Author Archive | Patrick R. Gibbons

Montana moms get their day in court

Shortly after Montana created its first tax credit scholarship, Mike Kadas, head of the state’s Department of Revenue, unilaterally declared that scholarships could not be used at religious private schools. Kadas argued the state’s Blaine Amendment, a 19th century relic of Catholic discrimination, barred “direct or indirect” appropriations to religious organizations.

School choice moms struck back with a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

“The rule also violates both the state and federal Constitutions because it allows scholarship recipients to attend any private school except religious ones,” Erica Smith, an attorney with the institute, said in a press release at the time. “That’s discrimination against religion.”

Now two years later these moms will have a chance to make their case before the Montana Supreme Court today.

The case may have national implications. To date, cases hinged on whether the use of school voucher programs violated so-called “separation of church and state” requirements in the U.S. and state constitutions. Sixteen years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that vouchers did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Several other state supreme courts have ruled the same.

While choosing a religious school with vouchers, or tax credit scholarships, is constitutional, is it constitutional for states to prohibit parents from choosing religious options only? Continue Reading →

School vouchers: Cost-effective college enrollment boost; grad rates remain low

School vouchers and tax credit scholarships may not always improve participants’ standardized test performance, but a growing crop of studies suggest they are cost-effective when it comes to encouraging economically disadvantaged students to pursue a college education.

Two recent Urban Institute studies, one on Milwaukee and the other on Washington, D.C., continue that trend. The reports follow similar results from a 2017 Urban Institute study of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Students in Milwaukee using vouchers to attend private schools were more likely to attend college, while students in Washington were no more or less likely, to attend college than their public-school peers. Past Urban Institute research in Florida showed modest positive college attendance and associate degree gains among school choice participants.

Researchers Patrick Wolf, John Witte and Brian Kisida found Milwaukee voucher students were 6 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college than their public school peers. Milwaukee choice students were 1-2 percentage points more likely to graduate college, but that difference was not statistically significant.

The researchers conclude, “students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program tend to have higher levels of many measures of educational attainment than a carefully matched comparison of Milwaukee Public School students.”

Continue Reading →

Historic Florida school remembered

Black and white students at Industrial class. Orange Park school, 1898. Clay County Archives.

In a report to northern missionaries in 1894, an Orange Park Pastor, Rev. T.S. Perry, described a beacon of integration in the Jim Crow South:

“On this very spot, where less than a generation ago gangs of slaves toiled under the overseer’s lash, and within rifle-shot of the plantation whipping post, their children are now developing into worthy citizenship; and youth, both white and colored, are growing up into enlightened Christian manhood and womanhood.”

Today, 124 years later, that spot, the former site of Orange Park Normal and Industrial school, was finally recognized with a historic marker. Continue Reading →

Options on the rise: 1.7 million Florida students choose

Florida’s public schools are growing. And educational options are growing faster.

Public schools added more than 16,000 students in grades PreK-12 in the 2016-17 school year. A new analysis by Step Up For Students, using data from the Florida Department of Education, shows the state’s full spectrum of school choice options added 43,000 students that school year. Continue Reading →

The messy history of school vouchers, teachers unions and racial segregation

On Martin Luther King Day, it is worth remembering the sacrifices people made to advance equity and desegregate public life in America, including our schools. Unfortunately, some activists have begun exploiting the occasion to retell history.

In the new revisionist stories, modern school choice supporters are close ancestors to the villainous segregationists of the past.

History, of course, is far more complicated. And that’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the scholarship that underpins the misleading narratives about school choice.

Segregationists, it turns out, supported public and private schools alike. And meanwhile, teacher unions in the South ramped up their fights against school vouchers after discovering large numbers of parents used them for reasons other than racial discrimination.

Last year, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean claimed to have uncovered a shocking connection between James Buchanan, a school voucher supporter, and Sen. Harry Byrd’s anti-integration political machine. According to MacLean, Buchanan, a Nobel-winning economist, planted the racist roots of school vouchers by allying with segregationists to pass school vouchers into Virginia law.

A month after MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains was published, the American Federation of Teachers president Randy Weingarten claimed vouchers were the “polite cousin to racial segregation.” Numerous articles began to circulate arguing that school choice and racial segregation were inseparably linked. Continue Reading →

In memory of Brandon Berman

Brandon Berman

Brandon sat quietly in his wheelchair but grew increasingly agitated as his lawyer, Clint Bolick, answered rapid-fire questions from an aggressive reporter.

