Patricia Levesque describes public education in the year 2039


If you hopped in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and traveled to the year 2039, what would your utopian public education system look like?

That’s the question Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill posed to Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation For Excellence in Education, on this episode of PodcastED.

For Levesque, utopia begins and ends with equalizing opportunity – putting more money, more power, and better information into the hands of parents who traditionally have had little of all three.

“If you give parents the ability to have power and leverage in (their child’s educational) process so they can curate…that is the ultimate form of accountability,” Levesque says.

Both Tuthill and Levesque believe that if you started building public education from scratch, funding systems wouldn’t look like what we have now. Funding would be based on each child’s unique needs – with an eye towards equal opportunity.

The two influential policy wonks also discussed equalizing access to out-of-school learning opportunities, including travel, computer science becoming a core component of every child’s education, giving teachers more control over their professional development through professional spending accounts, and raising teacher pay.

You can listen to this thought-provoking podcast below, or on the Apple Podcasts app. Thank you for listening.

Education savings accounts: their evolution in Arizona


Editor’s note: This post is the second installment of a short series on the origins of K-12 education savings account programs. In the first installment, Dan Lips, a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and the originator of the concept which eventually became the AZESA program, described the turn of the millennium school choice debates that shaped the development of his original ESA proposal. Below, redefinED executive editor Matthew Ladner describes the circumstances that led to the adoption of the first ESA program in Arizona.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others but remains more of a slave than they are.”- Jean Jacques Rousseau

Arizona and Florida have a long and underappreciated history of exchanging K-12 reforms. Arizona developed the nation’s first scholarship tax credit program; Florida now has the largest scholarship tax credit program. Arizona developed the first education savings program; Florida now has the largest ESA program.

Don’t feel bad because Arizona borrowed school grades, incentive funding and several other policies from Florida. The story of the Arizona ESA program, in fact, begins with Florida’s former Senate President John McKay.

Living in Arizona is like living in the future – your future to be precise. What’s that you say? I don’t know what state you live in? You are right. I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter.

Arizona is both a border state and a retirement destination. Guess what? Day by day, your state is getting a little more like Arizona as your population grows older (10,000 baby boomers per day reaching age 65) and your Hispanic population increases.

Don’t worry too much; your future will be contentious based on Arizona’s last decade, but not so bad. Arizona is the canary in America’s coal mine, but we are still chirping away.

Arizona’s population also doubled since 1990. If you stretch the state level NAEP data back as far as they will go (also 1990) you’ll find that  in many comparisons, Arizona tended to rank just ahead of Alabama but behind the other participating states (not all states participated in NAEP until 2003). Arizona is not a high-performing state yet, but we have been heading in the right direction.

Break-neck population growth and low average performance tend to incline the mind toward innovation. The state experienced enormous pressure to build enough school space for the growing student population, but the results were less than “meh” on average. Accordingly, Arizona has the largest state charter sector (around 17 percent of public-school students), an even bigger open enrollment practice and private choice.

Back in the mid-1990s, Arizona lawmakers made three big K-12 decisions: They required districts to have an open enrollment policy and forbade the charging of tuition; they passed a liberal charter school law; and they created the first of what became several private choice programs. These and other reforms seem to be working out well judging by NAEP, with broadly shared improvements in outcomes:

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano became the first Democratic governor to sign bills creating new school choice programs into law in a budget deal in 2005. One of these was a voucher program for students with disabilities modeled after Florida’s McKay program. We had been advocating for such a program at the Goldwater Institute for years, as the tax credit program would not be capable of providing private choice options to students with disabilities.

Choice opponents, however, challenged the voucher mechanism in the Arizona courts and ultimately prevailed under a “Blaine Amendment” in the Arizona Constitution – a horrifying result. Given that the state’s tax credit system stood incapable of delivering the level of assistance required to aid special needs students, the Arizona Supreme Court has left matters such that we policymakers could deliver a limited amount of assistance to the general student population, but an entirely inadequate mechanism to aid special needs students. The Arizona justices left a trail of breadcrumbs to follow in their decision, however. More on that below.

