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Betsy DeVos Uses a Willing Public School Superintendent as a Privatization Prop

On March 13, 2017, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tried to sell her interest in public schools. However, even as she spoke to the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), a coalition comprised of 69 urban public school districts, DeVos could not help trying to sell school choice.

Most of her 12-minute speech focused on her established, school choice bent couched in that seemingly-benign,  parent-empowerment, for-the-children language that leaves her audience with the unsettling feeling that even though DeVos tried at moments to sound supportive of public schools, her support is suspiciously qualified:

And one of those quality options should be a great public school. I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating: I support great public schools, and I support great public school teachers—because I support students—all students.

DeVos supports *great public schools,* and we know it’s true because she says so today.

But DeVos also has a public school superintendent as a fan, and she was willing to throw that name out there to her audience of urban public school superintendents:

For years, I mentored at-risk girls who were attending an urban public school in Grand Rapids. I’ve witnessed the impact one person can have on a child’s life, and I’ve seen the changes in a community when it chooses—often through local initiatives that include public and private partnerships—to come together and invest in the rising generation.

This is what motivated me to develop a friendship and relationship with Teresa Weatherall Neal, the superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

I have supported and continue to support her work to transform Grand Rapids Public Schools to better serve the students of Grand Rapids.

DeVos referenced her mentoring at a “public school” during her January 17, 2017, confirmation hearing. Neither then nor in her CGCS speech has she divulged the name of that school. She has also not disclosed just how much time, exactly, she spent “mentoring,” or what, exactly she means by the term.

Before her CGCS audience, she brushes past such details and proceeds to name-drop Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools– the same Neal who was planning to attend DeVos’ confirmation hearing at the request of DeVos’ school choice nonprofit, American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC agreed to pay for the trip and even provided talking points.

  Teresa Weatherall Neal

Email correspondence regarding the AFC-Neal exchange began with a congratulatory message from Neal to DeVos, as Target 8 reports:

The documents start with a letter from the superintendent to DeVos, congratulating her.

“If there is ever anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to call me,” Weatherall Neal wrote.

Weatherall Neal refused to comment on Thursday, but praised the selection in an earlier interview.

“I thought she’d be a great pick,” she said. “She’s knowledgeable about education; she’s concerned about children. She’s been a great supporter of mine and the Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

“This is a great win for children,” she added.

However, DeVos’ signature school choice push in Michigan has been anything but “a win” for Grand Rapids Public Schools, as Neal notes in MLive in August 2016:

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The scenario playing out in Kent and Ottawa counties and across Michigan, is exactly the hefty price tag superintendents say school choice carries: The destabilization of traditional school systems. …

Urban schools systems statewide and nationally have particularly been affected by choice students rising as a share of total enrollment.

Grand Rapids Public Schools, the largest district in the West Michigan, has been hit the hardest by school choice. About 39 percent of public school students living in the city are not enrolled in their home district.

“The current system isn’t fair and creates winners and losers,” said GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, who said the district’s losses likely would be higher had it not implemented a transformation plan that creates more options for families and is expanding popular programs.

“We had 30,000 fewer students in the state of Michigan, yet we increased all of the charter schools. Some of these for-profit charter management companies are making millions off the backs of poor children.”

Five months later, in January 2017, Neal congratulated Michigan’s school privatization first lady Betsy DeVos and called her positioning as US ed sec “a great win for children.”

But Neal’s open support for DeVos began even sooner than DeVos’ confirmation hearing in January 2017. In November 2016, only three months after calling out the problems for her district due to increasing charter schools. In a November 2016, MLive article, Neal awkwardly spins the negative influence of Michigan school choice upon her district as a positive:

Neal acknowledges the toll Michigan’s school of choice policy has taken on urban school districts like her own over the past 22 years when the lawmakers set it in motion with school finance reform in 1994.

“It has been hurt by choice (but) we have also become a much stronger district and able to compete,” Neal said.

School choice is harmful but it’s not. Got it?

Such contradiction begs searching for a financial incentive.

The MLive excerpt above is included in this Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) post, which also includes details of the financial incentives for Neal to support DeVos. An excerpt:

The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation contributed between 2012 – 2014 contributed $1,509,120 directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. If you add the money they contributed to the University Prep Academy, located on South Division, the President of Amway and his wife contributed $550,000 during the same 3-year period.

Then there are programs that align with the GRPS, such as the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, which provides grants to the GRPS. The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed $1,496,413 to the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Maria DeVos also just happens to sit on the board of this foundation.

GRIIL includes more information about the DeVos influence and money interwoven into programs associated with Grand Rapids Public Schools and concludes the following:

So, you can see why Teresa Weatherall Neal expressed such admiration for Betsy DeVos being chosen as the Secretary of Education. The DeVos family is deeply embedded in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, through their funding and the organizations they have had a hand in creating.

In order for Neal to protest the negative influence of school choice upon the public school district she leads even as she wholeheartedly supports DeVos’ involvement in both Michigan and DC, Neal must compartmentalize or consciously ignore the DeVos role in damaging Michigan’s public schools.

As the November 2016 MLive article notes, the DeVoses are behind Neal’s transition plan for her district:

The DeVos clan, especially Amway President Doug DeVos and his wife, Maria, have channeled millions from their foundations to programs that align with Neal’s goals. …

Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.

“I’m really excited for the children across the nation,” Neal said. “She has been a wonderful supporter of GRPS and our transition plan. She knows education. She knows what it is going to take in order for our kids to be helped.” …

Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the “greater social good.”

Betsy DeVos will continue to push for school choice. School choice will continue to destabilize public school systems.

DeVos’ pro-school-choice bent and her supposed support for “great public schools” are irreconcilable.

Whether from the mouth of DeVos herself or from the mouth of a DeVos-funded superintendent, pretending and promoting that it will all work out anyway is a farce.

  Betsy DeVos


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Sometimes Florida Voucher School Gain Scores Are, Uh, Negative…

One of the individuals present at Donald Trump’s address of Congress on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, was Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student who years earlier received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (i.e., voucher) that was delivered by the nonprofit administrator, Step Up for Students. (Merriweather also later worked for Step Up for Students as part of a growing career in advocating for vouchers.)

On March 03, 2017, following her visit with Trump to St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, DeVos issued this statement, which includes the following excerpt regarding Merriweather:

Denisha Merriweather, who was able to attend a private school when her public school did not meet her needs, exemplifies the hope and positive impact of school choice, and her story should serve as a model for the nation.

