Three score years ago the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the teaching and symbols of religion in public schools. God is neither to be discussed, pictured nor even sung to at Christmas; maybe at graduations and football games students may express their thanks to God – up to a point.
It is proper, of course, for the teachers to relate the truths of Darwin and his theory of natural selection. But, it is improper to invite the student mind to wonder about just how all that material reality came to be in the first place. Could matter create itself; could all this something come from nothing?
Q: Teacher, would you explain?
A: School doesn’t teach about that; ask your mother.
The social effect of banishing God-talk from the classroom is very difficult to estimate using the statistical lenses of social science. But, with observation and common sense, one can hope broadly to describe the expectations of the justices and, then, the degree of their realization in our time. The court hoped: 1) to clarify that using the public education office to make children aware of our God debates (or, worse, of course, to take sides) occasions an “establishment of religion,” hence is forbidden; and 2) thereby to assure an atmosphere in public school purged of transcendental ideology, assuring offense to none and, instead, making a contribution to social unity.
The court’s first hope appears realized to a considerable degree. Litigation and administrative persuasion have been successful at eliminating many books and teaching materials that suggest the existence of God and his role in human life. There is, I believe, little of the transcendental left lurking in our curricula. The court’s purge has, of course, been greatly assisted by many state constitutions that, since the late 19th Century, have forbidden nearly all public assistance to religious private schools.
One of the primary effects of this exclusion of God is that the school must now present some picture of human happiness and its achievement that fades with death; and that picture must be consistent with a reason for good citizen behavior. Even without God we have to live together. With eternal salvation as a classroom no-no, the government must present a life-plan and defend it. And so it does. With God out of the picture, each of us is “to find ourselves,” set our own goals and do what’s best for number one. To teach the child otherwise – to recognize and honor an already established human rule and responsibility – would verge upon theology. Of course, the teacher and the system do have rules of conduct for the child, but these must be understood and defended principally as the assurance that everyone, to a point, lets the other fellow do his own thing.
Has secularization worked? I fear not.
Today is back-to-school day for most school districts in Florida. But for the Plucinski family of Central Florida, it’s back to schools. And not just district schools.
Sisters Cora and Zuri will board a school bus to start the day at a district elementary school, while mom Corin Plucinski will drive brothers Zach and Nathan 30 minutes to a private school. They attend with help from one of Florida’s multiple educational choice scholarships.
In many parts of the country, this may be unusual. But in Florida, which offers one of the robust arrays of school choice in the country, it’s increasingly common. Growing numbers of families have different children attending different schools in different educational sectors.
To the Plucinskis, whose oldest is now headed to college after graduating from a district high school, there’s nothing odd about it.
“When you’ve got five kids you’re always juggling something anyway,” Corin Plucinski said.
Thirty years ago, roughly 90 percent of Florida students in preK-12 attended assigned district schools, and about 10 percent attended private schools. Beyond a handful of magnet schools, there was no state-supported school choice.
Fast forward a generation. Today, 46 percent of Florida students – 1.7 million – attend something other than their assigned district schools. About 300,000 attend charter schools. Another 300,000 attend private schools. Most of the rest attend options created by school districts, from magnet schools and career academies to IB and dual enrollment programs.
This flourishing landscape gives parents more opportunities to find the right fit for their kids. And for many families, that means one child in this sector, another in that sector.
Starting Monday, Florida families can apply for the first voucher in the nation aimed at helping public elementary school students who struggle with reading. Already, more than 2,400 have signed up on an interest list.
Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that publishes this blog, is the only state-approved scholarship organization that has chosen to administer the program. After conducting a beta test last week, Step Up is turning on its online application for all comers on Monday. Families can apply through the homepage.
The scholarship program is fueled by a longstanding academic concern: Students who can’t read by the end of third grade face major hurdles in their academic success, according to educators and studies. The Children’s Reading Foundation, a national nonprofit that includes community-based reading chapters, estimates that 74 percent of such struggling readers will not be able to catch up.
In Florida this past year, 44 percent of third- and fourth-grade students – a total of 191,220 – failed to pass the state English Language Arts Assessment.
The Reading Scholarship Account, approved by the State Legislature this spring, gives parents access to an account worth $500 to pay for fees and tuition related to part-time tutoring, summer and after school literacy programs, reading curriculum and instructional materials.
The first-year appropriation is $9.7 million, which can serve more than 19,000 students. The scholarships are awarded on a first-come first-served basis.
To qualify for the scholarship, a student must be in third through fifth grade, enrolled in a Florida public school, and have scored below a Level 3 on the English Language Arts assessment this past spring. Priority under the law is given to students who are designated as “English Language Learners.”
A growing list of community groups and school districts have inquired about providing reading services to scholarship students, and the law requires that individuals wanting to offer part-time tutoring services must hold a valid teaching certificate.
