Archive | Parental Choice

This charter school answered prayers

TAMPA, Fla. – When Tay’Shaun Holley stumbled at his neighborhood school, his mom, Crystal Fountain, enrolled him in another district school 20 miles away. But that didn’t lead to solid footing either, and the complications of a single mom juggling three jobs, four kids and grueling commutes began to take its toll. Fountain prayed for help.

Tay’Shaun and his sister, Shanyla, attend Collaboratory Prep, a charter school in Tampa that opened last year. Once struggling in his neighborhood school, Tay’Shaun is now on grade level and poised to soar academically.

Then, a friend called. A neat, new school was opening near Fountain’s home. A charter school.

Fountain researched Collaboratory Preparatory Academy, filled out an application, scheduled a visit. Even before meeting the principal and teachers, she had a feeling: This was the one.

“Honestly, I cried tears of joy,” she said.

Seven months into Tay’Shaun’s first year, the joy continues. The 9-year-old who showed up weary and subdued – and sometimes became frustrated and angry – is now a sunny, outgoing third-grader who’s catching fire academically.

“He’s more engaged. He’s willing to learn,” Fountain said. “I’m very confident my son is going to be successful because of this school.”

More than 280,000 students attend charter schools in Florida, nearly triple the number from a decade ago. There’s probably 280,000 reasons why their parents chose charter schools. But many of them have stories like Fountain and her son.

Tay’Shaun is a model of spunky: beaming smile, carefree dreads. He described the difference between his neighborhood school and his new school this way: “One’s fun. One’s boring.” At the former, “You just sit there. They just give you the answer.”

Fountain had other concerns. In her view, basic communication – between teacher and parent, between teacher and student – was lacking. No remedy emerged for Tay’Shaun’s ADHD. The school as a whole struggled, too, with only a quarter of its students reading at grade level.

Fountain used a district choice program to enroll Tay’Shaun in another school. It was better. Tay’Shaun did better. But not better enough. Meanwhile, the juggling hurt.

Fountain has another son, 14, a daughter, 7, and cares for a 14-year-old niece. Her main business, a residential cleaning service, requires travel throughout Tampa Bay. Fountain had to say no to potential clients because of conflicts with the school schedule. That meant less income to give her kids the other things they need.

“You can’t imagine how stressful it was,” she said.

Then the clouds parted.

Collaboratory Preparatory Academy – CP for short – opened last fall on the fringe of industrial east Tampa. It sits in a trim, yellow building on the same 170-acre oasis that’s home to a bustling parish center and a new Catholic high school. (CP is unaffiliated.) The modest neighborhoods that unfurl nearby are hemmed in by Interstate 4, dotted with union halls – and burdened by some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.

CP is K-3 for now, with plans to expand a grade a year until it becomes K-8. Ninety-four percent of its 66 students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Eighty-five percent are African-American.

That’s not by accident, said principal Heather Jenkins. Continue Reading →


From uniformity to pluralism in public education

Johns Hopkins’ Ashley Berner speaks at TEDx Wilmington.

Over the past several years, Ashley Berner has gained prominence as education policy scholar — thanks, in part, to her exploration of a fundamental question: Why does American public education look the way it does?

Last year, we highlighted her bookNo One Way to School. It argues, compellingly, that historical forces shaped America’s public-school system into one in which the government was the sole operator of publicly supported schools. It wasn’t always that way. And it isn’t that way in other industrialized democracies.

An assistant professor and director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, Berner recently gave a TEDx talk that distilled some of the ideas in her book.

It’s worth a watch. Berner says:

Most of us in the United States hear the term ‘public education,’ and we instinctively picture a traditional neighborhood school. We instinctively picture public education as one thing: Schools that are funded, regulated and exclusively delivered by the state.

Yes, our school systems are changing. In the last 25 years, many of our states have passed laws that enable charter schools, tax credits, vouchers. These are constitutionally appropriate mechanisms for funding diverse kinds of schools.

So yes, our school systems are being challenged, but over and against the legitimacy of a uniform cultural default — the uniform school system.

Now ‘uniform’ is kind of an odd word to use when it comes to public education, because we know our schools aren’t uniform in terms of their effects, but our school systems were designed to provide a uniform, common experience, delivered uniformly by the state. In fact, many of our state constitutions use this term to define public education.

Continue Reading →


School choice amidst the sugar cane

There’s a lot of school choice going on in some of the most remote places in Florida. Here, Danyelle Juarez teaches her Kindergarten class at Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, one of a string of small towns on the edge of Lake Okeechobee.

