Author Archive | Ron Matus

Guess who else likes school choice? School district employees!

The teachers union doesn't like school choice. But school district employees do. More than 1,200 parents of tax credit scholarship students in Florida work for public school districts. As you'll see from some quoted in this post, they wish the union would stop its attack on a program that is benefiting their children. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The teachers union doesn’t like school choice. But school district employees do. More than 1,200 parents of tax credit scholarship students in Florida work for public school districts. As you’ll see from some quoted in this post, they wish the union would stop its attack on a program that is benefiting their children. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Katisha Rucker works for a school district. She’s a member of a labor union. And her daughter attends a private school thanks to a scholarship from the nation’s largest private school choice program.

You could be forgiven if you think Rucker’s profile is unique. But it’s not.

This fall, more than 1,200 low-income and working-class parents whose children benefit from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program are employees of school districts, according to data from Step Up For Students, which helps administer the program, hosts this blog and pays my salary.

That’s a lot of district employees. And it comes despite the fact Florida’s statewide teachers union is so hostile to the program, it’s aiming to kill it with a lawsuit.

The lawsuit “would hurt me a lot, it would hurt my child,” said Rucker, an 11-year bus driver for the Marion County school district in north central Florida. “As a single parent, I can’t afford a private school.”

The employer information is available at Step Up because parents list their employers on scholarship applications. This fall, by my count, 1,256 employees in 58 districts are scholarship parents. The program is serving more than 92,000 students total.

We don’t know the job titles. But it’s a safe bet many of the district employee who are scholarship parents are “support staff” and blue-collar workers: clerks, custodians, bus drivers, receptionists, food service workers, paraprofessionals and so on. Given their incomes, a far greater percentage of workers in these categories would be eligible for tax credit scholarships than teachers.

It’s also fair to assume many of them, like Rucker, are represented by unions other than teachers unions, such as SEIU and AFSCME.

This puts a new twist on the lawsuit. If it succeeds, the teachers union will not only be throwing 90,000 economically disadvantaged students under the bus, but 1,200 fellow district employees who, in many cases, are brothers and sisters in the labor movement.

The First District Court of Appeal dismissed the lawsuit last month. The union now has a matter of days to decide whether it will appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

At this stage in the case, a crucial issue is whether the plaintiffs can show the school choice program harms public schools. A Leon County Circuit Judge and a unanimous panel of three judges on the First District Court of Appeal have all concluded the teachers union and other groups behind the lawsuit have not demonstrated that it does.

Rucker said she’s not surprised so many district employees value the scholarship. She said she has recommended it to other bus drivers and fellow union members. They have the same concerns about safety and bullying the general public does, she said, and like all parents, want a school that is the right fit for their child.

Rucker said she sought a scholarship after her eighth-grade daughter, Taliyah, got into a fight and school officials decided to place her in a school for disruptive students. Rucker didn’t think the placement was fair, given what she said were no other disciplinary issues on Taliyah’s record. She also thought her child would suffer in the unruly atmosphere she feared would be the norm at the other school.

Now “she’s doing better grade wise and everything else than she was in public school,” Rucker said. “She loves going to school. If I’m late, she has a fit. It’s been an amazing turnaround for her.”

Rucker also secured a tax credit scholarship for her son, Clyde, who is in sixth grade, but decided for now to leave him in public school. So far, so good. “But if something happens, I know I have that option,” she said. “It’s very important to have a choice.”

Continue Reading →

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The NAACP, charter schools & school choice history

In the late 1990s, Rosa Parks and her foundation applied to start a charter school in inner-city Detroit. She wasn't thinking about privatizing education; she was thinking about ways to lift up the struggling students in her community. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1990s, Rosa Parks and her foundation applied to start a charter school in inner-city Detroit. She wasn’t thinking about privatizing education; she was thinking about ways to lift up the struggling students in her community. The same impulses have guided the African-American drive for educational freedom for centuries. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, an African-American parent in Florida took the NAACP to task in a guest column for one of the state’s leading African-American newspapers.

Wevlyn Graves was upset because the NAACP’s Florida chapter had joined the state teacher union in a lawsuit to kill the state’s tax credit scholarship.* The 15-year-old initiative is now the largest private school choice program in America, and it’s expected to serve more than 90,000 students this fall. That includes more than 20,000 African-American children. That includes Graves’s 10-year-old son.

“You’re telling me the NAACP is fighting against the ability of African American parents to have more options and choices to further their children’s education,” Graves wrote, “when African Americans have been fighting for that since the beginning? Are you serious?”

I thought of Graves’ op-ed when it surfaced last week that delegates to the NAACP’s national convention had passed a resolution calling for a national moratorium on charter schools.

