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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 →

When progressives went big for school choice

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the American left cheered Freedom Schools and free schools, condemned education bureaucracies, and raised a clenched fist for community control of public education. It didn’t hesitate to think big on school choice, either.

A few decades ago, some on the American left viewed school choice as a potential tool for expanding opportunity and promoting equity. An all-star academic team led by Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks pitched one such proposal with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was formed to fight President Johnson’s War on Poverty and led by Sargent Shriver (pictured at center, above). Image from

Adjusting for inflation, Ted Sizer’s 1968 proposal for a $15 billion federal voucher program for low-income kids would ring up $105 billion today – making President Trump’s still-fuzzy $20 billion idea pale in comparison. A decade later, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman fell short in their bid to bring universal school choice to California, but their gutsy campaign still punctuates a historical truth: school choice in America has deep, rich roots on the left.

Some of today’s progressives are enraged about the suddenly serious possibility of school choice from coast to coast. True, Trump’s touch makes progressive support unlikely. True, many conservative and libertarian choice supporters raise their own, more thoughtful concerns. But it’s still stunning to see how much progressive views on school choice have shifted over the course of a few decades.

For skeptical but curious progressives, this 1970 proposal for school vouchers is a worthy read. It was produced by an all-star academic team led by liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, and funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. That was the office, the brainchild of Great Society architect Sargent Shriver, that helped lead the charge in America’s War on Poverty.

Back then, vouchers weren’t maligned as a conspiracy to privatize public schools. Proponents, especially on the left, viewed them as a way to expand opportunity, promote equity, honor diversity, empower parents and teachers – and yes, improve academic outcomes.

The 348-page plan from the Jencks team is written in the language of social justice: Why, it asks, do we continue to call some colleges “public” when many people can’t afford them? Why do we call exclusive high schools “public” when only a few students can access them? Why are affluent parents considered competent enough to exercise school choice while low-income parents are denied?

The report brims with views like this: “ … [I]f the upheavals of the 1960s have taught us anything, it should be that merely increasing the Gross National Product, the absolute level of government spending, and the mean level of educational attainment will not solve our basic economic, social, and political problems. These problems do not arise because the nation as a whole is poor or ignorant. They arise because the benefits of wealth, power, and knowledge have been unequally distributed and because many Americans believe that these inequalities are unjust. A program which seeks to improve education must therefore focus on inequality, attempting to close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

The authors sorted through a wide array of potential variations on voucher design, and proposed a multi-year “voucher experiment” that would eventually be tried, sort of, in Alum Rock, Calif. Ultimately, the experiment proved a big disappointment; no district agreed to a plan that included private schools. Still, the report suggests the authors wanted a blueprint that could guide many communities, perhaps as part of a federal initiative. Continue Reading →

School choice? Si, se puede!

“Gradually,” Cesar Chavez predicted, “we’re going to see an awful lot of alternative schools to public education.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Cesar Chavez, the iconic labor leader, would have been 90 years old today, and progressives, including teacher union leaders, are pausing to honor him. But few of them probably realize Chavez’s vision of a better world – the same vision that led him to organize the most abused workers, and battle the biggest corporations – included scenes of community empowerment from earlier chapters in the school choice movement.

Chavez was a steadfast supporter of Escuela de la Raza Unida, a forgotten “freedom school” in Blythe, Calif. that sprouted in 1972, in the wake of mass parental frustration with local public schools. Some of his comments about this school in particular, and public education more generally, can be found in this rough-cut documentary about the school’s creation.

“We know public education has not … been able to deal with the aspirations of the minority group person or, in our case, our kids who have been involved with the struggle for social betterment,” Chavez tells an interviewer at about the 7:30 mark in the video.

“The people who run the institutions want everybody to think the same way, and it’s impossible,” he continued at another point. “We have different likes and dislikes, and different ideals. Different motivations. And so I’m convinced more and more that the whole question of public education is more and more not meeting the needs of the people, particularly in the case of minority group people … “

The success of Escuela de la Raza Unida is proof, Chavez said, that truly community-led schools are needed – and can work.

“Gradually,” he predicted, “we’re going to see an awful lot of alternative schools to public education.” Continue Reading →

Betsy DeVos, Jimmy Carter and Democratic retreats on school choice

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

Jimmy Carter once touted school vouchers, telling readers of Today’s Catholic Teacher in 1976: “While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The confirmation fight over new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has at least temporarily pulled Congressional Democrats from the growing bipartisan consensus on school choice. But this political showdown, and the extent to which it was animated by the teacher unions, is not new.