I featured the above information in a March 06, 2017, post on Merriweather’s circumstances. In short, she acknowledged that instability in her home life had her changing public schools “constantly.” When she changed caregivers, her living situation stabilized so that she was able to stop constantly changing schools. Her new caregiver used a tax credit administered by Step Up for Students to allow Merriweather to attend a Florida private school, Esprit de Corps Learning Center.

A tax credit is a way for corporations and wealthy individuals to give money directly to a voucher-providing nonprofit and in turn receive tax breaks. Such programs cleverly reduce a state’s tax revenue via the promise of post-donation tax credits. Thus, the private-school-funding tax credit is a back-door voucher program, useful in states in which spending public money on private schools is declared unconstitutional, as it was in Florida by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.

Just as DeVos sells Merriweather’s voucher usage as a private-school-over-public-school success, the nonprofit Step Up for Students also includes a success narrative on its tax forms, which I included and reviewed in this March 10, 2017, post.

Step Up for Students purportedly demonstrates the success of its back-door voucher program via its gain scores (e.g., national percentile rank changes from one school year to the next). From the Step Up 2015 tax form:

Standardized test scores released in August 2014 showed that scholarship students were achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally. By law, scholarship recipients every year must take a nationally recognized norm-referenced test approved by the state, and most take the well-regarded Stanford Achievement Test. The results reported in 2014 tracked closely with results in prior years, and the researcher issued two key findings– Students who chose the scholarship were among the poorest and lowest-performing students from the public schools they left behind– these same students achieved gains in reading and math that were the same as all students nationally, regardless of income level.

The above summary is very close to that which is included on the 2013 and 2014 tax forms. The summary makes it sound as though all voucher students are breaking even with the national average of all students in Florida.

But there are nuances worthy of note.

According to the 2014-15 Florida Tax Credit Final Report, even though the voucher students can be compared to other students nationally via percentile rankings, no comparison of voucher students to public school students can be made since the two groups of students do not take the same standardized tests.

The report clearly states as much. The tax form summary does not.

As for the public schools from which the tax credit students come, students who entered the tax credit program in 2014-15 overwhelmingly hailed from public schools graded A, B, and C.

Only 8 percent entered the tax credit program from an F-graded school (note some slight rounding error):

A = 23.6%; B = 17.3%; C = 34.1%; D = 17.1%; F = 8.0%%

Thus, even though the tax credit program draws some of the most economically and academically challenged students, it is drawing these students from higher-graded schools– not from the lowest-graded schools.

In Florida, public elementary and middle schools are graded solely using the state test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). For high schools, 62.5 percent of the school letter grade is based on test scores (50 percent FCAT; 12.2 percent SAT).

The 2014-15 voucher report notes that grades 3 through 10 are tested grades in Florida.

The tax credit program is not being utilized by students in public schools with the lowest test scores, as is obvious by the F-rating of the schools.

One wonders why the students at F-rated schools are apparently choosing not to participate in the tax credit program.

Furthermore, even though the report confirms that students utilizing tax credits tend to be “more economically disadvantaged and poorer-performing than free-lunch eligible, non-participating students,” the report also notes that “those who return to public schools tend to be those who were struggling the most in private schools.” Moreover, those returning to public school “appear to be lower performing than other subsidized-meal-eligible public school students who never participated in the FTC program.”

This is an important point: Students who accept a tax credit but who do not do well academically in private school (and who are the lowest performers academically out of the already-lowest performers participating in the voucher program) tend to return to the public schools. 

Step Up does not account for this attrition. Florida’s tax-credit choice does not appear to be able to save the very lowest academically performing students, so they return to the public schools. In this age of painting public schools in broad brush strokes of failure, the fact that this voucher program is not (for whatever reason) the solution for some of the most challenging to educate serves to vindicate the public schools from which these students hail– and to which they return.

Still, it appears that most of the voucher students remain at their chosen private schools. However, reporting average gain scores across all private schools conceals the notable variation among private schools in the program.

Just as public school testing outcomes can vary considerably, so can private school testing outcomes.

A gain score of zero means that the school is at the national average of test takers– which is the success pitch that Step Up included on its tax forms. But Step Up did not offer school-level results, which can vary considerably even when the average of all private school gain scores is virtually the same as the national average of all test takers.

Let us consider the gain scores of Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, the school that Denisha Merriweather attended via tax credit.

In 2014-15 , 44 students completed assessments that produced gain scores. (The researchers cautioned about the stability of gain score results when the number of students tested is below 30. Thus, Esprit de Corps meets the 30+ test-taker condition.)

In 2014-15, Esprit de Corps’ average gain score was -3.66 national percentile ranking points in reading and -13.52 in math.

Its average gain score from 2012-13 to 2014-15 (three years) was -0.65  national percentile ranking points in reading and -2.69 in math.

In an effort to obtain more information on Esprit de Corps’ math gain score history, I consulted a few more FTC reports from previous years.

According to the 2013-14 FTC report, Esprit de Corps fared better in 2013-14: 0.03 in reading (remember, a zero gain is right at the national average) and 6.9 in math (calculations based on 43 student assessments). However, its three-year average gain scores (2011-12 to 2013-14) in both reading and math were -0.65 and -2.69, respectively, which indicates lower gains in previous years, especially in math.

In 2012-13, Esprit de Corps had only a slightly negative math gain score (-1.3), and a slightly positive reading gain (1.3). Still its three-year combined gain score in math (2010-11 to 2012-13) was notably negative (-4.3). Three-year reading was close to zero (0.3). (Score based on 47 student assessments.)

In 2011-12, Esprit de Corps’ math scores were again especially low (-12.4), and its reading gains were also negative (-2.6) based on 47 student assessments. And again, its three-year average gain in math (2009-10 to 2011-12) was particularly low: -3.8. Its reading gain was negative but close to zero: -0.20.

Esprit de Corps has an arguably established history of negative gains in math, as confirmed by its three-year scores from 2009-10-to-2011-12 to 2012-13-to-2014-15.

This school-level reality complicates pitching Florida vouchers via tax credits as an across-the-board, superior public school alternative based on test score outcomes.

Nevertheless, it seems that the push for vouchers in the DeVos era is one conveniently deaf to evidence and infused with the superiority of ideology.

