How to make sense of school choice debate

During her time as Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos has made it very clear she supports educational choice. This week, she even went as far as calling opponents of the movement “flat earthers” who are holding America’s children back.

Educational choice, or school choice, also has a friend in President Donald Trump, and it’s sure to be a huge part of the education conversation going forward. Supporters say it’s a chance for parents to have better control over the type of education their child gets, while detractors say it’s an attempt at privatizing education that funnels money away from already strapped public schools.

But let’s face it, if you don’t have kids in school — or haven’t for a while — you may not even be sure what school choice is.

CNN spoke with Tommy Schultz, the national communications director for the American Federation for Children, to nail down the basics of what, exactly, school choice is and why it’s such an emerging hot-button issue.

What is school choice?

Generally, in the public school system, where you live decides where you go to school. School choice, in a nutshell, adds more options into the mix.

“Educational choice is based on the idea that parents are in control of where their child goes to school,” Schultz says. This can be accomplished through a variety of programs that are typically carried out on the state and local levels. There are some options that apply to private schools, some that apply to public, and even more that apply to both.

What are some types of public school choice?

Public education choices are those that operate within the public school system.

Charter school: This is a school, run by a private group, that is able to operate independently of the school system in which it is located, even though it may receive some funding from them. “Charter schools don’t have the overregulations that regular schools have,” Schultz says, “so they can experiment with different teaching methods. Some children learn best in that environment.” However, some charter schools are so in-demand they attract thousands of applicants for just a few hundred spots, meaning there are often a sizable amount of students who need to be turned away.

Magnet school: A magnet school has specialized courses or academic focuses that draw in especially gifted or interested students. For instance, a school can be a math magnet or a performing arts magnet, or even an agricultural studies magnet. Since they are specialized, magnet schools are often selective and require certain admissions standards for prospective students.

Vocational school: Similar to a magnet school, a vocational or technical school specializes in teaching students certain skills: Farm work, auto mechanics, construction work and the like.

In the school choice model, these types of educational centers serve as alternatives to the typical set of schools prescribed by a student’s neighborhood.

What are some types of private school choice?

In general, private school choice is the more controversial set of education options because opponents claim they take funding away from public schools. These programs either re-direct government funds from a public to a private education, or use charitable contributions to form private school scholarships.

Voucher program: With a school voucher, the state essentially pays for the tuition of a private school using a portion of the funds that would have been spent educating the student at a public school. However, the vouchers are not a carte blanche to attend any school of the student’s choosing. “There will be restriction in most states on what types of schools can use it,” Schultz says, “Or there may be some kind of testing requirement.”

Tax credit scholarship program: In some states, businesses and individuals can get tax breaks for contributing to scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs. These SGOs then provide various types of scholarships to local students. The money doesn’t actually have to be used for private school, either — a family can choose to use the scholarship money to send a student to a public school outside of their district. Schultz says a lot of people conflate tax credit scholarships with voucher programs, and while they’re similar, they rely on a different source of funding.

Education savings account: This is a fairly new type of program. Basically, instead of paying for a private tuition, schools can give funds to a qualifying family on a debit card. This money can be used for any approved educational expenses, like tuition, textbooks, special needs tools or therapies, tutoring, and in some cases, even transportation costs.

What other options are there?

This list is not exhaustive, and some educational choice programs, like the tax credit scholarship program above, can apply to both private and public schools.

“There are a lot of blended models,” Schultz says. “There’s dual enrollment, home schooling, virtual schooling, online classes — just lots of iterations.

Not all of the programs are available in all states, and some states have specialized programs, like the Autism Scholarship Program in Ohio, that garner national attention.

So what’s the controversy?

Once relegated to a small niche of the education sphere, the concept of school choice has found the spotlight since DeVos became education secretary.

“Out of 74 million kids in the US, only 3.5 million are using a school choice program, along with 10 million in private schools,” Schultz says.

As mentioned before, supporters of school choice say it gives parents and students more options instead of being tied down to a single district. They also argue that programs such as the charter school and voucher programs especially benefit families in low-income communities.

There are distinct criticisms of school choice programs: Some argue that siphoning money away from struggling schools is a bad gamble in the long run and is degrading public education, especially in low-income areas that may see an exodus of students due to school choice programs.

Teachers’ Unions are typically not fond of charter schools because they are not unionized. Others worry that school choice is a way for the government to subsidize religious education (which is a no-no) since vouchers and other funding can sometimes be used towards religious schools.