We can probably trace its beginnings to Jimmy Carter. It was during Carter’s presidency that intraparty politics began to pry the Democratic Party from its embrace of school choice. A couple of letters from Carter to Catholic educators, four years apart, captures the shift.

In September 1976, then-candidate Carter wrote to Today’s Catholic Teacher. (Go to page 11 here.) He praised Catholic schools; referred to the “right” of low- and middle-income Americans “to choose a religious education for their children;” and argued for school choice in terms of opportunity and diversity, as pro-choice progressives had long done. He said he was committed to finding “constitutionally acceptable” ways to provide financial assistance to parents whose children attend private schools. And, as a kicker, he gave a thumbs up to vouchers:

“While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.”

Carter’s pro-choice, pro-voucher position is fascinating for all kinds of reasons. Today’s left has no clue about its own past support for school choice. And as the Carter letter shows, choice wasn’t some fringe phenomenon on that end of the spectrum.

It’s also fascinating because Carter changed his tune at the end of his term, a turnabout that generally marked the beginning of the left’s resistance to choice (at least the white left) and a shrinking of that common ground we’re seeing again, post-Trump. As Doug Tuthill has written, that late ‘70s flip-flop has everything to do with the rise of the teachers union as a force within the Democratic Party, and little to do with progressive values.

The key point on the timeline is 1976, when the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. That would be Carter.

Four years later, his administration scrambled to write a follow-up to Today’s Catholic Teacher. Republican nominee Ronald Reagan had written a first-person letter to the magazine, and the magazine let Carter’s people know their initial response – a statement from the administration – paled in comparison. “HURRY HURRY HURRY,” one of Carter’s media liaisons urged the PR team in a memo: “This message conceivably could be in every Catholic publication in every Catholic school.”

The team shifted into high gear. But the resulting letter surely didn’t fire up undecided Catholics.

It gave Catholic schools credit for playing a “significant role” in educating “millions of low and middle income Americans.” But instead of a continuing commitment to find constitutionally acceptable ways to provide aid to private school parents – which Carter promised in 1976 – the president would only commit to supporting constitutionally appropriate steps to get Catholic schools “their equitable share of funds provided under our federal education programs.” Clearly, a far lesser goal.

Documents in the Carter Presidential Library show what was scrubbed during editing. David Rubenstein, then one of Carter’s domestic policy advisers, nixed language that said Carter reported the administration’s efforts to help private schools to the Democratic Party platform committee. He also scratched out Carter’s support for platform language that backed tax aid for private school education. “Definitely NO,” he wrote next to the strike-through. “I don’t see any advantage to getting into the Platform,” he commented in another memo.

Also removed was a description of parochial schools that said “in many areas, they provide the best education available.” And wording that said without such schools, millions of Americans “would have been denied the opportunity for a solid education.”

Caught between the Reagan Revolution and teachers unions, Democratic support for school choice faded for a decade. It began to pulse again in the 1990s, with the advent of charter schools. Then it slowly branched into other choice realms, nudged by advocacy groups that worked tirelessly to build bipartisan and nonpartisan bridges, and welcomed by Democratic constituencies who liked having options.

That middle ground has been steadily growing, and Florida is a prime example. A few months ago, the Sunshine State elected two pro-school choice Democrats to Congress. A year ago, the state Legislature expanded America’s biggest education savings account program with universal bipartisan support. For the past two and a half years, a remarkably diverse coalition battled legal efforts to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which now serves nearly 100,000 kids. Three weeks ago, it won.

Masses of energized parents, most of them black and Hispanic, helped fuel that legal victory. That force wasn’t in place when Jimmy Carter followed the path of least resistance. But it’s here now, and Democrats can only ignore it for so long.

Betsy DeVos & black empowerment

Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote, "“Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Private schools have always been essential to black progress in America. As the author of a recent piece in The Atlantic wrote about Betsy DeVos and the African-American roots of school choice, “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

Long before anybody used the term “school choice,” black communities were striving for it, often by any means necessary. Which is why black parents, though overwhelmingly Democratic by party registration, are likely to find their views on educational options to be more in line with Betsy Devos, the Republican nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, than the white progressives trying to derail her. Crazy times.

I’m not black, and I’m not a historian. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that fighting for educational freedom has been at the heart of the black experience in America. And yet, somehow, that epic struggle is overlooked in these polarizing fights over school choice – which is a shame, given the possibility it might make the fights less polarizing.

If I were king, I’d make white progressives read Yale Professor James Forman and listen to choice advocate Howard Fuller. In the meantime, if their tribal impulses are getting revved up over Betsy DeVos – and I know from my facebook feed they are 🙂 — I’ll have the audacity to hope they check out this recent piece in The Atlantic, “The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform.”

