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KKK vouchers? Ethnic cleansing? All sides in education debate need a breather

Sad but true: The other day, one of Louisiana’s statewide teachers unions tweeted that the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the stand-up school choice group, supports “KKK vouchers.” It subsequently tweeted, “Tell everyone you know.” (Details here.)

Even sadder but true: This wasn’t an isolated event. In recent months, critics of school choice and education reform have time and again made similar statements and claims – trying to tie Florida’s school accountability system to young black men who murder in Miami, for instance, and in Alabama, trying to link charter schools to gays and Muslims.

But this is also sad but true: Reform supporters sometimes go way too far, too.

Late last week, the Sunshine State News published a story about two Haitian-American Democratic lawmakers in South Florida, both strong backers of school choice, who narrowly lost primary races to anti-choice Democrats. The story quoted, at length, an unnamed political consultant who sounded sympathetic to the arguments raised by school choice supporters. He made fair points about the influence of the teachers union in the Democratic Party; about racial tensions that rise with Democrats and school choice; about a double standard with party leaders when Dems accuse other Dems of voter fraud. But then he said this:

“It’s a kind of ethnic cleansing of the Democratic Party,” he said, according to the report, “centered on the interests of the teachers’ unions.”

School choice critics may often be wrong;  their arguments may at times be distorted and inconsistent. But to brand their motivations with a term that evokes Rwanda and Bosnia is more than off-key. It’s repulsive. It’s also a distraction and counterproductive.

I’m floored by extreme statements from ed reform critics. In the past couple of months alone, a leading Florida parents group accused state education officials of using the school accountability system to purposely “hurt children”; a left-wing blogger described John E. Coons, a Berkeley law professor and redefinED co-host, as a “John Birch Society type” because of his support for parental school choice; and other critics used fringe blogs and mainstream newspapers alike to shamelessly tar Northwestern University economist David Figlio, a meticulous education researcher who is not only widely respected by fellow researchers on all sides of the school choice debate but is so highly regarded beyond the world of wonkery that he was cited as a prime example of this state’s “brain drain” when he left the University of Florida. I’m further stumped by how such statements are rarely challenged by mainstream media, and by how more thoughtful critics simply shrug and look the other way.

Attacks like these make me want to say, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” But then, at less regular intervals, statements like the ethnic cleansing quote come up and knock reformers off the high road. I’m left with a less satisfying response: “Can’t we all just get along?”

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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 or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at