His mother, Donna Berman, stood behind him, worrying he might erupt into a fit, or worse, a seizure.

Brandon’s service dog Cody even sensed the frustration and made a noise in defense of his best friend.

“Can we get him out of here?,” Brandon muttered about the reporter.

Another reporter noticed his agitation. “We’ve been trying to get rid of him for years,” he quipped.

Brandon, who had autism, smiled and kept his composure.

Brandon was 16 at the time. He and his mom had come to Tallahassee to attend a hearing for Faase v. Scott. Florida’s statewide teachers union filed the case to halt a 2014 law that expanded the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), a scholarship program for children with special needs.

After years of struggles in public and private schools, Brandon and his mom felt the new program finally offered a path to an education that would work for him. They, along with other parents and students, jumped into the lawsuit to come to its defense.

Lawyers for the teacher unions claimed tax credit scholarships were their primary target. Brandon and other children using PLSAs were simply “collateral damage.” The two programs were linked in a sweeping piece of legislation the union argued violated the state constitution.

Brandon, his fellow intervenors, and the state’s lawyers ultimately prevailed.

Their win set the stage for a series of other legal victories for Florida’s school choice programs. The infant program they helped defend has blossomed into the nation’s largest education savings account program. It’s now called the Gardiner Scholarship, and it supports more than 10,000 students with special needs.  Continue Reading →

When given options, do parents become more informed?

Source: Education Next

Do parents try to become more informed when given the opportunity to choose a school for their child? Researchers Michael Lovenheim and Patrick Walsh try to answer that question in an article published today by EducationNext.

They reviewed more than 100 million searches and 3 million search terms on GreatSchools.org between 2010 and 2013. The website offers parent reviews, academic results, demographic data and other information about schools.

The researchers looked at areas where new school choice options became available. For example, under the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), schools receiving Title I funds that failed to meet minimum requirements for standardized test performance for two consecutive years were required to offer students the option to transfer to local schools that did meet standards. Continue Reading →

For 83 years, a North Fla. private school helped black students excel

Far from the public eye, a North Florida private school for black students survived for 83 years against the odds.

From its humble beginnings as a log cabin in 1868 until its closure in 1951, Fessenden Academy endured thanks to the grit of the students and the entrepreneurial verve of its leaders. Over the decades it fought to preserve its academic identity, won praise for the achievement of its students, weathered the mysterious disappearance of a key leader and survived to become one of the longest-lived educational institutions of an era when missionary aid societies and wealthy industrialists swooped in to fill a void left by the public school system.

Its achievements were all the more remarkable given that a crucial part of its mission — the education of black children — was not only neglected by the public, but made difficult by politicians seeking to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy. And yet, it successfully courted the support of the some of the same public officials who oppressed similar institutions during the Jim Crow era.

Florida's state constitution of 1885 erased the gains black Floridians made following the Civil War and constructed a single-party state built on the idea of white supremacy.

Although it’s not always considered part of traditional Dixie, racial tensions ran high in Florida and life for black residents was harsh. According to Historian David H. Jackson Jr., there were more lynchings per person in Florida between 1880 and 1930 than anywhere else in the South.

White residents, hostile to the idea of using tax dollars to provide an education for black students, were slow to build public schools for the black community. They fought to keep tax dollars from black and white residents segregated.

Florida's first elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, William N. Sheats, wrote racial segregation into the state's constitution. Over the course of his tenure, he forbade public schools from hiring teachers educated at racially integrated colleges, labored to shut down Florida's first desegregated private school and ordered the arrest of three Catholic sisters for the crime of teaching black students.

More than a third of the 20th century would pass before a majority of black students in Florida had access to a public school. Religious aid societies like the American Missionary Association (AMA) and wealthy benefactors stepped into that void to provide black students an education while the political majority would not.

This is the story of Fessenden Academy, a private school in rural Marion County, Florida, that educated black students for 83 years and became the last secondary school in the United States operated by the AMA.

From humble beginnings

Union School, as it was originally called, began in a humble log-cabin constructed entirely by local black families and financed by Thomas B. Ward in 1868. Continue Reading →