Author Archive | Ron Matus

Labor unions for school choice

Cesar Chavez (image from Wkimedia Commons).

Cesar Chavez (image from Wkimedia Commons).

This is the latest post in our occasional series on the center-left roots of school choice.

More than 30 years ago, liberal activists working to get a revolutionary plan for school vouchers on the California ballot approached labor leader Cesar Chavez, according to one of those activists, Berkeley law Professor Jack Coons. The co-founder of the United Farm Workers (Si Se Puede!) told Coons he liked school choice, but as far as supporting it publicly, No se puede.Voucher Left logo snipped

Doing so would put the teacher union’s generous financial support for his union at risk, he said.

Other evidence suggests Chavez wasn’t just politely telling a fellow traveler no. More on that in a sec. In the meantime, it’s worth noting the Chavez anecdote isn’t the only example of labor unions occasionally backing school choice or, in a few cases, outright distancing themselves from their teacher union brethren.

Consider:

  • In the 1990s, Pennsylvania Teamsters went whole hog for a voucher proposal from Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, even sending busloads of members to pro-school-choice rallies. Union leaders wanted vouchers because “first, it would help all Pennsylvania school children to a better education, and second, our members want it,” said a 1995 Teamsters newsletter. It continued, “Working-class parents who want to send their children to parochial or any other private school now face a double hit – tuition costs and high property taxes. Our members should have the option of using some of their state tax money to have their children education at the school of their choice.”
  • In 2011, two other, albeit smaller Pennsylvania unions backed another choice proposal, this one to create vouchers and expand that state’s tax credit scholarship program. The bill was co-sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Williams, a pro-school-choice Democrat. School choice scholarships “will rescue thousands of kids currently trapped in failing schools. This is not a partisan issue,” one union leader said. The bill “provides school choice to lower income families in a fiscally responsible way, without hurting public schools … ,” said another.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting union alliances against choice are about to crumble, and I can’t pretend to know if extenuating circumstances led these unions to make a break. But I think it is fair to say these examples shed more light on the myth that only conservatives and libertarians see the value of having more educational options for kids. The Netherlands, a union-friendly nation, and a pretty liberal one at that, embraced one of the planet’s most complete systems of school choice a long time ago.

I also think it’s fair to suggest from these examples that teacher unions, like the NAACP, risk becoming increasingly isolated from traditional allies because of head-scratching positions that leave those allies on the outs with their kids.

In our back yard, more than 800 parents of students using tax credit scholarships in Florida work for public school districts, according to data from Step Up For Students.* Some of those parents are public school teachers. Some, in fact, are teacher union members. But because of the income eligibility requirements, I’d guess the majority are custodians, bus drivers and other blue-collar workers – workers represented by the likes of AFSCME and the SEIU.

If the Florida teacher union succeeds in its lawsuit to kill the scholarship program, some of its members may rejoice. But tens of thousands of parents, including hundreds in other labor unions, will be heartbroken. I can’t imagine how that would be good for solidarity.

Back to Cesar Chavez.

In the early 1970s, farm workers in Blythe, Calif. started their own on-a-shoestring private school because they were fed up with conditions in public schools. Parents met at the local United Farm Workers hall to get the ball rolling, as longtime choice advocate Alan Bonsteel notes in the 1997 book he co-authored, “A Choice for Our Children.” The father of the woman who would become the school’s director, Carmela Garnica, was a UFW organizer.

The Escuela de la Raza Unida became a community gem. Garnica, a Democrat, became a voucher proponent. Chavez became a frequent visitor.

Si se puede? For vouchers?

It’s not as farfetched as people think.

*Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that helps administer the state’s tax credit scholarship program. It also hosts this blog and pays my salary.

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Sex, drugs and school choice

When it comes to its education system, the Netherlands decided nearly a century ago to end long-running religious strife over schools and let 1,000 flowers bloom. The Dutch system of universal school choice gives full government funding to public and private schools, including all manner of faith-based schools.

The Netherlands decided nearly a century ago to end long-running religious strife over schools and let 1,000 flowers bloom. The Dutch system of universal school choice gives full government funding to public and private schools, including all manner of faith-based schools. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

By common definitions, the Netherlands is a very liberal place. Prostitution is legal. Euthanasia is legal. Gay marriage is legal; in fact, the Netherlands was the first country to make it so. Marijuana is not legal, technically, but from what I hear a lot of folks are red-eyed in Dutch coffee shops, saying puff-puff-pass without looking over their shoulders.Voucher Left logo snipped

Given the rep, it might surprise school choice critics, who tend to consider themselves left of center, and who tend to view school choice as not, that the Netherlands has one of the most robust systems of government-funded private school choice on the planet. Next year the system will reach the century mark, with nearly 70 percent of Dutch students attending private schools (and usually faith-based schools) on the public dime.