  Betsy DeVos


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Texas Ed Commissioner Abruptly Suspends Operations of SASIC Charter Schools Due to Apparent Criminal Background Check and Health Violations

On March 08, 2017, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath suspended the operations of San Antonio-based charter school district, San Antonio School for Inquiry and Creativity (SASIC). Furthermore, SASIC authorities were required to attend a hearing on March 10, 2017, regarding a number of reported violations that Morath believed had not been properly addressed prior to March 08th.

Many concerns about SASIC operations were detailed in a letter sent from Texas State Representative and Chair of Vice Chair of the Texas House Committee on Education, Diego Bernal, on February 10, 2017. Bernal writes:

Recently, alarming reports of misconduct, outlined below, have been brought to my attention directly by [SASIC] faculty, staff, and parents…:

These complaints include:

  • Improper conduct and contact between staff and students
  • Improper, unsanitary storage of food
  • Serving expired, rotten food to students which resulted in student illness and absences
  • Falsification of employee records and timesheets
  • Failure to pay employee salaries, hourly wages, and overtime pay
  • Threatening teacher and staff employment and certifications for raising concerns about the school environment and management
  • Falsification of student transcripts, attendance records, and other State accountability documents
  • Nepotism within the District Office

As such, I ask that you receive this letter as both a formal complaint and a request for a full investigation.

As News4Antonio reports, on February 16, 2017, Morath contacted SASIC Superintendent Sonja Nelson warning of possible funding and operations suspension and requesting evidence demonstrating that SASIC is in compliance with criminal history requirements as well as evidence of health inspection and associated compliance.

Morath reached the following conclusion:

After a review of the documentation presented by SASIC on February 21, 2017, as well as information provided by the San Antonio Health Department, the Texas Department of Agriculture, and the Texas Education Agency’s Fingerprint Division, the Special Investigations Unit has determined that SASIC remains out of compliance with the criminal history requirements of Tex. Educ. Code Chapter 22, Subch C and continues to have serious and ongoing food safety issues which threaten the health, safety, and welfare of its students.

Morath then froze funding and suspended operation of all SASIC campuses effective immediately and until “the conditions at the school do not present a danger of material harm to the health, safety, or welfare of students,” either by effective refutation of initial evidence or upon correction of conditions confirmed to be dangerous.

As KSAT reports on March 10, 2017, SASIC presented its case at the March 10, 2017, hearing and hopes that Morath will allow SASIC to reopen on March 20th, 2017, “after spring break.” However, Morath is not restricted to any deadline in arriving at a decision.

A March 09, 2017, KSAT article detailed some of the complaints:

Last August [2016], the health department received a complaint that a girl’s bathroom at SASIC High School had human waste everywhere because of remodeling and that meals were being served in a classroom.

Then in January [2017], after a complaint of rats where children ate at the SASIC Prep Academy, a health inspector found a possible rodent entry hole, missing base boards and rodent bait traps inside the kitchen pantry. …

In Wednesday’s order of suspension, the state said health violations were partially to blame for the 72-hour suspension notice given on Feb. 16. It also mentioned compliance with criminal history requirements.

The SASIC web site includes no word of its mandatory, indefinite closure and the subsequent hearing. Also, calling the school phone number (210-738-0020) provides no information, not even a generic recorded message. And there is no way to leave a message; the “mailbox is full.”

As for the SASIC Facebook page: It appears not to have been updated since March 03, 2017. Thus, it, too, includes no hint that the school has been forced to cease operating. However, according to the March 09, 2017, San Antonio Current, the SASIC Facebook page did include a post to the effect, “We hope you have a wonderful extended Spring Break!!!”

Talk about putting a spin on the situation.

According to KSAT,  now-former SASIC parent, Stephanie Moreno, reports that SASIC kept news of the February 16, 2017, suspension warning from them:

Moreno is upset because she said she and other parents never knew about the first suspension notice, which was issued Feb. 16.

“We never once got an email,” Moreno said.

Moreno learned of SASIC’s “extended spring break” (tongue in cheek) at 5 p.m. on March 08th, 2017.

She is now shopping for new schools for her three children. Moreno wants to enroll her children in another charter school, but three schools have already told her that she must wait until next year.

Moreno says that until then, she plans to enroll her children in traditional public school.

Traditional public schools don’t turn parents and students away mid-year.

This SASIC situation is a mess.

 Rotten meat photo taken by Rep. Bernal


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Florida Voucher Nonprofit, Step Up for Students: A Tale of 15 Tax Forms

Step Up for Students (Step Up) is the Florida nonprofit founded by venture capitalist John Kirtley (see his bio here). Until 2011, Step Up was known as the Florida School Choice Fund (FSCF), which officially became a nonprofit in July 2000.

In recent news, the former Florida voucher student whom Donald Trump featured in his February 28, 2017, Congressional address, Denisha Merriweather, was both former Step Up student and employee.

Step Up oversees Florida’s round-about private school voucher program known as a “tax credit” program. Through tax credits, both corporations and wealthy individuals are able to donate money directly to a “scholarship fund” in exchange for tax credits. The state ends up with less revenue than it would if it did not offer such credit, but allowing private entities to put the cash directly into the fund and receive a tax break afterward is a clever means of keeping the label “public” off of the money that is donated even as the amount of public funds in the public coffers is lowered in the name of “tax credit.”

The Step Up for Students website calls such a practice “redirecting tax obligations”:

In 1998, a young Tampa venture capitalist named John Kirtley discovered the lack of educational options available for low-income children and took matters into his own hands. Kirtley, working with the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, created the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay to provide privately funded scholarships for low-income children to attend a K-8 school of their choice. …

With Kirtley’s help, [Florida] lawmakers in 2001 created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program gave corporations credit for redirecting their state tax obligations toward K-12 scholarships that helped low-income families send their children to participating private schools or to public schools outside their districts.

Note that the FSCF/ Step Up max amount to send students to public schools out of district is $500 for transportation. The primary purpose of the tax credit is to send students to private schools, as the same web page proudly highlights:

Today, Step Up serves more than 97,926 FTC [Florida Tax Credit] students in more than 1,712 private schools throughout Florida.

There is no such web site highlight regarding the number of students who attend out-of-district public schools.

Step Up for Students also doesn’t mention the wealthy individuals who are able to donate even though according to the organization’s tax forms, wealthy individuals have donated. In fact, donations from a single wealthy individual comprised almost all of FSCF’s 2001 funding.

