Author Archive | Ron Matus

‘Diversity. Pluralism. Variety.’


This is the latest post in our series on the voucher left.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic icon, was an unabashed supporter of school choice, as we’ve been happy to note.

For years, he led an effort to establish tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools – an effort that never became law but did, at one remarkable moment in 1977, draw 50 co-sponsors, 26 of them Republicans and 24 of them Democrats. Except for a massive expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program in 2010, which won backing from more than 40 percent of the state’s Democratic lawmakers, no major piece of private school choice legislation that we can think of has drawn that level of bipartisan support.Voucher Left logo snipped

But while we’ve noted Moynihan’s passion for choice, it’s worth taking a closer look at his rationale. Nowhere does he lay out his case more clearly than in this April 1978 essay in Harper’s.

For Moynihan, public support for private schools was a matter of historical fact and constitutional authority, and of being clear-eyed about the well-intentioned but still-smothering effects of government bureaucracy.

It was also about staying true to one of America’s most enduring principles:

I take pluralism to be a valuable characteristic of education, as of much else in this society. We are many peoples, and our social arrangements reflect this disinclination to submerge our inherited distinctiveness in a homogenous whole.

Our private schools and colleges embody these values. They provide diversity to the society, choices to students and their parents, and a rich array of distinctive educational offerings that even the finest of public institutions may find difficult to supply, not least because they are public and must embody generalized values.

Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too, and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed. We cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that that they be embodied in our national policies for American education.

Moynihan, of course, isn’t the only choice supporter who stressed diversity. Those arguments come from all points on the political spectrum. The Cato Institute makes them frequently and convincingly. So do some academics (see here and here). So does this rising political star, and fellow Democrat, from Moynihan’s home state:

“In every state in this country, we talk about diversity,” New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo said at a gathering of Hispanic school choice supporters in Florida last year. “We talk about the strength of our diverse communities, we talk about the diversity of faith, of cultures and languages that make the United States what it is, certainly New York what it is. But then we don’t translate that very concept into the way in which we provide opportunities. Ladies and gentlemen, one size doesn’t fit all.”

While Moynihan could be quite the maverick (and an inspiration for decades-long debates), he wasn’t a lone wolf when it came to school choice and the Democrats of his era. Continue Reading →


Proudly alternative & pro school choice

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too.

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too. (Photo courtesy of Suncoast Waldorf.)

This is the latest post in our series on the diverse roots of school choice.

If the Suncoast Waldorf School in Palm Harbor, Fla. is part of a right-wing plot, it’s good at hiding it. Its students cultivate a “food forest.” Its teachers encourage them to stomp in puddles. Its parents sign a consent form that says, I give permission for my child, named above, to climb trees on the school grounds …

And yet, the unassuming, apolitical little school is solidly school choice. Sixteen of its 60 students in grades K-8 last year used tax credit scholarships to help defray the $10,000 annual tuition. And to those familiar with the century-old vision that spawned the Waldorf model – a vision whose first beneficiaries were the children of cigarette factory workers – there’s nothing unusual about it.Voucher Left logo snipped

School choice scholarships make Waldorf “more accessible to a diverse group of families,” said Barbara Bedingfield, the school’s co-founder. “This is what we want.”

“Alternative schools” like those in the 1,000-strong Waldorf network help upend myths about choice being hard right. This small but thriving corner of the education universe is especially resistant to labels, but there is a nexus between many of these schools and ‘60s-era, counter-culture reformers like John Holt (think “unschooling”) and Paul Goodman (think “compulsory miseducation”).

“Thirty-plus years ago, school choice was almost entirely a cause of the left,” is how writer Peter Schrag described it in 2001, writing for The American Prospect. “In the heady days of the 1960s, radical reformers looked toward the open, child-centered schools that critics like Herb Kohl, Jules Henry, Edgar Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, and John Holt dreamed about. Implicitly, their argument had the advantage of celebrating American diversity and thus obviating our chronic doctrinal disputes about what schools should or shouldn’t teach.”

