Author Archive | Ron Matus

School choice gave this teacher freedom

Angela Kennedy’s decision to quit being a public school teacher was driven by a steady drip, drip, drip of frustration.

Dr. Angela Kennedy was a 14-year veteran of public schools when she left to start her own private school. She had been a classroom teacher and instructional coach, and had also coordinated curriculum compliance for English language learners. “I wanted parents and students and teachers to have another option,” she said.

In her view, teaching had become too scheduled and scripted, with new teacher evaluations rewarding conformity more than effectiveness. Cohort after cohort of low-income kids continued to stumble and fall, while people far from classrooms continued to impose mandate after mandate. Her passion for teaching began to fade.

Kennedy considered becoming an administrator, so she could attempt reform from within. But ultimately, she took a leap of faith. After 14 years in Orange County Public Schools, she did what educators in Florida increasingly have real power to do: She started her own school.

Deeper Root Academy began three years ago, with three students in Kennedy’s home. Now it’s a thriving PreK-8 with 80 students and nine teachers, including seven who, like Kennedy, once worked in public schools. Most of the students are black, and 80 percent are from in or near Pine Hills, a tough part of Orlando that drew President Trump to another private school this month.

“It was that back and forth, thinking about where I could be the most impactful,” Kennedy said. “Would it be to stay and try to start a change? To try to deal with a mammoth system? Not likely that I’m going to get very far … ”

“But what I could do is give people an option. And that’s where this school came from. I wanted parents and students and teachers to have another option.”

Kennedy had options because parents had options.

Florida offers one of the most robust blends of educational choice in America, which is why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gives it a nod. Forty-five percent of Florida students in PreK-12 attend something other than their zoned district schools, with a half-million in privately-operated options thanks to some measure of state support.

Charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts are all opening doors for Florida students. With far less fanfare, they’re doing the same for teachers.

“In my school,” Kennedy said, “I have the liberty to do what’s best for my kids.” Continue Reading →

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Low-income students drive Florida’s success on AP tests

Florida continues to be a national leader on college-caliber Advanced Placement exams, fueled by the success of growing numbers of low-income students.

The Sunshine State ranks No. 4 in the nation in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed at least one AP exam, according to 2016 data released in a new report from the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the AP program.

At 29.5 percent, Florida outpaces the national average of 21.9 percent and trails only Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut, states with far fewer low-income students and far better academic reputations.

AP exams are standardized tests that correspond with dozens of college-caliber high school courses. They are widely viewed as a good gauge of a student’s college readiness and, in some credible quarters, as a good indicator of a state’s educational quality.

The latest results aren’t a fluke. The percentage of graduating seniors passing AP exams in Florida shot up 11 percentage points between 2006 and 2016, putting the state No. 3 in progress over that span. In raw numbers, 47,242 graduating seniors from the class of 2016 had passed at least one, nearly double the number from a decade ago.

Florida’s outcomes are even more impressive given its demographics. Florida has the highest rate of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch among states in the AP Top 10, and in most cases, a far higher rate. No state has a bigger differential between the relative poverty of its student body and its overall performance on AP exams. (See chart at the bottom of the post.)

Additional AP numbers from the Florida Department of Education show low-income students are leading the charge. The percentage of low-income graduating seniors who passed an AP exam climbed more than 500 percent between 2006 and 2016, and that group made up more than 60 percent of the total growth in AP-passing graduates, according to DOE figures.

The number of low-income Florida students who passed at least one AP exam grew by more than 500 percent between 2006 and 2016. Source: Florida Department of Education data.

Continue Reading →

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Betsy DeVos, Jimmy Carter and Democratic retreats on school choice

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

Jimmy Carter once touted school vouchers, telling readers of Today’s Catholic Teacher in 1976: “While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The confirmation fight over new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has at least temporarily pulled Congressional Democrats from the growing bipartisan consensus on school choice. But this political showdown, and the extent to which it was animated by the teacher unions, is not new.

We can probably trace its beginnings to Jimmy Carter. It was during Carter’s presidency that intraparty politics began to pry the Democratic Party from its embrace of school choice. A couple of letters from Carter to Catholic educators, four years apart, captures the shift.

