Author Archive | Ron Matus

More context for PolitiFact on school choice funding, accountability

In a new ruling, the Pulitzer-Prize winning PolitiFact concludes a Florida teachers union ad attacking a proposed school choice scholarship for bullied students is “Half True,” with its bottom line reflected in the headline, “Attack on House Speaker Richard Corcoran, HB 7055 need more context.” But neither union claim – that the proposal would “divert” more money from public schools, and to “unaccountable” private schools – is remotely true.

In this case, PolitiFact itself needs more context. And a few more facts.

First, the diversion myth.

When contacted by PolitiFact, the union attempted to tar the proposed new “Hope Scholarship” by pointing to the 17-year-old Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 107,000 economically disadvantaged students (and is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog). That’s not a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is PolitiFact then ignoring the stack of evidence about the latter’s fiscal impact – evidence it cited just a few years ago when it ruled on a remarkably similar statement.

It’s a fact that eight separate analyses, from a wide range of independent groups and agencies, have all found the tax credit scholarship saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools. In a 2008 report, for example, the Florida Legislature’s research arm concluded taxpayers save $1.49 in general revenue for every $1 that corporations contribute in return for tax credits. In 2012, the Florida Revenue Estimating Conference projected the program would save $57.9 million the following year. Both entities have well-deserved reputations as straight shooters.

It’s also a fact that not a single study has found a negative fiscal impact. How can that be, given all the broken-record claims of diversions and drainings? Because even today, after a series of increases in individual scholarship amounts, the full value of the scholarship is still two-thirds of the average per-pupil expenditure in district-run schools.

Need more proof? The evidence for a positive fiscal impact is so overwhelming, it played a role in the dismissal of the highly publicized, union-led lawsuit, filed in 2014, to try and kill the scholarship program. Both the circuit court and appellate court in McCall v. Scott denied standing in part because the plaintiffs could not provide evidence the program was financially harming public schools. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that in 2014, PolitiFact found a similar statement by then state Sen. Nan Rich — she said $3 billion would be diverted from public schools and spent on the scholarship program over five years – was “Mostly False.”

The 2014 ruling was based on the same fundamental points I’m making here. To quote the 2014 PolitiFact: “There’s no guarantee that money would otherwise have gone to public schools. And, private school vouchers tend to cost less than what it costs to educate a child in public schools, which complicates how much money taxpayers would pay if the children in private schools instead went to public schools.”

As for accountability …

Critics of educational choice programs hold to a narrow definition of accountability – a definition that sees accountability driven by regulations alone. That’s not how accountability works in many sectors of our lives, including public education. School accountability runs on a continuum between regulatory force and parental choice. Both force and choice can drive quality and effectiveness, and the work in progress – for all education sectors – is finding the right balance between the two.

PolitiFact doesn’t seem to have considered any definition other than the one offered by Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who has devoted his career to criticizing choice programs in general and tax credit scholarships in particular. Welner is quoted extensively and allowed to assert that the Florida scholarship regulations are “weak and ineffective” without providing proof.

It’s true accountability with scholarship programs rests on a different point on the continuum than accountability with traditional district-run public schools. It’s true that by design, scholarship programs offer a fair bit of power and discretion to parents to exercise accountability. But the evidence suggests those parents are exercising that power and discretion wisely. I don’t know how a determination can be made about accountability, by PolitiFact or anybody else, without considering those outcomes.

So, for example: We know from a decade’s worth of standardized test results (testing is mandated as part of the state’s regulatory regimen for private schools participating in scholarship programs) that scholarship students are, on average 1) the lowest-performing students in district-run schools and 2) making solid progress in the private schools their parents chose for them. We also know, thanks to fresh research from the Urban Institute, that scholarship students enroll in college and earn degrees at higher rates than like students in district schools. That college-going rate is 15 percent higher for scholarship students overall, and 40 percent higher for those on scholarship four or more years.

By what standard, then, are Welner and PolitiFact judging accountability to be “weak and ineffective”?