Then and now, the contrarian outlooks of this species of ed reformer are often libertarian and left, both embracing of “progressive” goals and distrustful of government’s ability to deliver. Generally speaking, they aren’t fond of government-dictated standards, testing, grading, grade-level configurations or anything else subject to imposed uniformity. But they are willing to consider the potential of tools like vouchers to give parents the power to choose schools that synch with their values.

Suncoast Waldorf sits on two acres of live oaks, a leafy oasis off a busy road in Florida’s most urbanized county. It blossomed 17 years ago, just as the Sunshine State began blazing trails on the school choice frontier.

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, it emphasizes art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. Standardized testing is out (except for what’s required by state law for the scholarship program). So are letter grades and iPads. So is Common Core. Continue Reading →


From sit-ins to school choice

speaking 3

This is the third post in our series on the Voucher Left.

Marcus Brandon’s resume starts off like a progressive’s dream. National finance director, Dennis Kucinich for president. Staffer, Progressive Majority. Deputy director, Equality Virginia. But once it rolls into Brandon’s education accomplishments, some fellow progressives get whiplash. During two terms in the North Carolina House of Representatives, Brandon was a leading force behind bills that created vouchers for disabled and low-income students, and removed the state’s cap on charter schools.

Inconsistency? Not for Brandon, a rising political star whose family’s civil rights bona fides are unquestioned.

“I tell people that my views on education are the most progressive stance that I have,” Brandon told redefinED. “Progressives have to take a real hard look at the way they view education because I’ve always been brought up, in the civil rights movement and all of that, (to) fight for equal opportunity and equal access for everybody.”Voucher Left logo snipped

Brandon, who now directs the Carolina CAN education advocacy group, isn’t an anomaly. A growing list of influential liberals, progressives and Democrats are increasingly supportive of school choice. In the process, they’re wrenching the left back into alignment with its own forgotten history – a history that is especially rich in the African-American experience. Milton Friedman would merit a few paragraphs in a book on this subject. But there’d be whole chapters devoted to the educational endeavors of freed slaves and black churches. To Mississippi freedom schools and Marva Collins. To the connections between Brown v. Board of Education and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Continue Reading →


Survey: Hispanics back school choice

Hispanic school choice support

A Friedman Foundation survey shows Hispanics are among the strongest supporters of various school choice options. Note: The survey has a 3.1 percent margin of error, which was larger for subgroups. More methodological details can be found here.

Hispanics strongly support privately operated school choice options, at rates higher than the national average for all groups, according to the results of a new national survey released today.

Hispanic backing for school choice programs exceeds the national average for charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts, found the survey, which was funded and sponsored by the pro-school-choice Friedman Foundation.

School choice student and parent

Hispanic support was particularly strong for tax credit scholarships.

Sixty-two percent of Hispanic respondents favor charter schools, compared to 56 percent of African-Americans and 52 percent of whites. Seventy-one percent favor vouchers. Seventy-three percent favor education savings accounts.

Hispanic support was strongest for tax credit scholarships, with 76 percent in favor and 16 percent opposed. The national split was 60 percent in favor and 29 percent opposed.

The findings are another example of the disconnect between popular support for choice programs and the political divisions that dog them. Other surveys have also found particularly strong support for choice programs in minority communities, even as those communities are disproportionately represented by Democratic lawmakers who are more likely than Republicans to oppose them. Continue Reading →


Berkeley liberals and the roots of ESAs

Berkeley Law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman, circa 1978.

Berkeley Law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman, circa 1978.

This is the second post in our series on the Voucher Left.

Way back in 1978, when Bee Gees ruled the radio and kids dumped pinball for Space Invaders, a couple of liberal Berkeley law professors were promoting a variation on “universal” school vouchers that they believed would ensure equity for the poor. Along the way, they foreshadowed a revolutionary twist on parental choice that would make national headlines nearly four decades later.

