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Advocate Voices

Reflections of a parent organizer

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Regardless of issue or geographic location, parents often are the best advocates for their children’s educational options.

Florida frequently is viewed as a model for the school choice movement, especially when it comes to parent advocacy. So why is it so hard for other states to replicate the Sunshine State’s methods?

This is the question I’m pondering as I reflect on a recent parent organizer training in Milwaukee hosted by EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to advance a K-12 education system where all families are free to choose the most appropriate learning environment for their children.

Specifically, I’m wondering: How do we work through all the politics and enact change? What type of messaging do we need to share with parents who feel entitled to have educational options but don’t feel compelled to fight for it?

These are tough questions that don’t have easy answers. But in my opinion, one of the givens is that you need to have some skin in the game.

Anyone who has ever mobilized groups of people will tell you it’s not easy. One strategy that has worked in Florida for Step Up For Students, a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer five scholarships, has been building and maintaining a solid grassroots effort. A tactic connected to that strategy was the creation of a database of parent contacts that can activate parents – on as as-needed basis – in certain geographic areas.

How do we identify those parents and convince them to work with us? That’s a recurring question for many organizers, and one that comes up at almost every organizer training I attend.

I suppose there’s no right or wrong way. It may be best to just reach out to a school and offer to host a presentation during a parent meeting. Hand out fliers during a school sporting event. Partner with other organizations who have a connection to the school to amplify your message.

Sometimes obstacles turn out to be opportunities in disguise when it comes to organizing parents.

Say something negative appears in the media about a school’s academic performance. This can be a chance to rally parents by encouraging them to respond to the story, whether in print or online, by writing letters to the editor or even penning an opinion piece.

It’s amazing the lengths parents will go to when offered a little encouragement and some clear direction.

Clear direction is key when working in the political arena. While a bill working its way through committee can be intimidating to families who are unfamiliar with that arena, those individuals often are perfectly suited to lead a grassroots groundswell. Parents are essential because they are real people with real experiences. They are directly impacted by what is being proposed, and they often are the most passionate speakers in the room when a bill comes to the floor.

Consider arranging for the parents in your network to meet with their local lawmakers and teach them how to speak up – person – during the session. A well-spoken, flesh-and-blood constituent can change hearts and minds. Remember that attending one meeting or committee hearing is not enough. Make it a point to bring your grassroots delegation to as many legislative events as possible. And if a parent is unwilling or unable to speak, at least have that individual in the room to show support.

Our recent experience demonstrates that his or her presence can make a difference.

This past legislative session, much was at stake for nearly 14,000 families on the waitlist for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Dozens of those waitlist families, and dozens more who have been scholarship recipients, traveled to the state capitol to testify. Others attended delegation meetings, and some met one on one with their senators and representatives – those opposed as well as in favor of creating a new scholarship program to ease the waitlist.

Their efforts were not in vain. After a lengthy and contentious hearing that spanned two days, the Florida House sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a new state-funded K-12 scholarship for low-income and working-class students.

The victory for these Florida families exemplifies how having skin in the game is essential for grassroots efforts.

Sanders misses point on education reform

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Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders has called for a moratorium on federal funding for all charter schools and a ban on for-profit charters. Photo credit: Nick Solari/Wikimedia Commons

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president, recently revealed his education plan, most of the ensuing news coverage focused on his criticism of charter schools and his call for a moratorium on their expansion.

Cue the usual op-eds and pundits booing him, attacking socialism and railing against infringements on a “competitive free market.”

I’m here in Florida booing the usual pundits.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a longtime Sanders supporter who was disappointed in his attacks on a movement bringing equity to public education.

He’s misguided and misinformed.

His opinion is baffling coming from someone who values “Medicare for All.” A single-payer system would allow patients to spend health care dollars on public or private hospitals and doctors of their own choosing.

He doesn’t see how funding for health care and education could be similar, allowing patients and students a level of freedom and equity of care they can’t get any other way.

Like I said, he’s misguided.

But I don’t blame him.

To those who want to roast Bernie Sanders: My Nana used to say, when you point a finger at someone, there are three more pointed right back at you.

Bernie Sanders is listening to one viewpoint regarding education choice because one viewpoint is all he can hear.

This isn’t his fault.

Those who support education choice don’t have a singular, strong, compelling voice. Most of the arguments for choice focus on conservative values. Free markets. Competition. Anti-union.

Not exactly a bipartisan point of view.

Choice supporters don’t have a central organization or rallying cry on a national scale, like the NEA or AFT, with a network in every state responding to attacks with a coordinated strategy.

We show up at rallies with coordinated shirts.

That’s all we’ve got.  

No national organizing model.

No national mobilizing model.

Armies of parents and advocates scattered throughout the country with little or no direction.

Little or no united front.

What is our big picture goal?

Our opponents respond to strength. Our strength is in the sheer numbers of parents and teachers who understand that the current system fails children in need.

