Washington Post editorial board takes 20 year U-turn on private school vouchers

A potentially dangerous change in opinion by the Washington Post editorial board revealed itself the other day in a column entitled, “The Supreme Court is eroding the wall between church and state.” The piece was decrying the United States Supreme Court’s decision regarding Washington State high school football coach Joseph Kennedy, who once led religious prayers at the fifty yard line after games. The Post editors commented on the court’s finding in Mr. Kennedy’s favor this way:

“A conservative Supreme Court majority is redefining the constitutional order — dismissive of Americans’ privacy rights, committed to dangerous pro-gun dogmas and, as the court showed twice this month, alarmingly permissive of mixing religion and government.”

It is not the newspaper’s opinion on Kennedy v Bremerton School District that I find worrisome. It is the concluding paragraph in its editorial that generates concern:

“Along with another court decision earlier this month, in which the justices ordered the state of Maine to finance tuition at religious schools under a statewide voucher program, the majority appears determined to rule in favor of those seeking to use government resources to advance their religious beliefs — and against those who object to dismantling the wall between church and state.”

Now, here is the problem. The United States Supreme Court has been a defender of the right of parents to utilize private school vouchers in sectarian institutions beginning in 2002, with Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the case in Cleveland, Ohio won by Clint Bolick when he worked for the Institute for Justice. Before that ruling was issued the editorial board made this argument:

“In principle, there is no reason why a carefully designed voucher program should offend the Constitution. The money is given to parents, not directly to schools, and it flows to schools only as a function of parental choices about where to send their children. In this sense, vouchers are not all that different from other programs the court has already upheld — though approving them is a step the justices have not previously taken. The key is for the justices to avoid using a broad principle that would allow more direct aid to parochial schools.”

The Post started writing editorials supporting school choice programs involving religious schools following my meeting with columnist Colbert King in the summer of 1999 in which I asked him to publicly argue in favor of a private school voucher plan for the District of Columbia. Mr. King was the deputy editorial page director from 2000 to 2007. This backing was critically important since public policy makers, include Supreme Court Justices, often read the Washington Post. The role of this newspaper in the national fight for increased school choice was recognized by Mr. Bolick in his book Voucher Wars in the aftermath of the Post editors coming out in opposition the the Milwaukee school voucher program:

“And only a few years later, the Post abandoned its reticence and became one of the nation’s most consistent and influential backers of school choice experiments,” (page 58).

The newspaper has stayed the course for two decades. Last year, the editorial board wrote one of its strongest defenses of school choice reacting to Congressional attempts to shutdown Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program in a piece entitled, “Why are unions and Democrats so opposed to giving poor children a choice in schooling?” Please pay careful attention to the reference to religious schools.

“It is striking how some foes of the scholarship program — and here we think of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — see no inconsistency in their opposition to this program and their support for the $40 million DC Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides funds for college. Like the opportunity scholarship program, DC TAG can be applied to private schools in the metropolitan area, including religious schools, but unlike the opportunity scholarship program, wealthy families (with incomes up to $515,000) are eligible. Where is the logic in supporting a tuition assistance program available to affluent D.C. families and not one that only benefits very low-income D.C. families? To be sure, the quality of the city’s public schools has improved since the program was enacted — perhaps in part due to competition from school choice — but that doesn’t mean that poor parents deserve no choice in where their children go to school.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board’s recent missive on the U.S. Constitution’s separation between church and state is potentially an extremely menacing precedent.

The education of George Parker, past president Washington Teachers’ Union

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s annual conference last week in Washington, D.C. It was an extremely well organized event, and I have to say that it brought tears of joy to my eyes to be among over 3,500 attendees meeting back in person. The last time that the Alliance did not hold their conference virtually was in 2019. It was amazing to hear so many participants talk passionately about the power of school choice.

My itinerary took me to three early morning lectures on the topic of charter school advocacy by former D.C. Teachers’ Union president George Parker. Mr. Parker explained to the audience that he had taught mathematics in traditional D.C. middle and high schools for thirty-three years before becoming head of the union in 2005. He held that position during the most transformative years of education reform in the nation’s capital. Adrian Fenty was elected Mayor in 2006 and he appointed Michelle Rhee the first Chancellor of DCPS upon taking office in 2007. By 2010, Mr. Parker, Mr. Fenty, and Ms. Rhee would all be out of their respective positions.

Mr. Parker would be voted out of his leadership post as a result of working with Ms. Rhee to reduce the power of teacher seniority and implement the IMPACT evaluation system that tied raises to student academic achievement. Both were groundbreaking highly controversial moves that would eventually be replicated throughout the nation. His cooperation with Ms. Rhee earned him the attention of American Federation of Teachers’ head Randi Weingarten, who, he informed those in the room, tried to sabotage his efforts.

The logical question is how did the president of a teachers’ union become a charter school supporter? Mr. Parker’s explanation sent a chill through those of us in the room. He related that as part of his role with the WTU he would sometimes get the opportunity to speak in front of students. After one such assembly a girl in the third grade came up to him and gave him a hug. He thought the action of the student was unusual, and so he asked her why she had approached him in this fashion. The pupil replied that it was because he stated that he would always work to support those in the classroom.

It was when he was driving in his car after the talk that Mr. Parker had a stunning realization. He faced the stark fact that he had just lied to these young people. He recalled that just that morning he had spent over $10,000 of union membership money to get an individual who should never have been teaching back in that role. He bravely decided on the spot to end his hypocrisy.

Mr. Parker’s story stands in sharp relief to the words of Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. In an article yesterday entitled, “Don’t blame teachers unions for bad schools. Worry instead about inertia,” he writes,

“So, unions, like most of us, can be helpful or hurtful. But are they quashing attempts to make our schools better, as the [Wall Street] Journal suggests? My reporting on the most productive school reforms indicates they are not doing that.”