Voucher Left logo snippedJohn E. “Jack” Coons and Stephen Sugarman didn’t use the term “education savings accounts” in their book, “Education by Choice.” But they described a sweeping plan for publicly funded scholarships in terms familiar to those keeping tabs on ESAs. They envisioned parents, including low-income parents, having the power to create “personally tailored education” for their children, using “divisible educational experiences.”

To us, a more attractive idea is matching up a child and a series of individual instructors who operate independently from one another. Studying reading in the morning at Ms. Kay’s house, spending two afternoons a week learning a foreign language in Mr. Buxbaum’s electronic laboratory, and going on nature walks and playing tennis the other afternoons under the direction of Mr. Phillips could be a rich package for a ten-year-old. Aside from the educational broker or clearing house which, for a small fee (payable out of the grant to the family), would link these teachers and children, Kay, Buxbaum, and Phillips need have no organizational ties with one another. Nor would all children studying with Kay need to spend time with Buxbaum and Phillips; instead some would do math with Mr. Feller or animal care with Mr. Vetter.

Coons and Sugarman were talking about education, not just schools, in a way that makes more sense every day. They wanted parents in the driver’s seat. They expected a less restricted market to spawn new models. In “Education by Choice,” they suggest “living-room schools,” “minischools” and “schools without buildings at all.” They describe “educational parks” where small providers could congregate and “have the advantage of some economies of scale without the disadvantages of organizational hierarchy.” They even float the idea of a “mobile school.” Their prescience is remarkable, given that these are among the models ESA supporters envision today.

It’s also noteworthy given a rush to portray education savings accounts as right-wing.

In June, for example, the Washington Post described the creation of the near-universal ESA in Nevada as a “breakthrough for conservatives.” School choice would likely be a top issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, the story continued, with leading Republicans like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio all big voucher supporters and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton opposed. The story pointed out Milton Friedman’s conceptualizing of vouchers in 1955, then added, “The idea was long thought to be moribund but came roaring back to life in 2010 in states where Republicans took legislative control.”

It’s true that in Nevada, Republicans took control of the legislative and executive branches in 2014, and then went on to create ESAs. But it’s also true that across the country, expansion of educational choice has been steadily growing for years, and becoming increasingly bipartisan in a back-to-the-future kind of way. Nearly half the Democrats in the Florida Legislature voted for a massive expansion of that state’s tax credit scholarship program in 2010. About a fourth of the Democrats in the Louisiana Legislature voted for creation of that state’s voucher program in 2012. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been fighting for a tax credit scholarship in that bluest of blue states – an effort in which he’s joined not only by many other elected Democrats, but by a long list of labor unions.

These Democrats are sometimes accused of being sellouts – often by teachers unions and their supporters, who have been especially critical of Cuomo. But the truth is, they can draw on a rich history of support for educational choice grounded in the principles of the American left.

The recent history of ESAs isn’t quite as polarizing as the Post suggests, either. Continue Reading →


A school choice manifesto, from the left

Ted Sizer: "The ability to control their own destinies will instill in poor people a necessary pride and dignity of which they have been cheated."

Ted Sizer: School vouchers “could cause a kind of decentralization which would promote diversity, pluralism, responsiveness to the needs of the community being served and, indeed, even greater efficiency.”

This is the first post in our series on the Voucher Left.

It starts by condemning America for failing to provide equal opportunity in education. It ends with a knock on the war in Vietnam. Inbetween, it offers a template for a $15-billion-a-year national voucher plan that “will frankly discriminate in favor of poor children.”

