Archive | Know your history

Sisters of St. Joseph named ‘Women in American History’

St. Benedict The Moor School, St. Augustine, Fla.

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) recently recognized the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, for the orders historic role educating African Americans and combating racism at the turn of the 20th century Florida.

According to the St. Augustine Record, DAR designed the Catholic order “Women in American History,” to recognize their efforts.

More than a century ago, three sisters from the order were arrested for the crime of being white while teaching black students at St. Benedict the Moor School in St. Augustine, Fla. Passed in 1913, the “Sheats Law,” named after the state’s first elected superintendent of public instruction, prohibited whites from educating black students. A conviction could result in fines up to $500 (nearly $13,000 in 2018 dollar values) or imprisonment for up to six months.

The Sisters of St. Joseph fought against the law by continuing to educate black students, in violation of the statute. After the arrest of the three Catholic sisters in 1916, the Diocese fought the law in court and won.

RedefinED chronicled the Sisters of St. Joseph as part of the Know Your History series here.

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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 →

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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 →

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 →

Historic Florida school remembered

Black and white students at Industrial class. Orange Park school, 1898. Clay County Archives.

In a report to northern missionaries in 1894, an Orange Park Pastor, Rev. T.S. Perry, described a beacon of integration in the Jim Crow South:

“On this very spot, where less than a generation ago gangs of slaves toiled under the overseer’s lash, and within rifle-shot of the plantation whipping post, their children are now developing into worthy citizenship; and youth, both white and colored, are growing up into enlightened Christian manhood and womanhood.”

Today, 124 years later, that spot, the former site of Orange Park Normal and Industrial school, was finally recognized with a historic marker. Continue Reading →

The messy history of school vouchers, teachers unions and racial segregation

On Martin Luther King Day, it is worth remembering the sacrifices people made to advance equity and desegregate public life in America, including our schools. Unfortunately, some activists have begun exploiting the occasion to retell history.

In the new revisionist stories, modern school choice supporters are close ancestors to the villainous segregationists of the past.

History, of course, is far more complicated. And that’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the scholarship that underpins the misleading narratives about school choice.

Segregationists, it turns out, supported public and private schools alike. And meanwhile, teacher unions in the South ramped up their fights against school vouchers after discovering large numbers of parents used them for reasons other than racial discrimination.

Last year, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean claimed to have uncovered a shocking connection between James Buchanan, a school voucher supporter, and Sen. Harry Byrd’s anti-integration political machine. According to MacLean, Buchanan, a Nobel-winning economist, planted the racist roots of school vouchers by allying with segregationists to pass school vouchers into Virginia law.

A month after MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains was published, the American Federation of Teachers president Randy Weingarten claimed vouchers were the “polite cousin to racial segregation.” Numerous articles began to circulate arguing that school choice and racial segregation were inseparably linked. Continue Reading →

Fla. House panel backs plan for Bethune statue

Editor’s note: See our take on Bethune here.

By Jim Turner

News Service of Florida

A statue of civil-rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune moved closer Tuesday to replacing a likeness of a Confederate general in representing Florida in the U.S. Capitol.

The House Government Accountability Committee voted 20-1, with Jacksonville Republican Jay Fant opposed, to approve a measure (HB 139) that calls for a statue of Bethune to replace Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall.

Each state gets two representatives at the statuary hall, and Smith has represented Florida since 1922. Continue Reading →

For 83 years, a North Fla. private school helped black students excel

Far from the public eye, a North Florida private school for black students survived for 83 years against the odds.

From its humble beginnings as a log cabin in 1868 until its closure in 1951, Fessenden Academy endured thanks to the grit of the students and the entrepreneurial verve of its leaders. Over the decades it fought to preserve its academic identity, won praise for the achievement of its students, weathered the mysterious disappearance of a key leader and survived to become one of the longest-lived educational institutions of an era when missionary aid societies and wealthy industrialists swooped in to fill a void left by the public school system.

Its achievements were all the more remarkable given that a crucial part of its mission — the education of black children — was not only neglected by the public, but made difficult by politicians seeking to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy. And yet, it successfully courted the support of the some of the same public officials who oppressed similar institutions during the Jim Crow era.

Florida's state constitution of 1885 erased the gains black Floridians made following the Civil War and constructed a single-party state built on the idea of white supremacy.

Although it’s not always considered part of traditional Dixie, racial tensions ran high in Florida and life for black residents was harsh. According to Historian David H. Jackson Jr., there were more lynchings per person in Florida between 1880 and 1930 than anywhere else in the South.

White residents, hostile to the idea of using tax dollars to provide an education for black students, were slow to build public schools for the black community. They fought to keep tax dollars from black and white residents segregated.

Florida's first elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, William N. Sheats, wrote racial segregation into the state's constitution. Over the course of his tenure, he forbade public schools from hiring teachers educated at racially integrated colleges, labored to shut down Florida's first desegregated private school and ordered the arrest of three Catholic sisters for the crime of teaching black students.

More than a third of the 20th century would pass before a majority of black students in Florida had access to a public school. Religious aid societies like the American Missionary Association (AMA) and wealthy benefactors stepped into that void to provide black students an education while the political majority would not.

This is the story of Fessenden Academy, a private school in rural Marion County, Florida, that educated black students for 83 years and became the last secondary school in the United States operated by the AMA.

From humble beginnings

Union School, as it was originally called, began in a humble log-cabin constructed entirely by local black families and financed by Thomas B. Ward in 1868. Continue Reading →