I read the tax forms, and I offer them here for any who wish to peruse them:

FSCF 2001 990  FSCF 2002 990  FSCF 2003 990  FSCF 2004 990  FSCF 2005 990  FSCF 2006 990  FSCF 2007 990  FSCF 2008 990  FSCF 2009 990  FSCF 2010 990  SUFS 2011 990  SUFS 2012 990  SUFS 2013 990  SUFS 2014 990  SUFS 2015 990

I will not dissect all of the above tax forms in this post. It would be too much, and too dry. However, I will offer some highlights and curiosities:

To begin, in 2001, FSCF (later Step Up, remember) listed almost $4.8 million in contributions, almost all of it ($4 million) deriving from a single contributor– a person, not a corporation. FSCF conceals the name of the contributor. Given that John Walton pledged $50 million to a similar Oklahoma effort in 2002, I wonder if that $4 million was Walton money. Just a thought.

Still, what is clear is that the FSCF start-up funding came from an individual, not a corporation.

In 2001, FSCF was clear about its purpose in sending students to private (not public) schools, and not just in Florida:

Provide economic and other assistance to private schools which carry out their educational missions from physical facilities located in inner city areas throughout the United States and which are also, in large part, not-for-profit institutions.

We’ll return later to the beyond-Florida goals of FSCF/ Step Up.

As for service accomplishments in 2001:

The Organization provided scholarships to 144 schools and educational providers to enable students, who could not afford to otherwise, to attend private schools in inner city areas.

In 2002, FSCF began spending money on “school expansion” (57 schools; $4.5 million). There was also a shift in FSCF’s 2002 “primary exempt purpose”– from helping students to helping schools:

Provide economic and other assistance to private schools which carry out their educational missions from physical facilities located in inner city areas throughout the United States and which are also, in large part, not-for-profit institutions.

In 2002, FSCF still spent much of its revenue on private school attendance ($5.8 million for 3,512 students at 445 schools).

In 2003, the FSCF primary tax exempt purpose had shifted yet again, to include both schools and the students:

Provide economic and other assistance to low income parents in Florida to enable them to select the best schools for their children, and to help private schools in low income areas expand their capacity to serve these children.

School expansion efforts still happened in 2003, but only a handful (5 schools, $119,000). It spent $4.7 million for 3,073 students to attend 284 schools. From 2004 to 2015, most revenue by far was spent on scholarships as opposed to school expansion.

FSCF’s revenue (derived from “direct contributions”) jumped to $22.3 million (2004); $26.4 million (2005); $42.3 million (2006); $33.4 million (2007), and $41.4 million (2008). Then, a dip in 2009: $33.6 million in direct contributions. (Recall that corporate greed took a bite out of the 2008 economy.) In 2010, direct contributions jumped again: $91.5 million.

Also in 2009, the FSCF mission statement was revised to include the public-school-tinted term, “K-12 education.” Too, the term, “private school” was replaced by the general term, “learning options,” among other generalities that avoid identifying FSCF as a private school voucher program. And no more verbiage about school expansion assistance:

The mission of Florida School Choice Fund, Inc. is to foster improvement in K-12 education in Florida through parental choice programs. FSCF believes that educational option programs spur improvements by equipping all of Florida’s parents with the tools to seek the best education for their children. The Fund’s primary focus is in providing learning options for children from low-income and working class families.

In 2010, the FSCF mission statement became considerably shorter:

The mission of the Florida School Choice Fund is to ensure that economically disadvantaged families have an equal opportunity to the K-12 learning options they need to effectively educate their children.

Also in 2010 comes the “test score gains” sales pitch (AKA we’re breaking even in general):

The fund provided scholarships to 27,593 underprivileged students to attend 1,033 different private schools across the state in 2009-10 The average household income of these students is only 17 percent above the federal poverty level Three-fifths of them live in single-parent households, three-fourths of them are black or Hispanic A state research report released in June said that the students who choose the scholarship are among the poorest and lowest-achieving students in the public schools they left behind In 2008-09, these students achieved the same reading and math standardized test score gains as those of all income levels nationally. Florida Gov Charlie Crist remarked that the scholarship “offers families an invaluable opportunity to choose a learning environment that gives their children the best chance for success.”

FSCF paints itself as a success via test score gains. More on this to come. Let’s first finish with the FSCF/Step Up tax form highlights.

By 2010, Kirtley had stepped aside as president but was still on the FSCF board as “chairman.”

We’re now at 2011; FSCF is now Step Up for Students. Its direct contributions jumped by an additional $100 million from 2010 ($91.5 million) to 2011 ($191.8 million). And, here we go with another revised mission statement:

Step Up for Students provides legislatively-authorized K-12 scholarships and related support to give economically disadvantaged families the freedom to choose the best learning options for their children.

In 2011, Step Up spent $134.7 million for “more than 38,000 underprivileged students to attend roughly 1,200 different private schools across the state of Florida” via a scholarship program “created to help alleviate the enormous educational challenges faced by children who live in poverty.”

In 2012, Step Up reported contributions and grants of $267.5 million. That year, Step Up spent $148.6 million to send “more than 40,000” to those “more than 1,200 private schools. In 2012, Step Up also spent over $1.5 million “to provide support for the building of infrastructure necessary to grow the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to over 50,000 students by 2014.” By “infrastructure,” Step Up apparently meant investing in more private school seats.

In 2013, Step Up contributions and grants rose to $310.8 million, with $209.7 million spent on “choosing a school”– with the word “private” dropped in order to combine students receiving the at-most $500 out-of-district public school transportation voucher with the predominately private-school attending students. Such lumping together of all students allowed for 51,075 students to be nebulously “on scholarship.”

The year 2013 was also the first in which Step Up included extensive explanation of the wonder of its gain scores on its tax form. An excerpt:

Standardized test scores released in August 2012 showed that students and schools in the program were holding their own against the rest of the nation. … The results in 2010-11 tracked closely with results in prior years… Students who chose the scholarship were among the poorest and lowest-performing students from the public schools they left behind. These same students achieved gains in reading and math that were the same as all students nationally, regardless of income level. These students also achieved the same gains as public school students on free or reduced-lunch programs, even though the public school group had higher incomes than the scholarship students and were performing at higher levels in prior years.

So, the voucher program is successful because it ties in lesser student gains than those achieved by public school students in previous years. Got that?