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Private school choice a hit with public school employees

Toccara Barron, a public school science teacher in Jacksonville, is one of more than 1,400 public school district employees using a Florida school choice scholarship this year to send their children to private schools. Her oldest daughter attends a public school. Her youngest attends a private school thanks to a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

More than 1,400 public school district employees are benefiting from America’s largest private school choice program.

Their kids are a small percentage of the more than 100,000 low-income and working-class students who are using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. But their participation further underscores the diversity of parents who value options.

Parents list their employers on applications to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program. By my count, there are 1,471 district-employed parents in the mix this year. We don’t have a breakdown by job title, but eligibility is based on income. So, just as it was in past years, it’s likely most of these employees are custodians, bus drivers, teacher assistants and other “support staff.”

It’s not hard to find teachers who secured scholarships for their children, either, like this one and this one. Clearly, none of these employees are motivated by some twisted desire to dismantle public education. They simply want what all parents want: the school that best fits their kids’ needs.

Toccara Barron is one of them. She’s a science teacher in Jacksonville. Her oldest daughter is an eighth-grader in a magnet middle school. Her youngest is a first-grader at a private school.

Barron thought the private school was best positioned to give her youngest the individualized attention she needs to be challenged academically. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to access it.

“All parents should have the right to choose a school for their child,” she said, “not just the ones who could afford to pay tuition.”

The scholarship parents who are district employees hail from 57 of Florida’s 67 districts. Another 60 scholarship parents work for charter schools. A half-dozen work for the public Florida Virtual School.

Even parents who work for choice schools, it seems, are happy to have more choice.

Orlando Sentinel unfairly targets school serving low-income, Hispanic students

Note: See a detailed response to the Orlando Sentinel from Step Up For Students here and a quick summary here. Step Up helps administer Florida’s Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship programs, and publishes this blog.

One of the schools singled out by the Orlando Sentinel’s investigation of private school scholarship programs was founded by a couple who grew frustrated when their son, burdened with severe medical issues since birth, continued to struggle in public school.

Five years later, its standardized test scores show students tested in each of the last two years are, on average, making double-digit academic gains.

The Sentinel didn’t mention this in its description of TDR Learning Academy, a K-12 school in Orlando that enrolls about 90 students who use tax credit scholarships for low-income students, McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Instead, in both its story and accompanying video, it portrayed the predominantly Hispanic school as a poster child for a regulatory accountability system it suggests is far too lax.

“These schools operate without state rules when it comes to teacher credentials, academics and facilities,” says the narrator in the Sentinel’s video. “TDR Academy in Orlando is one of them.”

Continue Reading →

Diverse, inclusive & all for school choice

Cyrus Grenat, 10, had fun liberating this component from some gizmo during his “Taking Things Apart” class at the Magnolia School in Tallahassee, Fla. Cyrus attends thanks to a school choice scholarship.

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

With a few deft twists of a screwdriver, Cyrus Grenat, 10, detached one gizmo from an old microwave and another from a vacuum cleaner. At The Magnolia School in Tallahassee, Fla., this is school work.

Cyrus isn’t tested or graded in “Taking Things Apart,” an elective of sorts where out-of-commission radios, smart phones and other gadgets are sacrificed to curiosity.

His tiny private school doesn’t do those things. It doesn’t assign much homework either. But once Cyrus gets home, the kid with the gears-turning grin and Ghostbusters T-shirt is planning to blow torch the copper out of one of his liberated components, and see if the other can be retrofitted for use in a remote-controlled car.

“It’s just fun,” Cyrus said. “I learn what’s in stuff, and how stuff works.”

With school choice in the national spotlight like never before, kids like Cyrus and schools like Magnolia could offer a lesson in how vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts work.

And who benefits.

The K-8 school in a leafy, working-class neighborhood resists political labels. (I wish we all did.) But every year, its 60 or so students “adopt” a family affected by HIV. Its middle schoolers participate in a camping trip called EarthSkills Rendezvous. Nobody has issues with which bathroom the transgender student uses, or the school’s enthusiastic participation in National Screen-Free Week.

“We are definitely different,” said director Nicole McDermott, in an office barely bigger than Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs. “There are kids on the playground right now who are neurotypical, playing with kids who have autism, with kids who have social issues, with kids who have all kinds of differences. We are inclusive and diverse.”

