Advocate Voices

Commentary: Widen the circle, broaden the conversation

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school choice
Parents rally outside the Florida Supreme Court in January 2016 to protect school choice options.

Recently, I was invited to a local coffee and conversation-type event in Florida between my former state representative and former neighbors who are predominantly white progressive women.

Then I was invited to a conversation at a late-night dinner event in New Jersey with five conservative white men.

Both discussions were more similar than different.

Both discussions involved topics about educational choice and branched off from there.

Both groups have heard a lot about people like me.

On the left, they like my work with the ACLU and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Then they hear that I organize parents who choose something other than their district school. That means I’m a union-buster out to destroy public education.

On the right, they like my advocacy for education choice , but then they learn I’m a democratic socialist. That means I’m trying to turn the United States into Venezuela.

Over coffee, I looked around and noticed all that we have in common – white, progressive, living in a highly valued neighborhood with stellar schools. And we could take time off to attend such an event in the middle of a workday.

Or between salon appointments.

Most women attending were against parental choice in education.

Of course. Our opponents are almost always privileged white liberals.

I watched these participants struggle to understand as I explained why I supported educational options for everyone, not just those who could afford it.

One mom tried to sum up their opposition.

“We support the democratization of the public school system,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means we support free public schools that are open to everyone.”

I smiled at them.

“We all know these schools aren’t free,” I said. “We pay for them in our rents and our mortgages.”

They stared at me.

“And our schools here don’t accept everyone. They only take kids from a particular ZIP code.”

“That’s not true!” one mother objected. “Our high school took Tony Dungy’s kids from Avila.”

I almost spit out my coffee. Tony Dungy is a black man, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a millionaire. Avila is a gated community north of town.

“That’s true,” other moms nodded in agreement. “They accepted Tony Dungy’s kids.”

“How nice of them,” I said. “But they don’t take kids from the projects around the corner. Do they?”

Silence.

“Do any of you know anyone who desperately needs a good school for their children? Do you know at least one mom who can’t afford to move into this neighborhood, who’s trapped in her ZIP code and can’t afford private school?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, what would you say? How would you explain your position to them?”

More silence.

A few weeks later, in a very different conversation with conservative men, it didn’t take long before they found out I leaned far to the left. Naturally, they wanted to know my views on transgender issues.

Instead of speaking for a group of people who do a much better job speaking for themselves, I tried a different tactic.

“That’s why we support educational options for all students, right?” I asked. “So every student, even those you can’t quite understand yet, will find a school that’s the best fit for them. Choice is beginning to accommodate students based on gender identity – and really, isn’t our message that we all benefit when all our kids are succeeding in school?”

Lots of mumbles and one guy looked at the ceiling.

“Do any of you know anyone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth? Have you talked to them about this?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, would you listen? Would you try to hear their point of view?”

More silence.

Perhaps we should open any and all conversations to include those who’ve typically been excluded. If you’re convinced you know where you stand on any issue, including educational choice, perhaps you should talk to someone who’s affected by it. Invite them into a conversation. Ask them their opinions, and then listen for a while.

We’d all learn so much, and I could go back to answering only for myself.

The human face of education

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Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines of education think – the parents and students.

If you could illustrate media coverage of education choice, it would resemble a bird’s-eye view of a vast industrial complex: machinery greased by politics, walls whose mortar is money, and a maze of piping and tubing to deliver hot and cold takes.

What’s often missing is the human element.

Sure, most stories about choice focus on the actors surrounding the programs: legislators, school board members, teachers union officials, think tank wonks, activists. The primary concern is how policy affects institutions, and which side is winning the debate.

Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines think – the parents and students.

I know this because I used to be part of the problem. I was a newspaper editorial writer and editor for 25 years before joining Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. In my former life, I wrote dozens of opinion pieces on school choice, almost always relying on the input of legislative combatants. They were the decision-makers and influencers who were well-versed in the details and arguments, and usually easily accessible.

Now, having descended from the ivory tower and moved to the other side of the media lens, I’m tasked with reaching out to families who benefit from education choice to learn their stories. The difference in perspective has been eye-opening.

Parents who support choice are not ideologues. Most are extremely practical; they want what’s best for their child, not what’s advantageous for a certain side. Many will eschew partisan and identity politics to vote their naked self-interest.

