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Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice


The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.

Teachers unions, school choice & the Democratic Party’s retreat 

Editor’s note: This post originally ran Oct. 20 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.  This post was part of  its series on the center-left roots of  school choice

By Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeMuch of the opposition to private school choice seems to emanate from the Democratic Party, but this wasn’t always the case. Just look at the party platforms.
From the 1964 to 1984, the Democrat Party formally supported the public funding of students in private schools.The 1964 platform stated, “New methods of financial aid must be explored, including the channeling of federally collected revenues to all levels of education, and, to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to all schools.” The 1972 platform supported allocating “financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools.” The 1976 platform endorsed “parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children,” and “the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending all the nation’s schools.”

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

Thanks to the influence of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and devout Catholic, the party’s 1980 platform stated “private schools, particularly parochial schools,” are an important part of our country’s educational system. It committed the party to supporting “a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils.” In 1984, the platform again endorsed public funding for “private schools, particularly parochial schools.”

Then the shift began. The 1988 platform was silent on the issue, and by 1992 the Democrats had formally reversed position, stating, “We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public school system — the bedrock of democracy — through private school vouchers.”

The party’s current position on school choice was formalized in 1996. That year’s platform endorsed the expansion of public school choice, including charter schools. But it also reiterated “we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools.”

The Democratic Party’s shift from supporting to opposing public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools can be traced back to an event that also helped spur the growth of modern teachers unions: The 1968 teachers strike in New York City.

This strike pitted the low-income black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn against the primarily white New York City teachers union. The issue was whether local public schools would be controlled by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community or by a city-wide bureaucracy.  The union vehemently opposed decentralization since its business model was built around a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement with centralized management.

The strike lasted from May to November 1968. Given school districts are usually the largest employer in most communities, union power quickly grew.

Since its founding in 1857, the National Education Association had long seen itself as a professional association and not a union. But the spread of industrial unionism in school districts across the country forced the NEA in the 1970s to begin transforming itself into an industrial-style union.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. In exchange, former NEA president Richard Batchelder told me the NEA asked Carter to create a federal Department of Education, and to reverse the Democratic Party’s support of public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools, among other things.

Changing this policy was complicated by the strong support of Sen. Moynihan and the Catholic Church.  But in the 1970s the power of the rapidly growing teachers unions was beginning to eclipse the influence of Catholics within the Democratic Party.

In 1977, Moynihan proposed a tuition tax credit for families with children in private and parochial schools, and he recruited 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. But the Carter Administration worked with the teachers unions to successfully kill it.

A more recent version of this Catholics-versus-teachers-unions battle has been playing out in New York.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formed an alliance with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to advocate for a tax credit scholarship program to help low-income and working-class families. But the teachers union has had enough clout with Democrats in the State Assembly to twice defeat it.

Now, communities of color are becoming an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party coalition.  How long teachers unions can set the party’s education agenda in the face of growing influence from blacks and Hispanics who tend to favor educational choice is an intriguing question. Publicly-supported private school choice programs are expanding across the country, as are charter schools, which teachers unions also see as a threat to their business model. Eventually, wiser heads within the Democratic Party will want to address this rift.

In Florida, where more than 100,000 disadvantaged students are participating in private school choice programs, Democrats who oppose these programs have struggled to win statewide elections.

In the 1980s, I saw the NEA reverse its opposition to magnet schools and other forms of within-district school choice once a critical mass of teachers in these programs joined the union. I suspect the same thing will happen with private school choice once teachers unions expand their business models to include private-school employees.

Until that happens, their opposition to equal educational opportunity will remain at odds with the Democratic Party’s other core constituencies.

School choice is good for teachers, too, says Step Up President Doug Tuthill

By Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students President

Editor’s note: This commentary originally ran in Education Week.

Pres-Desk_Final resizeWith her recent passing, Marva Collins is being remembered for her glorious educational crusade to turn around the lives of low-income black children in Chicago. It’s also worth remembering how she chose to do this. She cashed in her teacher-pension savings in the 1970s to start her own private school. With it, she combined a no-excuses attitude with high standards, strict discipline, and love—and got amazing results with limited resources.

In other words, Collins was empowered by school choice.

Twenty-five years after Milwaukee put private school vouchers on the map, a majority of states now have some form of private school choice. Just this year, Arkansas created its first voucher program, and Indiana expanded its voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs. Five states either created or expanded education savings accounts, including Florida, which tripled funding for its program; and Nevada, which spawned the nation’s most inclusive program, available to more than 90 percent of its students.

These opportunities are created, first and foremost, to give parents the power to choose the educational options that are best for their children. But teachers benefit as well, even if the story lines seldom mention them.

As choice expands, teachers will see more opportunities to create and/or work in educational models that hew to their vision and values, maximize their expertise, and result in better outcomes for students. Increasingly, they’ll be able to bypass the red tape and micromanagement that plague too many district schools and serve students who are not finding success. In short, they’ll be able to better shape their destinies, and the destinies of their students.

I should know. I’m a lifelong educator and former teachers’ union president who now heads a nonprofit that administers the nation’s largest private school choice program. I have seen firsthand how all forms of school choice can offer teachers more opportunities to innovate.