By just about any measure, the Netherlands is a progressive’s paradise. According to the Social Progress Index, it was the ninth most progressive nation in 2015, down from No. 4 in 2014. (The U.S. was No. 16 both years.) On the SPI, it ranked No. 1 in tolerance for homosexuals, and No. 2 in press freedom. On another index, the Netherlands is No. 1 in gender equality. (The U.S. is No. 42.) It’s also among the world leaders in labor union membership (No. 19 in 2012, with 17.7 percent, eight spots ahead of the U.S.). And by some accounts, Amsterdam, the capital, is the most eco-friendly city in Europe.

Somehow, this country that makes Vermont look as red as Alabama is ok with full, equal government funding for public and private schools. It’s been that way been since a constitutional change in 1917. According to education researcher Charles Glenn, the Dutch education system includes government-funded schools that represent 17 different religious types, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Rosicrucian, and hundreds that align to alternative bents like Montessori and Waldorf.

Glenn, an occasional contributor to redefinED, has written the book on the subject. He calls the Netherlands system “distinctively pluralistic.” Continue Reading →

On parental choice and pluralism

In 1968, Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, then a leading light of the Voucher Left, argued for universal school vouchers, primarily to benefit black students: " ... for those who value a pluralistic society, the fact that such a solution would, for the first time, give large numbers of non-Catholics a choice about where they send their children, ought, I think, to outweigh all other objections."

In 1968, Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, then a leading light of the Voucher Left, argued for universal school vouchers, primarily to benefit black students: ” … for those who value a pluralistic society, the fact that such a solution would, for the first time, give large numbers of non-Catholics a choice about where they send their children, ought, I think, to outweigh all other objections.” (Image from www.hks.harvard.edu)

This is the latest installment in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

School vouchers won’t drain money from public schools, won’t violate the Constitution, and won’t fray the social fabric. Ultimately, they should be supported by “those who value a pluralistic society.” So wrote liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, once a leading light on the Voucher Left, in a lengthy 1968 essay in the New York Times Magazine.Voucher Left logo snipped

Oh, how times have changed.

Too many of today’s progressives boo and hiss at school vouchers, thinking they’re a Koch brothers weapon to kill public education. They should be reminded, as often as possible, that some of their left-of-center brethren (like him, him and him) see vouchers through a radically different lens and that, in fact, this progressive view goes back decades.

Jencks’s 1968 essay, “Private Schools for Black Children,” is yet more evidence. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jencks led the team that tried, as part of a federal experiment, to field-test school vouchers in a California school district. He concludes in his NYT piece that vouchers are necessary for political reasons, even if he doubts it will move the ball academically for black students.

Today’s school choice supporters would respectfully disagree on the academic piece, and they have the benefit of evidence (like this, this and this) that wasn’t there 50 years ago. Also and obviously, there are plenty of other good reasons to restore parental power over education, like those thoughtfully laid out by Berkeley Law Professor Jack Coons.

Conclusion aside, what’s striking about Jencks’s essay is how he brushes aside so many anti-choice arguments that so many modern progressives embrace.

Don’t school vouchers defy constitutional restrictions separating church and state? No, Jencks says. At the time of his essay, the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on that question. (It would, in favor of vouchers, in 2002). But, writes Jencks, it’s reasonable to think there wouldn’t be constitutional objections as long as the vouchers are “earmarked to achieve specific public purposes … “ Public money flows to Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities, he notes. Why not Catholic K-12 schools? The selectivity question continues to dodge scrutiny. Continue Reading →

Rosa Parks, school choice supporter

Soft-spoken and reserved, Parks did not want a big to-do about her proposed charter school. She simply wanted to help kids in her neighborhood, and she was uneasy with the possibility the school could become “political.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Soft-spoken and reserved, Parks did not want a big to-do about her proposed charter school. She simply wanted to help kids in her neighborhood, and she was uneasy with the possibility the school could become “political.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

This is the latest installment in our occasional series on the center-left roots of school choice.

If the full, rich history of school choice wasn’t so hidden, perhaps it’d be less shocking to stumble on a link (hat tip: Chris Stewart) between charter schools and “the first lady of civil rights.” But since so much of that history remains off radar, I have the honor of amplifying the blip.

Rosa Parks liked school choice, too.

In the late 1990s, she and her foundation applied for a K-12 charter school in Detroit in the hopes of uplifting black students in tough neighborhoods. Bad timing and twisted ed politics apparently doomed the effort, but it’s clear Parks, the product of a private Christian school, saw value in giving parents more options.