They express frustration with a school system that is unresponsive to their needs, often while acknowledging they have no animus toward traditional public education. Indeed, parents will say they themselves succeeded in public schools, or even have other children who are doing well in a traditional setting. But the current setup isn’t working for one or more of their kids, and they are desperate to find alternatives that work.

Often, a parent will be moved to tears describing the obstacles he or she faces, be they bureaucratic or financial, or when attempting to express the relief that comes with seeing a child thrive in a new environment made possible by a choice program.

These families come in so many shapes and sizes, with so many individualized needs, it’s impossible to fit them all under one rubric. They need solutions, not excuses. Their stories need to be part of the narrative.

That’s not to say that pols and professionals have no stake in the issue, or nothing to contribute. Or that there aren’t legitimate questions about the impacts on school districts, or public education writ large.

Furthermore, although newspapers and media platforms publish letters and columns from parents of students in choice schools, rarely do you see those parents and their anguished pleas for help in the news stories and house opinion pieces, intertwined in the narrative with the professionals.

The media have no problem putting faces on other policy disputes, such as how welfare reform will affect the single mother on public assistance, or the working family of four living paycheck to paycheck who lacks health insurance. The same desire to humanize should be applied to education reform.

Keeping the focus on politicians makes it easier for people to choose sides based on who’s supporting or opposing: “Well, if he’s for it, then I’m against it,” or vice-versa. Seeing a sympathetic civilian might force more folks to give the issue additional thought.

A staple of local education coverage involves going into traditional public school classrooms and talking to students in order to highlight academic achievement, or an interesting new program (such as a robotics lab) the district is eager to publicize. And that’s great. They deserve the attention.

Yet, the same curiosity isn’t applied to choice students – not even when they’re gathered in one convenient place. In January 2016, some 10,000 parents, students and school administrators, along with several pastors from around the state, marched in Tallahassee to protest a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association aimed at dismantling the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. (Later that year, a state appeals court affirmed the constitutionality of the scholarship program). The media coverage almost uniformly excluded interviews with the families who would be most affected by changes in the system.

Assignment desk editors: In 2017-18, nearly 450,000 students in Florida attended a public charter school or used a tax credit scholarship or ESA to attend a private school. That’s a lot of stories to be told.

podcastED: ‘We will see widespread school choice when we can educate teachers on the truth’

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teacher unions
Rebecca Friedrichs is the author of ‘Standing Up To Goalith’ and joins us for an interview on the latest episode of podcastED.

Rebecca Friedrichs is the fearless California public school teacher best known for being lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the high-profile lawsuit that – until the unexpected death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 – was destined to end the union practice of forcibly collecting “agency fees” from non-union members. (Subsequently, last June, Janus v. AFSCME did end the practice.)

But what people may not know about Friedrichs is how much her support for educational choice fueled that crusade.

In her just-released autobiography, “Standing Up To Goliath,” Friedrichs details her rise from rank-and-file teacher to anti-union activist, including the role that choice played. In an interview with redefinED, she offers more insight into the teachers-and-choice piece, including why more teachers aren’t clamoring to expand options that, she says, would benefit them as much as students and parents.

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“We will see widespread school choice when we can educate teachers on the truth,” Friedrichs said in the interview. Once teachers see “that these choice schools really are not bad, that charter schools really do have to close down within a few years if they don’t get the job done, that public schools go on and on and on and on for years even though they’re failing … once teachers know the truth, they’ll be on our side.”

Friedrichs describes herself as conservative. But “school choice” isn’t conservative, she said, no matter how often it’s often portrayed that way by critics and the press.

“That’s just another lie promoted by the unions,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re apolitical, you’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican, you’re a libertarian, you don’t vote. Everybody I know, once they understand school choice, and they realize it’s just what’s best for the child, they’re all for school choice.”

Friedrichs’s support is personal. At different points in her life, she said, she needed educational options for each of her sons. For Ben, her youngest, no option materialized, which left Ben in vulnerable situations and Friedrichs, then a single mom, crying all the way to work. For Kyle, an option did come through, just as drugs and other issues had him spiraling down.