My home state of Florida is brimming with examples. In June, ABC’s “World News Tonight” put a national spotlight on a particularly inspiring one: the Human Experience school in Orlando, Fla. Doing their best impression of Marva Collins, teachers Danita Jones and Nathan Smith started the one-class, one-grade, micro-school last fall by pouring in their life savings and getting an assist from tax-credit scholarships. Why the urgency? “If you were standing on the side of the pool and saw someone drowning, would you jump in to save them?” Jones told ABC. “Lack of access to quality education—you might as well be drowning in a pool.”

Florida teachers now have more power than ever to improve access to quality education by creating, leading, and teaching in their own schools. And it’s because no state has done more to expand educational choice. Florida is among the top handful of states when it comes to the number of charter schools and charter school students. It is home to the nation’s biggest tax-credit-scholarship program and the second-largest program of education savings accounts. It has the largest voucher program for students with disabilities and the second-largest pre-K voucher program. All told, these programs of school choice serve about a half-million students.

Florida also now has more than 40,000 teachers who do not work for school districts. Nearly 14,000 of them work in charter schools, which surpasses the public school teaching workforce in nine other states. At the nonprofit I lead, we routinely hear stories of teachers who migrate from district schools to private schools. They’re choosing these options for the same reason parents are—because they offer a better fit for their individual needs.

The world is full of square pegs. As long as public education remains highly centralized, it’s inevitable that somebody’s vision for what is best will be imposed on somebody who bitterly disagrees, and some students who would benefit from one approach will be jammed into another. Decentralization through expanded choice is the best remedy, and not just for students. Some teachers work well with large bureaucracies, some don’t. Choice gives them the opportunity to find or create schools that play to their strengths and interests.

In a growing number of states, pathways are increasing for teachers to do just that. Those who take them are finding a rich landscape where technology and customization are driving diversity. New programs, such as Course Access, give teachers innovative platforms to think out of the box—and out of the schoolhouse. Meanwhile, tools like education savings accounts, better known as ESAs, give parents direct access to all the educational services their children may need, including teacher-run schools. ESAs can benefit teachers and families the way Uber has helped drivers and passengers—by kicking middlemen to the curb.

As this drive for teacher and parent empowerment accelerates, I have no doubt the opportunities for teacher leadership will grow. For the time being, teachers’ unions will continue advocating centralized management systems that use collective bargaining to impose one-size-fits-all solutions. But eventually the unions, too, will evolve and find ways to serve teachers who are thriving in other environments. Instead of uniform salary schedules, for example, they’ll help teachers be free agents, similar to what professional-sports unions have done for their members. Instead of only supporting district-run schools, they’ll help teachers start and manage their own schools.

Like Marva Collins, some passionate and enterprising educators will always find ways to create their own models. But as more states crack open the doors to educational choice, it’s easy to envision an army of Marva Collinses charging through.


A message from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeWelcome to Step Up For Students’ newest way to connect to you: our families, donors and community partners. We’re excited about this new blog and we hope you will join the conversation. We want this blog to be an interactive place for you to learn, become engaged, and yes, maybe even be entertained. doug-tuthill

Here you’ll find important information about scholarship news, legislative and program updates, and we’ll give you a closer look at what we do, how we do it and why. We will share stories about our scholars and their families, the schools that are improving our scholars’ lives, and the occupational therapists and others who are working with our unique needs scholars. We will give you behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Step Up organization, the people who make it tick, how we do our work, and why we enjoy it so much. We feel blessed to do work that is so rewarding and enriching.

We will show you how our Public Service Announcements come to life, and what goes into organizing a donor event. We will share advice about how students can be most successful, and spotlight teachers who are helping transform the lives of the children they teach. We’ll introduce you to the folks in our Office of Student Learning who are going into schools and helping educators and parents bridge the gap between home and school in hopes of giving all students a better chance to succeed. We want to get to know you better, and you us. We’re excited to kick this blog off and deepen our relationship with those who have joined us in our quest to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed.

As we prepare to start yet another school year, from where I sit the future is bright. This fall about 78,000 students will be using Step Up tax credit scholarships and about 5,000 will be using Step Up Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA).  We’ll pay out approximately $465 million in scholarships during the 2015-16 school year, and we’ve rebuilt our online payment system for our PLSA families to help make that process more effective, efficient and easier to use.

I started teaching in Florida in 1977 and I’ve never been more optimistic about the long-term future of education. Parents are becoming more empowered and engaged in their children’s education, and teachers and schools are becoming more sophisticated in meeting the unique needs of each child.  We’re also getting better at using technology to help us meet each child’s needs.  The days of one-size-fits-all education are ending and we’re moving toward a time when all children will have access to an education that is customized to meet their needs.  But while the future is bright, getting there will remain a struggle, which is why we need to stay united in our efforts to help all children.  Our intent is to use this blog as one tool to help us work more closely together as we build a better future for all children.

Please join us.

Have a successful and happy 2015-16 school year,

Doug Tuthill

Step Up For Students President