Tag Archives forschool choice

PNC donates $2 million to Step Up For Students to provide 329 scholarships for local students

By PAUL SOOSTdonor corner

As part of PNC Bank’s $2 million donation to Step Up For Students, PNC hosted Atlantic Christian Academy’s 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement economics class at their West Palm Beach offices. The class stopped by the office of Cressman Bronson, PNC’s regional president of Florida east. Pictured are (left to right) Alicia Gray, Headmaster Jim Rozendal, Neylena Hedmont, Josh Dubinsky, economics teacher Thomas Sanders, Jonah Arterburn, Michela Payne and Mardoshee Mercius.

As part of PNC Bank’s $2 million donation to Step Up For Students, PNC hosted Atlantic Christian Academy’s 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement economics class at their West Palm Beach offices. The class stopped by the office of Cressman Bronson, PNC’s regional president of Florida east. Pictured are (left to right) Alicia Gray, Headmaster Jim Rozendal, Neylena Hedmont, Josh Dubinsky, economics teacher Thomas Sanders, Jonah Arterburn, Michela Payne and Mardoshee Mercius.

 WEST PALM BEACH – The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE: PNC), one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the U.S., announced Wednesday a $2 million donation to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students for 329 financially disadvantaged children in Palm Beach County.

The $2 million donation will be used for scholarships during the 2016-17 school year. This is the first time that PNC has partnered with Step Up For Students, which is funded by corporationhttp://www,pnc.coms with tax-credited donations. PNC’s contribution will fund K-12 scholarships, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

PNC Bank Community Development Manager Lucy Carr teaches the AP economics class from Atlantic Christian Academy about credit reports, identity theft and keeping up your credit score to buy a car, a home or get a job.

PNC Bank Community Development Manager Lucy Carr teaches the AP economics class from Atlantic Christian Academy about credit reports, identity theft and keeping up your credit score to buy a car, a home or get a job.

The donation was announced by Cressman Bronson, PNC’s regional president of Florida East, on Wednesday while Atlantic Christian Academy‘s 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement economics class visited the bank’s local West Palm Beach offices. During their time at PNC, the students learned about monitoring credit scores, applying for school and car loans, as well as learning about the different lines of business that keep the engine of the bank humming smoothly.

“Our support of Step Up for Students is a strategic investment in the future of Palm Beach County children,” said Bronson.

“By easing the financial burden for parents with this tax donation, we’re supporting a solid foundation for the growth and success of our local children, their families and ultimately, our Florida economy.”

The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.

During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 98,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of PNC. The positive impact they will have on 329 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz. “PNC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their generosity.”

 About PNC

The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. is one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the United States, organized around its customers and communities for strong relationships and local delivery of retail and business banking; residential mortgage banking; specialized services for corporations and government entities, including corporate banking, real estate finance and asset-based lending; wealth management and asset management. For information about PNC, visit the website.

Reflections on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship’s 15th birthday

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.

By JOHN KIRTLEY

john-kirtleyI’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?

Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.

How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.

The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.

The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.

Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.

The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.

One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.

I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program.  I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country.  And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.

My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.

Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up  For Students!

John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.

 

 

 

BAEO enters legal fray to defend Florida tax credit scholarships

Editor’s Note:  This post originally ran Dec. 14 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.  Jon East is vice president of Policy and Public Affairs for Step Up For Students.

By JON EAST

gavel1-150x150A national organization that fights for the academic needs of black students entered the lawsuit over Florida’s tax credit scholarship today. The group, Black Alliance for Educational Options, filed an amicus brief urging the First District Court of Appeal to reject the state teacher union’s attempt to shut down the scholarship and to affirm a circuit judge’s dismissal of the case.

The brief tracks some of the legal arguments offered by lawyers representing the state and scholarship parents, but its tone is more personal. “BAEO knows from recent history that without high quality educational options such as the FTC scholarships, many of these students would never be in a position to enjoy their full panoply of civil rights – those rights can ring hollow for illiterate black students,” wrote Michael Ufferman, the attorney for BAEO.BAEO-media_logo_graphic

The tax credit scholarship, passed into law in 2001, is serving 78,014 low-income schoolchildren this year. Of those, 23,268 are black. Their average household income is $23,551, which is 0.6 percent above poverty. Roughly 54 percent live with only one parent.

