Author Archive | Ron Matus

School choice … for teachers

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

Four years ago, Angela Kennedy, a teacher in Orlando, Fla., actualized an idea once prominently advanced by school choice supporters on the left. After 14 years of mounting frustration with public schools, she started her own private school.

Kids and parents aren’t the only one who benefit from school choice. Teachers do too. Dr. Angela Kennedy was a 14-year veteran of public schools when she left to start her own private school. The Deeper Root Academy is now thriving with more than 70 students using school choice scholarships.

Today, thanks to more than 70 school choice scholarships, Kennedy’s faith-based Deeper Root Academy is a high-quality haven for low-income and predominantly black students. It’s also another concrete example of what’s possible, for teachers and principals, when school choice expands.

What better time than now to remind people.

This spring, progressives across America cheered teachers striking for more money, and it’s a safe bet the striking and cheering will resume this fall. But for decades, other progressives have urged teachers to embrace school choice so they can have more power.

In 1970, the War on Poverty liberals who led a school voucher experiment for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity stressed that choice would allow teachers to create their own schools, free from soul-sucking bureaucracies. “Given freedom and financial resources,” they wrote, “educators might create large numbers of schools that are significantly different from those now operated by local boards of education.”

In 1973, pioneering choice advocate (and former UMass ed school dean) Mario Fantini posited that expanding options would liberate “the imprisoned teacher.” “Obviously, we need to open up educational alternatives within the framework of public education, not by chance but by choice,” he wrote in “Public Schools of Choice” (his emphasis, not mine). “Teachers (and there are a significant number who feel imprisoned by the structure itself) ought to be encouraged to develop alternative forms that are congruent with their own styles of teaching and can offer them greater professional satisfaction and to increase significantly the chances for educational productivity.”

In 1978, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman opened “Education by Choice” with a story about a fictional student and a fictional teacher. The student is keen on art and bored at her school. But there isn’t an easily accessible option within the district, and her parents can’t afford private school. Meanwhile, the teacher has developed an arts-based curriculum, but can’t persuade the district to give it a shot. Starting his own school is out of the question because “he prefers not to run an elitist school” and no state-supported scholarships exist to promote equity and diversity.

The Berkeleyites’ solution: Give teachers power to create schools. Give parents power to choose them, or not.

In choice-rich states like Florida, growing numbers of teachers are using that power. Continue Reading →


Remember this school choice Democrat

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

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan was a popular Democrat who favored school choice. In 1978, he started working with Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman on a plan to put school choice on the statewide ballot in California. An early poll showed 59 percent of voters were in support.

All of us know Lincoln was assassinated. But not many know the twist of fate that left historians asking: What if? Had it not been for a clown of a cop named John Frederick Parker – who was supposed to be protecting the president at Ford’s Theatre, but instead slipped next door to the Star Saloon – America after the Civil War may have coursed in dramatically different directions.

The history of school choice has its own forgotten twist of fate.

It involves Berkeley law professors, a murderous cult, and U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, a school choice Democrat. Given relentless attempts by choice critics and the press, in this age of Trump and hyper-tribalism, to portray choice as right-wing madness, it’s worth revisiting Ryan and what happened 40 years ago. Would white progressives still view choice as a Red Tribe plot had white progressives been the first to plant the flag? And in big, blue California to boot?

In 1978, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Steve Sugarman laid out a social justice case for school choice in “Education by Choice,” a book that also offered a detailed policy blueprint. The prevailing system of assigning students to schools by zip code, they argued, was elitist and dehumanizing to low-income families. Their sweeping alternative included private school vouchers and independent public schools (which we now call charter schools). It also included visions of a system that would allow parents to build their kid’s educational programs a la carte, like today’s education savings accounts.

Coons and Sugarman wanted to plant seeds, not spark an instant revolution.

But then, serendipity.

Congressman Ryan, enjoying his third term representing the San Francisco Bay area, was a former public-school teacher and a product of Catholic schools. “Education by Choice” moved him. As fate would have it, his cousin went to church with Coons. So he had her invite Coons to dinner.

Ultimately, the professor and the congressman decided they’d try to get the California Initiative for Family Choice on the statewide ballot. All they needed was enough signatures. Ryan agreed to be the face of the campaign.

Choice couldn’t have found a better spokesman. Before Ryan was elected to Congress, he was a state lawmaker who practiced what one newspaper called “investigative politics,” and his aide Jackie Speier – now U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier – called “experiential legislating.”