I appreciate her column because it offers the view of a school choice parent. Their views are too often absent from school choice debates, including this ongoing debate over the NAACP and charters.

I also think Ms. Graves makes a particularly powerful point about school choice history.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I have nothing but respect and admiration for the NAACP. It pains me to not be on the same page, on this issue, with a group that has done so much, for so many, for so long.

At the same time, I think it’s fair to offer a little more context, especially to progressives who may not follow education issues closely, and who may be reflexively swayed by the NAACP position. They should know there is far more to the NAACP story, and they can read and hear some of the pushback from African-American leaders here, here and here.

To add to Ms. Graves’s thread, there are strong currents of educational freedom that course throughout American history, and they are particularly deep in African-American communities. The NAACP and its surrogates say they’re worried about privatization when it comes to both charter schools and state-supported private school scholarships. But African-American communities have not shied from private schools, charter schools or private philanthropy in education, not when it enabled them to access or create better alternatives for their children.

Mary McLeod Bethune wasn’t aiming to privatize education in 1904, when she founded a private school, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. She created the school because the public schools were so bad.

Privatization wasn’t on Marva Collins’s mind in 1975, when she took $5,000 from her teacher’s retirement fund to start Westside Prep, an acclaimed private school for low-income black kids in Chicago. She was moved to do so because she could not stomach the epidemic of black children being labeled “disabled” in public schools, and doomed by low expectations.

Rosa Parks wasn’t trying to ring up cash registers in the late 1990s, when she and her foundation applied to start a charter school in Detroit. She wanted to lift up the struggling kids in her inner-city neighborhood, and instill in them the traits that made her an American hero: “dignity with pride, courage with perseverance and power with discipline.” Continue Reading →

From MLK’s “field general” to charter school champion

Wyatt Tee Walker, at right, was chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr. and the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also instrumental in starting the first charter school in New York. He is among many noteworthy bridges between the civil rights and school choice movements.

Wyatt Tee Walker, at right, was chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr. and the first full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also instrumental in starting the first charter school in New York. He is among many noteworthy bridges between the civil rights and school choice movements. (Image from encylopediaofalabama.org)

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

Few civil rights leaders in America were in the thick of things as much as Wyatt Tee Walker. He was chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr.; the first, full-time executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the lead strategist behind the Birmingham campaign – the clash that seared Bull Connor, fire hoses and police dogs into America’s consciousness and spurred passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Voucher Left logo snippedBut Rev. Walker’s difference-making didn’t end there. Decades later, he played a key role in the push for school choice, making him, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King III, another noteworthy bridge between the two movements.

“All of the experience I gained in the human rights struggle was applicable to this new frontier of human rights,” he writes in the forward to “A Light Shines in Harlem,” the 2014 book by journalist Mary C. Bounds that chronicles New York’s first charter school, which Walker helped to create. “In my most reflective moments, I believe this is where Dr. King would be if he were still alive! In the charter movement, I am continuing the work of Dr. King that has far-reaching meaning.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently honored Walker with a lifetime achievement award and this moving video tribute. He was vital to passage of New York’s charter school law in 1999, then to creation of the Sisulu Children’s Academy in Harlem, named for South African freedom fighter Walter Sisulu. Now called Sisulu-Walker Charter School, it boldly blazed the trail for Empire State charter schools, including the 200-plus now in New York City alone.

Those contributions are worthy of recognition in their own right. But they also offer yet more evidence of the oft-hidden ties between school choice, the civil rights movement and progressive politics. I know, I know; I’m a broken record. But I’d like to respectfully ask, again, that folks on the left who dismiss choice, because they think it sprung from an enemy camp, to consider Walker and so many others whose visions of social justice include expansion of educational freedom.

Clearly, it’s not profiteering and privatization that drive them. It’s a desire to find high-quality options for children who need them the most. In the case of African American communities, that powerful impulse, to use any and all resources to create the best possible alternatives, goes back centuries, fueled by racist laws that denied educational opportunities, then by laws and practices that resulted in schools that were inferior, or didn’t work, or both.

Besides serving as Dr. King’s trusted aide, Walker had been a local NAACP president and a state director of the Congress of Racial Equality. In the late 1960’s, he moved to Harlem to become senior pastor of the influential Canaan Baptist Church. There, he continued to fight for better jobs, affordable housing and a long list of other issues that fellow progressives would find compelling. Eventually, he turned to his community’s educational challenges, and, in his view, the failure of traditional public schools to address them.

Walker rallied other inner-city ministers to support the bill that became New York’s charter school law. He offered space in his church to the Sisulu school. He welcomed private funding. Despite some ups and downs, the school ultimately succeeded, improving thousands of lives in the “capital of black America.” Continue Reading →

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 →

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 →

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 →