Author Archive | Ron Matus

‘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 →

0

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 →

0

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 →

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 →