Incidentally, the Step Up statement about a the public schools “performing at higher levels in prior years” remained as part of Step Up’s 2014 return but was dropped from its 2015 return.

There are other important pieces regarding the nuances of Step Up’s gain score comparisons, not the least of which is the fact that these are averaged student gains. When one considers gains by school, the story isn’t so rosy. Some schools yielded better than average gain scores, and others, well….

I’ll have to save it for a second post.

In 2013, Step Up did spend almost $500,000 “offering [partnership schools] free professional development.” Apparently the schools that take part in this professional development are called “Success Partners.” In 2014, the amount Step Up spent on Success Partners rose to $1.2 million.

A comical component of this professional development involves pitching the “Florida standards”– which Step Up promotes as “a national initiative of uniform academic standards”– without using the term, “Common Core”:

The capstone of Success Partners is an interactive, learning compact designed to give teachers, families and students a way to utilize the Florida state standards…. These standards are a national initiative of uniform academic benchmarks adopted in 45 states, four territories and the District of Columbia for grades Kindergarten through 12th to ensure that students are ready for careers and college.

This “Success Partners” effort appears to be enlisting private schools to follow the success-guaranteeing Common Core that Florida’s public schools are following– the same public schools from which Step Up is trying to rescue the lowest performers. If Common Core were a guarantee, why leave the Florida public schools for private schools? And if Common Core is not really a guaranteed “careers and college readiness,” then why try to get private schools to buy into them?

Step Up is entangled in its own sales pitch.

In 2013, Step Up also spent over $1 million on a “data warehouse” so that it might “inform scholarship parents, participating schools, the general public and policymakers about the academic progress of scholarship students and shed light on pathways to academic improvement.”

In 2014, the data warehouse cost Step Up $2.5 million.

One way to shed light is to stop selling this voucher program as a generalized success and publicly admit that the participating private schools are all over the map as concerns their gain scores, with many *gaining* backwards.

But I am ahead of myself. A second post, a second post….

In 2014, Step Up reported contributions and grants of $332.4 million, with 59,992 underprivileged students attending 1,429 private schools. But the news in 2014 was that Step Up had finally taken its 2001-voiced national ambitions to another state– Alabama– for the price of $2.6 million:

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund (AOSF) is a scholarship-granting organization serving low-income students, with priority given to children who are assigned to struggling public schools. The scholarship is used to pay for private tuition or transfer fees to a non-failing public school. The first scholarships were granted for the semester starting January 2014, and scholarships continue to be awarded for the 2014-15 school year. Nearly 12,000 children applied for one of about 3,500 scholarship awards. The scholarships are funded by corporate and individual contributions that receive state tax credits from Alabama.

On its 2014 tax form, Step Up is listed as the direct controlling entity for the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which it also notes had a 2014 total income of $15.1 million.

The AOSF web site does not disclose that Step Up is the direct controlling entity for AOSF, not even in the bios of the three Step Up board members on the AOSF board.

(Step Up’s 2014 tax form indicates that five of its board members are affiliated with AOSF. That number increases to six for 2015, with one departing Step Up in March 2015.)

The Step Up web site also fails to mention any connection to AOSF.

In 2015, Step Up’s AOSF funding was $15.3 million, but its total income as a Step Up-controlled entity was listed as $12.3 million.

Also in 2015, Step Up raised $456.3 million in contributions and grants and reported 69,950 students attending 1,533 private schools at a cost of $351.6 million.

It also spent $1.5 million to add a new scholarship, a “personal learning scholarship account” for students with certain special needs (e.g., autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome); in 2015, 1,696 students received an average of $10,000 for use on “schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum– even a college savings account.”

But this is surely enough for a single post.

More to come on those gain scores. Stay tuned.


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Betsy DeVos Shapes Denisha Merriweather’s Story into a School Choice Triumph

One of the individuals present at Donald Trump’s address of Congress on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, was Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student who years earlier received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (i.e., voucher) that was delivered by the nonprofit administrator, Step Up for Students. (Merriweather also later worked for Step Up for Students as part of a growing career in advocating for vouchers.)

  Denisha Merriweather

On March 03, 2017, following her visit with Trump to St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, DeVos issued this statement, which includes the following excerpt regarding Merriweather:

Denisha Merriweather, who was able to attend a private school when her public school did not meet her needs, exemplifies the hope and positive impact of school choice, and her story should serve as a model for the nation. [Emphasis added.]

According to DeVos, the story is this simple: A public school “did not meet” Merriweather’s “needs.” In a narrative that DeVos finds easy to market, the public school was (and is) the problem.

However, in Merriweather’s own testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in February 2016, she notes that she did not attend a single public school but was instead changing schools “constantly” as the result of her mother’s frequent moving:

When I was in elementary school in Jacksonville, Florida, my mother and I were moving around town constantly. That meant I kept changing schools, and I had a hard time re-adjusting to a new school, new teachers and new students every time we moved. Because we moved so much, I also missed several days of school, and when I got back into the classroom, it was hard to catch up. Needless to say, my grades were bad, and I didn’t understand most of my schoolwork. I got picked on by other kids because I was doing so poorly in school. And I kept getting into fights. I failed third grade. Not once, but twice. [Emphasis added.]

As Merriweather’s words attest, the underlying problem was not the quality of the public schools but the constant changing of schools that resulted in absences on top of having to frequently readjust to new school environments.

An important change in Merriweather’s life was the stabilization of her home situation, which occurred when she changed caregivers. At this point, in DeVos, voucher-selling fashion, Merriweather also glides right past the importance of a stable living environment and jumps to her enrollment in a voucher school as the solution:

Not too long after that, I started living with my godmother and my life began to turn in an entirely different direction. One of the first things she wanted to change was my school. She heard through our church about a private school in Jacksonville called Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, and liked what she heard. But she had no way to pay for it.

Thankfully, she heard about a scholarship that was offered through a nonprofit I now know as Step Up For Students, and the state program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Let me tell you. That was just the change I needed.

Merriweather did not receive voucher money and continue to bounce from school to school the way that she did while living with her mother. The reality that Merriweather’s living situation stabilized is an important yet strategically-discounted factor. Moreover, it is misleading to present Merriweather’s voucher school attendance as a solution for some single public school that she attended as consistently as she did her voucher school, yet DeVos misleads readers into believing such was the case.

In the case of DeVos’ press release, printing the truth about Merriweather’s constant moves pre-voucher and stabilized living situation post-voucher does not sell vouchers as well. The story loses the damning factor needed to condemn public schools.