The author, College of Charleston Professor Jon N. Hale, offers a brief, nuanced look at choice through the lens of black history. That history isn’t always flattering to the choice “side.” Segregation academies, for example, did happen in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. (Choice supporters have acknowledged that past, and noted how it differs from the ideals that spur today’s choice movement.) But that stain is a small part of a bigger story, in which private schools have been essential to black progress.

Writes Hale:

American history clearly demonstrates that communities of color have been forced to rely upon themselves to provide an education to as many students as possible. Students of color have rarely been provided a quality public education. As James Anderson demonstrated in Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, black communities consistently had to provide their own schools by taxing themselves beyond what the law required, as white officials never appropriated public money equitably by race. Black civic leaders and educators had to forge alliances with philanthropists and “progressive” whites for further financial support.

Barred from the American social order, black educators, in effect, were forced to rely upon private means to meet the educational needs of their own children. African Americans established schools controlled by the community. Such “community-controlled schools” were by necessity administered by African Americans, taught by African Americans, and attended by African Americans.

Hale sums it up this way: “Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education.”

The Atlantic piece mentions a few examples. We’ve explored others, including some that show how central faith was to many of these efforts. Continue Reading →

School choice & civil rights

Progressives hostile to school choice groan when they hear conservatives talking about school choice as a civil right. Some choice supporters get a little uncomfortable too.

But there are plenty of folks with bona fide civil rights credentials (see hereherehere and here for starters) who use the same language, because they genuinely view the parental choice movement as another phase of the civil rights struggle.

Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.

Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.

Martin Luther King III is one of them. A year ago this week, he headlined a rally in Tallahassee that drew 10,000 people in opposition to the ongoing lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the largest private school choice program in America.* The event spawned a ton of news coverage, and one of King’s quotes made the rounds: “If the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice,” he told the crowd. “Because this is about justice. This is about righteousness. This is about truth. This is about freedom. The freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”

The whole of King’s remarks didn’t get as much attention. (See them in the video above, starting around the 5-minute mark.) So what better time than now, the holiday commemorating his father’s birthday, to give it a spotlight?

MLK III describes himself as a human rights activist. He is pro-Obama, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-gun control. And his speech touched on reasons for school choice that choice-friendly progressives have long emphasized, particularly opportunity and diversity. King wove in comments on other issues that day – poverty, defense spending, criminal justice – that left no doubt he’s a man of the left. I suspect the massive crowd before him that day, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, largely shared his views.

Despite popular perception, both left and right have supported school choice, and both have advanced compelling arguments in favor. Unfortunately, the views of the pro-choice left have been obscured by a bogus narrative that vouchers, charter schools and related programs are part of a sinister, right-wing scheme to destroy public schools.

Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell MLK III – and the thousands of parents cheering him. Here’s what he said as his speech came to a close:

My dad told us a lot of things. He used to say that the ultimate measure of the human being is not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience. But where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.

He went on to say that on some questions, cowardice asks: Is the position safe? He said expediency asks: Is the position politic? He said vanity asks: Is the position popular? But that something deep inside called conscience asks: Is the position right? 

He went on to say that sometimes we must stand up for positions that are neither safe nor popular nor politic. But we must stand up because our consciences tell us they’re right. 

That’s what we are here for today. Because we’re standing on the right side of what’s right for our children … 

I hope more progressives give MLK III a listen.

Because on school choice, he’s right. From the left.

*The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.

No, school choice isn’t a conservative plot

Karl Marx wasn't a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to choice was purely knee-jerk.

Karl Marx wasn’t a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to school choice was purely knee-jerk. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

If they wanted to, it’d be easy for progressives who oppose school choice to find a long list of other progressives who embrace it. Given the stuff that’s flying in an effort to tar Betsy DeVos, I wish more wanted to. But hope springs eternal, so today we’re hoping fair-minded progressives might pause long enough to hear from Herbert Gintis, an economist who co-wrote “Schooling in Capitalist America,” a classic in progressive education circles.

Essentially, Gintis wrote in 2004, in the foreword to another left-leaning book, “The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice,” anti-school-choice progressives (who by and large are white, middle-class progressives) should stop being so knee-jerk about their education politics.