And yet we underutilize them at every turn.

We allow the teachers union, which does little to help actual teachers, to act as the compelling voice on this issue.

We allow President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to be the face of our movement, rather than the hundreds of thousands of families benefiting from choice.

We get together at annual summits and conferences and praise lawmakers — mostly white, mostly conservative, mostly male — and then wonder over expensive wine and cocktails why the left isn’t catching on.

We look the other way when Democrats and other liberal mouthpieces send their own children to private or elite schools, rather than shame them for denying low-income families that same privilege.

We’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves, allowing opponents to pit us against one another. Charter supporters opposing voucher supporters. Non-profits fighting for-profit management companies. Scholarship supporters railing against home or virtual schools.

We write mealy-mouthed editorials, all the while hoping that our opponents will like us if we ingratiate ourselves enough.

What does that really do?

It weakens support for and among all of us.

It tells parents, “You can choose, but only from this list of preferred options.”

It shouts, “We trust parents…to a point.”

Progressives like Bernie Sanders see themselves as rebels. The ones who support redefining everything from health care, drug laws, and college tuition costs to reforming prisons, campaign finance and gun control.

Yet only in education reform are the rebels and reformers deemed conservative.

Unreal.

And we continue to allow it.  

We don’t cultivate leaders to run for office or give them proper political cover to take on the status quo.

We allow the message to be, “We don’t need two school systems,” when anyone with open eyes – and an open mind — knows there are already two systems:  one for those with means, and one for those without.

Opponents run with the nonsense that we “drain money from public schools.” We don’t raise our voices just as high to declare it’s cruel to allow the current system to thrive.

We aren’t bold.

We aren’t loud.

We aren’t compelling.

Blame Bernie all you want.

We’re the ones hiding meekly in the corner. In our absence the opposing arguments thrive.

If we fix that, Bernie – and all our misguided opponents – will finally understand the issue. And then figure out where they stand.  

Standing up to tribal pressure

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Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, addresses a group of education choice supporters at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, one of three stops Gov. Ron DeSantis made Thursday to tout the new Family Empowerment Scholarship. Also pictured is DeSantis, behind Newton; and from left to right beside Newton, former Rep. Frank Peterman Jr. (D-St. Petersburg), Sen. Jeff Brandes, (R-St. Petersburg), Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (R-Hialeah), Sen. Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater), Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mt. Dora) and Pastor Robert Ward.

Last Thursday was a wonderful day for students in Florida, especially students living in undervalued neighborhoods and desperate for educational options. Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled the state promoting the belief that those children, not just those from families of means, should be in great schools.

As executive director of Florida Parent Network, I manage a team of professional organizers who planned and arranged these events, and at the last one, in Miami, DeSantis signed a bill that officially created the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

This scholarship will help 18,000 students get off scholarship waiting lists and into schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.

It was a long, rewarding day.

At every stop, our champions in the Legislature joined the governor to talk about this year’s legislative session. They thanked each other, and supporters, for getting this bill past the finish line.

Most of our champions are Republicans, and despite the fact I’m more to the left than anyone in any room I’m in, I stood and applauded them for doing the right thing by our kids. Even when some gave speeches with the usual “government doesn’t know best” theme, I understand that’s their thing.

They gotta do them.

The few Democrats brave enough to stand up to school districts and teachers’ unions have a special place in my heart. Six of them in the Florida House of Representatives did just that this legislative session.

We must acknowledge and appreciate that it is never easy to withstand tribal pressures, and these days it’s more difficult and rarer than ever before.

That’s why Rep. Wengay Newton’s speech at the St. Petersburg event made my day.

I don’t want to hear from folks who’ve never needed assistance that government programs don’t work. They do work. They work quite well.

Government programs work best when constituents of all income levels have choice, options and power.

Newton talked about specific programs that helped his family while he was growing up. Government programs made it possible for him to learn, thrive and ultimately serve his neighbors in the state legislature.

He has a certain “authenticity” to which almost no one else that day could lay similar claim.

“The school to prison pipeline is real,” he said. “It’s not a charter school to prison pipeline. It’s not a private school to prison pipeline. It’s a public school to prison pipeline.”

Can we take a moment and think about the wisdom and experience behind this viewpoint? Democrats who gather around a table to bash school choice hardly ever acknowledge that they themselves have never for one moment entertained the thought of allowing their children to attend substandard schools.

Those who are against educational options always seem to have them.

They deserve to be shamed for denying others that from which they benefit.

Newton said he never – never – sees many black males when he goes to successful high schools during the Great American Teach-In.

“But when I go to county jails and juvenile facilities,” he continued, “I see a lot of black males. You’re well-represented.”

Democrats opposed to educational options support a system that benefits white upper-class children at the expense of everyone else. They back a system that is good at one thing and one thing only: securing the jobs of the people who work there.

Newton encouraged the students in attendance to work hard.

