Archive | Parental Choice

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 →

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The price of liberty is vigilance

Wendell Phillips. Source: Wikimedia.

“External vigilance is the price of liberty, power is ever stealing from the many to the few,” said American abolitionist Wendell Phillips in a speech in 1852.

Sadly, at least when it comes to school choice, my fellow libertarians and conservatives appear to have misplaced their priorities while standing vigilantly against the encroachment of bad government.

Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, worries that “furthering federal entanglement in the funding of education through new federal programs would be unsound and would come at the expense of state, local, and parent decision-making.”

Max Eden, a scholar from the Manhattan Institute, worries that a federal program would prohibit scholarship organizations from setting aside funds for specific schools or groups. “This restriction would not only limit donor interest to well under $20 billion a year,” he wrote. “It would also exert pressure on existing state programs to drop their moral mission and conform.”

Free-market conservatives and libertarians have retreated on school choice, leaving Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump alone holding the banner for a federal program.

Their worries would make sense if the Trump Administration were still contemplating a $20 billion voucher initiative. But there’s good news. Recent headlines suggest the more likely path to federal school choice would a tax credit scholarship program. This is an approach to school choice that relies on private, voluntary contributions rather than direct government subsidies.
Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Teacher pay, true costs, safe schools and more

Teacher pay: Prospects for a statewide $200 million raise in pay for teachers have dimmed after proponent Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, says he is no longer pursuing the hike. Instead, Simmons says, he is backing an expansion of the teacher bonuses program, known as the Best and Bright Teacher Scholarship. Both the Senate and House are considering bills that would increase the money for bonuses and widen eligibility. Naples Daily News.

Public education spending: The true cost of educating one public school student in Florida for a year is $10,308, according to a report from Florida TaxWatch. The Florida Education Finance Program funding formula expenditure was $7,178 per student for the 2015-2016 school year. But TaxWatch says other tax dollars spent by districts take the total spending per student to more than $10,000. redefinED.

Protecting undocumented: The Miami-Dade County School Board declares its district a safe zone for undocumented immigrant students, and will review what else it can do to protect those students from U.S. immigration officials. The intent, says board member Lubby Navarro, is “to ensure that our schools are safe havens for all students and that this message resonates throughout entire communities, our neighborhoods, our barrios, so that everyone knows that our schools are safe for our children and our families.” Miami Herald.

Teacher program: The Palm Beach County School District and Nova Southeastern University will partner to create a teacher-training program that promises students jobs in the district after graduation. Students will be paid substitute teachers during their senior year at Nova, and will be offered fulltime teaching positions when they graduate as long as they meet certification and other requirements. Nova is hoping to enter into similar partnerships with Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Sun-Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Improving public education, by choice: Darryl Rouson, podcastED

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Florida State Sen. Darryl Rouson went to Catholic schools from first grade through college. He wants low-income families from his district to have the same opportunity. He’s sent his own children to public schools, so he wants Florida’s public school system to be as strong as possible.

During a podcast interview with Denisha Merriweather, a Florida school choice alum now studying to become a social worker, Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, explains how his life experience has informed his view that supporting school choice and supporting public education are not in conflict.

“I want a high-quality, fully funded public education, but at the same time, I do not believe that one size fits all,” he says.

Rouson joined the Senate after a narrow win in a hard-fought Democratic primary. Education issues figured prominently in the race. His district encompasses the segregated neighborhoods of South St. Petersburg, an area whose academic struggles were chronicled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Testing, charters, student ID cards and more

Testing reform: Three legislators say they will file a bill today that would cut back on state-required assessment testing. The “Fewer, Better Tests” bill’s goals are to cut down on and improve state tests, move the exams to later in the school year, get the test results to teachers sooner, and provide better student score reports. Filing the bill are Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. Sunshine State NewsGradebook. The Manatee County School Board tables a discussion on a proposal to limit district-required testing. Bradenton Herald.

Charter school takeovers: Members of the House education committee who are discussing district methods of turning around underperforming schools say districts should consider allowing charter school companies to take over operations at those schools. This week, the Florida Board of Education will consider a plan to make the Jefferson County School District a charter district. Politico Florida.

Student ID cards: The Duval County School District will issue new student IDs that are linked to data such as grades, academic progress, attendance and discipline. Students would have to swipe the cards when they get on and off school buses and when they go to classes. The setup cost is $1.1 million, with a $123,500 annual fee. Florida Times-Union.