Said Friedrichs, “School. Choice. Saved. His. Life.”

Friedrichs shares more details in the podcast, with a bonus for Major League Baseball fans. Kyle, now thriving as a pitcher in the minor leagues (in the Oakland A’s system), recently got a chance to face future Hall of Famer Mike Trout

You’ll either have to buy Friedrichs’ book or listen to the podcast to find out what happened. 😊

New school choice group launches to advocate for children and families

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Erika Donalds

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A new organization aimed at ensuring families can choose the best education environment for their children launched today with an announcement from the group’s founder and chairwoman.

Former Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds said the School Choice Movement will focus on improving and expanding school choice in all its forms, adding that she became aware as a parent and a school board member that many families have insufficient options for school choice.

“Children are either on a waiting list for a scholarship or a charter school or they don’t qualify for one of the scholarships that are available, and they can’t afford a private school,” Donalds said. “Our goal is to give parents multiple high-quality options for their students.”

Joining Donalds in the effort are former Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and former Duval County School Board member Scott Shine. Frost, who is a co-founder with Donalds and past president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, will serve as the organization’s advocacy director. Shine, who has served as a member of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, will be a member of the executive board.

The group plans to advocate for school choice and the expansion of school choice options during the upcoming legislative session.

“We now have a governor who is very supportive of school choice and an education commissioner who is a tireless school choice advocate,” said Donalds, whose husband, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, serves on the Florida House Education Committee and is vice chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Committee. “We want to make sure the expansion of school choice is No. 1 on the agenda.”

The group also plans to sponsor a speakers’ bureau and appoint regional directors who will fan out across the state in a grassroots effort to talk directly with families.

“We need to find a different way to reach parents with information about their options,” said Donalds, who helped establish Mason Classical Academy, a public charter school in Naples. “We also need to correct misinformation that’s out there about choice schools.

Among the myths Donalds plans to combat: the narrative that choice schools divert money from the public school system; the idea that charter schools underperform traditional public schools; and the notion that charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools.

“For me, this is a moral issue our society needs to solve,” Donalds said. “Hoping students can play catch-up later in life is not an option.”

Watch the School Choice Movement launch video here for more information.

redefinED also spoke to Donalds after the James Madison Institute luncheon about her new organization. You can listen to that audio below.

 

VIDEO: “I don’t want her to be just a number”

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Celethia Davis, center, and her family pose with Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville) at Piney Grove Academy’s MLK Day celebration in Lauderdale Lakes.

Celethia Davis, whose daughter, Brianna, is on a wait list for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, traveled from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appearance Monday at Piney Grove Boys Academy. The new governor used the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to underscore his commitment to expanding educational choice. Davis is hoping Brianna, who is struggling at her neighborhood school, will be able to attend a faith-based, college-prep school.

From the Vault: MLK and God’s schools

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Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in redefinED on Aug. 26th, 2013, as part of a series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We are reprising it as the nation prepares to celebrate what would have been King’s 90th birthday.

Coons
Coons

I grew up in a Minnesota city of 100,000 with – in my time – one black family. My introduction to the reality of public school segregation came in 1962 as – now at Northwestern in Chicago – I agreed to probe the public schools of the district on behalf of the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The racial separation was there as expected, but there was one big surprise; I was astonished to find enormous disparities, not only in taxable local wealth – hence spending – among the hundreds of Illinois districts, but even in individual school-by-school spending within the Chicago district itself. I wrote about both problems, sprinkling research with “action” including marches and demonstration both in Chicago and in Selma (prior to the main event there).MLK snipped

My interest in deseg politics had already provoked a law review article on the risks of anti-trust liability for King et al. who were planning boycotts of private discriminators. On the strength of that essay, Jack Greenberg, then director of the NAACP Inc. Fund, invited me to meet with King and his lieutenants at dinner in Chicago to discuss the question. We spoke at length – mostly about boycotts but also about schools. By that time I was already into the prospects for increasing desegregation in Chicago, partly through well-designed school choice.

I won’t pretend that I recall the details of that evening. What I can say is King’s mind was at very least open to and interested in subsidies for the exercise of parental authority – which clearly he valued as a primary religious instrument. I took my older boys next evening to hear him at a South Side church and, possibly, to follow up on our conversation, but he had to cancel. We heard sermons from his colleagues, some to become and remain famous. I did not meet King again.

