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Advocate Voices

Talethia Edwards: Parents should be able to choose appropriate schools for their children

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Parents unite to learn about, advocate for educational choice

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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

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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.

C.E. Glover: School choice scholarships serve Florida’s most vulnerable children

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John Kirtley on universal vouchers, tax credit scholarships and more

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John Kirtley is the chairman of Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog

Jeffrey Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times recently interviewed Step Up For Students Board Chair John Kirtley for a Times story on Florida’s education choice programs. Jeff’s questions and John’s answers are below. This interview has been edited for length.

Why did you first create the tax credit scholarships? Were you trying to come up with an alternative to vouchers? Were vouchers always the end goal?

… It is often erroneously said that “the tax credit scholarship program was created after the Florida Supreme Court ruled Jeb Bush’s voucher plan unconstitutional.” That is false. The litigation had only just begun when the Legislature created the tax credit scholarship. Most of us — including some very smart lawyers — thought that the governor’s voucher program would prevail in court.  … I would urge you to read this story about that ruling …: https://www.redefinedonline.org/2019/02/state-funded-scholarship-programs-then-and-now/

But I digress. The Bush v. Holmes opinion came out five years after the tax credit program was created. The opinion wasn’t the motivation for its creation.

The end goal is to empower low-income and working class parents to be able to choose the best educational environment for their children, regardless of who runs it. I am agnostic when it comes to what kind of school parents choose. I don’t believe private schools are better than district or charter schools. I believe that the parent needs to have the ability to find the right environment for their children. My “end goal” would be that economic station would not prevent any parent in Florida from doing just that.

Did Florida need to go through 20 years of becoming accustomed to these programs to get to this point today, where the governor now says, if it’s taxpayer-funded education, it’s public education no matter where you sit?

Maybe so. Twenty years ago the definition of “public education” was pretty simple. We raised taxpayer dollars to educate kids, and we gave every penny to the districts. The districts ran every school in a fairly “uniform” manner, and assigned kids by their ZIP code. Today the definition of public education is very different. We now have children attending district magnets, career academies, charters, virtual classes, dual enrollment college classes, and yes even private and faith-based school using taxpayer funds. Many students are now combining different providers and delivery methods at the same time. For example, a senior in high school might take two classes at their zoned district school, two classes through the Florida Virtual School, and two classes at the local state college—all paid for by the taxpayers.  People are surprised to learn that of the 2.8 million students in Florida educated by the taxpayers, over 30 percent now do not attend their zoned district school. In Miami Dade, it’s [nearly] 70 percent! So I agree completely with Gov. DeSantis on this question.

Are education savings accounts and portable per-student funding the next logical step in the movement? Or is it something else?

I believe ESAs are the next logical step. They give a parent the ability to customize a child’s education to a greater degree. We have seen this be very helpful in the Gardiner program. Money can be used for tuition, but also tutoring and specialized therapies. ESAs would be of great help to low-income families. Think about all the things that better off kids do outside of the classroom that help with their development. Music lessons, dance, sports, etc. Some of these activities are crucial in helping children develop into successful adults. ESAs could help low-income parents give their children the same advantages in this regard as better off families. ESAs would also promote a more efficient spending of educational dollars. Think of the example I gave of the student using three providers and two delivery methods. With an ESA, they could purchase those classes from each provider, and we could ensure that the taxpayer doesn’t overpay for any one of them. The key to ESAs is having excellent state oversight, particularly in the area of deciding what are proper expenses. Fortunately, Step Up For Students has raised $4 million in private funds over the past few years to develop an online platform that makes the administration of ESA possible with great accountability. It prevents funds from being spent on purposes that the state doesn’t allow.

How important were Jeb Bush and the Bush v. Holmes case to the state’s progression on school choice?

Jeb Bush has done more for educational choice — and K-12 reform overall — than any single person. First, people forget he started the state’s first charter school in Liberty City with Urban League President T. Willard Fair. Then in 1998 he ran for governor on a platform of K-12 reform and was the first governor candidate in the nation to propose giving poor families the ability to choose a private school. Opponents went nuts during the campaign, and did so again when he fulfilled his promise with the A+ Plan. Florida has made more progress in public education in the last 20 years than any other state. It’s indisputable, even though people deny it or try to ignore it. And it all started with Jeb Bush.

Should the state place accountability requirements on any school that receives state funding for education, as it requires on district schools and charters? Why or why not?

There are two kinds of accountability — regulatory accountability and market accountability. Regulatory accountability is using laws to force schools to act in a certain way. Market accountability is parents choosing to send their children to a school. For all kinds of schools, whether they be district, charter or scholarship schools, the key is finding a balance between these two forms of accountability.

District schools face large degrees of regulatory accountability. Generally, district schools in low-income areas face little market accountability, because parents can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a different zoned school, and they can’t afford private school. I contrast that with district schools in better off areas, because parents can afford to move or pay for an alternative.