A 2014 MRDC study of a multi-state reading tutor program showed promising results for struggling students. MRDC found that, after only one year, the “Reading Partners” program helped students in second-to-fifth grades improve in three different measures of reading proficiency.
Wayne Au, an education professor and plaintiff in League of Women Voters v. State (the case that found charter schools unconstitutional in Washington) claims charter schools aren’t public schools.
Au’s actually conflating the word “public school” with the concept of the “common school,” a 19th-century form of public-education that doesn’t apply to all 21st-century public schools.
Au concludes: “If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” First, the elected school board of Spokane, WA approved a charter school, and that was overturned by the Supreme Court too — an inconvenient fact neither Au nor the state Supreme Court has bothered to address.
Second, not every public education institution is subject to direct, democratic control. Even the University of Washington, which employs Au, is governed by unelected appointees, yet is financed in part by the same public funds charter schools are now prohibited from touching.
“Public schools” have been defined by how they’re financed (public support through taxation) and the purpose they serve (educating the public) — not the specific method of governance. Yes, charter schools are public schools.
Grade: Needs Improvement
Progressives in Missouri criticized Rex Sinquefield for conspiracy theories about public schools, spending millions on campaigns supporting private school choice and for donations to ALEC, but they remain oddly silent about the way he, and the organizations he backs, are spending money right now.
Before we discuss these latest expenditures, a little history is in order.
Last year, over 1,000 students (about one of every four) in the mostly low-income, minority Normandy School District transferred out thanks to a law that allowed students in low-performing districts to enroll in higher-performing districts. As a result of all the transfers, Normandy faced bankruptcy and was taken over by the state. The Missouri Board of Education voided the district’s low-performing status and revoked the right to transfer. Fortunately, a judge recently overturned the Board’s new rule.
Now Normandy must allow students to transfer and every district, except for the mostly white and affluent Francis-Howell School District, agreed to comply. Francis-Howell said they would only accept transfer students upon direct court order.
In other words, officials in the mostly white affluent district told low-income minority parents they needed to hire a lawyer if they wanted their child enrolled. Fortunately, Rex Sinquefield’s Children’s Education Alliance is covering the legal expenses of any Normandy parent who wants to do that.
So far, the attorney for the alliance has enrolled 17 students in Francis-Howell and is requesting court orders for another 35. Francis-Howell, meanwhile, has spent $17,000 trying to keep the students out.
It is a simple and intuitive fact, yet some Floridians – many happen to be parental choice critics – don’t seem to get it.
For 41 years, the Florida Legislature has funded education with a formula based specifically on the cost to educate each student. The just-approved 2014-15 spending plan is no different: It determines the average student will cost $6,937 to educate, multiplies that amount by a projected enrollment of 2,722,134 and arrives at a bottom line of $18.9 billion. Each district is paid accordingly.
Not surprisingly, this means the state won’t pay a school for students educated somewhere else. But look at the responses from Floridians concerned about the newer private options available to lower-income and special needs students:
- Deidre Macnab of the Florida League of Women Voters described the impact of tax-credit scholarships as “defunding our public schools.”
- Margaret Smith, the superintendent of Volusia public schools, says scholarships are “impacting public K-12 education because it diverts money away from K-12 schools.”
- Frank Cerabino, a columnist for the Palm Beach Post, wrote: “Are you in favor of taking tax dollars out of public education to pay for private education alternatives … ?”
(As we always note, the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)
Opposing one type of school choice program because it “diverted” money, takes “tax dollars out,” or leaves public schools with “fewer resources” requires critics to ignore the state’s method of funding K-12 education.
Education is a complex and nuanced issue, and advocates on all sides need to be mindful not to overreach. Supporters of school choice sometimes overpromise the benefits of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, leaving them open to attack. On the other side, school choice critics sometimes appeal to a mythical concept of the common/public school that never really existed.
Edward B. Fiske, a former New York Times education editor, and Helen F. Ladd, a professor at Duke University, demonstrate exactly this in a recent op-ed in the News & Observer. Fiske and Ladd keep their arguments simple: school choice is unconstitutional because it “destroys” the state’s ability to provide a free uniform system of education that is, as they say, “accessible to all students.”
Their argument may sound reasonable to a school choice critic, but the reasoning is grounded in mythology. Understanding this mythology exposes the underlying contradictions with the opposition to school choice.
First, it is a myth that common/public schools are open to every student. Students are assigned to schools and those schools are free to reject any student not within the school zone.
As Slate columnist Mathew Yglesias recently noted, the word “public” in public school really only means the school is government-owned and operated. He correctly observes that “a public school is by no means a school that’s open to the public in the sense that anyone can go there.”
Yglesias isn’t a school choice fanatic but he isn’t blind to the results of a zone-based attendance policy. The result turns neighborhood schools into a “system of exclusion.”