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Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors.

That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.” Continue Reading →

States can help districts and charter schools work together

The idea that school districts and charter schools would set aside their differences and start working together isn’t exactly unheard of. It’s happening now in cities around the country. In some cases it’s been going on for years.

But it’s still rare enough that it’s often portrayed as a man-bites-dog story, or as a peacekeeping mission by district leaders.

A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education says states can help make collaboration at the local level more common. They can improve charter school rules and laws. They can run political interference for local district leaders, and use their bully pulpit to highlight success stories. And they can offer extra money to help decentralized, charter-heavy school systems work better for all kids.

The report cites Florida, which has been running a competitive grant program aimed at drawing high-quality national charter networks to its inner cities, as “an early leader in state-led stimulus.”

It also suggests “the time is ripe” for other states to follow suit. Among other things, charter schools enroll an ever-larger share of students (more than 270,000 in Florida, or nearly one in ten public-school students). And Congress just overhauled federal school accountability rules and Charter School Program grants.

“Charter schools are a big and growing part of public education: They are here to stay and their role in public education will only expand,” the report says. “This is a time of profound opportunity. Charter schools and districts cannot do all this themselves.”

Under the revised federal education law, states can use federal funding to keep better tabs on charter school authorizers. In Florida, that means school districts, which sponsor all but a handful of the state’s more than 650 charters. 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 →

This week in school choice: Tensions

In some ways, the tensions pushed to the forefront of the education reform conversation over the past week existed 100 years ago, when black families relied on faith-based institutions to educate their children in the segregated South, and educators like Mary McLeod Bethune cobbled together donations from white benefactors to expand opportunities for young African-Americans.

They certainly existed 25 years ago, when a seemingly unlikely alliance of progressive leaders like Polly Williams and conservative Wisconsin Republicans helped create Milwaukee’s pioneering school voucher program.

And they exist in the politically diverse coalitions that, over the past year, have rallied around the nation’s largest private school choice program in Florida, helped save charter schools in Washington State, and enacted a voucher program in Maryland.

For too long, and in too many cases, the people who speak for, lead, and, especially, fund efforts to expand school choice and educational opportunity do not come from the communities that have the most at stake in those efforts (meaning, mostly, low-income people of color). As the cause becomes more of a bona fide movement, that’s starting to change. But people from other backgrounds, including conservative intellectuals and Republican lawmakers remain an essential part of the coalition.

Kathleen Porter-Magee clarifies what that means.

Education reform leaders on the Right and Left cannot claim the mantle of civil rights when it suits us and then reject it when it starts to feel uncomfortable.

For many years, white conservatives gave moral urgency to the push for education reform by adopting the language of civil rights struggles. In 2002, President Bush used called it “the civil rights issue of our time”—a frame that found its way into the keynote addresses and panel discussions of many white-dominated education reform conferences. John McCain used the same frame while accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, calling education “the civil rights issue of the century.” …

I remember first hearing this language coming from fellow white reformers after I left the classroom in 2002, and I remember thinking even then that it sounded hollow. Not because it was wrong—ensuring equity and excellence in education is absolutely an issue of social justice. It’s also an important civil rights issue. But it wasn’t always clear whether that notion was more than just a sound bite.

See also: An open letter to white, conservative education reformers. A long list of names agree the “education reform coalition has a problem.” A progressive’s reflections on the importance of talking to, and understanding, conservatives. Education reform’s existential moment.


South Carolina attempts to cut private nonprofits out of its tax credit scholarship program amid quid-pro-quo concerns.

Why it doesn’t make sense to generalize about charter school performance.

Louisiana’s new governor goes after school vouchers.

New Jersey takes a stab at charter school reform. Louisiana forecloses the possibility of independent charter school authorizers. State superintendent John White on New Orleans charters’ return to local control. A call for charters not to fight closures, and by extension, accountability. Two big school choice names push back on an anti-charter lawsuit in St. Louis.

The difficulty of helping low-performing students find schools that actually work better for them.

New paths to college for Florida students with “unique abilities.”

Inconvenient studies for school vouchers: Negative achievement results, school closures in MilwaukeeThere’s a  positive side to ledger.

Taking educational customization past the normal gatekeepers.