In September 1976, then-candidate Carter wrote to Today’s Catholic Teacher. (Go to page 11 here.) He praised Catholic schools; referred to the “right” of low- and middle-income Americans “to choose a religious education for their children;” and argued for school choice in terms of opportunity and diversity, as pro-choice progressives had long done. He said he was committed to finding “constitutionally acceptable” ways to provide financial assistance to parents whose children attend private schools. And, as a kicker, he gave a thumbs up to vouchers:

“While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.”

Carter’s pro-choice, pro-voucher position is fascinating for all kinds of reasons. Today’s left has no clue about its own past support for school choice. And as the Carter letter shows, choice wasn’t some fringe phenomenon on that end of the spectrum.

It’s also fascinating because Carter changed his tune at the end of his term, a turnabout that generally marked the beginning of the left’s resistance to choice (at least the white left) and a shrinking of that common ground we’re seeing again, post-Trump. As Doug Tuthill has written, that late ‘70s flip-flop has everything to do with the rise of the teachers union as a force within the Democratic Party, and little to do with progressive values.

The key point on the timeline is 1976, when the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. That would be Carter.

Four years later, his administration scrambled to write a follow-up to Today’s Catholic Teacher. Republican nominee Ronald Reagan had written a first-person letter to the magazine, and the magazine let Carter’s people know their initial response – a statement from the administration – paled in comparison. “HURRY HURRY HURRY,” one of Carter’s media liaisons urged the PR team in a memo: “This message conceivably could be in every Catholic publication in every Catholic school.”

The team shifted into high gear. But the resulting letter surely didn’t fire up undecided Catholics.

It gave Catholic schools credit for playing a “significant role” in educating “millions of low and middle income Americans.” But instead of a continuing commitment to find constitutionally acceptable ways to provide aid to private school parents – which Carter promised in 1976 – the president would only commit to supporting constitutionally appropriate steps to get Catholic schools “their equitable share of funds provided under our federal education programs.” Clearly, a far lesser goal.

Documents in the Carter Presidential Library show what was scrubbed during editing. David Rubenstein, then one of Carter’s domestic policy advisers, nixed language that said Carter reported the administration’s efforts to help private schools to the Democratic Party platform committee. He also scratched out Carter’s support for platform language that backed tax aid for private school education. “Definitely NO,” he wrote next to the strike-through. “I don’t see any advantage to getting into the Platform,” he commented in another memo.

Also removed was a description of parochial schools that said “in many areas, they provide the best education available.” And wording that said without such schools, millions of Americans “would have been denied the opportunity for a solid education.”

Caught between the Reagan Revolution and teachers unions, Democratic support for school choice faded for a decade. It began to pulse again in the 1990s, with the advent of charter schools. Then it slowly branched into other choice realms, nudged by advocacy groups that worked tirelessly to build bipartisan and nonpartisan bridges, and welcomed by Democratic constituencies who liked having options.

That middle ground has been steadily growing, and Florida is a prime example. A few months ago, the Sunshine State elected two pro-school choice Democrats to Congress. A year ago, the state Legislature expanded America’s biggest education savings account program with universal bipartisan support. For the past two and a half years, a remarkably diverse coalition battled legal efforts to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which now serves nearly 100,000 kids. Three weeks ago, it won.

Masses of energized parents, most of them black and Hispanic, helped fuel that legal victory. That force wasn’t in place when Jimmy Carter followed the path of least resistance. But it’s here now, and Democrats can only ignore it for so long.

Betsy DeVos & black empowerment

Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote, "“Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote about Betsy DeVos and the African-American roots of school choice, “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Long before anybody used the term “school choice,” black communities were striving for it, often by any means necessary. Which is why black parents, though overwhelmingly Democratic by party registration, are likely to find their views on educational options to be more in line with Betsy Devos, the Republican nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, than the white progressives trying to derail her. Crazy times.