Published in 1968, “A Proposal for a Poor Childrens Bill of Rights” is a historical gem – a seminal document of Voucher Left history that remains curiously buried. It was co-written by Theodore “Ted” Sizer. Then dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Sizer would become so influential and beloved an education reformer that 1,000 people would attend his funeral in 2009, including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.Voucher Left logo snipped

Sizer’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t mention his embrace of school choice. Neither does his New York Times obit. But in the 1960s and ‘70s, he and other liberal academics like Christopher Jencks, Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman were all promoting vouchers. They didn’t dismiss the market power underscored by Milton Friedman. But they also favored regulations that, in their view, would ensure low-income families had real power over education bureaucrats and real access to new education environments. Wrote Sizer in his manifesto:

Ours is a simple proposal: to use education – vastly improved and powerful education – as the principal vehicle for upward mobility. While a complex of strategies must be designed to accomplish this, we wish here to stress one: a program to give money directly to poor children (through their parents) to assist in paying for their education. By doing so we might both create significant competition among schools serving the poor (and thus improve the schools) and meet in an equitable way the extra costs of teaching the children of the poor.

Sizer likened his idea to the higher-education planks of the G.I. Bill. It differed from “conservative” K-12 voucher proposals in key ways.

Though the details are fuzzy, Sizer wasn’t talking vouchers for all, or vouchers just for private schools. (He doesn’t use the term “voucher” either, instead describing his proposal as a “supplementary grant.”) For political expediency, he thought half the school-age population should be eligible. And he suggested a sliding-scale for the value of the voucher, so the poorer the family, the greater the amount. (Berkeley law professors Coons and Sugarman proposed something similar in the 1970s, and tried to get it on the ballot in California. It attracted gobs of publicity, but ultimately failed to secure enough signatures.)

Sizer pushed back against the idea that vouchers were conservative. He struck back at critics who said they would “destroy the public schools.” Continue Reading →


Meet the Voucher Left

Despite what the story lines too often suggest, school choice in America has deep roots on the political left, in many camps spanning many decades. Mississippi Freedom Schools, pictured above (the image is from, are part of this broader, richer story, as historian James Forman Jr. and others have rightly noted. Next week, we’ll begin a series of occasional posts re-surfacing this overlooked history.

Despite what the story lines too often suggest, school choice in America has deep roots on the political left, in many camps spanning many decades. Mississippi Freedom Schools, pictured above (the image is from, are part of this broader, richer story, as historian James Forman Jr. and others have rightly noted. Next week, we’ll begin a series of occasional posts re-surfacing this overlooked history.

By critics, by media, and even by many supporters, it’s taken as fact: School choice is politically conservative.

It’s Milton Friedman and free markets, Republicans and privatization. Right wing historically. Right wing philosophically.

Critics repeat it relentlessly. Conservatives repeat it proudly. Reporters repeat it without question.

It has been repeated so long it threatens to replace the truth.

Voucher Left logo snipped

The roots of school choice in America run all along the political spectrum. And to borrow a term progressives might appreciate, the inconvenient truth is school choice has deep roots on the left. Throughout the African-American experience and the epic struggles for educational opportunity. In a bright constellation of liberal academics who pushed their vision of vouchers in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a feisty strain of educational freedom that leans libertarian and left in its distrust of public schools, and continues to thrive today.

This is not to deny the importance of the likes of Friedman in laying the intellectual foundation for the modern movement, or to ignore the leading role Republican lawmakers have played in helping school choice proliferate. But the full story of choice is more colorful and fascinating than the boilerplate lines that cycle through modern media. Black churches and Mississippi Freedom Schools are part of the picture. So is the Great Society and the Poor Children’s Bill of Rights. So is U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Congressman Leo Ryan, D-Calif., the only member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be assassinated in office.

Perception matters. Perhaps now more than ever. There is no doubt far too many people who consider themselves left/liberal/progressive and identify politically as Democrats do not pause to consider school choice on its merits because they view it as right-wing and Republican (or maybe libertarian). In these polarized times, people have never identified with ideological and party labels so completely, and, I fear, so often made snap judgements based on perceived alignments.

