Choice nuggets: Islamophobia, a Jeb Bush endorsement and testing mania in Florida

Editor’s note: Today, we introduce a new feature (even if we’re not sure the name will last) – an occasional compilation of bite-sized nuggets about school choice and education reform that are worth noting but may not be worth a post by themselves.

More anti-Muslim bigotry in school choice debates

It’s nearly impossible to go a month without hearing another example of anti-Muslim bigotry in a school choice debate.

The latest example:  Louisiana state Rep. Valarie Hodges, who now says she wishes she had not voted for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher bill because she fears it will promote Islam. “There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently,” she said. “I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

The lawmaker’s comments echo Muslim bashing in school choice debates in Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee and other places in the past few months alone. Sadly, religious bigotry has long been a part of the school choice narrative. To repeat what we wrote in April:

The courts have ruled that vouchers and tax credit scholarships are constitutional. We live in a religiously diverse society and this pluralism is a source of pride and strength. We can’t pick and choose which religions are acceptable and unacceptable for school choice. And we should not tarnish whole groups of people because of the horrible actions of a few individuals. In the end, expanded school choice will serve the public good. It will increase the likelihood that more kids, whatever their religion, become the productive citizens we all want them to be.

Jeb Bush endorses pro-choice school board candidate

Jeb Bush doesn’t endorse local candidates often. But last week, he decided to back a Tampa Bay-area school board member who openly supports expanded school choice, including vouchers and tax credit scholarships.

Glen Gilzean, 30, is running against four other candidates to keep the Pinellas County School Board seat that Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to in January. The district in play includes much of the city of St. Petersburg and has more black voters than any other.

I don’t know how much Bush’s endorsement will help Gilzean. He’s a black Republican in a district that leans Democratic (even if school board races in Florida are officially nonpartisan). But I do know this: Black students in Pinellas struggle more than black students in every major urban school district in Florida, and frustrated black residents are increasingly open to school choice alternatives.

Test mania, the teachers union and Florida’s academic progress

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford jumped on the re-energized, anti-standardized testing bandwagon this week, which is no surprise. But given past statements from him (and other teachers union leaders in Florida), his latest comments are a little … inconsistent.

After the National Education Association called for an end to the misuse of standardized tests this week, Ford issued a statement in support. It said in part, “In Florida, we know the negative impact that the testing mania is having on our students, our teachers and on public confidence in our schools.”

Negative impact? As we’ve written before, a slew of academic indicators and independent reports show Florida public schools have been on the rise in recent years – years that tend to coincide with “high stakes” standardized testing

But don’t take my word for it. Take Ford’s.

A little more than a year ago, he made a pitch for more education funding and wrote: “Earlier this year, Education Week released its annual Quality Counts report, which rated Florida the fifth best education system of all the states and the District of Columbia. Florida got high marks for its teachers, its standards and its K-12 achievement.”

Technically, EdWeek gave Florida an A for not just its standards, but its “standards, assessments, and accountability.” And specifically, it ranked Florida No. 6 that year for K-12 achievement. But I don’t mean to quibble. The point is Ford acknowledged that Florida’s public schools had finally reached respectability. So how bad could all of that “testing mania” have been?

While we’re on standardized testing …

I’ve seen hundreds of stories about standardized testing in the past few years and probably dozens that had a critical edge. But I’ve never seen a story about the quality of teacher-made tests.

Why is that? They’re high stakes (grades, credits, grade retention and diplomas all hinge on them). They cause high levels of anxiety in some students (I remain haunted by my teacher’s tests in AP Physics). They spawn lots of “teaching to the test.” There is also far less quality control with them than with standardized tests and, I’m sure, higher rates of confusing questions, outright flubs and cultural bias.

I’m not making a pitch for outrage. But is a little context and equal scrutiny too much to ask?

Whiplash quotes

“The discussion is quite simplistic. I’m not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity.”

– New York University professor Pedro Noguera, in an American Journalism Review piece on the shortcomings of the media in covering education reform

 “The question is: Why does Romney believe that simply by promoting school choice the problems that plague public education in America will go away?”

– Pedro Noguera, in a piece he penned for CNN on Romney’s school choice proposals

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


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