King’s “Dream” speech does not engage specific public policy issues – on schools or anything else. Essentially a sermon, it is a condemnation of the sins of segregation and an appeal to the believer to hear scripture, with its call for indiscriminate love of neighbor, as the life-task of all who recognize the reality of divine love for us – his image and likeness. It is purely and simply a religious appeal that declares the good society to be one that rests upon benign principles that we humans did not invent but which bind us. I don’t know King’s specific understanding of or attitude toward non-believers, but this document clearly rests the realization of the good society upon its recognition of our divine source and its implication of the full equality of all persons.

Given that premise and the Supreme Court’s insistence upon the “wall of segregation” in the public schools, plus – on the other hand – the right of parents to choose a private religious education, the logic is rather plain.

Private schools live on tuition, and many American families couldn’t afford to enroll then or now. If low-income families were to exercise this basic human right and parental responsibility enjoyed by the rest of us, government would have to restructure schooling to insure access to an education grounded upon, and suffused with, an authority higher than the state. Given the economic plight of so many black parents, the only question would be how to design the system to secure parental choice without racial segregation by private educators.

And that possibility was to be the principal crutch of “civil rights” organizations in hesitating about subsidized choice.

Of course, many of their members were public school teachers who wondered about their jobs. Still, in the early 70’s, both the NAACP and the Urban League were sufficiently interested in parental choice to engage the usual suspects, including myself, to describe solutions to the apparent problem. In 1971, Steve Sugarman and I published a book which was a first crack at designing a structure that would preserve the integrity of the private school while assuring non-discriminatory access. Others made similar proposals. The civil rights groups still dallied.

One political difficulty was media domination of the argument for choice by free-market libertarians who fretted at – and opposed – every suggestion that would in the least diminish private school control of admissions. Their narrow focus forfeited a good deal of centrist support. But the more fundamental problem was the teachers’ unions, which froze at the prospect of competition and gave the civil rights groups plausible (and tangible) reason to balk. One example: in a long private conversation, Cesar Chavez expressed to me his regret that the Farm Workers couldn’t sign on for a popular initiative for school choice in California, because the UFW would risk the annual 200k they enjoyed from the AFT.

The idea thus remained largely a specialty of the market enthusiasts for 30 years. My guess is King could have changed all this, precisely because of his theological focus. The problem has not gone away, and we miss him.

Education choice helped break the cycle of poverty

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By Keith Jacobs

Keith Jacobs credits the IB program, an early form of education choice, as breaking him from a cycle of poverty.

Always look a man in the eyes.  Stand up and give a firm handshake.  Remember your manners.  These simple yet effective rules instilled by my parents have been a pillar in my overall success.  I am blessed to work in a field I love and to help raise two beautiful children who are reaping the benefits of hard work and education.

But how did this journey begin?  My success is a product of how school choice provides opportunities for low-income families to escape the clutches of generational poverty.

I am the second youngest of six kids.  I was raised to believe that the key to success is education.  What was missing was an example of what this success looked like.  Both of my parents worked three jobs, and neither of them attended college.  Growing up in a low-income household in Tampa, I was not afforded the same opportunities as my peers.  While they were focused on new clothes and shoes for school, I was focused on whether I was going to wear clothes that were too small, or if my brother had any clothes that he could hand down to me.

You see, education was an idea, a philosophy.  It was not a tangible reward that I could see and understand given my surroundings.  As a young, black male, the statistics would say I had a greater chance of being dead or in jail than graduating and going to college.  I saw drugs, alcohol, and crime that plagued the streets around my middle school and wondered if there was a way to escape this reality.

Thankfully, the school choice movement that began brewing in the 1980s and ‘90s offered a lifeline: magnet schools. During this time, magnet schools were viewed as competition to traditional schools because they provided an opportunity for students to attend a school outside their neighborhood that met their individual needs.

My parents noticed my intellectual abilities but did not think they had options for me to excel in a high school. For low-income families like mine, the opportunity to attend the best schools seemed unattainable without the financial resources. There was no scholarship program that would have provided me with a quality education outside my ZIP code.  This all changed with school choice.

