Ray Carter | September 6, 2022
School choice benefiting teachers
School-choice programs that allow tax funding to follow a child empower families and benefit students.
But data from Florida, which has robust school-choice programs, shows school vouchers also empower teachers by providing them the opportunity to escape systems where their hands are tied, and that many educators are even opting to create new private schools in the process.
“Leaving a Classroom But Starting a School,” by researchers with Step Up for Students and EdChoice, finds that many teachers share the same frustrations that lead parents to seek other options for their children.
“School choice creates the opportunity for entrepreneurial educators to start and operate schools aligned to their strengths and their beliefs about how children should be educated,” the research paper states. “Oftentimes teachers are stuck in the very same schools that children are. Poor management, bad decisions around curriculum or teaching methods, misuse of technology—the list of things that frustrate children and families are the same things that frustrate teachers. School choice can free teachers from such circumstances.”
The research paper includes information gathered from a focus group of 10 educator-entrepreneurs who left the public-school system to launch private schools. The focus group members each had between seven and 32 years of experience in education. Of the 10, two had been named teacher of the year in their prior public-school district and one was a former state teacher of the year.
Three of those educator-entrepreneurs, along with the paper’s authors, discussed their experiences during a recent webinar.
The event occurred even as officials in Oklahoma are considering expansion of school choice in Oklahoma. Last year, legislation advanced in the Oklahoma Senate that would provide nearly all Oklahoma families the option to use a portion of the taxpayer funds dedicated to a child’s education for use at any school, including private-school options.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who authored that legislation, has promised to pursue the issue again in 2023, as has Gov. Kevin Stitt, who also supported the bill.
Ron Matus, director of the Office of Policy, Innovation, and Empowerment at Step Up For Students, said many teachers have embraced the opportunities provided by school choice.
“When we talk about school choice, it’s predominantly—and rightly so—about students and families. I mean, the whole point of it is to move towards a system where every family can access the options that work best for their kids,” Matus said. “But it turns out that moving towards that system also has upsides for educators. It turns out educators too want options. They want different learning environments. They want different work environments. They want options that are in line with their visions and their values. And choice gives them that.”
He noted that “tens of thousands” of teachers in Florida now work at schools of choice, including private schools, charter schools, and virtual schools—options that “weren’t around a generation ago.”
“We are seeing more and more educators who are leaving public-school classrooms and creating their own private schools,” Matus said. “In some cases, it’s traditional private schools. In some cases, it’s micro-schools or hybrid homeschools or learning pods. You name it, we have it, and we have more and more of them. And we also have more and more public-school educators who are creating them.”
“It was very stressful. A lot of tears. A lot of sleepless nights. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything because we’re helping so many families.” —Cher Harris, co-founder of Autism Inspired Academy
For many educators, the inspiration to create private-school options came from seeing students who were not properly served in a traditional public-school setting.
Cher Harris, co-founder of Autism Inspired Academy in Clearwater, Florida, worked for 13 years in the public-school system, including five years working with children with autism.
“My biggest aha moment was I was doing district trainings for teachers and I was sitting in a room with all these other teachers that were working in the county and specifically for children with autism, and half of them were not paying attention and the other half were so overwhelmed they couldn’t pay attention,” Harris said. “And it was just a very negative field. I just kind of thought, ‘Wow. I really need to do something, not just for the students, but also for the educators.’”
Dr. Angela Kennedy, founder of Deeper Root Academy in Orlando, worked for 13 years in the public-school system as a teacher and academic coach. She noted that the public-school model is based on normalizing teaching for a mass audience, even though the learning style of many students falls outside that spectrum.
“I just really feel like kids aren’t heard,” Kennedy said. “They’re not given the opportunities they can (succeed)—and sometimes they’re just discounted—because of their background or where they come from or their lack of experience. But you can fix some of that if you really take the time to get to know them and know how they learn.”
Nikki Duslak worked for four years as a public-school teacher and four years as a school administrator before launching the CREATE Conservatory micro-school in Leesburg, Florida.
Duslak also recalled the negative environment was a problem when she was a public-school teacher, saying she found herself avoiding the teachers’ lunchroom.
“It was so negative all the time,” Duslak said. “And I thought, ‘I don’t want to be just part of this complaining session.’”
But her inspiration to open a private school ultimately sprang from her five-year-old son’s experiences. Because her son was very academically gifted and advanced, he was placed in a classroom with 13-year-olds. But he was not emotionally prepared for some material covered, such as discussions of the Holocaust and slavery.
“The aha moment was just my son being broken by the system,” Duslak said.
She also noted how other students were often penalized by the system because they were considered disruptive—even when many of those students were among the most academically capable and advanced.
“We’ve told our bravest and most creative thinkers to sit down and be quiet,” Duslak said. “And I think that’s catastrophic in terms of its implications on not just their academic well-being and future, but also their social and emotional development as well.”
All three teacher-entrepreneurs said the existence of state-funded scholarships in Florida has been crucial to allowing their schools to exist and serve students other than those from higher-income families.
“Without the school scholarship, I mean 100 percent of our students wouldn’t be able to come and afford to be here,” said Harris, whose private school serves children with autism. “And when they come to us, I mean they are desperate and they are lost and we are their last resort.”
Michael Q. McShane, director of national research at EdChoice and a former classroom teacher, noted that the teachers interviewed for the paper all faced significant hurdles in creating new private-sector education options—with one exception.
“The one problem that they didn’t have was demand,” McShane said. “Folks are crying out for more options. They’re crying out for new opportunities. They’re crying out for different environments.”
Nearly 192,000 students in Florida used private school choice scholarships in the 2021-22 school year
Despite the fact that families readily seize the opportunity when school-choice programs are made available to them, some opponents of school choice have derided teacher-entrepreneurs like Harris, Kennedy, and Duslak as profiteers who don’t care about children.
In interviews with CNHI earlier this year, Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, said those supporting school-choice efforts do so because “they stand to profit.” In that same article, Clark Frailey, executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, claimed school choice would filter taxpayer money into “private investors’ pockets.”
But Florida’s teacher-entrepreneurs say school-choice has not made them financially rich. In fact, they are often less financially secure as private-school heads than they were as cogs in the public-school system. Instead, the rewards have been nonmaterial.
Nikki Duslak said that founding CREATE Conservatory micro-school “ripped away all of my financial security.”
“I’m a 40-year-old with nothing to my name at this point—except this thing, this thing that I built where kids come every day and they cry when we don’t have school,” Duslak said. “We had a kid who after the first weekend the parents dropped him off on Monday morning and the parents said, ‘He cried on Saturday morning. What are y’all doing in there because he didn’t want to have a weekend?’ And it’s those moments, right? It’s those moments that it’s like, you know what? I’m going to die with nothing—except all of this amazing thing that I get to be a part of it.”
“It was very stressful. A lot of tears. A lot of sleepless nights,” Harris said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything because we’re helping so many families. It’s not just the student. Their families are desperate. They have no idea what to do. They have no clue how to help the kids or help the siblings or help themselves. And so, every day when I am in the classrooms and walking through and helping families and talking to them on the phone, they’re just always so thankful. And we just do whatever we can to go above and beyond for them to help them have lives of meaning, purpose and joy, which is our mission.”
“Yeah, we don’t have pension. We don’t have savings. We don’t have any of that, right? Because we put it all in the school,” Kennedy said. “But guess what? If the legacy I left was what changed the lives of those kids, then it will never go away.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.