CLEWISTON, Fla. – It’s hard to think of anywhere in Florida more off the beaten path than the string of blue-collar towns on the rim of Lake Okeechobee. They’re snugged between the grassy, 30-foot-high dike that corrals America’s second-biggest lake, and a 450,000-acre sea of sugar cane that rolls south towards the Everglades. This is not palmy, beachy Florida. This is burning fields and smoking-sugar-mills Florida.

This is also school choice Florida.

The half-dozen towns that ring Lake Okeechobee are home to 10 private schools that serve more than 600 students using school choice scholarships. Four charter schools in the area serve another 600.

Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, a town too small for a Starbucks, is one of these schools. It opened nine years ago with 12 students. Now it has 120. About 90 use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.* Five use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Sanjuanita Morales, 29, a stay-at-home mom whose three children attend Harvest Academy with tax credit scholarships. “There’s a lot of people that ask about the school and the scholarships and they say, ‘Oh that’s really cool you have options.’ “

The choice schools here are myth chippers. There’s the myth that school choice can’t work in rural areas because there are too many hurdles – including too few students – to make non-district schools viable. Then there’s the myth that rural school districts, often their area’s biggest employers, are especially hostile to choice because they need to keep themselves viable.

Both myths solidified during last year’s confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos. Both continue to endure in stories like this, this and this. Yet both seem at odds with what’s happening in Florida, which has one of America’s most diverse educational ecosystems.

School choice war? Not here.

Thirty Florida counties are defined as rural, and this year they’re home to more than 80 scholarship-accepting private schools (like this one). Together, those schools are serving 3,828 tax credit students, 999 McKay students and 287 students using Gardiner Scholarships, an education savings account for students with special needs.* Many also serve students using Florida’s pre-K voucher.

Three of those counties abut Lake Okeechobee.

Hendry County, home to Clewiston, has 39,000 residents scattered over 1,190 square miles. If Hendry were a state, its population density would rank near Nevada’s. Okeechobee County on the north end of the lake is a tad less remote (on par with Colorado); Glades County on the west, two tads more (think New Mexico). The east end of the lake rests in Palm Beach County, but Pahokee and Belle Glade are 40 miles, and a galaxy, from the glitz of West Palm Beach.

As for the other myth: Listen to Jesse Windham, principal of Harvest Academy.

“Everyone thinks it’s a war,” he said about school choice. “It’s not here.” Continue Reading →

Once bored, now soaring, thanks to all-boys charter school

BRADENTON, Fla. – Lena Clark has a recurring nightmare. The former Army medic and Iraqi War veteran is trapped on the battlefield – bombs exploding, smoke everywhere – and desperately looking for the date in her contract that tells her when she can leave. She can’t find it. Nobody can help. The war drags on.

Brothers Frankie and Allen Clark are thriving at Visible Men Academy, an all-male charter school. Pictured here, the Clark family. (From left to right: Lena, Kennice, Allen, Frank and Frankie.)

Clark said the nightmare persists because it’s about her sons, Frankie, 11, and Allen, 10, and the hurdles they face as black males. It’s about the education she feels they must have – and she and her husband must give them – to navigate a world that can be hostile to children of color.

“I’m always going to be in a war for my children because I am raising black men,” Lena Clark said. “And that’s something I need my school to help me with.”

Thankfully, she said, she and her husband found that school.

For the past three years, Frankie and Allen have attended Visible Men Academy, a K-5 charter school south of Tampa Bay that is 100 percent male, 99 percent low-income, 96 percent black and Hispanic – and on the rise academically. The school emphasizes personalized instruction and character development. It’s big on expression through art and parental engagement. That combo, Clark said, has been a tonic for her boys.

“When they get up in the morning, they iron their own clothes and say, ‘We’ve got to be men today,’ “ she said. “If I have to pull them out for a dentist appointment, they’re like, ‘Mommy, what are you doing?’ They don’t want to go. They want to be in school.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Clark said she and her husband, Frank, removed their boys from their district school because the boys’ enthusiasm had begun to wane. Frankie and Allen are straight-A students. Clark said she pressed teachers for tougher assignments, but it didn’t happen.

When Frankie and Allen got home, they binged YouTube with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and devoured websites for brain teasers. That was good, but the Clarks also saw another sign their sons weren’t getting the intellectual nourishment they needed at school.

“We were higher than our grade level, but our teacher didn’t have anything for us beyond that,” Frankie said. “It wasn’t really challenging.”

Too often, Allen said, it was also frustrating.

“If a student had to be redirected,” he said, meaning steered back on track after dis-engaging or causing a disruption, “it was like, ‘Here we go again.’ “ Continue Reading →

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 →