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The week in school choice: Ugly history

The history of American public education is messy, and at times, ugly.

“We do not refuse anyone on account of race,” Orange Park Normal and Industrial School principal Amos W. Farnham wrote to William N. Sheats in the spring of 1894.

In a letter to Sheats, Florida’s top education official, Farnham described a faith-based institution in Clay County that was racially integrated 60 years before Brown v. Board of Education. Black and white students went to chapel, ate meals and learned together. Boys at the school, he wrote, “play baseball, ‘shinney,’ marbles and other games together.”

Those words would soon spell trouble for the school, its students and its teachers.

Sheats, who would later be hailed as the “father of Florida’s public school system,” was an unrepentant segregationist and racist who launched an 18-year campaign to destroy the upstart school. His staunch opposition to racial integration fueled a decades-long crackdown on dozens of schools — many of them private institutions run by religious aid societies. It also inspired laws that subjected Florida to national ridicule and dashed hopes of racial progress after Reconstruction.


In some ways, bigoted attitudes of the past continue to affect the present.

Today, no one would dream of denying a state or federal scholarship to a student attending Boston College or Yeshiva University any more than they might withhold Medicaid funding from a person treated in a religiously affiliated hospital.

Yet that’s exactly what happens to K-12 students in Massachusetts. The reason has little to do with the separation of church and state; rather, it is the result of a bigoted view of Catholics that emerged with the infamous mid-19th century Know-Nothing movement.

Why do charter school networks like KIPP embrace Black Lives Matter? These are the students they serve. In the wake of a tragedy, KIPP CEO Richard Barth writes:

By now, many of you have heard about Terence Crutcher, an unarmed African-American male who was fatally shot by police in Tulsa, OK., on Friday. As news outlets have reported, Mr. Crutcher was a beloved father and brother, a college student, and a singer in his church choir.

What you may not know is that Mr. Crutcher was also a KIPP Tulsa parent.

This is beyond a tragedy. It is an outrage. While Mr. Crutcher’s death hits home in the KIPP community, it is part of a pattern of violence that has gone on across this country for far too long. In my view, this is about fear – the senseless killing that can result from fear. Fear is what makes a police officer discharge their firearm on an unarmed person. And if a police officer is that fearful, they either need more training or they should not be a law enforcement officer. Full stop. We must demand this, for fear cripples us – all of us. For many of our KIPP families and students, the threat of police violence is a constant worry. There is a very real sense that no place is safe for black and brown bodies.

This is pointed framing by the Los Angeles Times:

Donald Trump had nothing to say at his rally Saturday about the recent police shootings of black men that have mobilized civil rights activists across the country — but he did talk talk about what he sees as the “new civil rights issue of our time.”

In Trump’s view, it is school choice.

NPR unpacks the candidate’s plan for America’s schools. Education remains a second-tier issue in the campaign.


U.S. Education Secretary John King draws criticism over comments about homeschooling. Here’s how Education Week summarizes the comments:

King was also asked what he thinks of the recent uptick in homeschooling. Some of his classmates at Harvard University were homeschooled, King said, and were well prepared for college.

But he also worries that homeschoolers may not get the kind of interaction with other adults or much experience with their peers, “unless their parents are very intentional about it.”

Encouraging new and better schools is a lot like gardening.

Charter and traditional public schools can work together.

The Massachusetts charter school referendum is a test of whether evidence matters in education politics.

Is education savings account legislation coming in Texas? West Virginia?

‘De facto’ segregation is a myth.” Inside the myth that school choice increases segregation.

Unpacking Americans’ feelings about school closures.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)