Sure, I’d love to disrupt the traditional education bureaucracy and replace it with a system of high-performing charter schools. That might be doable one day—at least in our major cities and inner-ring suburbs, where student need is greatest, the population is dense, and existing district schools are the least defensible. But in America’s affluent suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and rural areas, I think the “system” is here to stay for the foreseeable future. There’s just not enough appetite in those places for something very different.

What I’m interested in today is how to work around that system and cut out its middle men (and women), such as superintendents and procurement officers. … How can reformers, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists “disintermediate” school districts and provide valuable services to students, parents, or teachers directly? What innovations are already underway, and what others might be pursued in the future?

Mapping school funding inequality.

Quote of the Week

[T]he Court finds no negative effect on the uniformity or efficiency of the State system of public schools due to these choice programs, and indeed, evidence was presented that these school-choice programs are reasonably likely to improve the quality and efficiency of the entire system.

-Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds appraises the impact of charters and vouchers on public education in Florida. (Read more on Florida’s adequacy lawsuit, and the role school choice played in the case, here and here.)

Tweet of the Week

Pro Tip: equity feels like oppression when you’ve had all the power.

It is not. You’re simply, finally having to share.

— Brittany Packnett☔️ (@MsPackyetti) May 26, 2016

This Week in School Choice is redefinED’s weekly roundup of national news related to educational options. On non-holiday weeks, it appears Monday mornings on the blog, but you can sign up here to get it in your inbox. We hope you had a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day, and had a chance to honor those who gave their lives for our country.

Did we miss something? Please send tips, links, suggestions and feedback to tpillow[at]sufs[dot]org.

Focus on our kids’ strengths, not their weaknesses

Note: This week on the blog, parents who have chosen a variety of schooling options will be sharing their educational wishes for 2016.

My wish for schools is that administrators and teachers focus on individual children’s strengths and not their weaknesses.

2016 wish logoAs an example, let’s look at high school athletes. Say the Department of Education set a minimum requirement that to play any sport, students must be able to swim a hundred yards. For one athlete who already knows how to swim, this would be reasonable. For another, it would simply take a little practice. But for a third student, who may not know how to swim, it could become an obstacle that would discourage the athlete from pursuing any sport.

We have a similar case with our son. He has speech apraxia, a motor speech disorder which makes it difficult for him to speak. Despite this challenge, he is at the top of his science and computer-science classes. He also takes advanced algebra.

Do we want to make it harder for kids to excel because of the challenges they face, or do we want to offer multiple paths so kids can be the best they can be? We immigrated to the United States to be in the land of opportunity, only to find out that for our son, it may be the land of obstacles.

My son acknowledges that his career choices are limited because of his speech challenges.  Even some menial jobs that don’t require education would be a struggle. STEM is his strength. At the same time, many claim there is a shortage of students pursuing Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, in fields where my son excels. Continue Reading →

Florida charter schools draw Hispanic students

Over the past five years, the number of Hispanic students in Florida’s public schools has swelled by more than 150,000. Those students appear to be disproportionately moving to charter schools, where the Hispanic enrollment has grown by nearly 50,000, more than doubling since 2010.

Students play outside at Immokalee Community School, one of a growing number of charter schools where Hispanics represent a majority of students.

Children play outside at Immokalee Community School, one of a growing number of charter schools where the majority of students are Hispanic.

Hispanics now represent the single-largest ethnic group in Florida’s charter schools, accounting for 39 percent of their students during the 2014-15 school year.

In Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest school district, 79 percent of charter-school students are Hispanic, compared to roughly 68 percent of all public-school students. The trend holds in Osceola County, the state’s other majority-Hispanic school district, and also in Broward, the second-largest district in the state.

Hispanics in Florida are far from a monolithic group. Julio Fuentes, the president of the of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, said the label masks diverse cultures — from predominantly Cuban-American Miami-Dade to heavily Puerto Rican areas in Central Florida.

“Probably the one issue that brings us the closest together is education,” Fuentes said. In multiple surveys, by his group and others, “the common denominator among the Latino community is access to a quality education.” That, he added, may help explain why parents are more likely to seek out different schools — including charters — for their children. (Fuentes also sits on the board of Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post).

Charter school ethnicity

For Andrea Velez, the decision to enroll her daughter in a charter school began with the desire to find a school that would challenge her academically. Private school was not an option.