Dan Lips had developed a proposal for a multi-use K-12 program four years before the Arizona Supreme Court decision striking down vouchers. Your author’s contribution to this story began in reading the findings of an entirely separate Arizona Supreme Court decision involving CityNorth, an outdoor mall. The Arizona Supreme Court acted in this decision to curtail the use of public subsidies to private companies. The ruling discussed the need for a “public purpose” for subsidies and ruled that the city of Phoenix paying for parking spaces outside a mall didn’t qualify.


Educating students is about the clearest public purpose you can get. It occurred to me in reading the CityNorth decision that the Lips account mechanism would clearly fulfill that public purpose. Moreover, it would do so in such a way that no one would ever be required to pay for private school tuition. The state would clearly be providing a subsidy to families under this mechanism, and the families would use the service providers they thought best: certified tutors, therapists, community colleges and universities, online programs, private schools, individual public-school courses, etc.

I bounced this notion off Clint Bolick, the famed Constitutional attorney who at the time oversaw the litigation operation. I had feared I was crazy. I felt great relief when Clint listened to my spiel and assured me I was not crazy. In fact, he was every bit as excited as I was. We scheduled a meeting with Tim Keller, the Institute for Justice attorney who had litigated the Cain vs. Horne case defending school vouchers in Arizona.

We laid out the account concept to him. Tim had an unmistakable look of shock on his face. “You need to watch the oral arguments in the Arizona Supreme Court,” Tim told us repeatedly. He looked like he had seen a ghost. As I watched the Cain vs. Horne oral arguments online 19 times that summer from a cabin in the woods in Prescott, Ariz., I probably had the same look on my face.

Clint and I had sat in the chamber during the Cain vs. Horne hearing at the Arizona Supreme Court, but we had to leave about midway through. Watching a choppy video on sketchy WiFi, I discovered that had we stayed for the entire argument, we would have seen one of the  justices quizzing attorneys on both sides regarding whether a theoretical program that provided cash assistance to parents of children with special needs would violate the Arizona Blaine Amendment.

Arizona Supreme Court Justice Andrew D. Hurwitz questioned attorney Donald M. Peters, representing the teachers’ unions and other choice opponents, about what sort of program violates Arizona’s Blaine Amendment, which the Court referred to as the “Aid Clause.” The exchange is revealing:

Justice Hurwitz: Do you agree that the state could pick this population of worthy parents and say to them, ‘Here’s a grant for each of you for $2,500 to be used in pursuit of your children’s education, spend it as you wish?’

Peters (attorney for choice opponents): Yes.

Justice Hurwitz: And if they spend it on a private or parochial school, or on public schools by transferring districts, that would be okay?

Peters: Yes. I think the dividing line is how much the state constrains the choice.

My eyes were as big as saucers. I played the video repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t experiencing an auditory hallucination. I had not: The teacher union’s attorney had made the case in the Arizona Supreme Court that an ESA program would be constitutional.

I read the Cain vs. Horne ruling.

The voucher programs appear to be a well-intentioned effort to assist two distinct student populations with special needs. But we are bound by our constitution. There may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. But, absent a constitutional amendment, because the Aid Clause does not permit appropriations of public money to private and sectarian schools, the voucher programs violate Article 9, Section 10 of the Arizona Constitution. (emphasis added).

Dan Lips had been in my ear for years about a multi-use choice model. Neither of us had any idea that years later, Arizona would have the first choice program where opponents attempted to apply relics of 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry against a program for special needs children. ESAs had been a solution in search of a problem, but it found the problem and solved it.

Following a great deal of work by people inside and outside the Arizona legislature, Gov. Jan Brewer signed the first K-12 ESA program into law. The same opponents sued again, but this time it was they who met with defeat in the courts. In a unanimous appellate court ruling that the Arizona Supreme Court chose not to review, the court ruled:

The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools. Parents can use the funds deposited in the empowerment account to customize an education that meets their children’s unique educational needs.

Thus, beneficiaries have discretion as to how to spend the ESA funds without having to spend any of the aid at private or sectarian schools.

Thus, unlike in Cain II, in which every dollar of the voucher programs was earmarked for private schools, none of the ESA funds are preordained for a particular destination. The supreme court has never interpreted the Aid Clause to mean that no public money can be spent at private or religious schools.

This program enhances the ability of parents of disabled children to choose how best to provide for their educations, whether in or out of private schools. No funds in the ESA are earmarked for private schools.

First, the ESA does not require a permanent or irrevocable forfeiture of the right to a free public education.