Ryan worked as a substitute teacher to immerse himself in high-poverty schools. He went undercover to experience Death Row at Folsom Prison. As a Congressman, Ryan trekked to Newfoundland to investigate the slaughter of baby seals, and even laid down on the ice to save a seal pup from a hunter.

It’s not a stretch to think Ryan’s popularity would have rubbed off on the ballot initiative.

Continue Reading →

This charter school answered prayers

TAMPA, Fla. – When Tay’Shaun Holley stumbled at his neighborhood school, his mom, Crystal Fountain, enrolled him in another district school 20 miles away. But that didn’t lead to solid footing either, and the complications of a single mom juggling three jobs, four kids and grueling commutes began to take its toll. Fountain prayed for help.

Tay’Shaun and his sister, Shanyla, attend Collaboratory Prep, a charter school in Tampa that opened last year. Once struggling in his neighborhood school, Tay’Shaun is now on grade level and poised to soar academically.

Then, a friend called. A neat, new school was opening near Fountain’s home. A charter school.

Fountain researched Collaboratory Preparatory Academy, filled out an application, scheduled a visit. Even before meeting the principal and teachers, she had a feeling: This was the one.

“Honestly, I cried tears of joy,” she said.

Seven months into Tay’Shaun’s first year, the joy continues. The 9-year-old who showed up weary and subdued – and sometimes became frustrated and angry – is now a sunny, outgoing third-grader who’s catching fire academically.

“He’s more engaged. He’s willing to learn,” Fountain said. “I’m very confident my son is going to be successful because of this school.”

More than 280,000 students attend charter schools in Florida, nearly triple the number from a decade ago. There’s probably 280,000 reasons why their parents chose charter schools. But many of them have stories like Fountain and her son.

Tay’Shaun is a model of spunky: beaming smile, carefree dreads. He described the difference between his neighborhood school and his new school this way: “One’s fun. One’s boring.” At the former, “You just sit there. They just give you the answer.”

Fountain had other concerns. In her view, basic communication – between teacher and parent, between teacher and student – was lacking. No remedy emerged for Tay’Shaun’s ADHD. The school as a whole struggled, too, with only a quarter of its students reading at grade level.

Fountain used a district choice program to enroll Tay’Shaun in another school. It was better. Tay’Shaun did better. But not better enough. Meanwhile, the juggling hurt.

Fountain has another son, 14, a daughter, 7, and cares for a 14-year-old niece. Her main business, a residential cleaning service, requires travel throughout Tampa Bay. Fountain had to say no to potential clients because of conflicts with the school schedule. That meant less income to give her kids the other things they need.

“You can’t imagine how stressful it was,” she said.

Then the clouds parted.

Collaboratory Preparatory Academy – CP for short – opened last fall on the fringe of industrial east Tampa. It sits in a trim, yellow building on the same 170-acre oasis that’s home to a bustling parish center and a new Catholic high school. (CP is unaffiliated.) The modest neighborhoods that unfurl nearby are hemmed in by Interstate 4, dotted with union halls – and burdened by some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.

CP is K-3 for now, with plans to expand a grade a year until it becomes K-8. Ninety-four percent of its 66 students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Eighty-five percent are African-American.

That’s not by accident, said principal Heather Jenkins. Continue Reading →

Peace, love & accountability

War on Poverty liberals who supported private school vouchers saw school choice as a means to create more accountability for a public education system that they saw as unresponsive to the needs of low-income parents. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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

The Great Society liberals who pushed for private school vouchers in the 1960s and ‘70s were all about social justice. They saw a tool for empowering low-income parents. For promoting equity. For honoring diversity.

They also saw a means to redefine accountability.

In 1971, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity – the office created to lead the War on Poverty – put out this brochure explaining the “voucher experiment” that would eventually be sorta kinda conducted in California’s Alum Rock school district. (You can read the full proposal here.) The brochure notes the pathetic academic outcomes for low-income students across America, then pivots to a theory for progress through “greater accountability”:

One reason for this disparity could well be that poor parents have little opportunity to affect the type or quality of education received by their children. The poor have no means by which to make the education system more responsive to their needs and desires. More affluent parents usually can obtain a good education for their children because they can choose schools for their children to attend – either by deciding where to live or by sending the children to private schools. Poverty and residential segregation deny this choice to low-income and minority parents.