I’m not black, and I’m not a historian. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that fighting for educational freedom has been at the heart of the black experience in America. And yet, somehow, that epic struggle is overlooked in these polarizing fights over school choice – which is a shame, given the possibility it might make the fights less polarizing.

If I were king, I’d make white progressives read Yale Professor James Forman and listen to choice advocate Howard Fuller. In the meantime, if their tribal impulses are getting revved up over Betsy DeVos – and I know from my facebook feed they are 🙂 — I’ll have the audacity to hope they check out this recent piece in The Atlantic, “The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform.”

The author, College of Charleston Professor Jon N. Hale, offers a brief, nuanced look at choice through the lens of black history. That history isn’t always flattering to the choice “side.” Segregation academies, for example, did happen in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. (Choice supporters have acknowledged that past, and noted how it differs from the ideals that spur today’s choice movement.) But that stain is a small part of a bigger story, in which private schools have been essential to black progress.

Writes Hale:

American history clearly demonstrates that communities of color have been forced to rely upon themselves to provide an education to as many students as possible. Students of color have rarely been provided a quality public education. As James Anderson demonstrated in Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, black communities consistently had to provide their own schools by taxing themselves beyond what the law required, as white officials never appropriated public money equitably by race. Black civic leaders and educators had to forge alliances with philanthropists and “progressive” whites for further financial support.

Barred from the American social order, black educators, in effect, were forced to rely upon private means to meet the educational needs of their own children. African Americans established schools controlled by the community. Such “community-controlled schools” were by necessity administered by African Americans, taught by African Americans, and attended by African Americans.

Hale sums it up this way: “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

The Atlantic piece mentions a few examples. We’ve explored others, including some that show how central faith was to many of these efforts. Continue Reading →

School choice & civil rights

Progressives hostile to school choice groan when they hear conservatives talking about school choice as a civil right. Some choice supporters get a little uncomfortable too.

But there are plenty of folks with bona fide civil rights credentials (see hereherehere and here for starters) who use the same language, because they genuinely view the parental choice movement as another phase of the civil rights struggle.

Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.

Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.

Martin Luther King III is one of them. A year ago this week, he headlined a rally in Tallahassee that drew 10,000 people in opposition to the ongoing lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the largest private school choice program in America.* The event spawned a ton of news coverage, and one of King’s quotes made the rounds: “If the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice,” he told the crowd. “Because this is about justice. This is about righteousness. This is about truth. This is about freedom. The freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”

The whole of King’s remarks didn’t get as much attention. (See them in the video above, starting around the 5-minute mark.) So what better time than now, the holiday commemorating his father’s birthday, to give it a spotlight?

MLK III describes himself as a human rights activist. He is pro-Obama, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-gun control. And his speech touched on reasons for school choice that choice-friendly progressives have long emphasized, particularly opportunity and diversity. King wove in comments on other issues that day – poverty, defense spending, criminal justice – that left no doubt he’s a man of the left. I suspect the massive crowd before him that day, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, largely shared his views.

Despite popular perception, both left and right have supported school choice, and both have advanced compelling arguments in favor. Unfortunately, the views of the pro-choice left have been obscured by a bogus narrative that vouchers, charter schools and related programs are part of a sinister, right-wing scheme to destroy public schools.

Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell MLK III – and the thousands of parents cheering him. Here’s what he said as his speech came to a close:

My dad told us a lot of things. He used to say that the ultimate measure of the human being is not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience. But where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.

He went on to say that on some questions, cowardice asks: Is the position safe? He said expediency asks: Is the position politic? He said vanity asks: Is the position popular? But that something deep inside called conscience asks: Is the position right? 

He went on to say that sometimes we must stand up for positions that are neither safe nor popular nor politic. But we must stand up because our consciences tell us they’re right. 

That’s what we are here for today. Because we’re standing on the right side of what’s right for our children … 

I hope more progressives give MLK III a listen.

Because on school choice, he’s right. From the left.

*The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.

No, school choice isn’t a conservative plot

Karl Marx wasn't a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to choice was purely knee-jerk.