The Florida Education Association and other groups filed suit in August 2014, asking the courts to declare the scholarship unconstitutional. Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds dismissed the case on standing in May, ruling the plaintiffs could not show how they or public schools were harmed. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 similarly rejected a challenge to a tax credit scholarship law in Arizona, denying standing, and three other state supreme courts have ruled in favor of the scholarships. None to date has ruled against them.

“If this lawsuit succeeds, the results will be devastating to the nearly 80,000 low-income and working-class, mostly black and Hispanic students who will be kicked out of their schools,” BAEO Policy and Research Director Tiffany Forrester said in a news release. “But it will also be a blow to social justice. Wealthy families have always had choices in education; low-income and working-class families deserve the same.”

BAEO also said in the release it was “very disappointed” the Florida NAACP joined in filing the suit. Two other plaintiffs, the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators, have withdrawn since the case was dismissed in circuit court. Meanwhile, a growing number of leading black ministers across the state have joined the cause against the lawsuit, calling themselves the “Florida African-American Ministers Alliance For Parental Choice.”

Earlier this month, attorneys for the state and scholarship families filed response briefs in the First District Court of Appeal. They asked to court to schedule oral arguments for the appeal.

 

 

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.

Faith Manuel reflects upon the journey of school choice for all three of her children

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students welcomes Faith Manuel as a guest blogger. Faith has had three children use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, and has spoken throughout Florida about school choice, and has written op-ed pieces for numerous newspapers. We hope this is the first of many blog posts by Faith.

By Faith Manuel, Guest Blogger

Blessed! I can find no other word that adequately describes my family. My oldest son, Davion, is a college junior pursing his passion for education at the University of North Florida. My middle man, Nicholas, is a high school senior who is a starting member of a nationally ranked high school football team. He is also an accomplished singer who has received some national ranking for his vocal ability. My baby girl, Faith De’Yanah, is a budding high school freshman who is a wonderful student and athlete. I am working in a job that I love which seems tailor-suited for my strengths and passion for helping others. We are (so) blessed.

Faith's family journey

From left to right, Davion Manuel-McKenney, Faith Manuel, Faith De’Yanah McKenney and Nicholas McKenney have walked hand-in-hand in their journey of school choice.

Our family proves that the start of a journey doesn’t dictate how far you travel. We have traveled a mighty long way. Geographically, it’s only been about 250 miles; but in growth as a family; we have traveled a mighty long way. My journey started in Hollywood, Fla. I was one of four girls in a very loving and supportive home. Though my parents instilled faith and values into my sisters and myself, I found myself in a peril during my ninth grade year of high school. To the shock of everyone in my family, I was pregnant with my first child. I did finish high school with the help of my supportive family, and the teen parent program in Broward County, which provided childcare on site at the school I attended.

Shortly after graduation, Davion’s dad and I decided to marry and expand our family, and along came Nicholas Jr. and next little Faith De’Yanah. By the time that I was 21, I had three kids and a failed marriage. Those circumstances are not the ideal launching pad of dreams, however, we launched nevertheless.

Desperate for a new beginning, my children and I relocated to Volusia County, Florida. I was a young divorced mother and I was in school. We lived in public housing, the only place we could afford with my part-time employment.

Davion was entering into sixth grade when I was blessed to discover Step Up For Students. The neighborhood we lived in was plagued with drugs and violence. The school Davion was zoned for was plagued with the same. I was working part time and attending school full time and could not afford to move to a better school zone. I decided to inquire about private school for Davion to protect him from going down the wrong road. The school I visited actually informed me of the Step Up program. This program afforded me the opportunity to enroll all three of my children in private school.

When Faith D. entered kindergarten, I was able to place the children at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Ormond Beach. Calvary was perfect for me because it was an extension of my church, also because it was K-12 and at the time, I had a kindergartener, third-grader, and seventh-grader. I loved that I could make one stop for drop off and pick up. I also loved that I could stop by and visit all my children in the same place. I remember many times coming for lunch with Faith and staying for lunch with Nicholas and Davion. Middle-schoolers don’t always think it’s cool to have lunch with mommy, however, mommy thought it was amazing!