School choice isn’t the only policy realm to suffer from false advertising, but in the case of vouchers, tax credit scholarships and related options, the myths and misperceptions appear particularly egregious. (Note: I work for Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the nation.) The forgotten history means newcomers to the debate get a fractured glimpse of the principles that have long fueled the movement. And it means critics can more easily cast contemporary supporters on the left as phonies or sellouts, as opposed to what they really are: heirs to a long-standing, progressive tradition.

We at redefinED would like to redouble our efforts to change that. So, beginning today, we’re going to offer a series of occasional posts about the historical roots and present-day fruits of school choice that are decidedly not conservative.

We’re calling it “Voucher Left.”

We hope to offer entries big and small, some by redefinED regulars, some by guests. We may rescue a historical document from the dust bin. We may serve up a profile or podcast. Maybe we’ll reconstruct some fascinating but forgotten moments in the rich history of choice, like what happened in California in the late 1970s when a couple of Berkeley law professors tried to get a revolutionary voucher proposal on the statewide ballot. (Here’s a bit of tragic foreshadowing: But for Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, vouchers today might be considered a liberal conspiracy.)

There is no set schedule for the series. We’ll roll out posts as often as time permits, and as often as we can keep digging up good stuff. Look for the first two right after Labor Day.

In the meantime, a few caveats:

We didn’t coin the term “voucher left.” As far as we can tell, all credit goes to writer (and former fellow at the Center for American Progress) Matthew Miller. In a 1999 piece for The Atlantic, Miller used the term to describe the ‘60s era choice camp that included John E. Coons and Stephen Sugarman, Berkeley law professors who co-founded the American Center for School Choice, which helped put this blog on the map. We thought the term perfect – and just as fitting an umbrella for choice’s other progressive pillars. Continue Reading →


At this private school, STEM gets a boost

At St. Luke's science camp, teaccher Diann Bacchus talks sheep brain with (from top, clockwise) Tyler Dempsey, 12, Widmaier Maurice, 13, and James Pabisz, 13. The Notre Dame Center for STEM Education helped St. Luke kick off the 2-week camp last year.

At St. Luke’s science camp, teacher Diann Bacchus talks sheep brain with (from top, clockwise) Tyler Dempsey, 12, Widmaier Maurice, 13, and James Pabisz, 13. The Notre Dame Center for STEM Education helped St. Luke kick off the 2-week camp last year.

On a summer morning when some middle schoolers were sleeping in or headed to the beach, 12-year-old Ariana Rendona and two dozen other students were in a classroom at St. Luke Catholic School, using X-acto knives to slice up sheep brain. Behind goggles and lab coats, they took turns differentiating grey matter from white matter and cerebrum from cerebellum.

“Disgusting but fun,” Ariana said.

For she and other students at St. Luke, a PreK-8 school that serves a heavily Hispanic population in Palm Springs, Fla., science immersion has suddenly become a thing. Over the past 18 months, St. Luke has done what many schools, public and private, either can’t or won’t: make STEM a priority.

It added 20 minutes to the school day just for STEM, hired a STEM coordinator, invested in STEM-oriented professional development for the entire teaching staff and instituted a two-week STEM summer camp for students like Ariana. Much of this has been done in partnership with the new Center for STEM Education at Notre Dame, an outfit that has quickly and quietly launched several projects aimed at bolstering science instruction in Catholic schools and beyond.

The result: Engaged students. Happy parents. Another potential selling point for a private school in an increasingly competitive school choice market. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, a template and inspiration for other schools.

About three-fourths of the 170 students at St. Luke are minorities, and nearly 70 of them use the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. (The program is administered by non-profits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) For them, more exposure to high-quality STEM instruction is especially important, said Sue Sandelier, St. Luke’s principal, and Diann Bacchus, its science coordinator.

“Money is a struggle for many of the families here” but solid grounding in STEM can lead to high-paying careers for their children, said Bacchus, a longtime educator in both public and private schools. “I see it as their way out.”

St. Luke’s aims are notable for all kinds of reasons. Continue Reading →