All the ESA requires is that students not simultaneously enroll in a public school while receiving ESA funds. This same restriction applies to any children who attend private school or are homeschooled.

Second, parents are not coerced in deciding whether or not to participate in the ESA…Parents are free to enroll their children in the public school or to participate in the ESA; the fact that they cannot do both at the same time does not amount to a waiver of their constitutional rights or coercion by the state.

Finally, the ESA does not limit the choices extended to families but expands the options to meet the individual needs of children.

Years later, the small but growing number of ESA programs (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee have active programs) remain experiments in liberty. The greatest strength of ESAs – the flexibility given to families – creates a complex administrative challenge.

Teams in multiple states, however, have been grinding on this challenge in a learning process. ESA programs, while more administratively challenging, clearly represent a leap forward from the basic voucher model in moving from “school” choice to “educational choice” and creating the opportunity for families to access a wider universe of service providers.

Choice opponents often tend to react to ESAs with some mixture of fear and revulsion, but they need not feel either of these things. State constitutions guarantee funding for public education, and the public almost universally supports those provisions.

This does not, however, mean that we could not or should not build a future in which families exercise greater control over their funding in order to shape an education system that is more pluralistic and effective, customized to individual needs. Education service providers should be transparent to all, but accountable to the families served. 

Giving more choice over the schools their children attend represented a crucial first step in empowering families. This struggle is far from finished. Giving families broad discretion within a system of ordered liberty to control their children’s education represents the next step in the empowerment not only of families, but also of educators. Likewise, families have a great deal to gain from a more liberal system of education but educators have even more prospective benefits.

Families and educators have chains to lose, and much, indeed to gain.

Florida’s Principal Autonomy initiative showing signs of success

Students at West Riviera Elementary have seen their school grade go from a ‘D’ to ‘B’ under the Principal Autonomy Program

Editor’s note: Throughout August, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary educators. Today’s post, first published in August 2018, features two strong school leaders, one in Palm Beach and one in St. Petersburg, who saw critical needs at their schools and took the necessary steps to address them.  

When Robin Brown took the helm as principal of West Riviera Elementary School in Palm Beach in 2017, the school was struggling.

It had been designated a “D” by the Florida Department of Education.

Realizing the situation, Brown made critical changes.

She assigned 28 teachers to the grade level she felt they were best suited to teach, strengthened the school’s leadership team, collaborated with education professionals who have done effective work in school turnaround programs, and reached out to business leaders who have saved failing companies.

As a result, the school rose two letter grades to a “B” this year.

Brown, who participated in a new legislative initiative known as Principal Autonomy, credits the program with helping to improve student achievement at her school, where 98 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

The program, which is now open to any district in the state, has given several principals the opportunity to build leadership skills and mark their own vision on how their schools can improve. Those principals say the program is helping to increase student achievement and giving them the opportunity to think outside the box.

Under the new law, principals are given more flexibility and greater authority over staffing, the curriculum and the budget.

Brown said the program “allows you to gain valuable insight from other educators from different parts of the country who have completed the same type of work and have been successful. It helps us to help our leadership team build their capacity, so we can function at a higher level to improve student achievement.”

Last year, LaKisha Falana, who also participated in “principal autonomy,” decided to deviate from Pinellas County district guidelines and select a different math program for her students at Maximo Elementary School – a school whose struggles have been documented by the Tampa Bay Times.

The change in math, coupled with other instructional changes, helped boost her students’ fifth-grade Florida Standards Math Assessment test scores. Indeed, 46 percent of students scored a level 3 or above this year on the assessment compared to 37 percent the year before.

Like Brown, Falana has just completed her first year in the program and said she appreciates the ability to make site-based decisions.

“If there is something I want to do that is outside the box, then I have the autonomy to try it,” Falana said. “It helps us as a leadership team to narrow our focus and our vision. We developed a strategic plan in order to get the results we are seeking to achieve.”

State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, wrote the legislation that created the Principal Autonomy Pilot Program in 2016. That first year, three school districts – BrowardPalm Beach and Pinellas – were allowed to pick low-performing schools that could enter autonomy-for-accountability agreements with the state.

In 2017, the program was extended to all school districts. Three schools in Broward – Bethune Elementary, Village Elementary and Park Lakes Elementary – have now participated in the program for two years and the schools all earned C’s this year compared to D’s and F’s in previous years.