Said the application:

The mission of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Academy for Self Development (the “Academy”) is to provide mentoring and alternative learning, through creative education techniques, that incorporate the philosophies of Rosa and Raymond Parks. The Principles are based on their life experiences of pride, dignity and courage. Students will be educated and trained in a community environment to transfer common sense and survival skills into leadership and marketable skills.

The Academy will also provide training in life skills that incorporate the philosophies of Rose and Raymond Parks: dignity with pride, courage with perseverance and power with discipline.

Parks and her husband moved to Detroit in 1957, not long after her quiet act of courage on that Deep South bus sent dominoes falling. Their Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development operated an after-school program that stressed character education. Parks wanted a school that did the same.Voucher Left logo snipped

Pride, dignity and courage “were the words that were important to her, and that she wanted translated into a bigger educational program,” said Anna Amato, an education consultant who worked with Parks on the application and hasn’t talked publicly about it for nearly 20 years.

The Rosa Parks charter school also planned to emphasize project-based, experiential learning. For instance, students would take field trips to Michigan “stops” on the Underground Railroad and use that as a springboard for lessons in reading, writing, history – and more.

“Our students and parents, as an entire family,” said the application, “will be provided opportunities to develop a thorough knowledge of the history of the African American struggle for civil rights, along with a sense of responsibility for themselves and their communities.”

Soft-spoken and reserved, Parks did not want a big to-do over the school, Amato said. She just wanted to help kids in her neighborhood, and was uneasy with the possibility the school could become “political.”

Of course, the idea that low-income parents should have options beyond district schools has become ridiculously political. Continue Reading →

Black & homeschooled

Tamsin Thomas homeschools her daughter Olivia, 5, while sister Ona, 1, sits close by. “I don’t want my daughter to be short-changed because of the color of her skin,” Thomas said of Olivia. “I feel like I’m the only one who has her best interests at heart.” (Photo courtesy of Tamsin Thomas)

Tamsin Thomas homeschools her daughter Olivia, 5, while sister Ona, 1, sits close by. “I don’t want my daughter to be short-changed because of the color of her skin,” Thomas said of Olivia. “I feel like I’m the only one who has her best interests at heart.” (Photo courtesy of Tamsin Thomas)

Tamsin Thomas of Orlando, Fla. said when she was in high school, public school officials determined her younger brother, a bright-but-shy fifth grader, should be in special education classes. She was horrified. She feared her brother was being shifted, for no good reason, into less-challenging classes and onto a lesser track in life. She urged her mother to fight it.

Mom won. Now Thomas’s brother is set to graduate with a standard diploma, and planning to enlist in the Marines. But that experience and others convinced Thomas that when it comes to public schools, African-American parents are rolling the dice with their children’s futures.

So, she homeschools.

“I don’t want my daughter to be short-changed because of the color of her skin,” Thomas said of Olivia, 5. “I feel like I’m the only one who has her best interests at heart.”

Thomas isn’t alone.

Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, a flurry of recent stories (like this, this and this) note a growing number of African-American parents turning to homeschooling.

Researchers estimate 200,000 of the 2.4 million homeschoolers nationwide are African-American. Their parents are largely motivated by the same reasons that propel other homeschool parents. But a significant number also want to shield their children from schools they believe will shortchange them, leading to outcomes that are beyond troubling.

In this respect, the rise in black homeschoolers isn’t a trend on the fringe, but another thread in the educational freedom story that has always been part of the black experience in America. As a new report from the Black Alliance for Educational Options put it, “Black people’s struggle to obtain an education in America is older than the Declaration of Independence.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if the homeschool chapter was especially telling in Florida.

The state with the second-highest number of black students in the nation (after Texas), and arguably the most robust array of choice options, had 84,096 home-schooled students in 2014-15, up 21 percent in five years. The state doesn’t track the students by race, but many homeschool parents, both white and black, say the increase in African-American homeschooling families is clear.

Thomas said when she began homeschooling Olivia several years ago, she was the only African-American parent in her homeschooling networks. But now there are several, and she expects to see more.

“It’s the way things are going in society,” Thomas said. “We say we think racism is behind us, but … “ Continue Reading →

Teacher union wants voucher expansion?

FEA President Joanne McCall

FEA President Joanne McCall

Talk about irony.

The head of the Florida teachers union – which is suing to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program – said this week that one of Florida’s biggest educational voucher programs led to improvements in student learning, and strongly suggested the program be given more state money.

Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall was referring to the state’s Voluntary PreKindergarten (VPK) program. It’s a government-funded voucher. It cost the state nearly $400 million last year alone. And it allowed 125,000 students to attend private institutions, including 27,000 at faith-based providers.

McCall’s voucher support came via this Context Florida op-ed, which slammed a Florida Chamber of Commerce report praising the state’s education reforms, particularly in terms of regulatory accountability. She shrugged them off and pointed instead to two union-backed policies: shrinking class sizes and VPK.