The Office of Economic Opportunity therefore has begun to seek a means to introduce greater accountability and parental control into schools in such a way that the poor would have a wider range of choices, that the schools would be encouraged to become more accountable to parents, and that the public schools would remain attractive to the more affluent. This has led to consideration of an experiment in which public education would be given directly to parents in the form of vouchers, or certificates, which the parents could then take to the school of their choice, public or nonpublic, as payment for their children’s education.

Now is a good a time to re-surface this blast from the past. Plenty of smart folks have been trying to help people understand a definition of accountability through school choice (see here, here, here and here). But truth be told, opponents of choice – and I’d put many of my media friends in that category – still haven’t heard that definition, or still don’t appreciate it, or still characterize it exclusively as an extension of free-market “ideology.” Perhaps hearing it from the left will cause some healthy cognitive dissonance. 🙂

A better grasp of accountability is especially important to us in Florida. We’ve been barraged by negative stories ever since President Trump visited an Orlando Catholic school in March 2017 and praised Florida’s scholarship programs. Many of these stories suggested, if not outright claimed, that the Florida programs lack accountability. The name of the Trump-spurred series in the Orlando Sentinel says it all: “Schools Without Rules.” (Our response here.)

But this notion of unaccountable private schools is only true if you believe in a narrow, warped view of accountability that includes regulations alone. If “accountability” means holding a state-supported program to account for results, then parental choice exercises that pressure, too.

The liberal academics behind the OEO voucher proposal clearly believed that. Continue Reading →

School choice amidst the sugar cane

There’s a lot of school choice going on in some of the most remote places in Florida. Here, Danyelle Juarez teaches her Kindergarten class at Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, one of a string of small towns on the edge of Lake Okeechobee.

CLEWISTON, Fla. – It’s hard to think of anywhere in Florida more off the beaten path than the string of blue-collar towns on the rim of Lake Okeechobee. They’re snugged between the grassy, 30-foot-high dike that corrals America’s second-biggest lake, and a 450,000-acre sea of sugar cane that rolls south towards the Everglades. This is not palmy, beachy Florida. This is burning fields and smoking-sugar-mills Florida.

This is also school choice Florida.

The half-dozen towns that ring Lake Okeechobee are home to 10 private schools that serve more than 600 students using school choice scholarships. Four charter schools in the area serve another 600.

Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, a town too small for a Starbucks, is one of these schools. It opened nine years ago with 12 students. Now it has 120. About 90 use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.* Five use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Sanjuanita Morales, 29, a stay-at-home mom whose three children attend Harvest Academy with tax credit scholarships. “There’s a lot of people that ask about the school and the scholarships and they say, ‘Oh that’s really cool you have options.’ “

The choice schools here are myth chippers. There’s the myth that school choice can’t work in rural areas because there are too many hurdles – including too few students – to make non-district schools viable. Then there’s the myth that rural school districts, often their area’s biggest employers, are especially hostile to choice because they need to keep themselves viable.

Both myths solidified during last year’s confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos. Both continue to endure in stories like this, this and this. Yet both seem at odds with what’s happening in Florida, which has one of America’s most diverse educational ecosystems.

School choice war? Not here.

Thirty Florida counties are defined as rural, and this year they’re home to more than 80 scholarship-accepting private schools (like this one). Together, those schools are serving 3,828 tax credit students, 999 McKay students and 287 students using Gardiner Scholarships, an education savings account for students with special needs.* Many also serve students using Florida’s pre-K voucher.

Three of those counties abut Lake Okeechobee.

Hendry County, home to Clewiston, has 39,000 residents scattered over 1,190 square miles. If Hendry were a state, its population density would rank near Nevada’s. Okeechobee County on the north end of the lake is a tad less remote (on par with Colorado); Glades County on the west, two tads more (think New Mexico). The east end of the lake rests in Palm Beach County, but Pahokee and Belle Glade are 40 miles, and a galaxy, from the glitz of West Palm Beach.

As for the other myth: Listen to Jesse Windham, principal of Harvest Academy.

“Everyone thinks it’s a war,” he said about school choice. “It’s not here.” Continue Reading →

Once bored, now soaring, thanks to all-boys charter school

BRADENTON, Fla. – Lena Clark has a recurring nightmare. The former Army medic and Iraqi War veteran is trapped on the battlefield – bombs exploding, smoke everywhere – and desperately looking for the date in her contract that tells her when she can leave. She can’t find it. Nobody can help. The war drags on.