School choice makes it even more so. The Magnolia School participates in three private school choice programs – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities, and the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome.* About half the students at Magnolia use them.

That has made the school and its approach accessible to a wider array of families, said Susan Smith, the school’s founder. They, in turn, have enriched the school.

“This gives us the opportunity to reach further outside our little walls, so that our community reflects more of the community our children are going to grow up in, and work in, and make their families with,” said Smith, who has master’s degrees in humanities and elementary education. “It’s part of learning. Not just who you meet, and know, but who you solve problems with, and grow up with.”

The dominant narrative about choice would have America believe it’s a boon for profiteers, a crusade for the religious right, an ideological assault on a fundamental pillar of democracy. But if critics, particularly on the left, took a closer look, they’d see a more lively story – and one that has always included progressive protagonists. “Alternative schools” like Magnolia are among them, and there’s no reason why, with expanded choice, an endless variety of related strains couldn’t bloom. Continue Reading →

School choice in flyover country

School choice can’t work in rural areas? Tell that to Judy Welborn (above right) and Michele Winningham, co-founders of a private school in Williston, Fla., that is thriving thanks to school choice scholarships. Students at Williston Central Christian Academy also take online classes through Florida Virtual School and dual enrollment classes at a community college satellite campus.

Levy County is a sprawl of pine and swamp on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 20 miles from Gainesville and 100 from Orlando. It’s bigger than Rhode Island. If it were a state, it and its 40,000 residents would rank No. 40 in population density, tied with Utah.

Visitors are likely to see more logging trucks than Subaru Foresters, and more swallow-tailed kites than stray cats. If they want local flavor, there’s the watermelon festival in Chiefland (pop. 2,245). If they like clams with their linguine, they can thank Cedar Key (pop. 702).

And if they want to find out if there’s a place for school choice way out in the country, they can chat with Ms. Judy and Ms. Michele in Williston (Levy County’s largest city; pop. 2,768).

In 2010, Judith Welborn and Michele Winningham left long careers in public schools to start Williston Central Christian Academy. They were tired of state mandates. They wanted a faith-based atmosphere for learning. Florida’s school choice programs gave them the power to do their own thing – and parents the power to choose it or not.

Williston Central began with 39 students in grades K-6. It now has 85 in K-11. Thirty-one use tax credit scholarships for low-income students. Seventeen use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“There’s a need for school choice in every community,” said Welborn, who taught in public schools for 39 years, 13 as a principal. “The parents wanted this.”

The little school in the yellow-brick church rebuts a burgeoning narrative – that rural America won’t benefit from, and could even be hurt by, an expansion of private school choice. The two Republican senators who voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – represent rural states. Their opposition propelled skeptical stories like this, this and this; columns like this; and reports like this. One headline warned: “For rural America, school choice could spell doom.”

A common thread is the notion that school choice can’t succeed in flyover country because there aren’t enough options. But there are thousands of private schools in rural America – and they may offer more promise in expanding choice than other options. A new study from the Brookings Institution finds 92 percent of American families live within 10 miles of a private elementary school, including 69 percent of families in rural areas. That’s more potential options for those families, the report found, than they’d get from expanded access to existing district and charter schools.

In Florida, 30 rural counties (by this definition) host 119 private schools, including 80 that enroll students with tax credit scholarships. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) There are scores of others in remote corners of Florida counties that are considered urban, but have huge swaths of hinterland. First Baptist Christian School in the tomato town of Ruskin, for example, is closer to the phosphate pits of Fort Lonesome than the skyscrapers of Tampa. But all of it’s in Hillsborough County (pop. 1.2 million).

The no-options argument also ignores what’s increasingly possible in a choice-rich state like Florida: choice programs leading to more options.

Before they went solo, Welborn and Winningham put fliers in churches, spread the word on Facebook and met with parents. They wanted to know if parental demand was really there – and it was.

But “one of their top questions was, ‘Are you going to have a scholarship?’ “ Welborn said. Continue Reading →

When progressives went big for school choice

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

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the American left cheered Freedom Schools and free schools, condemned education bureaucracies, and raised a clenched fist for community control of public education. It didn’t hesitate to think big on school choice, either.