I personally believe that district schools are overregulated, and should be allowed much more flexibility to innovate and operate. I think we have wrung all the improvement we can out of district schools from regulatory accountability.

Charter schools and private schools serving scholarship children face the ultimate in market accountability, because if parents don’t choose them they don’t get funded. Because they face this aspect, which forces them to perform or go out of business, the regulatory accountability needed is less. But there is absolutely a need for regulatory accountability for them. With the scholarship schools, they must prove that they are in compliance with all health and safety laws. They must have employees undergo the same background checks as district schools. If they take $250,000 worth of scholarship students, they have to have an independent CPA come in and examine their books, and submit that report. They have to administer either the state assessment or a nationally recognized test approved by the state, and report those scores to Florida State every year. Scores are publicly reported by FSU down to the school level.

Critics of choice programs point to incidents of bad behavior and demand that the programs be shut down. But you can’t legislate away human frailty. Every day we read about bad behavior by employees in district schools, but we don’t advocate shutting down a school when it happens there. Now, if a private school hasn’t complied with the law, I say expel them. For example, if they haven’t done background checks on employees, that’s inexcusable. We need to ensure that the Florida DOE has enough resources and capacity to enforce the accountability laws that are already on the books

I often wish that critics of choice would apply their concerns across the entire K-12 landscape. For example, some critics are upset that the law doesn’t require private schools serving scholarship students to employ teachers with college degrees. But they don’t want to hear that there’s many teachers in public schools without college degrees, especially in district schools serving low-income children. For schools in Orange County serving more than 80 percent low-income students, 39 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 14 percent missed more than 18 days of school. Substitutes in Orange County can be hired with only a high school or GED degree. In Duval County high-poverty schools, 41 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 29 percent missed more than 18 days. Here’s the source for that:

 http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/RollCall_Orlando

https://www.nctq.org/dmsView/RollCall_Jacksonville

Your own paper did an excellent piece on the challenges with substitutes. Now understand, I’m not saying that the districts are to blame — they’re doing the best they can. I’m just saying that if we are concerned about teachers without college degrees, let’s find out how bad the problem is an all types of schools and find a solution.

Every year Step Up makes suggested to the Legislature to improve the accountability of the choice programs. We will continue to do so every year.

A mother’s plea for education choice

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Editor’s note: This is a transcript of the moving speech Shareka Wright gave at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s education scholarship event at Calvary City Christian Academy & Preschool Feb. 15 in Orlando.

Good morning. These are my two boys. This is Zion, he’s 8. Jayden, he’s 6.

Shareka Wright with son Jayden on her right and Zion on her left

I’m a single mother of three. I drive a garbage truck for the city of Orlando, usually working more than 60 hours a week. I’m doing it to send my two youngest sons to private school. We live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes I have to choose between buying food and paying tuition.

I choose private school because Zion and Jayden were struggling so much in their public school last year. They were bringing home D’s and F’s. Zion had a substitute teacher for his entire second grade year and fell way behind. Jayden was bullied in kindergarten by the very kids in his school and was afraid of having his lunch money taken every day.

I found Miracle Grace Academy here in Orlando, and I knew it was the right place for my boys. We applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, but sadly we were left on the waiting list. There isn’t enough funding for all the families in Florida who need these scholarships. My boys are among almost 13,000 students on the waiting list this school year. There are 1,200 just in Orange County.

Miracle Grace is wonderful. Zion and Jayden have shown so much improvement. They’re getting A’s and B’s now. They get along with everyone. They have learned discipline and spirituality. But I don’t have the money to keep up with the tuition, and the school’s patience can’t last forever. That is why I’m calling on lawmakers to work with the governor, Ron DeSantis, to fund the scholarship program so that families like mine won’t have to wait and suffer.

Being a single mom of three boys is hard, but I never want my kids to feel like they can’t go to college, they can’t get a better education, where they have to stay in school and be bullied or to stay in school and just have a different sub every 30 days. I do my best. I always tell my boys, “Be better than me. Don’t be below me, don’t stop where I stopped at on achievements. Go higher than me. Make goals. Anything you set your mind to you can do.”

Being a single mom isn’t easy. It’s hard. I always do it because I remember I have three boys that depends on me. All they know is Mother makes the way. Money, money, money. I get up every morning, I thank God. I can thank my supervisors, they have worked with me, they have been patient with me because it’s stressful with me having all the stress on my back and operating a heavy garbage truck every day with no accidents, no fatalities. It’s hard. but to keep these two happy and to try to give them the best in life, and try to make them know that they can go to college, they can become doctors, lawyers, pastors, whatever they put their minds to be, I’ll do it every day with smiles and no regrets.

Commentary: Widen the circle, broaden the conversation

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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.