Tag: Florida

Anti-School Choice Activists Demand Judge’s Recusal Because She’s Catholic

It’s bad enough that a Florida teachers union, the Florida School Boards Association, and the PTA filed a lawsuit to deprive low-income students of scholarships citing the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic, Know-Nothing inspired “Blaine amendment.” But now anti-school choice activists are demanding that a judge recuse herself from another lawsuit against the state’s choice laws because she’s Catholic.

Kathleen Oropeza, president of the ironically-named Fund Education Now (given that they want to deny tax-credit scholarship funds to low-income students), filed a motion demanding that the circuit court judge recuse herself for the following reasons:

2. On August 26 and 27, 2014, I discovered facts concerning Judge Angela C. Dempsey that cause me to believe that she is biased against the Plaintiff’s position that the Florida Tax Credit Program and the McKay Scholarship Programs are violations of Article IX of the Florida Constitution.

3. The facts are as follows:

a. Judge Dempsey is a member of the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities, and a contributor to same.

b. Judge Dempsey has been a speaker at Trinity Catholic School in Leon County, which is a recipient of funds from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the McKay Scholarship Program as well as Step Up for Students which provides vouchers to Trinity Catholic School. (See Ex. A.)

c. The Florida Catholic Conference was an amicus curiae in Bush v. Holmes, 919 So. 2d 392, 404 (Fla. 2006), and supported Opportunity Scholarship vouchers which were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.

d. Plaintiff’s research has led her to discover a Catholic strategy for saving Catholic education through Florida-style Opportunity Scholarships. A 2011 report, From Aspirations to Action, provides the strategy for this Catholic position complete with “Opportunity Scholarship” model legislation and with getting rid of the Blaine/No Child language through-out the nation, which Plaintiff believes has made Judge Dempsey unable to be impartial in this case. Also, Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, is listed as a Council Member of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, the organization which produced the position statement. (Ex. B, at 77.)

e. On April 20, 2014, Face the Nation reported that Cardinals and Bishops of the Catholic Church are pushing vouchers as a solution to a public school report. […]

4. These facts make me believe there is a continuing association between Judge Dempsey and the interests in my case through her relationship with the Catholic doctrine and position on vouchers for Catholic schools; Catholic Charities; Trinity Catholic School; and as a contributor to Catholic causes. Had I been aware of this relationship, I would have moved to disqualify her before she ruled in my case.

The judge belongs to a Catholic charity and has spoken at a Catholic school, the local Catholic Conference took a position in the original lawsuit, and a cardinal in another state said nice things about school choice on TV, therefore the anti-school choice activists want her to recuse herself. In other words, they want her to recuse herself because she’s Catholic.

The defendants’ response to the motion of recusal firmly rejects Oropeza’s arguments as “legally insufficient” and not “objectively reasonable”: 

10. Plaintiffs’ claim, as articulated in Ms. Oropeza’s affidavit, is legally insufficient. Of the five reasons articulated by Ms. Oropeza, only two—Judge Dempsey’s membership in and board service for Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, and her role as a speaker at a Leon County parochial school—actually relate to the judge’s own activities. But neither of these affiliations indicate that Judge Dempsey is biased on the question of so-called voucher programs. According to its website, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida focuses its charitable efforts on immigration, crisis pregnancy and adoption, and emergency assistance—not vouchers or other education issues. And a speaking engagement by Judge Dempsey at a parochial school that receives voucher funds—at an unspecified time, on an unspecified topic and in an unspecified capacity—provides no basis to impute any bias to Judge Dempsey on the question of vouchers or any other topic at issue in this lawsuit.

11. The remaining three “facts” alleged in Ms. Oropeza’s affidavit show nothing more than some individuals and organizations, with some degree of affiliation to the Catholic Church, support the enrollment of students at parochial schools through voucher programs. Unless Plaintiffs were to assert that all Catholics, by reason of their faith, support voucher programs to such a degree that they are unable to render an unbiased opinion on the issue—a position that Ms. Oropeza expressly disclaims—there is nothing about these third party positions that could shed any light on Judge Dempsey’s own ability to fairly and impartially preside over this case.

The defendants also note that there “are no judges in this state who have no involvement with the schools of this state,” since they “either have or had children in school, studied in Florida schools themselves, or have close relatives involved in Florida’s schools,” yet it would be ludicrous to demand that a judge recuse herself for such reasons. It would be equally absurd to demand that female judges not preside over cases involving abortion or sexual harassment or that black judges recuse themselves from cases involving racial discrimination.

Hilariously, Oropeza claimed in her motion, “I do not base this motion on Judge Dempsey’s religious beliefs, but rather on the positions of the organizations with which she is affiliated.” Yes of course, organizations like… the Catholic church and affiliated Catholic charities. But this has nothing to do with the judge’s religious beliefs, she claims, it’s just an attempt to protect citizens from the nefarious “Catholic strategy” that she “discovered” in her “research.” That sounds awfully familiar…

Thomas Nast's anti-Catholic "American River Ganges" cartoon, 1875 

Image: Thomas Nast’s infamous 1875 “American River Ganges” cartoon depicts a noble white Protestant male protecting his family from the bishops’ “Catholic strategy.”

Last year, plaintiffs demanded that a federal judge recuse himself from a case involving the Catholic church because he is Catholic. Sadly, the demand that Catholic judges recuse themselves from certain cases is increasingly common, even from seemingly respectable sources. The imposition of a religious test for judges should be vigorously resisted.