Though she has been a champion of charter schools for decades, In February DeVos made a comment claiming historically black colleges and universities were an example of “school choice.” In fact, HBCUs were founded as a response to ingrained racism and segregation in the country’s public school system. Her most recent comments drew ire as well when she called school choice opponents “flat earthers” who have “chilled creativity” in schools.

Like so many political positions to ponder, future debate over the place of school choice may pivot on DeVos herself. That means it’s even more important to do your homework and know what the issues are.

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After surviving Miramar house fire, family looks for missing cat

Five days after they lost their beloved cats and their home to a fire in Miramar, a grandmother was asking for the public’s help with finding a beloved cat. 

Trina Bell knows she is lucky to have survived. Her 6-year-old and 11-year-old grandsons were sleeping on the couch when the smell of smoke woke up the little one. There were flames in the living room, so he yelled: “Fire! Fire!”

Thanks to her grandson, Bell woke up her daughter Milan Bell and they ran out with their dog. Their two cats vanished.

“One cat was confirmed dead,” Trina Bell’s grandson Roland Athouris III said. “We couldn’t find the other cat.”

After Miramar firefighters extinguished the fire, the family was homeless. Athouris shared the cat’s photo. Amid the loss, there is still hope that someone in the neighborhood may find her. 

“The kitchen is completely gone, all of the windows are busted,” Athouris said. “The house is ruined.”

The Red Cross’ assistance is temporary, so Trina Bell’s co-worker Rhonda Powell set up to a GoFundMe account to help the family

“She is one of the hardest working people I know … Let’s all stand together and support her,” Powell wrote adding the hash tag “Show T Bell Love.” 


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Texas to vote on religion-based adoption

Texas lawmakers are poised to vote on a bill that would allow adoption agencies to turn away potential parents they find objectionable on religious grounds.

Opponents say the proposed law would allow faith-based agencies to discriminate against potential parents who are gay, single or of a religion that members of the adoption agency find objectionable.

The bill’s author insists it heads off any potential discrimination by mandating that alternatives be made available for potential parents who are rejected by faith-based providers.

Called the “Freedom to Serve Children Act,” Texas’ House Bill 3859 extends religious liberty protections to providers within Texas’ child welfare system, allowing them to decline services to individuals based on “the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” The vote on the bill was originally planned for Saturday but has been rescheduled for Monday.

The Texas bill also includes provisions that let adoption and foster care agencies refuse to provide or facilitate abortion services and contraception to teens under their care. Child welfare providers can also require children under their care to receive a religious education, including putting them in religious schools.

“HB 3859 would allow child welfare service providers that contract with the state to use taxpayer money to discriminate against LGBT individuals and families in foster care, adoption and other services,” ACLU of Texas said in a statement on its website.

“It’s about as limiting a bill as we have seen,” Terri Burke, executive director for ACLU Texas, told CNN.

“You say you have a sincerely held religious belief and you are a private adoption agency or private entity that helps place foster children — you can say you will not place that child with gay parents …. If I’m Catholic I can say I don’t want any Baptists to raise the child,” Burke said.

But the bill’s author, Rep. James Frank, says new protections are needed for the 25% of state child welfare providers that are faith based.

A statement about the bill provided to CNN by Frank’s office says that “HB 3859 protects the rights of the faith-based organizations to exercise their religious mission to serve others without fear of retaliation.”

Frank argues that, without legal protection, those organizations may shut down child welfare services entirely and thereby worsen the “critical shortage of foster homes” in Texas.

The bill also includes a “secondary services” provision that “specifically requires the state to ensure that alternate providers are available to offer any services that a faith-based provider declines to provide due to religious conflicts,” according to his office’s statement.

Texas ’emboldened’ by Trump

The ACLU said HB 3859 is one of 17 bills filed in Texas legislature this session that “would allow government officials, private individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people in virtually all aspects of their lives.”

Burke said proposed laws like HB 3859 show that Texas Republicans — who control both the state legislature and the governor’s mansion — have “become more emboldened” since the election of President Trump.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order meant to allow churches and other religious organizations to become more active politically, though the actual implications of his order appear to be limited.

“The executive order Trump signed had no teeth to it. But these bills working their way to the Texas legislature are real and they are going to do real damage to real people,” Burke said.

Several other states have passed religious liberty bills. South Dakota approved a sweeping bill last March that protects faith-based adoption agencies that refuse to place children with couples on religious grounds.