It is an abject affront to reality for Mr. Mathews to make this claim so I am not going to waste any words refuting his declaration. As Mr. Parker pointed out in one of his talks, “Unions do not have a fear of spreading false information.”

The world right now needs many more George Parkers.

Joe Bruno retires as founding president and CEO of Building Hope

Word just came across my email from Joe Bruno that after founding Building Hope twenty years ago he plans on retiring as president and CEO in 2023. Bill Hansen will succeed Joe at the organization.

I have known Joe for most of the two decades that he has led Building Hope. The period that I worked most closely with him was around 2012 during the acquisition of a permanent facility for Washington Latin PCS. At the time, Washington Latin was operating in three temporary sites, two of which were churches. As with any charter school facility project there were many ups and downs to being selected to take over the former Rudolph Elementary School in Ward 4 when I was chair of the school’s board. I remember going to visit former Ward 4 Councilperson Muriel Bowser at the Wilson Building with him to convince her that our school should be awarded the building through a Request for Proposal. Mayor Vincent Gray had another group in mind for the property. With Joe’s help we prevailed.

However, that was only the start. For weeks our board of directors and school leaders could not figure out the finances to cover the cost of the approximately $20 million dollars needed to renovate the former DCPS structure. I recall like it was yesterday being summoned over to Building Hope’s headquarters on 17th Street N.W. where Joe presented to me his out-of-the-box financial structure so that we could make our dream a reality for over 600 students from all eight of the city’s wards.

What he did for Washington Latin he had accomplished, and would continue to accomplish, for charters throughout the nation’s capital. It is really impossible to understate his contributions. When our movement started over twenty-five years ago banks could not understand what a charter school was much less imagine lending them money. Joe was able to convince them that not only should they provide funding but demonstrated that charters were one of the safest places to invest their resources.

His large warm Italian personality was always prominently on display at his home in Potomac where he held his annual Christmas parties for those of us involved locally in this exciting and critical mission to provide every child in D.C. a seat in a high quality classroom. I am sure he viewed what we were doing as one of the last civil rights struggles in America. However, I do not think he would ever mutter those words. He just kept doing what he did, finding buildings for schools that had little or no prior history, reputation, or cash. They simply had bold visions.

So many individuals I consider my heroes made the pilgrimage to Joe’s abode during those cold and dark winter nights, a coat in hand for the less fortunate kids in our community that was the admission price for the holiday event. It was not something you questioned doing. We went, to be a part of a celebration of Joe’s efforts.

Bill Hanson appears to be perfectly qualified as the next head of Building Hope. From today’s press release announcing the appointment:

“Mr. Hansen comes to Building Hope with extensive experience in the corporate, government, investment, social impact, philanthropy, and policy sectors. While serving as President and CEO of the Strada Education Network, he created the $2 billion national social impact fund, an organization that is dedicated to helping learners build more purposeful pathways to and from postsecondary education and into rewarding careers. Mr. Hansen was initially appointed as President and CEO of USA Funds, the nation’s largest guarantor of student loans, which he successfully managed and transitioned from its legacy business, and in doing so, created the platform to launch Strada.”

For a short period I went weekly to Joe’s house to join in a three-on-three basketball game held on his indoor hardwood playing field. I had to stop because afterwards I returned to my residence completely physically exhausted. It was impossible to keep up with Joe, on or off the court.

Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss completely misrepresents upcoming U.S. Supreme Court school choice decision

Last week, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote one of her “Answer Sheet” columns that was titled “Supreme Court Likely to Drop School Voucher Bombshell.” Ms. Strauss is referring to the case Carson v. Makin which will be ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court later this month. Here is a summary of the case: Maine issues educational scholarships to children to attend private schools when there is no local public school in the area in which they live. However, it prevents these vouchers from being used at religious institutions because the State believes it would then be violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Post reporter goes into hysterics to describe what would happen if the court decides in favor of the parents:

“In Carson v. Makin, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court is likely to require Maine officials to use public funding to subsidize religious teaching and proselytizing at schools that legally discriminate against people who don’t support their religious beliefs. A ruling in favor of the families would ‘amount to a license to outsource discrimination,’ according to Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education.”

She goes on:

“Welner also wrote that a ruling against the state could affect charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. A Carson ruling in favor of the families may mean that states could be seen as ‘engaging in discrimination if they did not allow a church or religious entity to operate a publicly funded charter school as a religious school.’”

I was not exaggerating, was I? There are just three problems with her reasoning. The Supreme Court now has a perfectly consistent record of allowing public funds to go to religious institutions when they are providing a public function.

Year 2002: The Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that parents could utilize private school vouchers to send their children to religious schools. The logic behind this finding was that the money for educating the students is going to the parents, not to support the school.

Year 2017: The Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., vs. Comer that funds Missouri was providing to enhance playgrounds at public schools could not be prevented from going to private religious institutions. As I pointed out at the time, the majority opinion stated that, “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.” 

Year 2020: The Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a Montana tuition school tax credit program could be utilized for children to enroll in parochial schools. In my post about this decision I included Chief Justice John Roberts’ comment that “The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

So now we have Carson. If history is any guide, then the Court will find in support of the Maine parents. By the way, this case, as well as Espinoza and Zelman were all argued by the libertarian Institute for Justice. Here comes another victory for this highly impressive group.

One final point. I have no problem with a charter school having a religious mission. I made the same argument when Center City PSC was created from the conversion of six Catholic schools. I have no doubt that the Supreme Court would support my point of view.