic parents who’ve been lining up for scholarships for years? Did its editors not see the parents of color who spoke alongside Gov. DeSantis last week? Did they not hear Shareka Wright, the Orlando garbage truck driver? Ms. Wright said she has to sometimes choose between paying tuition and feeding her sons so she can keep them in a school where they are safe and learning.

There are thousands of Shareka Wrights in St. Petersburg. Eight years ago, we founded Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School to serve them. Now we are turning them away because we don’t have enough seats and there aren’t enough scholarships.

The Times says Floridians don’t know if schools like Mt. Moriah are succeeding “because private schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools.” True, we aren’t held to the same standards. We are held to higher standards. If we don’t deliver the high-quality education our parents expect and deserve, our parents will leave. Until school choice scholarships came along, that wasn’t the case with our public schools.

Generation after generation, our students had to go to schools assigned to them by the district, whether they were working for them or not. We all know that far too often, they were not. Fewer than a quarter of black 10th-graders in Pinellas public schools could read at grade level last year. Since the state switched to the Florida Standards Assessment four years ago, the gap in reading proficiency between black students in Pinellas public schools and black students statewide has grown in every single tested grade. This is what one-size-fits-all education has brought us.

Contrast those results with the new Urban Institute study, which analyzed long-term outcomes with the Tax Credit Scholarship. Students on scholarship are 43 percent more likely than their peers in public schools to go to four-year colleges. They are 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. If they use the scholarship four or more years, they are 45 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. Why did the Times leave this out?

I’m no legal scholar. But it’s absurd to think a constitutional definition of public education that fails to acknowledge that one size does not fit all has a place in a state as diverse and dynamic as Florida. It’s also absurd to pretend that, in practice, Florida didn’t acknowledge this many years ago.