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NY may require stylists to undergo domestic violence training

For Anthony Civitano, the bond between a hairdresser and his or her client is “as strong as a bond there is between relatives and friends.”

A hairdresser can be someone’s “priest, their therapist, their confidante,” said Civitano, a second-generation hairdresser with more than 25 years of experience in the industry. “There’s a trust factor — you’re allowing them to touch you.”

It’s that type of trust that prompted New York State Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal to sponsor a bill to require domestic violence and sexual assault awareness education for all professionals in New York’s cosmetology industry.

Under the bill, salon workers such as hairdressers and nail stylists would be trained to recognize signs of abuse and be given “instruction on how to help victims in dangerous situations and provide them with the appropriate resources to seek help.”

The one-hour course would be a requirement for all cosmetology professionals seeking to obtain or renew a license.

“People confide in their hairstylists all the time. They [the stylists] just don’t know how to respond in an active way. The training will give them the tools to answer in a way that is most helpful to their client,” Rosenthal said.

Stylists also will be trained to identify signs of physical abuse, such as bumps or bruises on someone’s scalp. Stylists won’t be required to report any signs of suspected abuse to law enforcement, and there are no punitive measures if a stylist does not report abuse, Rosenthal said.

New York State’s domestic violence and sexual assault hotline received more than 250,000 calls in 2015, according to statistics from New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (NYSOPDV). Police officers responded to 286,365 domestic incidents statewide.

The notion of educating beauty specialists in domestic violence and sexual assault awareness is not new. The “Cut it Out” initiative, now a program affiliated with the Professional Beauty Organization, has offered such training to professionals since 2003.

If Rosenthal’s bill is passed, New York would join only one other state where such training is mandated by law. Last August, the Illinois State Assembly passed a law requiring similar training of stylists as part of their licensing process. The law took effect January 1.

Since the passing of the law in Illinois, more than 3,500 salon professionals received domestic violence and sexual assault training at an industry conference in March, according to Michele Rabenda, a representative from Chicago Says No More, an advocacy organization that initiated the bill.

Rosenthal’s bill has been referred to New York state’s economic development committee and awaits its review. In the meantime, some domestic violence survivor advocates hope that the bill will expand to include further training beyond a one-hour requirement.

“I think it’s a good way to start, but the training would have to have a continued approach, so people can continue to refresh themselves,” said Saima Anjam, director of public policy at the NY State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “This is really a health and safety issue, so if this is something we can codify into law, I think it’s a great idea.”

Civitano, who owns eight beauty schools in New York and Florida, said the bill may require him to adjust the curriculum hours in his schools, but said he has seen such training help survivors get the help they need.

“I’ve been in the business for over 25 years. I’ve personally seen it help,” Civitano said. “Making anything mandatory is a slippery slope. It could be somewhat overreaching, but the right intent is there and it just has to be implemented well.”

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Barack Obama snaps photo of Michelle Obama on yacht

The Obamas are having the time of their post-White House lives.

Former President Barack Obama snapped a photo of former first lady Michelle Obama as she posed on the top deck of a yacht where the couple and celebrity friends spent Friday morning off the island of Mo’orea, in the South Pacific.

The Obamas were vacationing with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey and spent two hours aboard music mogul David Geffen’s luxury yacht, the Rising Sun, before leaving Tahiti. They had been staying in French Polynesia for nearly a month.

So far, Obama’s post-presidency life has been more glamorous than you can imagine.

In the past few months, his trips have included visiting California for some golf, a private island in the Caribbean — where he kite-surfed with billionaire Richard Branson — New York to take in a Broadway play, and then to dine with U2’s Bono.

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Widow says tow truck driver who fell to his death was nearing retirement

The widow of a tow truck driver who fell off an overpass and onto Interstate 95 in Boca Raton said he was looking forward to his upcoming retirement.

Richard Randolph, 69, was trying to help upright a tractor-trailer that overturned at the Congress Avenue exit Wednesday morning when he accidentally fell off a ledge, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Randolph fell about 20 feet to the pavement and was pronounced dead at the scene.

“We were going to move to north Florida and get a little place out in the country and get dogs again,” Judy Randolph told Local 10 News. “You’re not allowed to get dogs in a condo.”

Richard Randolph worked for Emerald Towing, which is based in Pompano Beach. The company had no comment about the accident.

“It’s still unbelievable,” Judy Randolph said. “You know, I’m still going to wait for that phone call saying, ‘I’m on my way home, hun.'”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating.

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