Florida Parents Fight for Educational Choice

On what would have been the 102nd birthday of Milton Friedman—the godfather of educational choice—six families with children that have special needs are fighting back against Florida’s largest teachers union, which is seeking to kill the Sunshine State’s newest educational choice program.

Milton Friedman on educational choice.

The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida to eliminate the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program, among other recent education reforms, including an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit law. Modeled after Arizona’s popular education savings account (ESA), the PLSA would provide ESAs to families of students with special needs, which they could use to pay for a wide variety of educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, and educational therapy. Six families with special-needs children who would have qualified for the program are seeking to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, represented by the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick.

The union’s lawsuit argues that the legislation creating the PLSA, Florida’s Senate Bill 850, violated the state constitution’s “one subject rule” because it contained a variety of education reforms.

Are Public Schools Safer Than Private Schools?

There is no clearer sign that foes of educational choice have lost the battle of ideas than the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s desperate attempt to smear Florida’s choice law.

Annie Martin’s front-page story in the Sunday edition of the News-Journal contains numerous inaccuracies about Florida’s scholarship tax credit law, which helps tens of thousands of low-income kids attend the school that’s best for them. For example, Martin claims in the second paragraph that the scholarship law “diverted $1.3 billion from state coffers,” which is irresponsibly misleading given that the Florida legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that the law saves $1.44 for every $1 in reduced tax revenue. She also repeatedly refers to “publicly-funded” scholarships, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the scholarships consist private funding.

But Martin’s most shameful attack on the educational choice law is her insinuation that children at Florida’s private schools are less safe than children at government-run schools, based solely on a recent case of a private school teacher caught with child pornography:

Yet, the South Daytona school isn’t subject to the same public records laws as the public schools. Although the FBI said fifth-grade teacher Matthew Graziotti had thousands of sexually explicit images of children on his home computer, the school did not have to make his personnel file public.

But is it reasonable to expect private organizations to make their employee files public, even if they receive public funding? Mark Tress, the superintendent of the private school where Graziotti had worked, argues that it is not:

The public records law no more applies to private schools than it does to The News-Journal itself. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private businesses receive money from the state and from school districts for services rendered and are not subject to the law. In this case, we are gratefully cooperating with law enforcement officials and have handed over, among numerous school records, the teacher’s personnel file. It sheds no new light.

After briefly noting that private school teachers must go through the same background checks as government school teachers, Martin ominously quotes a professor from the University of North Florida:

Aside from the initial background check for private school teachers, parents generally must trust their private school is exercising due diligence when deciding who to hire, said Luke Cornelius, an associate professor of higher education administration at the University of North Florida.

“Unfortunately, it does create a situation of ‘buyer beware,’” said Cornelius, who also is an attorney. “I think a lot of parents assume private schools, especially a religious one, is an inherently safe place.”

But because they’re not required to be as transparent as the public schools, parents at private schools are “going on faith,” he added. 

Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

Reality Hits Sunshine State “Accountability”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is arguably the leading supporter of both the Common Core national curriculum standards and top-down, standards-and-accountability-based reforms generally. And there is broad evidence that he had success with his overall education program as governor, though that included a sizable—and likely influential—amount of school choice. Given that success, why does the “accountability” piece of his overall program seem to be eroding, with the state school board voting last week to “pad” school grades, for the second year in a row, greatly reducing how many schools are deemed failures? Answering this is crucial to understanding why top-down reforms like Common Core—even if initially offering high standards and strict accountability—almost certainly won’t maintain them.

Once again, we have to visit our ol’ buddies, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Put simply, the people with the most at stake in a policy area will have the greatest motivation to be involved in the politics of that area, and in education those are the schooling employees whose very livelihoods come from the system. And being normal people like you or me, what they tend to ideally want is to get compensated as richly as possible while not being held accountable for their performance.

The natural counters to this should be the parents the employees are supposed to serve and the taxpayers footing the bills. But taxpayers have to worry about every part of the state spending pie, and can’t sustain their focus—or motivation—for long on any particular pie slice. Meanwhile, parents are much harder to organize than, say, teachers and administrators, and are only parents of school-aged children for so long. Political advantage: those whom government is supposed to hold accountable.

That said, in Florida it sounds like many parents and taxpayers may be getting fatigued by test-driven school grades, adding onto the power of employee groups. Like we’ve seen in Texas, Florida’s politics may be reflecting a general exhaustion with standards and testing that fails to treat either students, or schools and districts, as unique. In other words, the likely benefits to breaking down such systems are being felt by more parents and “regular” voters, which doesn’t bode well for standards-and-accountability in Florida.

Which brings us to the crucial point about the Common Core. Supporters have a tendency to promise the world with the Core (often neglecting to mention that it provides no accountability itself) largely because they think the standards are very high. But even if they are lofty, and even if they are initially coupled with common tests with high “proficiency” bars—an increasingly big “if”—because of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs the odds of them staying that way are poor. It is a huge problem that Core supporters need to address, even for people who like the idea of “tough” government standards for schools. But sadly, many supporters seem to ignore the problem, choosing instead to tout how supposedly excellent the standards are, and attack as loony opponents who dare to oppose the Core for numerous, very rational reasons.

Unfortunately, it seems a major reason for adopting that tactic is to shield from honest debate a policy that will, by its very nature, impose itself on the entire country. That’s something no one in the country should be happy about.

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