Archive | Parental Choice

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 →


Does parental authority ‘work’?

A friend has sent me a long article from The Wall Street Journal of Jan. 29. It was a report on the Milwaukee school voucher program, now approaching middle age. Roughly 25 percent of the districts’ children attend private schools, most with public help in the form of vouchers for low-income families seeking transfer from their assigned “public” school. The article’s declared intention was to determine the system’s success, bearing the end-all headline: “Do Vouchers Work?”

The answer, we are told, would depend solely upon the test scores of children in chosen private schools compared to one another and to assigned government schools. No other measured success was even suggested. Citing various reports, the authors conclusion was that scores among chosen voucher schools correlate with the degree of social class mix in the student body. That is, they go up when the proportion of a school’s pupils from poor families stays below some level, elusive but real; when disadvantaged kids dominate the scene, scores tend to drop.

Continue Reading →


Fla. House advances wide-ranging education bill

The Florida House has combined a wide range of education initiatives into a single bill, triggering an intensely partisan debate over the future of public education.

The revised HB 7055, approved this morning by the Appropriations Committee, adds components the House has debated elsewhere to an already-substantial education bill.

Among other things, the initial bill would:

  • Allow school districts to create new “autonomous” public school networks.
  • Create a new scholarship program to help attend public-school students who struggle with reading*.
  • Tighten oversight of private school choice programs.

Some key additions include: 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 →

In memory of Brandon Berman

Brandon Berman

Brandon sat quietly in his wheelchair but grew increasingly agitated as his lawyer, Clint Bolick, answered rapid-fire questions from an aggressive reporter.

His mother, Donna Berman, stood behind him, worrying he might erupt into a fit, or worse, a seizure.

Brandon’s service dog Cody even sensed the frustration and made a noise in defense of his best friend.

“Can we get him out of here?,” Brandon muttered about the reporter.

Another reporter noticed his agitation. “We’ve been trying to get rid of him for years,” he quipped.

Brandon, who had autism, smiled and kept his composure.

Brandon was 16 at the time. He and his mom had come to Tallahassee to attend a hearing for Faase v. Scott. Florida’s statewide teachers union filed the case to halt a 2014 law that expanded the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), a scholarship program for children with special needs.

After years of struggles in public and private schools, Brandon and his mom felt the new program finally offered a path to an education that would work for him. They, along with other parents and students, jumped into the lawsuit to come to its defense.

Lawyers for the teacher unions claimed tax credit scholarships were their primary target. Brandon and other children using PLSAs were simply “collateral damage.” The two programs were linked in a sweeping piece of legislation the union argued violated the state constitution.

Brandon, his fellow intervenors, and the state’s lawyers ultimately prevailed.

Their win set the stage for a series of other legal victories for Florida’s school choice programs. The infant program they helped defend has blossomed into the nation’s largest education savings account program. It’s now called the Gardiner Scholarship, and it supports more than 10,000 students with special needs.  Continue Reading →

Private school choice a hit with public school employees

Toccara Barron, a public school science teacher in Jacksonville, is one of more than 1,400 public school district employees using a Florida school choice scholarship this year to send their children to private schools. Her oldest daughter attends a public school. Her youngest attends a private school thanks to a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

More than 1,400 public school district employees are benefiting from America’s largest private school choice program.

Their kids are a small percentage of the more than 100,000 low-income and working-class students who are using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. But their participation further underscores the diversity of parents who value options.

Parents list their employers on applications to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program. By my count, there are 1,471 district-employed parents in the mix this year. We don’t have a breakdown by job title, but eligibility is based on income. So, just as it was in past years, it’s likely most of these employees are custodians, bus drivers, teacher assistants and other “support staff.”

It’s not hard to find teachers who secured scholarships for their children, either, like this one and this one. Clearly, none of these employees are motivated by some twisted desire to dismantle public education. They simply want what all parents want: the school that best fits their kids’ needs.

Toccara Barron is one of them. She’s a science teacher in Jacksonville. Her oldest daughter is an eighth-grader in a magnet middle school. Her youngest is a first-grader at a private school.

Barron thought the private school was best positioned to give her youngest the individualized attention she needs to be challenged academically. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to access it.

“All parents should have the right to choose a school for their child,” she said, “not just the ones who could afford to pay tuition.”

The scholarship parents who are district employees hail from 57 of Florida’s 67 districts. Another 60 scholarship parents work for charter schools. A half-dozen work for the public Florida Virtual School.

Even parents who work for choice schools, it seems, are happy to have more choice.

Parent, principal push to intervene in Florida charter school lawsuit

A parent of a charter school student wants to intervene in a court case challenging a new funding system for school facilities.

Marleny Olivo has two children who attend Palm Beach County public schools. One attends a district-run school. One attends a charter.

She argues that before HB 7069 passed earlier this year, the state and the local school board did not treat her children equally. Among other things, they did not use local property taxes to fund the facility at Academy for Positive Learning. But they did use that revenue to fund facilities at district schools.

The new law changed that. But the Palm Beach County School Board is challenging it in court. Other districts subsequently banded together and filed a pair of separate suits challenging the same law. Continue Reading →

With the right school and a portable scholarship, she found her voice and graduated with honors

Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.

First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.

Eliya McDonald graduated in May 2017 from Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school for the performing arts, and later – with a Florida tax credit scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.

Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.

“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”

“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”

Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.

“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”

Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.

Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.

“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”

Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.

Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.

She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland. Continue Reading →