Archive | Know your history

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 →

For school choice foes, a more complete history of vouchers and race

In the 1900's, Mary McLeod Bethune founded a private vocational school as an alternative for black students Florida had relegated to separate-and-unequal public schools. In the 1910's, a group of Catholic nuns clashed with segregationist politicians. Their crime? Educating black children. In the 1960's, civil rights activists sought to protest schools that systematically shortchanged black students. So they created their own.

Fast forward to 2017. Politicians can no longer segregate public schools by law. State constitutions in Florida and elsewhere mandate public school systems that provides for all students according to "uniform" funding standards. Educators who, like their predecessors of the last century, want to create alternatives that better serve their communities, no longer face prosecution. And they have new options that didn't exist a century ago. They can start new private schools. In Florida, if they comply with state regulations, their students can turn to one of the nation's four largest private school choice programs* to help pay tuition.

A long, winding road brought us here. It includes some dark passages that, recently, became fodder for scurrilous attacks on the school choice movement. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called scholarship programs like Florida's "only slightly more polite cousins of segregation."

Her charge rests on a short-lived, but real, chapter of history. Just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, Southern politicians began devising a "massive resistance." In some communities, they even shut down public schools. In their place, they let students take tuition tax credits to attend private "segregation academies." 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 →