School recess: The 2016 bill that would have required daily recess at all Florida elementary schools also would have prohibited teachers from withholding recess for misbehaving students. This year that provision has been stripped out of the recess bills, at the insistence of two powerful legislators who say they don’t want to take away teachers’ flexibility. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →

The week in school choice: New opportunities

It’s National School Choice Week, and everyone’s celebrating — including 1.6 million Floridians.

Yet the politics of school choice are getting weird. A Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos spawned countless memes, talk of fake gaffes and questions about her grasp of education policy details. Democrats like Al Franken and Maggie Hassan backed charters while panning vouchers. A committee vote’s been delayed one week and Democrats have formally asked for more question time. Some of her policy positions remain unclear, but some observers think her opponents were more interested in political theater than getting substantive answers. Opposition to her nomination may be intensifying among the usual suspects, but key Republicans remain on board. Are Democrats waging a foolish crusade against her? Some progressive education reformers express consternation about collaboration with President Trump’s administration. Other reformers argue it’s time to seize new opportunities.

The DeVos take you might not have read, but definitely should: The African-American roots of Betsy DeVos’ education platform.

Conservatives say they won’t abandon their federalist principles to promote school choice. DeVos says she doesn’t want to force vouchers on unwilling states. Rep. Luke Messer says congressional Republicans don’t, either.

In other words, for all the national political noise, the school choice movement’s biggest fights will still be at the state level.

Speaking of which … how about some good news?

For the first time in nearly 30 months, the nation’s largest private school choice program — one of DeVos’ favorites — is no longer under legal threat. Parents are overjoyed. And now, a similar policy may be in the works at the federal level.

Still speaking of which … big things are brewing in Nebraska. And universal tax credit scholarships are in the works in Arkansas.

Meanwhile…

Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Turnarounds, bonuses, choice, discipline and more

florida-roundup-logoTurnaround concerns: A battle is developing between state and local education officials over control of schools. The Department of Education has been actively intervening to turn around low-performing schools, sometimes requiring schools replace principals and teacher. That puts the state “on the verge of overstepping their authority,” says Bill Husfelt, Bay County superintendent. “Tallahassee talks about the federal government and the control they have, and then the state turns around and does the same thing to local institutions.” Politico Florida. Principals at three struggling Palm Beach County schools are getting more money and more authority to turn around their schools under a new state program that will measure whether cutting bureaucracy leads to better student performance. Sun-Sentinel.

Teacher bonuses: The governor and members of the Florida Senate and House have all signaled an interest in reworking the bonuses program for the state’s teachers. The current law gives up to $10,000 to teachers who are rated highly effective and scored in the top 20 percent on their SAT or ACT tests. The Florida Board of Education is pushing for a $43 million bonus program that would “support bonuses for new teachers who show great potential for and veteran teachers who have demonstrated the highest student academic growth among their peers.” News Service of Florida.

School choice: Parents in Palm Beach County have reversed a trend of choosing charter schools over the district’s public schools. Three years ago, charter schools added 4,100 students while public school enrollment declined by 700. This year, district schools have added 2,436 students, and charter schools just 330. Palm Beach Post.

Discipline disparity: Black students were suspended at three times the rate of white students during the 2015-2016 school year in Manatee County, according to the school district’s records. Black students make up about 14 percent of the district’s enrollment, but drew 33 percent of the out-of-school suspensions. Bradenton Herald. Continue Reading →

The missing history from the DeVos debate

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Betsy DeVos.

Critics of Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Secretary of Education have promoted a narrative that she is a free-market ideologue opposed to all education regulations.

But a step outside the shadow of the dysfunctional Detroit education system and a look at DeVos’ advocacy for private school choice paints a more nuanced picture.

A paper trail left by DeVos, and the advocacy foundations she led until recently, reveals a history of supporting choice programs that create academic, administrative and financial accountability for organizations that fund scholarships and schools that accept them (see page 24-25). She has also pushed private school choice programs to prioritize disadvantaged students.

“We target programs that are specifically geared to answer the needs of low-income parents and students,” she said during a 2015 interview.

These stances have sometimes triggered conflict with other groups that support vouchers and other forms of private school choice, but favor a more laissez-faire approach. School choice critics often omit differences of opinion that sometimes arise among voucher supporters. While these conflicts tend to be relatively minor in the scheme of things, they highlight competing philosophies and strategic approaches that shape the school choice movement.

A debate over tax credit scholarship reforms during Georgia’s most recent legislative session provides a telling case in point. Continue Reading →