“Both have accomplished more to improve student learning than most of the policies advocated in the Chamber report,” McCall wrote. And about VPK in particular, she added, the chamber ignores the fact that “Florida’s prekindergarten per-student funding is among the lowest in the nation, leading not surprisingly to pre-K programs that are inferior to those in most states.” Continue Reading →

Steve Jobs, school choice lefty

Steve Jobs (photo by Matthew Yohe, accessed from Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Jobs (photo by Matthew Yohe, accessed from Wikimedia Commons)

This is the latest in our series on the Voucher Left.

Five years after his death, we’re still talking about Steve Jobs. The 2015 movie about him just won two Golden Globes, including one for Aaron Sorkin’s script. His quotes still spur stories. His connection to the San Francisco 49ers somehow inspired an angle for Super Bowl 50.

So now seems as good a time as any to highlight (as other folks rightly did after his death) that Jobs, the Apple visionary, was a passionate supporter for school vouchers, and to add what hasn’t been explicitly noted, which is that he was, by conventional perceptions, an especially liberal one.

Skeptical? Jobs, the adopted son of a repo man, took a deep, lifelong dive into Eastern religions. He cultivated an organic garden. He was pretty much vegan (and at one point, a fruitarian). In his younger days, he dropped a lot of acid, dropped out of college and went to work barefoot. For years, he avoided deodorant. His company was all in for gay rights. He couldn’t get enough of Bob Dylan. And the kicker to his most famous speech, his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, was a quote from the crunchy-granola “Whole Earth Catalog.”Voucher Left logo snipped

To be clear, I don’t care if Jobs was “conservative” or “liberal.” But tribal politics being what they are, I know many people do put stock in labels, including folks on the left who have somehow come to believe that expanding opportunity through school choice is out of synch with their “progressive” values. So, for them, it’s worth noting what Jobs, this counterculture kind of guy, had to say about school choice:

I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4,400 dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students.

Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I’ve suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have 25-year-old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it.

It would be rather painful for the first several years, but far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now. The biggest complaint of course is that schools would pick off all the good kids and all the bad kids would be left to wallow together in either a private school or remnants of a public school system. To me that’s like saying “Well, all the car manufacturers are going to make BMWs and Mercedes and nobody’s going to make a $10,000 car.” I think the most hotly competitive market right now is the $10,000 car area.

It’s worth reading Jobs’ remarks about public education in full (thanks to the Heartland Institute for culling them), because he also says interesting things about unions, monopolies, parents and consumers. For now, a few things worth noting …

First, as Jay P. Greene pointed out after Jobs died in October 2011, the Apple CEO made similar comments as late as 2007. So these snippets above, from a 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, aren’t an anomaly.

Second, Jobs came of age in an era where parental choice wasn’t saddled as it is now with the “right wing” label slapped on by critics and sealed by the press. In fact, he and Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple would have been right there, at the epicenter of a voucher quake, when liberal Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman led a late ‘70s effort to make school choice the law of the land in California. Continue Reading →

School choice and black history

BAEO report coverIf you want to know why black support is so strong for school choice, talk to black parents and listen to Howard Fuller. In the meantime, read “The State of Education in Black America,” a new report from the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

As we’ve written before, the struggle for educational freedom runs deep in African-American history. But nobody knows and speaks to that better than BAEO, a leader in the  fight for 15 years. Its report, released last week, highlights the outrageous academic statistics that backdrop the legions of African-American parents who seek educational options for their children. It also offers plenty of historical nuggets, including a primer beginning on page 31, for anyone who somehow thinks this search is new, or alien, or some kind of ploy:

Black parental choice in America did not begin with the creation of charter schools or publicly funded voucher and tax-credit programs in the 1990s. Black parents’ demand for a quality public education in a non-segregated school did not begin with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Black adults’ aspirations for higher education did not wait for congressional enactment of the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, nor did Black parents wait for systemic school reform with the creation of the federal Department of Education in 1867.

I wish choice critics would consider this history. Would they be so quick to condemn “vouchers” if their frame of reference included Southern slave codes, which made it a crime to teach slaves how to read and write? Would they still insist black choice supporters are being conned if they knew about the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles or the Piney Woods boarding school in Mississippi? Would they still see nefarious ties between schools and faith if they knew black churches have always been central to establishing quality schools for African Americans?

The BAEO report includes data on black student performance in charter schools, and in private schools accessed through vouchers and tax credit scholarships. It notes recent stories and research about the rise in black homeschoolers. And it offers advice for those who want to educate others about the need for options for black students: share the report with as many people as possible.

For those with an open mind, it’s there. For everybody else, we’ll press on.