It is unrealistic to expect any school, public or private, to effectively educate students who live unsettled, transient lives. However, it is realistic to expect that transience is much more likely to get a student booted from a private school than it is from a public school.

Private schools are not required to enroll students at inconvenient times (i.e., mid-year). But public schools are.

Merriweather’s story is less a testament to school choice than it is for the importance of a stable home life. Her story is also a testament to the fact that public schools enroll students throughout the school year, which can be complicated for all involved.

DeVos should write a press release about that. But I won’t count on it.

  Betsy DeVos


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Blaine Amendment Challenge in Limbo at the US Supreme Court

On March 04, 2017, I wrote a post about the Blaine Amendment, which was never incorporated into the US Constitution but variations of which have been adopted in 37 or 38 states.

In short, the purpose of a Blaine amendment is to restrict the use of public money in funding religious (“sectarian”) schools.

The strength of any state’s Blaine amendment depends upon the specificity and directness of the language. As noted in the March 04, 2017, post, the language of Blaine amendments in some states is so tight that there is no way to sidestep the amendment by, say, indirectly using public money to fund religious schools by giving the money to the parent first and then having the parent use the money to pay the religious school.

Interestingly, in 2011, a challenge to Colorado’s Blaine amendment, Taxpayers for Public Education vs. Douglas County School District, went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court (June 2015) and then, a reshaped case in which petitioner became defendant, Douglas County School District vs. Taxpayers for Public Education, headed for the US Supreme Court in October 2015.

In June 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the use of public money in the form of school vouchers to pay for religious schools.

Below are some salient excerpts from the Colorado Supreme Court ruling

 The Colorado Constitution features broad, unequivocal language forbidding the State from using public money to fund religious schools. Specifically, article IX, section 7—entitled “Aid to private schools, churches, sectarian purpose, forbidden”— includes the following proscriptive language:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever . . . . (Emphasis added.)

Although this provision uses the term “sectarian” rather than “religious,” the two words are synonymous. See Black’s Law Dictionary 1557 (10th ed. 2014) (defining “sectarian” as “[o]f, relating to, or involving a particular religious sect; esp., supporting a particular religious group and its beliefs”). That section 7 twice equates the term “sectarian” with the word “church” only reinforces this point. Therefore, this stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear: A school district may not aid religious schools.

Yet aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP [Choice Scholarship Pilot Program] does. The CSP essentially functions as a recruitment program, teaming with various religious schools (i.e., the Private School Partners) and encouraging students to attend those schools via the inducement of scholarships. To be sure, the CSP does not explicitly funnel money directly to religious schools, instead providing financial aid to students. But section 7’s prohibitions are not limited to direct funding. Rather, section 7 bars school districts from “pay[ing] from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any” religious institution, and from “help[ing] support or sustain any school . . . controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever” (emphasis added). Given that private religious schools rely on students’ attendance (and their corresponding tuition payments) for their ongoing survival, the CSP’s facilitation of such attendance necessarily constitutes aid to “support or sustain” those schools. Section 7 precludes school districts from providing such aid.

Respondents point out that the CSP does not require scholarship recipients to enroll in a religious school, nor does it force participating Private School Partners to be religious. Respondents thus suggest that the CSP features an element of private choice that severs the link between the District’s aid to the student and the student’s ultimate attendance at a (potentially) religious school. It is true that the CSP does not only partner with religious schools; several Private School Partners are non-religious. The fact remains, however, that the CSP awards public money to students who may then use that money to pay for a religious education. In so doing, the CSP aids religious institutions. Thus, even ignoring the pragmatic realities that scholarship recipients face—such as the trial court’s finding that “virtually all high school students” can only use their scholarships to attend religious schools—the CSP violates the clear constitutional command of section 7.

The program’s lack of vital safeguards only bolsters our conclusion that it is constitutionally infirm. Most troubling is that the CSP does not forbid a Private School Partner from raising a scholarship recipient’s tuition (or reducing his financial aid) in the amount of the scholarship awarded. Such conduct would pervert the program’s “offset” approach and would instead result in the District channeling taxpayer money directly to a religious school. As the trial court found, one religious Private School Partner has already engaged in this very behavior.

Next, Douglas County attacks the origin of the Blaine amendment as anti-Catholic, which the 1875 origin of the Blaine Amendment was. However, the Colorado Supreme Court maintains that what matters is the actual language of Colorado’s Blaine amendment:

Respondents nevertheless contend that the plain language of section 7 is not plain at all, but that the term “sectarian” is actually code for “Catholic.” In so doing, Respondents charge that section 7 is a so-called “Blaine Amendment” that is bigoted in origin. See Taxpayers for Pub. Educ., ¶ 62 n.13 (describing Blaine Amendments as “state laws and constitutional provisions which allegedly arose out of anti-Catholic school sentiment”). They thus encourage us to wade into the history of section 7’s adoption and declare that the framers created section 7 in a vulgar display of anti-Catholic animus.

We need not perform such an exegesis to dispose of Respondents’ argument. Instead, we need merely recall that “constitutional provisions must be declared and enforced as written” whenever their language is “plain” and their meaning is “clear.” People v. Rodriguez, 112 P.3d 693, 696 (Colo. 2005). As discussed, the term “sectarian” plainly means “religious.” Therefore, we will enforce section 7 as it is written.

Accordingly, we cannot square the CSP’s resultant aid of religious schools with the plain language of section 7.

The Colorado suit has another interesting twist: Apparently Douglas County tried to position its voucher program as a charter school– an idea that the Colorado Supreme Court shot down:

The CSP funds itself through per-pupil revenue received from the State by counting the CSP students as charter school students “enrolled” in the Choice Scholarship Charter School. … For each scholarship recipient “enrolled” at the Charter School, the District retains 25% of the per-pupil funding amount to cover administrative costs and sends the remaining 75% to the student’s chosen Private School Partner in the form of a check that the parent must endorse for the sole purpose of paying tuition at the private school.

The problem with this arrangement, of course, is that the Choice Scholarship Charter School does not in fact exist. As the trial court found, the Charter School “has no buildings, employs no teachers, requires no supplies or books, and has no curriculum.” No CSP student will spend a single day attending classes at this “school.” The Choice Scholarship Charter School is an illusion, serving merely as a conduit to collect per-pupil revenue from the state to send students to private schools. Labeling this private school funding mechanism a “charter school” to collect public funds under the Act does not make it so.