Karl Marx wasn’t a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to school choice was purely knee-jerk. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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

If they wanted to, it’d be easy for progressives who oppose school choice to find a long list of other progressives who embrace it. Given the stuff that’s flying in an effort to tar Betsy DeVos, I wish more wanted to. But hope springs eternal, so today we’re hoping fair-minded progressives might pause long enough to hear from Herbert Gintis, an economist who co-wrote “Schooling in Capitalist America,” a classic in progressive education circles.

Essentially, Gintis wrote in 2004, in the foreword to another left-leaning book, “The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice,” anti-school-choice progressives (who by and large are white, middle-class progressives) should stop being so knee-jerk about their education politics.

Like, at one time, Gintis admits in the foreword, he was:

Voucher Left logo snipped

When I wrote ‘The Political Economy of School Choice’ for Teachers College Record some ten years ago, my progressive friends thought I had lost my sense of reason. Everyone knew that school choice was a conservative plot to finance the private education of the well-to-do, to bleed the public schools of needed revenue, and to add one more roadblock against the struggle for social equality. Indeed, when I started writing about education in the 1970s, I shared this view. Not that I had ever really thought about the matter. I just knew if Milton Friedman (the conservative  University of Chicago economist) was for it, and the teachers union were against it, I must be against it, too.

Well, we were all very wrong.

Gintis isn’t as well known in education circles as he used to be; his broad academic pursuits have taken him in other directions. But young Gintis was radical left – a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a co-founder of the Union of Radical Political Economists. “Schooling in Capitalist America,” published in 1976, was described at the time as “a genuinely creative attempt to develop a Marxist point of view about the interaction between schooling and the labor market.” Gintis theorized that American schools evolved to turn students into productive workers, not to promote equal opportunity and social mobility. In a nutshell, a factory economy needed factory schools.

Gintis’s book is still in circulation. In some corners, it still gets positive reviews. Gintis, for the most part, still stands by it. (“What we were wrong about,” he told me by phone, “is we thought there was an alternative called socialism. But there isn’t.”)

I don’t know enough about the subject to have a meaningful opinion. But I find Gintis’s take on the politics of school choice refreshing. Continue Reading →

A history teacher on the school choice frontier

Ken Brockington was one of the best teachers I ever had. Cerebral. Serious. Always dapper. In the mid-1980s, he inspired me and countless others in AP American History. Time has fuzzed the details, but I can’t forget Mr. B’s yellow suit, or his red pen. “Interesting,” he’d write in the margins of my papers, next to yet another half-baked idea, “but keep thinking.”

Me and Mr. B

Me and Mr. B. Ken Brockington taught me AP American History in high school. Little did I know that he’d become a school choice pioneer.

The teenage me had no clue, but Mr. B was a pioneer. In the late 1960s, he was on his way to law school when a brief gig as a GED teacher detoured him into the teaching profession – and on to a new frontier. In Jacksonville, Fla. he became one of the first black teachers in integrated public schools. To get a sense of the challenge, consider many of those schools were named after Confederate generals, and one was named after the founder of the KKK. That’s where Mr. B taught me.

Today, at 68, Brockington is again surfing history. After 30 years as a teacher and principal in one of Florida’s biggest school districts, he’s now the academic dean of a private school. Cornerstone Christian seeks to uplift disadvantaged kids, and it’s able to serve them thanks to the Florida tax credit scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program.

teachers and choice logoEducators like Ken Brockington are part of another sea change in American education. At its heart, the school choice movement is fueled by the same drive for educational opportunity that spurred Brown v. Board of Education, and there’s no state where choice is becoming mainstream faster than Florida. Despite much-publicized skirmishes, like the lawsuit against tax credit scholarships and the NAACP attack on charter schools, choice is here to stay.

Take it from a history teacher.

Parents aren’t going back, Brockington said: “They’re beginning to understand the power of choice.”

Teachers aren’t going back either. Mr. B (now Dr. B) said many of his colleagues are exceptionally skilled, but constrained in conventional schools. “Choice will allow them to get outside the box,” he said.

As fate would have it, I am again in Mr. B’s orbit.