Going into my freshman year, I applied for an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a magnet school that was 10 miles away from my house and was accepted.  This gave me a chance to experience what I would not have otherwise been exposed to in a traditional curriculum.

The thing about growing up in poverty is that even though I viewed school with the same enthusiasm as my peers, the difference laid in my ability to understand and adhere to cultural norms that were necessary to succeed in school.  Poverty is a societal ill that is rectified with innovative ways to provide quality education for all students.

Today, these choices come in many forms: magnet schools, charter schools, vouchers and scholarship programs, education savings accounts, even virtual schools and micro-schools. They have proved popular with families. In Florida alone, some 1.7 million students – about 46 percent of all PreK-12 students – attend a school of choice.

Through school choice, I not only graduated from the IB program, I also was able to attend one of the most rigorous universities in the nation, the University of Florida, becoming the first college graduate in my family.  It allowed me to pursue a master’s degree.  Ultimately, it helped me provide a better quality of life for my children and end the cycle of poverty.

While legislators are debating who is cheating whom in education, there are millions of low-income children like I was who just want an equal chance to succeed. School choice gives them what they lack due to their economic circumstances — ownership.

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

podcastED: Pastor Robert Ward – Educational choice gives black parents hope

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Pastor Robert Ward, founder of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in south St. Petersburg.

If anybody doubts the passion for educational choice in black communities, come visit Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental School in predominantly black south St. Petersburg, Fla. and chat with its founder, Pastor Robert Ward.

Ward started the private micro-school for grades 6-8 in 2011 with three students. Now it has 56. And now it’s routinely turning away children because there are waiting lists, both for the school and for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, the largest private school choice program in America. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

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“Parents are beating on our doors to get in,” Ward said in this redefinED podcast. “We actually have stretched even our level of comfort in terms of capacity, to try to turn away as few parents as possible. But we’re very limited in our capacity.”

Dejected parents cry in the lobby, Ward said, “really with the loss of hope for their child.”

Pastor Ward is representative of a core constituency for choice that is blatantly overlooked by critics and the press. In Florida, where choice has taken root like nowhere else, there are hundreds of community leaders like Ward who represent communities of color and who wholeheartedly embrace choice. Like Ward and south St. Pete, those leaders and communities lean heavily towards the Democratic Party.

All but one of the students at Mt. Moriah school are black. All but three use state-supported choice scholarships, including 39 who use tax credit scholarships. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given that the outcomes in the school district that encompasses St. Petersburg are especially bleak for black students.

Black students in Pinellas County perform far worse on state tests than not just white students in Pinellas, but black students in every urban district in Florida. In 2018, for example, 23.9 percent of black 10th-graders in Pinellas passed the 10th grade reading test – the test they must pass to graduate – compared to a statewide average for black 10th-graders of 34.6 percent. (Statewide, 65.1 percent of white students passed. In Pinellas, 64.3 percent passed.)

The tragic trend lines go back to when schools in St. Pete were more racially integrated then they’d ever been (under a court-ordered desegregation plan), and arguably the best funded they’d even been (before the Great Recession.) They’ve persisted, Ward said, “because there’s not enough focus on what the real need is.”

“It goes back to that one-size-fits-all mentality or approach to the learning process,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, that’s just not reality. One size does not fit all. Students come from different backgrounds, different environments, different problems, different issues, that all have an effect on how we behave, how we learn, how we feel in the learning process. So I think we have to take all of that into consideration. And I think we also have to establish an environment where parents feel there’s hope.”

Also on the podcast with Pastor Ward:

  • On why choice should be non-partisan: “Our kids are not Republicans. Our kids are not Democrats. Or independents. Or liberals. Our kids are kids. … My mother and father never focused me on a political position in terms of education. They simply focused me on the importance of education.”
  • On the importance of school staff who are community based: “It’s a huge piece. Because (the parent and teachers) don’t just see each other at school. They see each other in the community. They talk about issues that are going on in the community. They can relate to specific things within the community.”
  • On the benefits of empowering parents through choice: “When you give parents that option, and that ability, it frees up their spirit and their heart. It gives them hope. They light up, because they say, ‘Oh, here’s a place of hope. And I have the power to choose it.’ ”