A few decades ago, some on the American left viewed school choice as a potential tool for expanding opportunity and promoting equity. An all-star academic team led by Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks pitched one such proposal with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was formed to fight President Johnson’s War on Poverty and led by Sargent Shriver (pictured at center, above). Image from sargentshriver.org

Adjusting for inflation, Ted Sizer’s 1968 proposal for a $15 billion federal voucher program for low-income kids would ring up $105 billion today – making President Trump’s still-fuzzy $20 billion idea pale in comparison. A decade later, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman fell short in their bid to bring universal school choice to California, but their gutsy campaign still punctuates a historical truth: school choice in America has deep, rich roots on the left.

Some of today’s progressives are enraged about the suddenly serious possibility of school choice from coast to coast. True, Trump’s touch makes progressive support unlikely. True, many conservative and libertarian choice supporters raise their own, more thoughtful concerns. But it’s still stunning to see how much progressive views on school choice have shifted over the course of a few decades.

For skeptical but curious progressives, this 1970 proposal for school vouchers is a worthy read. It was produced by an all-star academic team led by liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, and funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. That was the office, the brainchild of Great Society architect Sargent Shriver, that helped lead the charge in America’s War on Poverty.

Back then, vouchers weren’t maligned as a conspiracy to privatize public schools. Proponents, especially on the left, viewed them as a way to expand opportunity, promote equity, honor diversity, empower parents and teachers – and yes, improve academic outcomes.

The 348-page plan from the Jencks team is written in the language of social justice: Why, it asks, do we continue to call some colleges “public” when many people can’t afford them? Why do we call exclusive high schools “public” when only a few students can access them? Why are affluent parents considered competent enough to exercise school choice while low-income parents are denied?

The report brims with views like this: “ … [I]f the upheavals of the 1960s have taught us anything, it should be that merely increasing the Gross National Product, the absolute level of government spending, and the mean level of educational attainment will not solve our basic economic, social, and political problems. These problems do not arise because the nation as a whole is poor or ignorant. They arise because the benefits of wealth, power, and knowledge have been unequally distributed and because many Americans believe that these inequalities are unjust. A program which seeks to improve education must therefore focus on inequality, attempting to close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

The authors sorted through a wide array of potential variations on voucher design, and proposed a multi-year “voucher experiment” that would eventually be tried, sort of, in Alum Rock, Calif. Ultimately, the experiment proved a big disappointment; no district agreed to a plan that included private schools. Still, the report suggests the authors wanted a blueprint that could guide many communities, perhaps as part of a federal initiative. Continue Reading →

School choice? Si, se puede!

“Gradually,” Cesar Chavez predicted, “we’re going to see an awful lot of alternative schools to public education.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Cesar Chavez, the iconic labor leader, would have been 90 years old today, and progressives, including teacher union leaders, are pausing to honor him. But few of them probably realize Chavez’s vision of a better world – the same vision that led him to organize the most abused workers, and battle the biggest corporations – included scenes of community empowerment from earlier chapters in the school choice movement.

Chavez was a steadfast supporter of Escuela de la Raza Unida, a forgotten “freedom school” in Blythe, Calif. that sprouted in 1972, in the wake of mass parental frustration with local public schools. Some of his comments about this school in particular, and public education more generally, can be found in this rough-cut documentary about the school’s creation.

“We know public education has not … been able to deal with the aspirations of the minority group person or, in our case, our kids who have been involved with the struggle for social betterment,” Chavez tells an interviewer at about the 7:30 mark in the video.

“The people who run the institutions want everybody to think the same way, and it’s impossible,” he continued at another point. “We have different likes and dislikes, and different ideals. Different motivations. And so I’m convinced more and more that the whole question of public education is more and more not meeting the needs of the people, particularly in the case of minority group people … “

The success of Escuela de la Raza Unida is proof, Chavez said, that truly community-led schools are needed – and can work.

“Gradually,” he predicted, “we’re going to see an awful lot of alternative schools to public education.” Continue Reading →

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 →