I work for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the tax credit scholarship and hosts this blog. This year, the program is serving 95,000 students, including 7,000 in Jacksonville and 229 at Cornerstone. When work brought me to Jacksonville last month, I got to thank Mr. B in person for teaching me. As a bonus, I got to learn from him again.

The lawsuit that aims to kill the scholarship program is led by the state teachers union. Brockington was a union member; at one time, he said, he was the local vice president. But he had no qualms about switching from public school to private school more than a decade ago.

At the time, Cornerstone contracted with a social service agency to teach some of the city’s most “at-risk” students – students with, as Mr. B described it, “a suitcase of problems.” Teen moms. Dads in jail. A long list of learning disabilities. Today’s students, while not as disadvantaged as those in the past, still face so many of the hurdles that come with poverty.

Mr. B said this is where he can best help them. Their academic outcomes aren’t where they should be, yet, but they’re getting the right mix of toughness and compassion, he said: “They’ve been written off. But now there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Continue Reading →

At the heart of the progressive divide over school choice

Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, "It was like we could breathe." (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)

Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, “It was like we could breathe.” (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)

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

Gainesville, Fla. is a liberal college town that prides itself on being “green.” And if there’s a classroom that channels that vibe, it’s Wanda Hagen’s at Heart Pine School.

Hagen’s seventh graders raise tadpoles, hike in a park where buffalo lounge under live oaks, and hunt for shark’s teeth in Gainesville’s cherished urban creeks. On a whim, they might go for a stroll before a storm, to see if they can smell the change in the air. When children overcome the “nature deficit” of modern life, Hagen said, they and the planet benefit.Voucher Left logo snipped

Plenty of folks in Gainesville would agree. And yet, the fingerprints of Gainesville progressives are all over two lawsuits that sees to end a school choice program that helps Heart Pine parents. Both take aim at the Florida tax credit scholarship for low-income and working-class students, which 26 of 62 Heart Pine students use.

Hagen, a self-described “independent liberal,” calls the suits “a real shame.”

“It’s Fahrenheit 451,” she said, referring to the classic novel about repression of dissent. If the lawsuits succeed, “The thinkers outside the box are not going to be appreciated.”

Heart Pine is another ripe example of the political left’s rift over school choice.

Despite a long history of center-left support, today’s progressives, especially white progressives, suffer from split personality disorder. Some still recoil from uniformity and bureaucracy. But others accept a warped view of school choice as a front for privatization, a position tied to the teachers union’s rise in Democratic Party politics. The ironic result is the biggest threat to a colorful school like Heart Pine, a school for grades 1-8 that follows the Waldorf model, isn’t conservatives. It’s fellow progressives.

In Gainesville, the fight pits neighbor against neighbor, even if neither side realizes it.

The lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit is Citizens for Strong Schools, a Gainesville group founded to push for higher property taxes for district schools. Its members include the president of the local teachers union, the spokesperson for the school district, and the woman who heads the Florida League of Women Voters’ “School Choice Project.” The plaintiffs are represented by Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville firm co-founded by Jon Mills, a high-profile Democrat and former Florida House Speaker. Their legal arguments are anchored in changes Mills helped engineer into a constitutional amendment that voters passed in 1998.

Filed in 2009, the suit blasts Florida’s entire education system, charging it has failed to live up to constitutional directives for “adequate” and “high-quality” schools. More funding is the big goal, but the plaintiffs are also firing at school choice programs, including the McKay Scholarship, which serves 31,000 students with disabilities, and the tax credit scholarship, which serves 95,000 students whose family incomes average 4 percent above poverty. (The latter is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.)

The second lawsuit trains its sights solely on the tax credit scholarship. It was filed in 2014 by the state teachers union and other plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters. In August, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal dismissed the suit, finding, like the circuit judge who did the same in 2015, that the plaintiffs provided no evidence to back claims of harm to public schools. The union requested last month that the Florida Supreme Court hear its appeal.

Many Heart Pine supporters want an alternative to mainstream schools, both public and private. Their school is housed in a former Presbyterian church, a replica of a Seminole chickee, covered with thatched palm, conspicuous on its playground. Continue Reading →