Diaz, a former public-school administrator, said instilling leadership in a school is one of the most important things in improving student achievement. “You bring in a leader who is dynamic and fits the bill and they themselves incorporate their program, get things done, and it matches the needs of the school,” he said.

Diaz said improvements in student achievement take time and one essential ingredient is that the school culture must be changed at the onset. “When you bring in high-performing leaders who care, you are going to see a change in culture first before you see empirical results,” he said.

Falana said she put several practices in place to improve student achievement at Maximo Elementary School, which improved one letter grade to a C from the previous school year. Above all else, Falana said teachers must focus “like a laser” on standardized-based instruction and they must ensure students master the standards for their grade level.

She also altered the structure of the instructional team at the predominately black school, where all its students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

Although the school remains a C, Falana said she is hopeful the school’s grade will improve.

The Florida Department of Education reported no new school principals have registered for the autonomy program for 2018-19. However, signups for the program are open until December.

Bellwether Education report: toward equitable access and affordability


Bellwether Education researchers recently released an interesting slide deck that shows how private schools and microschools seek to serve middle- and low-income students. Slide 10 is especially interesting, illustrating trends in American school enrollment – district, private and charter – since 1900.

Sources: Historical data on district and private school enrollment (1900-1990) is from NCES, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Table 9; data on recent enrollment (2000-2015) is from NCES (private schools, Table 205.15; district schools, Table 203.10; charter schools, Table 2016.30). Number of private schools is from Digest of Education Statistics, 2017. Data excludes prekindergarten enrollment.

A deeper dive

If you are attempting to read this on your phone, charter schools are indicated by the small grey area at the top right. That grey smidge is what passes for “the destruction of public education” in certain hyperbolic circles, by the way.

The Bellwether chart should, in fact, make charter advocates feel daunted rather than encourage charter opponents to make elaborate claims that the sky is falling. But charter supporters should not despair.

Choice programs can leverage changes bigger than the charter sector alone. With some adjustments to strategy, determined effort and patience, opportunity hawks can transform a growing portion of the red in the chart to a choice system.

Meanwhile, in Florida …

According to Florida Department of Education figures, 47 percent of the state’s 3.4 million preK-12 students attended a school of their choice during the 2017-18 school year. While district options always have involved a good deal of choice for those with the purchasing power to strategically buy into neighborhoods with high-performing schools, policy changes in recent years have encouraged cross-district transfers.

What’s interesting is that the state reports that the second- and third-largest sources of Florida choice (open enrollment and choice/magnet programs, with 262,633 and 226,122 students, respectively) both exceeded the number of families paying private school tuition out of their own funds (225,033 students).

In fact, these two sources of publicly provided choice together exceed the combined enrollment of family-financed private school choice, all of Florida’s private choice programs and home-schooling combined.

Florida K-12 choice is not being done to districts, but by districts.

And what’s more …

In addition to their direct contribution in educating 292,001 Florida students, Florida’s charter schools help create the incentive for Florida districts to permit and seek open enrollment transfers. This trend encourages specialization in schooling, which allows families more meaningful choices in seeking a strong school and good fit for their child.

American school districts are filled with people who went into education for the right reasons. They all too often find themselves thwarted in their efforts by their own organizational malaise. Innovations like charter schools, and more recently micro-schools, provide educators the opportunity to create their own schools, to be masters of their own destiny, and to sink or swim based upon the freely chosen decisions of families.

The bottom line

The Bellwether chart certainly shows the need for greater choice. This conclusion from Education Next senior editor Paul Peterson seems just as valid today as when he wrote it three years ago:

“If the future of charter schools remains uncertain, the same cannot be said for top-down regulation. Unless teachers surprise us all by embracing a new curriculum generated by Common Core standards, and that curriculum motivates students to make a greater commitment to their learning, reforming the system from within is unlikely to succeed in the years ahead.

“If school reform is to move forward, it will occur via new forms of competition, whether they be vouchers, charters, homeschooling, digital learning, or the transformation of district schools into decentralized autonomous units. And if student testing has an impact on reform, it will be due to the better information parents receive about the amount of learning taking place at each school. The Bush-Obama era of reform via federal regulation has come to an end.”