Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

A little legal history to go with those concerns about vouchers & creationism

supreme courtThe Orlando Sentinel recently published a blog entry about a new website that opposes students using publicly-funded vouchers to attend private schools that teach creationism. The site asserts, “Teaching creationism with public money is unconstitutional. It violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which lays out a clear separation of church and state.”

I’m fine with citizens opposing the teaching of creationism. I would not send my child to a school that taught creationism in lieu of evolution, but the assertion that it’s unconstitutional is false.

In the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled parents are responsible for determining how and what their children are taught. And in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, the court ruled parents may use public money to pay for tuition at faith-based schools provided their choice is genuinely independent, and the funds go first to the parents and then to the school.

Florida’s school voucher programs all adhere to the Zelman requirement that funds go first to the parent and then the school, which is why using publicly-funded vouchers to attend faith-based schools is an exercise of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, and not a violation of the Establishment Clause. (By the way, the term “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. That phrase was used by President Thomas Jefferson in a January 1, 1802 letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, reassuring them that he opposed the government interfering with their religious practices.)

The Sentinel wrote that some state officials think tax credit scholarships are more constitutional than vouchers because tax credit funds never touch the state treasury, but, again, the key to the Zelman decision is the path the funds travel to arrive at a faith-based school. Once public funds are given to the parents, they become less public and more private, which is why their expenditure is an exercise of religious freedom and not government-supported religion. Continue Reading →

Private school choice options shouldn’t be limited to students in “failing schools”

Rhee’s failing schools model for vouchers and tax credit scholarships misinterprets the relationship between students and schools. With rare exceptions, schools are not good or bad independent of the students they serve. Some schools are good for some students and bad for others. A state-designated “A” school can be a terrible match for a particular student, which means for that student the school is a failure.

Rhee’s failing schools model for vouchers and tax credit scholarships misinterprets the relationship between students and schools. With rare exceptions, schools are not good or bad independent of the students they serve. Some schools are good for some students and bad for others. A state-designated “A” school can be a terrible match for a particular student, which means for that student the school is a failure.

In recent weeks, Tony Bennett, Florida’s new education commissioner, and Michelle Rhee, the CEO of StudentsFirst, offered conflicting rationales for supporting school choice. Bennett told participants at a National School Choice Week event in Tampa, Fla., that school choice is a necessary condition for equal opportunity and social justice. Low-income children should have access to the same options as the affluent, Bennett said, and this is why he supports providing low-income families with publicly-funded vouchers and scholarships to attend private schools.

StudentsFirst, on the other hand, released a state policy report card that docked Florida a few points for extending school choice to all low-income children. The group favors policies that restrict vouchers and tax credit scholarships to low-income students in state-designated “failing” schools. Within the choice movement, Rhee’s position is called the failing schools model.

Ten years ago, the failing schools model was the most favored, and it’s still popular with state legislators who see it as a politically safe compromise that allows parents to use vouchers only when their assigned district school is “failing.” But school choice, at its core, is about empowering parents to match their children to the schools that best meet their needs. Those judgments don’t necessarily align with school-wide standardized test scores.

Rhee’s failing schools model misinterprets the relationship between students and schools. With rare exceptions, schools are not good or bad independent of the students they serve. Some schools are good for some students and bad for others. A state-designated “A” school can be a terrible match for a particular student, which means for that student the school is a failure. Bennett’s approach assumes the relationship between a student and a school is what succeeds or fails, which is why he thinks all parents should be empowered to access the schools that work best for their children.

The failing schools model also tends to inappropriately pit public versus private schools by implying private schools are better, which is not true. Continue Reading →

School choice meshes with progressive Democratic Party values

The late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once crafted a tuition tax credit measure with Republican Sen. Bob Packwood that garnered 50 co-sponsors, including Sen. George McGovern and 23 other Democrats.

The late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once crafted a tuition tax credit measure with Republican Sen. Bob Packwood that garnered 50 co-sponsors, including Sen. George McGovern and 23 other Democrats.

Editor’s note: This op-ed appeared over the weekend in the Huffington Post.

At least three more red states — Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee — will push for school vouchers in the coming months. But the familiar showdown between Republican lawmakers and teachers’ unions masks a more intriguing political development on parental choice: Democrats are increasingly siding with parents.

Count me in the parent camp. I’m a lifelong progressive Democrat, former president of two local teacher unions, and current president of a Florida nonprofit that is the country’s largest provider of tax credit scholarships for low-income students to attend qualified private schools. This year the Florida scholarship will serve more than 50,000 economically disadvantaged students who are mostly of color, and it aligns directly with the core Democratic Party values of social justice and equal opportunity.