Brothers Frankie and Allen Clark are thriving at Visible Men Academy, an all-male charter school. Pictured here, the Clark family. (From left to right: Lena, Kennice, Allen, Frank and Frankie.)

Clark said the nightmare persists because it’s about her sons, Frankie, 11, and Allen, 10, and the hurdles they face as black males. It’s about the education she feels they must have – and she and her husband must give them – to navigate a world that can be hostile to children of color.

“I’m always going to be in a war for my children because I am raising black men,” Lena Clark said. “And that’s something I need my school to help me with.”

Thankfully, she said, she and her husband found that school.

For the past three years, Frankie and Allen have attended Visible Men Academy, a K-5 charter school south of Tampa Bay that is 100 percent male, 99 percent low-income, 96 percent black and Hispanic – and on the rise academically. The school emphasizes personalized instruction and character development. It’s big on expression through art and parental engagement. That combo, Clark said, has been a tonic for her boys.

“When they get up in the morning, they iron their own clothes and say, ‘We’ve got to be men today,’ “ she said. “If I have to pull them out for a dentist appointment, they’re like, ‘Mommy, what are you doing?’ They don’t want to go. They want to be in school.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Clark said she and her husband, Frank, removed their boys from their district school because the boys’ enthusiasm had begun to wane. Frankie and Allen are straight-A students. Clark said she pressed teachers for tougher assignments, but it didn’t happen.

When Frankie and Allen got home, they binged YouTube with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and devoured websites for brain teasers. That was good, but the Clarks also saw another sign their sons weren’t getting the intellectual nourishment they needed at school.

“We were higher than our grade level, but our teacher didn’t have anything for us beyond that,” Frankie said. “It wasn’t really challenging.”

Too often, Allen said, it was also frustrating.

“If a student had to be redirected,” he said, meaning steered back on track after dis-engaging or causing a disruption, “it was like, ‘Here we go again.’ “ Continue Reading →

Loving the Earth, lauding school choice

The students at Mangrove School routinely visit nature parks and beaches. More than half the students beyond preschool use school choice scholarships.

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

SARASOTA, Fla. — At a nature park bedecked by oaks and palms, a teacher at Mangrove School mimics a wolf call through cupped hands, signaling to scattered students that it’s time to breeze over. “Let’s greet the day,” the teacher says. They all join hands, then take turns facing east, south, west, and north as their teacher offers thanks. To the rising sun. The palms and coonti. The manatees and crabs. Even to the soil.

So class begins at another choice school that defies stereotypes – and conjures possibilities.

On the one hand, Mangrove School is just another one of 2,000 private schools that accept Florida school choice scholarships. On the other, its mission to “honor childhood,” “promote world peace” and “instill reverence for humanity, animal life, and the Earth” is impossible to square with a pernicious myth – on the policy landscape, the equivalent of an invasive species – that school choice is being rammed into place by forces that progressives find nefarious.

“I hear that, and I look around here, and I think it’s very strange,” said Mangrove School director Erin Melia, a former chemist with a master’s degree in education. “I would think it (the perception) would be the opposite. The people most in need of choice are the people left behind.”

Mangrove School started as a play group 18 years ago. Now it has 43 students from Kindergarten to sixth grade, including eight home-schoolers who attend part-time. Nineteen of 35 full-timers use some type of school choice scholarship, most of them the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.*

“We’re just trying to be available to as many families as possible,” Melia said.

That’s a standard view among private schools participating in Florida choice programs, including plenty of “alternative” schools. (Like this one, this one, this one and this one). Those private schools serve more than 100,000 tax credit scholarship students alone. Their average family incomes barely edge the poverty line, and three in four are children of color. Yet the narrative about conservative cabals feels as entrenched as ever.

Blame Trump and the media.

Last March, six weeks after he was inaugurated, the most polarizing man on the planet visited an Orlando Catholic school and held up Florida school choice scholarships as a national model. Just like that, they became a bullseye. In subsequent months, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Scripps, ProPublica, Education Week and Huffington Post all took aim. Every one of them prominently mentioned the connection to Trump and/or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Ditto for the Orlando Sentinel, which punctuated the year with a hyperbolic series that attempted to portray the accountability regimen for private schools as broken.

Not a single one of those stories offered a nod to the fuller, richer history behind school choice. Or to its deep roots on the left. Or to the diverse coalition that continues to support it. So, again, a reminder: Continue Reading →

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”?