Author Archive | Ron Matus

Racism, irony & school choice

Former student Ozell Ward stands in front of a historical marker of the Milner-Rosenwald Academy in Mount Dora, Fla.

Former student Ozell Ward stands in front of a historical marker of the Milner-Rosenwald Academy in Mount Dora, Fla.

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

The school was all black. The textbooks, hand-me-down. The teachers paid less. Yes, the Milner-Rosenwald Academy in Mount Dora, Fla., was separate and unequal, said Ozell Ward, who attended 60 years ago.

And yet, in his view, it was better.

Teachers were invested, he said. Parents were engaged.

The community made it their “anchor.”

“Education-wise, I think I had one of the best foundations, period, despite the so-called handicaps,” said Ward, 69, a retired human resources consultant.

It may seem odd to highlight a segregated, Deep South school for a series about the roots of school choice. But the K-8 Milner-Rosenwald Academy was built during an all-but-forgotten campaign, nearly a century ago, to expand educational opportunity throughout the South. Like today’s school choice movement, it was propelled by a desire to give more and better to the kids who need it the most. The school and literally thousands like it reflected many of the core characteristics that have long defined the struggle for educational freedom, particularly in the African American experience.Voucher Left logo snipped

It offered options (in this case, of having one formal, quality school or none at all). Private sector support. Close ties to churches and faith leaders.

And local control.

“The school was the center of the community,” said Vivian Owens, a former chemist and retired public school science teacher who also attended Milner-Rosenwald. “And the community supported it in every way.”

Irony abounds. Mount Dora, population 12,000, is a charmer of a town in the middle of Lake County, an easy-on-the-eyes stretch of Central Florida known for citrus-covered hills, stunning lake vistas – and notorious, racist violence. For nearly 30 years, it was ruled by Sheriff Willis McCall, the overseer for the county’s white bankers and citrus barons. McCall was the dark force at the center of the Groveland Four case, which generated international headlines in the 1940s and ‘50s and pitted him against Thurgood Marshall, the larger-than-life NAACP lawyer who, at the same time, was leading the charge to desegregate public schools. Thanks to the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Devil in the Grove,” a movie is being made about the case, potentially giving millions of Americans a glimpse of the home-grown terrorism that, not long ago, was as much a part of the Florida landscape as sugar-sand beaches.

This was Florida at its worst. Yet for many African Americans here, it was also a golden age for education. Continue Reading →

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Lessons from a school choice trailblazer

Civil rights activist Mary McLeod was a school choice pioneer, opening a private, faith-based school for African-American girls in Daytona in 1904. The state of Florida may honor her with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Civil rights activist Mary McLeod was a school choice pioneer, opening a private, faith-based school for African-American girls in Daytona in 1904. The state of Florida may honor her with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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

How fitting: The choiciest of school choice states may soon be represented in the U.S. Capitol by the statue of a school choice pioneer.

A state panel nominated three legendary Floridians for the National Statuary Hall last week, but the only unanimous choice was Mary McLeod Bethune. The civil rights activist and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt is best known for founding the private, faith-based school that became Bethune-Cookman University.Voucher Left logo snipped

Assuming the Florida Legislature gives the Bethune statue a thumbs up too, more people, including millions of tourists who visit the hall each year, may get to hear her remarkable story. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get a better sense of the threads that tie the fight to educational freedom in Bethune’s era to our own.

With $1.50 to her name, Bethune opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904. There were public schools for black students in early 1900s Florida, but they were far inferior to white schools.

Bethune’s vision for something better was shaped by her own educational experience.

She attended three private, faith-based schools as a student. She taught at three private, faith-based schools before building her own. In every case, support for those schools, financial and otherwise, came from private contributions, religious institutions – and the communities they served. Backers were motivated by the noble goal of expanding educational opportunity. Black parents ached for it. That’s why, in the early days of her school, Bethune rode around Daytona on a second-hand bicycle, knocking on doors to solicit donations. That’s why her students mashed sweet potatoes for fund-raiser pies, while Bethune rolled up the crust.

Failure was not an option, because failure would have meant no options.

Goodness knows, I’m no expert on Mary McLeod Bethune. But given what I do know, I think she’d be amazed at the freedom that today’s choice options offer to educators. More and more teachers, especially in choice-friendly states like Florida, are now able to work in or create schools that synch with their vision and values – and get state-supported funding to do it. Continue Reading →

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What drives a school choice stalwart

Coons

Coons

Before he became one of the most prolific and thoughtful school choice advocates in America, Jack Coons was a law professor who did what he could to promote civil rights in the 1960s.