Moreover, the Private School Partners—where the CSP scholarship students are actually enrolled and educated—fail to meet multiple requirements of the Charter School Act. Most obviously, charter schools must be public, nonsectarian, and nonreligious, and they must operate within a public school district. Charter schools may not discriminate on the basis of disability, sexual orientation, religion, or need for special education services. … And charter schools may not charge tuition.

In sum, the CSP violates the Act by collecting per-pupil funding from the State for students “enrolled” in an illusory charter school and redirecting that public money to pay tuition for those students’ private education at sectarian and other private schools—including schools located outside the District. Moreover, these Private School Partners receiving public money for “charter school” students fail to meet the statutory requirements of a charter school.

The game of Douglas County’s trying to fashion its voucher program into a charter school reminds me of a situation from the 1960s when Louisiana passed legislation allowing districts to rename the state’s public schools as “private” in order to use school vouchers to reinforce segregation.

The courts didn’t buy that one, either. (To read more about this and other creative means that states tried to use to employ vouchers as a means of preserving racial segregation, see my book, School Choice: The End of Public Education?.)

As for the other suit highlighted in this post (flip the plaintiff-defendant names), Douglas County vs. Taxpayers, its certification petition now sits at the federal level, suspiciously doing nothing.

According to the US Supreme Court docket file on Douglas County vs. Taxpayers, on January 13, 2016, the case was “distributed for Conference of February 19, 2016.”

However, on February 13, 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly while on a hunting trip. Whether Scalia’s death influenced the fact that the suit is now in limbo is not directly stated, but it sure is one remarkable coincidence.

Regarding the conference on February 19, 2016, to certify the case, the Court registered no disposition, and the status of the case is only notated as “distributed.” (All documents related to the case can be found on this SCOTUS blog page.)

In short, what Douglas County is seeking to have all state-level Blaine amendments declared unconstitutional:

The question presented is: Can Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, which the unrebutted record plainly demonstrates was born of religious bigotry, be used to force state and local governments to discriminate against religious institutions without violating the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

The US Supreme Court has yet to certify this case.

In April and May 2016, the Denver Post refers to yet another Colorado suit as well as to the federal suit, which as of this writing is stalled.

From the April 2016 Denver Post:

A Virginia-based religious freedom group filed suit Tuesday against the Douglas County School District, saying its newly established voucher program unlawfully excludes families seeking to enroll children in a religious school.

And from the May 2016 Denver Post:

Voucher opponents filed motions in court Tuesday hoping to stymie the rollout and operation of the district’s newly formed School Choice Grant program, which would funnel public money to parents to pay for schooling at private nonreligious institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Taxpayers for Public Education are asking a Denver District Court judge to stop the voucher program from getting off the ground. The ACLU also is seeking to intervene in a federal lawsuit that it claims is designed to help Douglas County’s program expand, once again, into religious education.

It wants that lawsuit, which was filed against the district last month by religious liberty group Institute for Justice, dismissed.

Douglas County, Colorado, could be involved in litigation over its voucher pilot for years to come.

Regarding Douglas County vs. Taxpayers, the major question is whether the Court is waiting for confirmation of the justice who will replace Scalia before making its decision on whether or not to certify the case.

Moreover, such certification is dependent upon a majority of Supreme Court justices deciding that the intent of the original Blaine Amendment is enough to justify finding that Blaine violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

In an August 2012 NBC interview, Scalia identified himself as a valuing words over intent:

“You will see recited in opinions all the way back that the object of interpretation is to determine the intent of the drafter.  I don’t believe that.  We’re not governed by the drafter’s intent. We’re governed by laws,” [Scalia] told NBC News in an interview at the court.

Whether Scalia’s likely replacement, Neil Gorsuch, will go with the desired Douglas County result, the intent of the original Blaine Amendment, and whether such violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, remains to be seen.

Of course, the case needs to be certified first. And Gorsuch needs to be confirmed.

Lots of “ifs,” but certainly a situation to watch.

us-supreme-court-2  US Supreme Court


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

The Testing of States’ Blaine Amendments– No Public Funding of Religious Schools

Given that President Trump and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are poised to offer states financial incentives for instituting/expanding school vouchers, the issue becomes whether state constitutions allow public money to be used to fund private schools, particularly religious schools.

Time for a bit of history.

The commonly-used term to refer to state constitutional amendments that either prohibit or limit the use of public money in funding religious education is “Blaine amendment.”

Interestingly, the original Blaine Amendment was not a state issue but a national issue. The amendment was proposed in 1875 by Representative James G. Blaine (R-ME) at the urging of President Ulysses S. Grant in his final Congressional address, as Jay Bybee of the University of Nevada Las Vegas noted in his 2002 article on the subject. From Bybee’s abstract:

In December 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant delivered his last annual message to Congress. He warned of “the dangers threatening us” and the “importance that all [men] should be possessed of education and intelligence,” lest “ignorant men . . . sink into acquiescence to the will of intelligence, whether directed by the demagogue or by priestcraft.” He recommended as “the primary step” a constitutional amendment “making it the duty of each of the several States to establish and forever maintain free public schools adequate to the education of all of the children” and “prohibiting the granting of any school funds, or school taxes . . . for the benefit of or in aid . . . of any religious sect or denomination.” There was no mistaking what President Grant referred to when he mentioned “demagogue,” “priestcraft,” and “religious sect” in connection with public education. Since the Civil War, the political influence of Catholics had become an important force in America, and in many states Catholics had sought public funding for their schools and charities.

Congress responded promptly. Within a week, Representative James Blaine, the powerful former Speaker of the House, introduced an amendment that would become known as “the Blaine Amendment,” which provided that “no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools . . . shall ever be under the control of any religious sect.” In August 1876, the House of Representatives approved the bill with the necessary two-thirds vote. The proposal, however, received a majority but not a two-thirds vote in the Senate and failed.

Although Congress never sent the Blaine Amendment to the states for ratification, the states reacted to the national attention paid to the question of public financing of sectarian schools by adopting their own “Little Blaine Amendments.” Between 1840 and 1875, nineteen states adopted some form of constitutional restriction on sectarian institutions receiving state funds; by 1900, sixteen more states, plus the District of Columbia, had added such provisions.

