Florida legislators demanding more “accountability” as a condition for expanding the state’s premier school-choice program could learn a very valuable lesson from the example set by the late, great Mary McLeod Bethune.
When Bethune opened her Daytona School for Negro Girls in 1904, she knew success would depend on satisfying two different constituencies — parents who chose to send their kids to her school and business leaders whose donations she desperately needed to keep her private school open.
With grit and ingenuity, Bethune did a magnificent job. And her success in educating thousands of disadvantaged students not only should inspire all Floridians, but it also should guide lawmakers today.
Earlier this year, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz announced that one of their highest priorities for the 2014 legislative session would be expanding the Tax Credit Scholarship program for financially challenged families.
It seemed like a “no-brainer.” I mean, given the long waiting lists, who could be against offering more disadvantaged children a way to attend good private schools like the one Bethune started?
Yet, the scholarship expansion proposal has been sidetracked by senators insisting that recipients should take the same standardized tests public school students take instead of the nationally norm-referenced tests private schools have been using for years.
While this may seem like a fairly benign requirement, it’s actually fraught with two major problems. First, standardized tests indirectly influence classroom priorities, affecting what’s taught and what’s emphasized.
Thus, state-selected tests undermine one of the key rationales for having private schools. After all, if an alternative school is expected to do just what the public schools do, what’s the point of having an alternative school?
Moreover, one-size-fits-all testing regimes do not respect differences of opinion about the ultimate purpose of education. In higher education, some schools define success as preparing students for careers, while others believe college should be about “higher” things — such as teaching students to be well-informed citizens or helping them to appreciate the “good, true, and beautiful.”
Similar philosophical differences exist in K-12 education. Accordingly, schools should be free to use the assessment tools that best reflect the emphasis of their school — even if (or especially if) that emphasis differs from that of the public schools.
Second, state-picked tests for private schools are being advanced on a false assumption — that these scholarships are being financed by Florida taxpayers, to whom schools should be accountable. In reality, the scholarship money comes from private contributions by Florida business leaders who’d rather aid disadvantaged students than pay higher taxes.
Put another way, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships aren’t “vouchers” funded by taxpayers. They are privately funded scholarships given by business leaders who want to see disadvantaged students have the same schooling options their own children often enjoy.
This last point is an important one. Because it means private schools today are in a position very similar to Mary McLeod Bethune’s a century ago. To succeed, they must win and maintain the confidence of parents and the support of business leaders.
As such, private schools are already held to a higher level of accountability than public schools — which are funded by compulsory taxes, not private contributions. And if the long waiting lists for these scholarships are any indication, many needy parents want alternatives to their existing public schools.
Now, I suppose one could try to argue that all of these waiting-list parents are ill informed or misguided — and that all of the business leaders donating to the Tax Credit Scholarship plan are being duped.
But I think it’s more likely that these parents and business leaders are a lot like the parents and business leaders who once supported Bethune’s school: They’re trying to offer needy children the best opportunities they can.
So, let’s hope the Senate comes to its senses and recognizes that no new testing requirement needs to be attached to the Tax Credit Scholarship program. Private school students already have to pass norm-referenced national tests. And private school educators — needing to satisfy parents and donors alike — already have to pass “the Mary McLeod Bethune” test. When it comes to accountability, that’s the toughest test of all.
William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute. His children have all attended public schools. Column courtesy of Context Florida.