She ultimately settled on Choices in Learning in Seminole County. She said she was impressed by its use of the Success for All reading curriculum and “cooperative” approach to learning.

“Ultimately what it really came down to was, where was I going to send my daughter that she could thrive?” Velez said. “I wanted her to have the best opportunity that I could provide her with.”

Now her daughter has moved on to middle school, and Velez has chosen district-run magnet program focused on engineering, where she can pursue her interest in science. Continue Reading →

School choice and political power: Howard Fuller, podcastED

Howard Fuller

Howard Fuller

Note: This is the third in a series of podcast interviews on Nevada’s new education savings account program. We previously spoke with Seth Rau here and Matthew Ladner here.

Ever since social justice advocates joined forces with free-market conservatives to create the groundbreaking Milwaukee Parental Choice program in the early ’90s, there have been ideological divides in the school choice movement.

Because most places have fewer school options than parents want, and private school choice programs have usually targeted disadvantaged students in some way, similar left-right coalitions have formed all over the country.

Howard Fuller sits squarely in the social justice camp. When other private school choice supporters try to make eligibility universal, he often objects, on behalf of disadvantaged students he fears will be short-changed and in support of principles staked out by the late Polly Williams and others who helped create the Milwaukee voucher program.

Hence his concerns about the new, near-universal education savings account program recently created in Nevada. In our latest podcast interview, Fuller says this sort of intramural debate is almost inevitable in a movement that spans ideological boundaries.

“The only way we could have avoided that would have been to say we’re not going to have parent choice for low-income people, because you couldn’t get to where we got to without pulling together the type of coalition that was pulled together,” he says.podcastED-logo

Despite their philosophical differences, Fuller can find some agreement with those, like Matthew Ladner, who support universal eligibility.

Fuller says it can make sense to offer scholarships to some families higher on the income scale, especially if funding levels are “graduated” so they receive smaller amounts. That can help build a stronger base of political support. However, he says, there should still be a cut-off at some point, so school choice programs aren’t subsidizing private-school tuition for the wealthy. Continue Reading →

This week in school choice: Doing battle over charter schools

Debates over school choice accountability and regulations often become surrogate battles over whether states should have, or expand, options in the first place. This week saw several of these fights flare over charter schools.

Democrats in Philadelphia’s mayoral race couldn’t agree on whether they support charter schools, but they almost all seemed to agree on imposing a moratorium. In Newark, the city council took a different path, passing a resolution to oppose a bill that would limit charters.

An effort to clamp down on state-approved charter schools in A- or B- rated districts was defeated in Louisiana. A district judge there also ruled 33 charter schools authorized by the state are constitutional.

Differences in minority and special needs enrollment between charter schools and public schools had one Idaho teacher wanting a moratorium on the state’s brand new charter school system.

Charter schools in Ohio aren’t performing as well as charters in other states, so Republicans and Democrats are looking to overhaul their system of oversight. However, virtual charter schools feel some of the rules aren’t appropriate.

Unexpected closures of charter schools in Florida have left legislators looking for ways to reign in unqualified operators. One Florida city is trying to take matters into its own hands by developing policies that may restrict new schools.

charter school kitten.

This week, a Connecticut columnist played the kitten card on charter schools.

Charters are here to stay, so the goal of these debates should be to ensure the system meets the needs of families, including those who fill charter school waiting lists in search of new options. There’s more at stake here than some imaginary kittens’ lives.


President Barack Obama gave remarks on poverty and education at Georgetown University that provoked a strong reaction from conservatives, libertarians and school choice supporters.

Quotes of the Week:

“We have thousands of children in Newark alone who are on waiting lists to attend charter schools. The last thing the legislature should be doing is limiting their growth.”  – , Newark City Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr.

“So, it’s in our hands. Our friends—Governor Cuomo, so many assembly Democrats, and the Republicans—tell me they can’t get it done unless we back them and hold them as accountable as the opposition does. And, it’s not us bishops who have the clout, they whisper, but our parents and teachers You’re the ones who vote! They report to you!” – Cardinal James Dolan, proclaiming efforts in the New York Assembly to pass an Education Investment Tax Credit are not over.

We, for out part, report to you. Send your points and counterpoints to tpillow[at] and pgibbons[at]