Donate

Tag Archives forredefinED

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.

Proudly alternative and pro school choice

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 29, 2015 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 is part of redefinED’s Voucher Left servies redefinED  exploring he diverse roots of school choice

By Ron Matus

today's lesson snipIf the Suncoast Waldorf School in Palm Harbor, Fla. is part of a right-wing plot, it’s good at hiding it. Its students cultivate a “food forest.” Its teachers encourage them to stomp in puddles. Its parents sign a consent form that says, I give permission for my child, named above, to climb trees on the school grounds …

And yet, the unassuming, apolitical little school is solidly school choice. Sixteen of its 60 students in grades K-8 last year used tax credit scholarships to help defray the $10,000 annual tuition. And to those familiar with the century-old vision that spawned the Waldorf model – a vision whose first beneficiaries were the children of cigarette factory workers – there’s nothing unusual about it.

School choice scholarships make Waldorf “more accessible to a diverse group of families,” said Barbara Bedingfield, the school’s co-founder. “This is what we want.”

“Alternative schools” like those in the 1,000-strong Waldorf network help upend myths about choice being hard right. This small but thriving corner of the education universe is especially resistant to labels, but there is a nexus between many of these schools and ‘60s-era, counter-culture reformers like John Holt (think “unschooling”) and Paul Goodman (think “compulsory miseducation”).

“Thirty-plus years ago, school choice was almost entirely a cause of the left,” is how writer Peter Schrag described it in 2001, writing for The American Prospect. “In the heady days of the 1960s, radical reformers looked toward the open, child-centered schools that critics like Herb Kohl, Jules Henry, Edgar Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, and John Holt dreamed about. Implicitly, their argument had the advantage of celebrating American diversity and thus obviating our chronic doctrinal disputes about what schools should or shouldn’t teach.”

Then and now, the contrarian outlooks of this species of ed reformer are often libertarian and left, both embracing of “progressive” goals and distrustful of government’s ability to deliver. Generally speaking, they aren’t fond of government-dictated standards, testing, grading, grade-level configurations or anything else subject to imposed uniformity. But they are willing to consider the potential of tools like vouchers to give parents the power to choose schools that synch with their values.

Suncoast Waldorf sits on two acres of live oaks, a leafy oasis off a busy road in Florida’s most urbanized county. It blossomed 17 years ago, just as the Sunshine State began blazing trails on the school choice frontier.

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too. (Photo courtesy of Suncoast Waldorf.)

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too. (Photo courtesy of Suncoast Waldorf.)

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, it emphasizes art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. Standardized testing is out (except for what’s required by state law for the scholarship program). So are letter grades and iPads. So is Common Core.

On the flip side, here’s what’s in: Classical mythology and religious studies. Musical instruments and foreign languages. And recess, twice a day. Teachers “loop” with the same students from first to fifth grade. Subjects are taught in 4-to-6 week blocks. Class sizes average 10.

“When we say we want to educate the whole child, we mean it,” Bedingfield said.

Like her school, Bedingfield is tough to label. She taught in public schools and in the Peace Corps, but left teaching to sell transistors and integrated circuits. She didn’t stumble on Waldorf until later in life, but was so smitten she underwent specialized Waldorf training at the age of 53.

Plenty of parents fall for Waldorf, too, with diverse backgrounds and myriad motivations. e parent who uses tax credit scholarships to send her two children to the school said they were previously enrolled in public schools, including one with a highly regarded IB program. She liked the rigor, but hated the pacing, fearing her kids would “burn out.” Another parent of a scholarship student said her neighborhood public school put her daughter, then struggling with reading in kindergarten, into a class for students with behavioral problems. She didn’t think Waldorf was possible until a Catholic school told her about the tax credit scholarship. “I don’t see any political agenda to it,” she said about choice. “You just want the best for your kid.”

Government-supported choice carries tensions for many private schools, and alternative schools are no exception. In a 2009 report, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America said the growing number of voucher and tax credit scholarship programs could “inaugurate a new era of educational freedom”— unless they came with too many regulatory strings.

“Such school choice legislation would then be an instrument to create an oppressive uniform national education system controlled by the state and federal governments,” the report said, “which in turn are heavily influenced by major corporate interests.”

For now, in Waldorf’s view, the pros outweigh the cons. And in states like Florida, with thriving school choice programs, parents are grateful.

Melissa Manning, whose 8-year-old daughter Kiraskye uses a tax credit scholarship at Suncoast Waldorf, described her politics as “extremely left.” She’s vegan, works at a grocery called the Nature’s Food Patch and has never owned a TV. She said she appreciated that Suncoast Waldorf is “nurturing” and “one big family” and that Kiraskye is learning practical skills like growing and cooking her own food.

Maybe that isn’t what some parents want for their child, Manning said. But it’s what she wants for hers.

“We have to honor the fact,” she said, “that people are different.”

The Suncoast Waldorf was also featured Step Up For Students’  2012-13 annual report. Click on the link and go to pages 26 and 27.

 

 

­

t