President Grant also said the following in a September 1875 speech at a Society of the Army of the Tennessee convention in Iowa:

Now, the centennial year of our national existence, I believe, is a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundations of the structure commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago at Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the security of free thought, free speech, a free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men irrespective of nationality, color, or religion. Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar, appropriated for their support, shall be appropriated to any sectarian schools. Resolve that neither the State nor Nation, nor both combined shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the Church and State forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.

(Source: Green, Steven K. “The Blaine Amendment Reconsidered,” American Journal of Legal History, v. 38, January 1992, page 15.)

Green continues:

Newspapers throughout the country reprinted Grant’s [September 1875] speech and its effect was immediate. As a correspondent of the Chicago Tribune stated, the speech “set the nation agog.” The Protestant Christian Advocate wrote that the speech was “full of wisdom” and called for a constitutional amendment to put the suggestions into practice. Even The Index, a journal of free thought, called the speech “great,” in spite of its negative reference to atheism.

The sole voice of protest came from the Catholic Church.

Indeed, a number of documents cited in this post (Green among them) include discussion about Grant’s specific intention to prevent Catholic schools from receiving public funding. However, it appears that Blaine was more interested in capitalizing on this amendment-drafting opportunity as a career rung to secure the Republican nomination for president.

As Green notes, the call for Grant’s words to be fashioned into a constitutional amendment was even more pronounced following his December 1875 speech to Congress.

The text of the Blaine Amendment “in the House, with slight modifications” was as follows:

No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor or any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; and no money or lands so devoted shall be divided among religious sects or denominations.

(Source: “The Catholic Peril in America,” May 1876, page 563, in The Eclectic Magazine: Foreign Literature, Volume 23; Volume 86.)

The Blaine Amendment passed the House 180-7; however, it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate: 28-16.

(Those so inclined are able to read the Senate discussion of the Blaine Amendment in Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events, Volume 16, pages 173-180. Also, Green has a detailed summary of the Senate discussion and amendment revisions.)

Ironically, in 1876, the Republicans nominated known anti-Catholic Rutherford B. Hayes for president and, as Green writes, “approved a platform calling for the preservation of the nation’s public school system and a prohibition against using public funds to benefit ‘any school under sectarian control.'”

In 2017, it is overwhelmingly the Republicans who are pushing to send public money to private schools, including religious schools.

And here’s another partisan nuance in Green: In 1875, Senate Democrats were concerned that the federal nature of the amendment would place the duty to educate with the federal government. Moreover, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate believed that such responsibility was better left up to the states.

Green also notes that the Senate vote that killed the Blaine Amendment fell along party lines: 28 Republicans in favor; 16 Democrats opposed.

Twenty-seven Senators failed to show for the Senate vote, including Blaine, who had become a US senator following his unsuccessful presidential bid. Blaine’s absence further supports the apparently widely-held notion that Blaine only proposed the amendment to try to further his career, not from any genuine concern about public school funding.

Even though the Blaine Amendment failed on the federal level in 1875, Iowa and Illinois had included a Blaine-type language in their constitutions. Too, beginning in 1876, Congress required some Blaine-styled language in the state constitutions as a condition of statehood. (See page 15 of this Amicus brief related to Locke vs. Davey for more on Blaine as a condition for statehood.)

To date, it seems that 37 or 38 states have some sort of Blaine amendment. These two figures are cited repeatedly in various sources that I have read, including those in this post. However, I could not locate a comprehensive listing in any document that did not require purchase.

Regarding the manner in which Blaine amendments might vary from state to state, Ira “Chip” Lupu, F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School, had this to say in a 2008 Pew Forum interview:

Blaine Amendments differ primarily in two ways. First, some Blaine Amendments forbid funding of religious education while others more broadly forbid funding of all religious organizations. Second, some Blaine Amendments prohibit only direct funding while others prohibit both direct and indirect funding. Direct funding involves the state actually giving aid to a religious organization. Indirect funding involves the state giving aid to a religious organization through a third party, such as a family that uses state funding to send its children to a religious school. The least restrictive Blaine Amendments, such as the one in Kentucky, forbid only direct funding of religious education; the most restrictive Blaine Amendments, such as those in Florida and Georgia, prohibit both indirect and direct funding of any religious organization.

As it turns out, Betsy DeVos’ native Michigan has a tightly-written Blaine amendment:

No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students. The legislature may provide for the transportation of students to and from any school. (Michigan Constitution, Article VIII, § 2)

In November 2000, Michigan voters defeated Proposal 1, The Michigan Vouchers and Teacher Testing Amendment, 69.1% to 30.9%. The text of Proposal 1 was as follows:

Initiative Constitutional Amendment

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

1) Eliminate ban on indirect support of students attending nonpublic schools through tuition vouchers, credits, tax benefits, exemptions or deductions, subsidies, grants or loans of public monies or property.

2) Allow students to use tuition vouchers to attend nonpublic schools in districts with a graduation rate under 2/3 in 1998-1999 and districts approving tuition vouchers through school board action or a public vote. Each voucher would be limited to ½ of state average per-pupil public school revenue.

3) Require teacher testing on academic subjects in public schools and in nonpublic schools redeeming tuition vouchers.

4) Adjust minimum per-pupil funding from 1994-1995 to 2000-2001 level.

According to Ed Week, the DeVos and her husband supported Proposal 1 to the tune of roughly $13 million. Still, the voters would not have it.

It can be difficult to convince the public to alter a state constitution in order to shuttle public money away from public schools.

Indeed, the altering of state constitutions is apparently what would have to happen in many states if states follow the lure of federal money in the name of voucher choice–either that, or some creative maneuvering in the name of “indirect” funding if a given state constitution would allow as much.

In 1876, the federal government enticed many states to include Blaine amendments as a condition of statehood. In 2017, the federal government will likely try to erase or at least seriously dilute those Blaine amendments in order to send public money to private schools, many of which will be religious schools.

Stay tuned for DeVos’ “Voucher to the Top” plan.

And stay tuned for a flurry of state constitution ballot measures and other creative means of states’ assuring the US Department of Education that they are prepared to funnel public money toward private schools in salivating reaction to those dangled federal dollars.

In this age of testing, we will soon be testing states’ Blaine amendments. That is the single reason why the likes of Betsy DeVos now carries the ill-fitting title of US secretary of education.

james-g-blaine  James G. Blaine

betsy-devos-19  Betsy DeVos


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.