“Cause if you don’t do it, they’ve got plans for you on the other side.”

I’ve heard supporters apologize for educational options, pretending that empowering parents isn’t the end all, be all. I disagree. Choice might not be the only great idea, but it’s the best one.

“You’re provided an opportunity,” Newton said. “Not a guarantee, but an opportunity.”

That is what we can give our kids.

He reminded the audience that the area in which they were sitting was home to “failure factories,” a powerful reminder to those who believe in only one educational delivery system. That one delivery system has been failing minority children for decades.

“If you know all the secret codes to Play Station 4, that tells me your brain is working just fine,” Newton said.

In other words, don’t believe that you can’t succeed. That you can’t learn.

Those who can’t teach will blame everything — parents, poverty, salaries, etc. But the truth is that children of lesser means can learn. They just can’t learn from a single system or the teachers who flock to it.

Newton also reminded the students that he and they come from the same place.

That’s the most powerful message of all. Every single child from impoverished neighborhoods has potential. And shame on any system that allows an ideology to shine, instead of a child.

Commentary: “What do you think of Betsy?”

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“What do you think of Betsy DeVos?”

I get this question a lot. Family members and longtime friends know me as a left-wing activist with over 30 years of experience advocating for everything from women’s reproductive rights to environmental causes to gun control.

I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

My loved ones trust me.

I’m one of them.

A professional, liberal rabble-rouser.

Surely I hate U.S. Secretary of Education DeVos.

Right?

Wrong.

While I hold many of the most socialist views, I’m adamantly and unapologetically pro-school choice. As executive director of Florida Parent Network, I’ve been helping families protect and defend their choices for over six years.

I consider myself a progressive and yet support a movement that most progressive politicians oppose.

It’s hard for those who see things in tribal terms to come to grips with this idea.

I don’t have a problem with it.

I’ve been thinking for myself for years.

But I get it. There are so many issues, movements and campaigns out there, bombarding us with information every day, and we’re all fatigued by it. Most just want to know where their political leaders and champions come down on an issue. That’s how they know where they stand as well.

It’s not that they’re lazy or uninterested.

They’re overwhelmed.

I’m Irish and Jewish. A pro-choice feminist from a strong pro-life family. I’m a vegetarian who cooks chicken for friends and loved ones. I’m an anti-capitalist who routinely partners with Americans for Prosperity. I’m the granddaughter of Teamsters who thinks the teachers unions have done serious harm to American education.

I volunteer for Bernie Sanders.

I’m overwhelmed, too, but I don’t get to rely on my political heroes because I don’t have any. I don’t enjoy the privilege of deferring to someone else’s judgment.

I must research and dig for answers to find out how I think.

This means I’m exhausted most of the time.

I was fortunate this week to attend the American Federation for Children’s annual summit in Chicago, networking with educational choice activists from all over the country.

Our education secretary was the keynote speaker.

Here comes that question again.

What do I think of Betsy DeVos?

I like her.

This answer surprises everyone I know.

I agree with her on one issue, educational choice, but I find her agreeable in every way. In the few conversations we’ve had, she has proven herself to be open-minded, kind and generous.

My friends hate when I report this.

“You hardly like anyone, and you like her?”

My genuine and nuanced view of a divisive political figure causes those who trust me to think twice before dismissing someone based on what others think.

In this day and age, that’s a good thing.

Years ago, when Florida started the Gardiner Scholarship program, the Legislature didn’t allocate funding for Step Up for Students (which hosts this blog) to run it properly. Betsy made a personal donation to help us get started. It is a shame that parents, who’ve benefited from this program, have no idea how much she helped them.

She continues to work for children and families all over this country.

Betsy’s is an inclusive message, encouraging us to think outside the box about all the ways personalized learning can help our kids. At the AFC Summit Thursday night, she talked about post-high school learning, other than four-year colleges, that can open up a whole new world regarding career and technical education for our kids. She talked about establishing a federal tax credit scholarship program and the ways in which teachers should be able to control their own personal and professional development.

As she has often said, our movement is about more than vouchers.

I tell advocates in Florida that we don’t have to worry about the mess in D.C. and I follow that same advice. We are a statewide program. We don’t need to argue with opponents about Congress or the White House.

I liked and respected Betsy before she became education secretary and the mess that is D.C. has not changed that.

When asked about how she maintains civility and poise in the midst of such partisan vitriol and anger, Betsy said simply that she applies advice given to her by her father. Turn the page, he would say after challenging episodes. Keep moving. Start the next chapter.

That’s advice that will help all of us as we leave this summit of like-minded folks and tread back into a polarized country. I will keep thinking for myself and puzzling liberal loved ones. Betsy will continue advocating for those who need help the most. And all of us will keep moving.

Commentary: Why school choice transcends politics

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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

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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

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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.

Tony Barhoo: When it comes to schools, parents know best

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