His work on potential legal snags with boycotts led to a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His conscience led him to Selma. He participated in demonstrations in Chicago after violence erupted over calls for fair housing.

Those experiences helped fuel the sustained push for school choice that Coons and fellow Berkeley law professor Stephen Sugarman began in the late 1960s and continue to this day. Much of it is detailed for the first time in a fresh set of recorded interviews for Berkeley’s Oral History Center.

The civil rights movement “certainly enhanced my spirit for the job,” Coons told interviewer Martin Meeker, the center’s associate director, for a 165-page transcript. “The work that Steve Sugarman and I have done over the years has been very much animated, I think, by our feeling about its application to families who just haven’t got any authority over their children, because they don’t have any money. They have to end them to some kind of school, that’s required, and so they have to send them to the local public school, which is a junk pile, intellectually and socially. Forgive me for all the good schools in the country that just got defamed, but it’s very much driven our interests.”

Readers of redefinED know Jack Coons. Now 86, he has written dozens of posts, echoing themes he sowed and cultivated over a half-century. Nobody emphasizes parental empowerment as a primary impulse for choice in education more than Coons. Nobody’s better at highlighting the implications for schooling and everything else.

Berkeley’s Oral History Center interviews folks who have made history or been witnesses to key events in California, the West and across America. It’s an honor for Coons to have been selected.Voucher Left logo snipped

Sugarman is honored, too, with an interview that also sheds light on an earlier era in the choice movement – and how curiously at odds it is with current, common perception.

Critics and the press often suggest school choice is solely a Milton Friedman-inspired impulse from the “right.” Those on the “left” who give the Coons and Sugarman interviews a read will find worldviews not too different from their own. Continue Reading →

As Florida Catholic schools grow again, disadvantaged students benefit

Thanks to school choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida can continue to offer high-quality education to students like Camron Merritt. Camron, 7, was struggling in his prior school but is now listening, learning - and making friends. Says his mom, "This school saved my son's life."

Thanks to school choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida are growing again, allowing them to continue to offer high-quality education to students like Camron Merritt. Camron, 7, was struggling in his prior school but is now learning and making friends. Says his mom, “This school saved my son’s life.”

This year, for the fifth year in a row, Catholic schools in Florida did not do what Catholic schools across America are doing. They didn’t close and shrink. They grew.

Behind the trend lines are students like Camron Merritt.

A year ago, Camron, a 7-year-old with emotional scars and learning disabilities, was going from bad to worse in his prior school. Rolling under desks. Mouthing off to his teachers. Getting picked on by other students. A lack of support and communication from school officials further frustrated Camron’s mother, Melissa Merritt. She knew she had to make a change.

She found Saint John Paul II Catholic School, a PreK-8 that recently reversed its own fortunes. She also found that Camron, as a child once in foster care, was eligible for a school choice scholarship that gave her the financial means to enroll him. Eight months later, she said, he’s a different child.

Camron is sitting in class. He’s listening and learning. He’s making friends. The second week of school, he was invited to a birthday party – for the first time ever.

“This school saved my son’s life,” Merrit said. “This scholarship saved my son’s life.”

Fueled by a quartet of pace-setting educational choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida continue to do what thousands of shut-down Catholic schools elsewhere can’t: Provide high-quality options to disadvantaged students.

For Saint John Paul II, the scholarships “made the difference between the school being able to survive, and the parents and kids (in the area) having choices,” said principal John Larkin.

The latest numbers show Florida Catholic school enrollment rose slightly this year, from 84,452 to 85,539 in PreK-12, according to survey data collected by the Florida Catholic Conference last fall. To repeat: That’s five years of growth in a row. The encouraging trend lines hold true even if Pre-K students are out of the mix, with K-12 upticks in four of the last five years.

In Florida, parents of four-year olds can use Pre-K vouchers to send their children to private schools. Parents with special needs-children can use McKay Scholarships or Gardiner Scholarships to cover their tuition. Low-income parents and parents of current or former foster children can also access tax credit scholarships, which are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

The percentage of Florida Catholic school students using these scholarships has risen steadily, from 4 percent in 2007-08 to 24 percent this year.

As a result, Catholic schools in Florida have, in recent years, enrolled a growing number of children from families that would otherwise struggle to afford a private-school education, and avoided the sad fate of their national counterparts. Continue Reading →

‘Hippie school’ votes for school choice

Grassroots Free School offers traditional classes in core subjects, but attendance is not mandatory. The school allows students to direct their own learning. It also accepts tax credit scholarships for low-income students.