For a host of complicated reasons, low-income kids are not generally doing well in traditional public schools. In 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the reading gap nationally between low-income and higher-income fourth-graders was 22 percentage points. Florida has seen encouraging progress with its disadvantaged students, yet startling gaps persist. Last year, 45 percent of low-income third graders scored at grade level or above on the Florida reading test, compared to 77 percent of higher-income students.

One way to combat the challenges faced by students in poverty is to give their parents more options. Affluent parents can buy homes in neighborhoods with preferred school zones, navigate the other public school choices, home school or pay for a private school. But low-income parents don’t have these opportunities. Expanding choice is a way to help level the playing field.

This expansion is not either/or, and it’s not public versus private. Educators understand that different children learn in different ways, and to that end, education is increasingly becoming customized. In Florida, we now have 1.5 million students — about 43 percent of the total — enrolled in something other than traditional neighborhood schools. Last year, there were 341,000 who chose through “open enrollment,” 227,000 who picked choice and magnet programs, 180,000 in charter schools, 203,000 in career academies and 8,000 in full-time virtual instruction. Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are not an invasive species on this fast-changing landscape, where lines between public and private are blurring. They’re simply two more peas in a public education pod.

That’s one reason the politics are changing. Continue Reading →

Emerging market in public education is a good thing

apple marketWords such as voucher, privatization, profit and corporation are often used as weapons by individuals and groups who oppose parental empowerment and school choice. Using words as weapons is especially common during periods of significant social change – we all do it – but the practice undermines civic discourse and makes finding common ground more difficult.

“Market” is another term school choice opponents use to connote evil, but our way of life is largely based on markets, and public education is increasingly embracing market processes as customized teaching and learning become more common. Our challenge moving forward is regulating public education markets in ways that maximizes their effectiveness and efficiency.

People access products and services in one of two ways. Either their government assigns them, or they choose for themselves. In the United States, we have historically allowed citizens to choose, and this system of provider and consumer choice is a “market.”

In a goods and services market, providers decide which goods and services they want to sell, and consumers choose those they want to buy. Markets, when implemented properly, are preferable to assignment systems because they better utilize people’s knowledge, skills and motivation. Citizens are allowed to use their own experiences and judgments when making selling and purchasing decisions, and this citizen empowerment maximizes the universe of ideas from which improvement and innovation derive.

When governments assign products and services to their citizens, they rely on a small group of people to decide what to offer. This top-down approach is less open, transparent and effective than the decision-making that occurs in markets, and it discourages creativity. This is why most improvements in goods and services emerge from market systems rather than government assignment systems.

Markets allow providers to learn from consumers. When governments dictate to consumers what goods and services they may have, their citizens’ true wants and needs are not fully considered. The voice of the customer is silent. But when consumers are empowered to choose for themselves, providers learn from these choices and adjust accordingly. In markets, this necessity to meet customers’ needs drives innovation and continuous improvement. Continue Reading →

Bias against for-profit education providers is off the mark

Ben Austin of Parent Revolution and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have been engaging in a civil dialogue on the merits of educators and parents being able to purchase instructional and management services from for-profit corporations. Austin opposes allowing parents and educators to have this option, while Hess is a supporter.

While Ben Austin (pictured here) is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy.

While Ben Austin (pictured here) is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy.

Austin’s advocacy of parental empowerment derives from his belief that public education too often puts adult needs over the needs of children. He thinks giving parents more influence over how their children are educated will move students to the center of educational decision-making. But Austin opposes allowing parents to contract with for-profit corporations because he thinks these companies will be more concerned with profit than children’s needs. A summary of Austin’s position was recently posted on the Parent Revolution blog: “Because we believe children need to be put first in every decision, it is far better to have non-profit organizations – accountable to parents, taxpayers and a stated mission – than a for-profit organization, which by definition is accountable first and foremost to investors and shareholders … ”

Hess argues that for-profit corporations already provide billions of dollars of products and services to school districts every year, and if parents decide a for-profit company can best meet their children’s needs, they should be allowed to work with it.

I agree with Hess. While Ben Austin is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy. Parents should be free to contract with providers that best meet their children’s needs.

The ad hominem aspect of Austin’s argument is troubling. While I was doing my holiday shopping this year, the gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity of the salespeople I talked to was irrelevant, as was their employer’s tax status. What was relevant was the quality and price of the products or services they were selling. I suspect Ben has these same priorities when he shops, and he likewise does not consider a corporation’s tax status when he purchases products and services for his family and friends. Continue Reading →

Wishing for a progressive teacher union

My holiday wish is for teacher unions to expand their business model to include all public education teachers, and not just those employed by school districts.