Like, at one time, Gintis admits in the foreword, he was:

Voucher Left logo snipped

When I wrote ‘The Political Economy of School Choice’ for Teachers College Record some ten years ago, my progressive friends thought I had lost my sense of reason. Everyone knew that school choice was a conservative plot to finance the private education of the well-to-do, to bleed the public schools of needed revenue, and to add one more roadblock against the struggle for social equality. Indeed, when I started writing about education in the 1970s, I shared this view. Not that I had ever really thought about the matter. I just knew if Milton Friedman (the conservative  University of Chicago economist) was for it, and the teachers union were against it, I must be against it, too.

Well, we were all very wrong.

Gintis isn’t as well known in education circles as he used to be; his broad academic pursuits have taken him in other directions. But young Gintis was radical left – a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a co-founder of the Union of Radical Political Economists. “Schooling in Capitalist America,” published in 1976, was described at the time as “a genuinely creative attempt to develop a Marxist point of view about the interaction between schooling and the labor market.” Gintis theorized that American schools evolved to turn students into productive workers, not to promote equal opportunity and social mobility. In a nutshell, a factory economy needed factory schools.

Gintis’s book is still in circulation. In some corners, it still gets positive reviews. Gintis, for the most part, still stands by it. (“What we were wrong about,” he told me by phone, “is we thought there was an alternative called socialism. But there isn’t.”)

I don’t know enough about the subject to have a meaningful opinion. But I find Gintis’s take on the politics of school choice refreshing. Continue Reading →

At the heart of the progressive divide over school choice

Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, "It was like we could breathe." (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)

Twenty-six of 62 students at Heart Pine School use tax credit scholarships. One parent said when she and her husband secured one of the school choice scholarships for their son, “It was like we could breathe.” (Photo courtesy of Heart Pine School.)

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on the center-left roots of school choice.

Gainesville, Fla. is a liberal college town that prides itself on being “green.” And if there’s a classroom that channels that vibe, it’s Wanda Hagen’s at Heart Pine School.

Hagen’s seventh graders raise tadpoles, hike in a park where buffalo lounge under live oaks, and hunt for shark’s teeth in Gainesville’s cherished urban creeks. On a whim, they might go for a stroll before a storm, to see if they can smell the change in the air. When children overcome the “nature deficit” of modern life, Hagen said, they and the planet benefit.Voucher Left logo snipped

Plenty of folks in Gainesville would agree. And yet, the fingerprints of Gainesville progressives are all over two lawsuits that sees to end a school choice program that helps Heart Pine parents. Both take aim at the Florida tax credit scholarship for low-income and working-class students, which 26 of 62 Heart Pine students use.

Hagen, a self-described “independent liberal,” calls the suits “a real shame.”

“It’s Fahrenheit 451,” she said, referring to the classic novel about repression of dissent. If the lawsuits succeed, “The thinkers outside the box are not going to be appreciated.”

Heart Pine is another ripe example of the political left’s rift over school choice.

Despite a long history of center-left support, today’s progressives, especially white progressives, suffer from split personality disorder. Some still recoil from uniformity and bureaucracy. But others accept a warped view of school choice as a front for privatization, a position tied to the teachers union’s rise in Democratic Party politics. The ironic result is the biggest threat to a colorful school like Heart Pine, a school for grades 1-8 that follows the Waldorf model, isn’t conservatives. It’s fellow progressives.

In Gainesville, the fight pits neighbor against neighbor, even if neither side realizes it.

The lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit is Citizens for Strong Schools, a Gainesville group founded to push for higher property taxes for district schools. Its members include the president of the local teachers union, the spokesperson for the school district, and the woman who heads the Florida League of Women Voters’ “School Choice Project.” The plaintiffs are represented by Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville firm co-founded by Jon Mills, a high-profile Democrat and former Florida House Speaker. Their legal arguments are anchored in changes Mills helped engineer into a constitutional amendment that voters passed in 1998.

Filed in 2009, the suit blasts Florida’s entire education system, charging it has failed to live up to constitutional directives for “adequate” and “high-quality” schools. More funding is the big goal, but the plaintiffs are also firing at school choice programs, including the McKay Scholarship, which serves 31,000 students with disabilities, and the tax credit scholarship, which serves 95,000 students whose family incomes average 4 percent above poverty. (The latter is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.)

The second lawsuit trains its sights solely on the tax credit scholarship. It was filed in 2014 by the state teachers union and other plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters. In August, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal dismissed the suit, finding, like the circuit judge who did the same in 2015, that the plaintiffs provided no evidence to back claims of harm to public schools. The union requested last month that the Florida Supreme Court hear its appeal.

Many Heart Pine supporters want an alternative to mainstream schools, both public and private. Their school is housed in a former Presbyterian church, a replica of a Seminole chickee, covered with thatched palm, conspicuous on its playground. Continue Reading →