Grassroots Free School offers traditional classes in core subjects, but attendance is not mandatory. The school allows students to direct their own learning. It also accepts tax credit scholarships for low-income students.

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

The tiny Grassroots School in Tallahassee, Fla., is democratically run. Everybody votes on everything. Some of its 24 students recently led a successful bid to limit use of school computers. Others debated whether Grassroots should raise chickens or rabbits. The chicken faction won.

School choice has been on the agenda, too.Voucher Left logo snipped

And for those who think choice is a good thing, good news: After a decade-long hiatus, the 42-year-old “free school” is again among the 1,600 private schools in Florida that accept tax credit scholarships for low-income students.*

“We want to serve all families,” not just those who can afford tuition without scholarships, said Kim Weinrich, the school’s chief academic officer. “That’s very important to us.”

Given the myths that fog perceptions about school choice, it’s noteworthy a school like Grassroots is participating in the nation’s largest private school choice program.

The “hippie school,” as it’s jokingly called, is rooted in one era but branching into a new one. In the 1960s and ‘70s, hundreds of schools like it mushroomed across America, nourished by a counterculture compost that rejected bureaucracy and uniformity. According to the Alternative Education Resource Organization, at least 100 remain.

A handful of families started Grassroots when Tallahassee was particularly fertile ground for liberal activists concerned about war, racism, pollution. “They were trying to figure out how we can improve,” in education and every other sphere of life, said longtime supporter Jan Alovus.

A self-described back-to-the-lander, Alovus migrated to Tallahassee in 1981, drawn by the city’s rep as a “cooperative community.” She paused, though, at sending her children to public schools: “I had been with them every day of their lives and all of a sudden somebody else was in charge of them?” she said. “That was odd to me.”

The remedy? Alovus and others started a land co-op that set aside four acres of oaks and magnolias for Grassroots. The school is still there, a stone’s throw from one of Tallahassee’s impossibly lush canopy roads and on the fringe of a sea change in public education. Continue Reading →

A forgotten “freedom school”

Students picketed public schools in Blythe, Calif. when tensions between the Hispanic community and school district boiled over. The conflict led to the creation of a private school, Escuela de la Raza Unida, which remains in operation.

Students picketed public schools in Blythe, Calif. when tensions between the Hispanic community and school district boiled over. The conflict led to the creation of a private school, Escuela de la Raza Unida, which remains in operation.

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

Carmela and Rigoberto Garnica have run Escuela de la Raza Unida for more than 40 years.

Carmela and Rigoberto Garnica have run Escuela de la Raza Unida for more than 40 years.

If the American left had fully championed school choice decades ago, we may be celebrating what happened in 1972 in Blythe, Calif. as the spark of a movement.

That spring, the Mexican-American community’s frustration with the public school system boiled over, spurring creation of a scrappy “freedom school” that became Escuela de la Raza Unida, which still exists today.Voucher Left logo snipped

This lost story from a remote desert town is steeped in the progressive politics of another era.

In Chicano Pride. In empowering the “poor.”

Even in Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

“We were ahead of the curve,” said Carmela Garnica, who has led the school with her husband, Rigoberto Garnica, since the beginning.

Hispanic support for school choice runs strong. But if there is anybody who has chronicled that history, even Hispanic school choice leaders are unaware. Perhaps the story of Escuela de la Raza Unida can inspire the deep dive that this subject deserves.

The school sprang from years of dissatisfaction. The fuse-lighter was an allegation that the principal of the public middle school in Blythe manhandled a female honor roll student, apparently for showing a politically provocative film to a Hispanic student group. But parents had complained about other issues for years. They wanted diversity in the nearly all-Anglo teaching corps. They wanted history lessons that acknowledged contributions of Native Americans and Mexican Americans.

Students picketed the public schools for weeks. In the meantime, the community rallied to create an on-the-fly school where everybody pitched in to teach, cook, clean – whatever they could do. Initially, they met at a local park, according to newspaper articles and “A Choice For Our Children,” a 1997 book by California school choice supporter Alan Bonsteel. At some point, the dissidents decided to rent space for classes, a tiny former post office that could hold 50 students.

They never left.

Escuela de la Raza Unida began as a K-12 private school, and Garnica says it would have preferred to stay that way. But California doesn’t have vouchers or tax credit scholarships, despite multiple attempts at the ballot, including this liberal-led campaign in the late 1970s. Over the years, the school had to shift its mission to best match community needs with available funding. Continue Reading →

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.

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 →