REDEFINED_WISHLIST_FINALThe industrial model of unionism that teachers borrowed from the auto and steel workers 50 years ago assumes a large number of employees working in a centralized, command-and-control management system. Unions lose money when they apply this industrial unionism to smaller, decentralized employers such as charter and private schools. Consequently, they protect their desired market by opposing all school choice programs that enable students to attend schools not owned and managed by school districts.

But they are losing this fight. Parents like school choice. More than 40 percent of Florida students – 1.3 million – are now attending a choice school, and their numbers are increasing daily. As teachers move with their students and membership losses accelerate, teacher unions will eventually be forced to expand their business model to include services for teachers working for smaller, non-district employers. This expansion might include providing charter, virtual and private school teachers with liability insurance, financial planning, professional development, political advocacy and employee leasing for teachers willing to pay unions for guaranteed employment.

Teacher unions are an important vehicle through which teachers can make their voices heard and impact political decision making, but they have historically been conservative and resistant to change.  The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher organization, resisted collective bargaining for several years and only relented after losing thousands of members to the AFL-CIO  affiliated American Federation of Teachers. Both the NEA and AFT will refuse to embrace a more progressive, inclusive unionism until their membership losses are so severe they have no other choice.

This day is coming. When it arrives, teachers, unions, students and the public will all benefit.

Coming Friday: Two posts. Wishing school choice parents were impossible to ignore. And wishing for more information to help parents make the best choice.

A better definition of public education, a better debate about what we want from it

In a recent post, I argued that because customized teaching and learning have so blurred the lines between public, private and homeschooling, it is now most practical to define public education as education which satisfies each state’s mandatory school attendance law. We require students to be educated to achieve a public purpose; education that satisfies this purpose should be considered public education, regardless of how that education is funded, delivered or governed.

I was careful in my post not to assume public education and public schools are synonymous. Most states define public schools as those schools owned and managed by school districts; they also define charter schools as public even though charters are privately owned and managed. Public schools are a subset of public education, but not all of public education.

The accomplished University of South Florida professor, Dr. Sherman Dorn, disagreed with my position in an excellent response to my post, and I’d like to address some of his counterarguments.

Professor Dorn argued that public education refers to education that is “publicly-funded, publicly-controlled, publicly accountable, publicly-accessible, and for public purposes,” but these criteria are so broad and ambiguous they will lead to endless and unproductive debates about what constitutes public education in today’s context of customization. For example, home-schooling at times does and does not fit Dr. Dorn’s criteria. My younger son spent a semester as a homeschooled student taking a full course load at St. Petersburg College. According to Dr. Dorn’s criteria, he was in public education while being homeschooled. But what if he’d only taken two St. Petersburg College courses that term, a third course from the privately-owned Connections Academy through the Florida Virtual School, and two free online course from Stanford University? I guess he would have been 60 percent of a public education student, but that percentage would have fluctuated throughout the day as he worked on various courses.

We run into this same complexity when applying Dr. Dorn’s framework to students enrolled in private schools. Many private school students receive public funding to pay for part or all of their daily instruction. Those portions of their day paid for by public funds seem to fit Dr. Dorn’s criteria, while those portions that are privately funded do not. Again, using Dr. Dorn’s framework, we have students moving in and out of public education on a minute-by-minute basis, and that strikes me as impractical.

Complexities also arise when we drill down into each of Dr. Dorn’s standards. Continue Reading →

A better way to define “public education”

Georgia’s first compulsory school attendance law was passed in 1916. Photo from

For the last 150 years, we have assumed “public education” meant publicly funded education, but in this new age of customized teaching and learning this definition is too narrow. Today, it’s more useful and accurate to define public education as all learning options that satisfy mandatory school attendance laws, including those that don’t receive public funding, such as private schools and home-schooling.

Education – especially public education – has taken many forms in the United States over the last 300 years. According to Pulitzer Prize winning education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, in the 1700s education encompassed institutions “that had a part in shaping human character – families and churches, schools and colleges, newspapers, voluntary associations, and … laws”, while public education referred to formal instruction in public settings outside the home.

Public teaching became increasingly common in the latter half of the 18th century, and by the early 19th century most communities had at least one free school open to all white children. These free schools, which operated independently much like today’s charter schools, became known as common or public schools. They combined with religious schools receiving public funding to educate the poor to comprise public education.  As Cremin notes, in 1813, most New Yorkers saw publicly-funded religious schools “as public or common schools.”

Over the next few decades, public funding for religious schools – most notably Catholic schools – became more contentious and rare. By the mid-1800s, free public schools and public education had become synonymous. Schools not receiving public funds were called private schools, even though they provided public instruction outside the home.

The birth of public education as we know it today occurred during the 1840s and ‘50s. Continue Reading →