Faith and Davion in the earlier years.

Faith and Davion in the earlier years.

I love that Step Up For Students gives parents the flexibility to choose a school that works best for the child. I’ve taken advantage of the “choice” aspect of school choice. Davion graduated from CCA in 2012 and went on to college where he remains. He has been on the Dean’s list, President’s list, been awarded various scholarships for his academic excellence. He benefited from student employment where he was named Tutor of the Year two years in a row. Today, Davion continues to work in the math lab of Florida State College at Jacksonville while attending the University of North Florida. Nicholas has had a mix of public and private education. He attended CCA from third to seventh grade. He has attended public school from eighth grade and remains in public school today and will graduate from Mainland High School. Nicholas has been very involved in school in sports, and singing. I credit his desire to participate with his foundation at Calvary. At Calvary, it was small enough that he was able to participate in almost everything. When he transitioned to public school, he has kept that model and I believe it has worked very well for him to keep him from any negative influences at school.  Faith D tried public school in sixth grade and it proved too big for her. She was most comfortable in the family learning environment which she enjoyed at CCA. She returned to private school to finish out middle school.

I value the flexibility afforded to me to be able to help my children find a learning environment that worked best for them at the different stages of their journey.

It has been a wonderful journey; full of excitement, love, and (of course) blessings. Step Up For Students has been a humongous blessing to our family. I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been so desperate to protect Davion all those years ago. My desire to help him has allowed me to help my younger two and many other families. I remain a huge advocate for school choice personally. I tell every parent I know about the program and tell them how much school choice has helped my family’s dream come true. My dream for my children was to be well educated, great citizens, and wonderful people and I get to see my dream as a reality every time I see my kids. We are truly blessed.

Faith Manuel is a school-choice advocate, former Step Up For Students mom and a career specialist with Career Source Flagler Volusia. When she’s not cheerleading or gushing about her wonderful children, she enjoys reading, writing, movies and naps. She also leads a support group for single moms in Volusia County called STRONG Single Moms. 

 

Step Up For Students graduate Denisha Merriweather shares her success story

Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the  first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.

By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern

CaptureBehindthescenesHi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!

I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar  from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle. Denisha choice

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.

Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.

I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.

Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!

I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.

When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.

 

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.

 

 

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Future Fla. House speaker: State should ‘fully fund’ school choice

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran Sept. 16, 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.

By Travis Pillow

The incoming speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives laid down a marker  on Wednesday, signaling plans to push for broader school choice.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, was officially chosen by his colleagues to lead the chamber after next year’s elections. During his designation ceremony, he said the education system has systematically short-changed poor and minority families.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House. -

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House.

“We need to fully fund the right of every parent to make the decision that they know best — what learning environment is best for their child,” he said. “That’s how we open up the doors to a brilliant future for every student in this state.”

Corcoran didn’t lay out specifically what his proposal would look like. His prepared remarks, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times’ Buzz blog, suggest he supports multiple options, public and private, but his speech was more about laying out principles than delving into details.

Corcoran himself is a home-school father, and his wife helped start a charter school in Pasco County

“A decades-long, one-size-fits-all school system promulgated by bureaucrats has failed to deliver on the promise of opportunity for all,” he said in his speech. “Separate-but-unequal may no longer be the law, but it’s all too often the reality. A world-class education should not be only within the reach of rich people.”

Afterward, reporters pressed Corcoran on the implications of his remarks (see around 6:55 of this video).

In 1999, Florida passed its first school voucher program, which the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2006. In 2001, the state created a tax credit scholarship program, which the statewide teachers union and other groups sued to stop last year.* Courts have also blocked attempts to create a statewide charter school authorizer.

Corcoran told reporters he disagreed with past court rulings that held the state constitution can restrict school choice, and said he would be undeterred by the prospect of a lawsuit.

“Listen, half the stuff that we do nowadays that’s controversial is litigated by some group, entity or whatever, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop moving (toward) something that we know will transform people’s lives in our state,” he said. “We’re going to go down that path with the firm belief that it’s constitutional.”

*The author of this post works for Step Up For Students, which helps administer the tax credit scholarships.

 

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.