Profile: Mr. Harper’s Murals
“I’m a proponent of outstanding education,” says Russell Harper. He prefers to be known as an educator rather than an education reformer or a school choice advocate. But when speaking with Harper, it is clear he is most definitely reform-minded.
“Competition makes us all better,” he said. “Public schools brought me to where I am, and I have nothing negative to say about them, but we have to get into the mindset of raising the bar.”
Harper, a veteran educator and former public school principal, is the principal of Forsythe Charter Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Under his charge: 600 kindergarten through seventh-grade students, with eighth grade to be added next year.
Forsythe is administered by National Heritage Academies, which has a threefold focus:
- First, academic excellence is placed front and center, with a national curriculum—E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge—that emphasizes grade-level aptitude and exceeding standards rather than just meeting them;
- Second, parental involvement is key;
- Third, moral development is integrated into every aspect of students’ lives at school.
This moral development is based on ancient Greece’s cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, tolerance, and fortitude. Not being based on a specific religion, it is all-inclusive and, as Harper puts it, “simply good old common sense.”
There is a “virtue of the month,” he explained, with a focus on a different aspect of that virtue each day. But rather than having the P.A. system announce, “Okay, children, remember today to be tolerant,” the children lead the focus in the morning assembly, speaking in front of a large group.
The academic rigor of Forsythe has paid off. Students who came to Forsythe from various public, private, and homeschooling backgrounds score 1.4 years above national levels.
“The curriculum allows us to teach at higher levels, so the children learn at higher levels and are competitive nationally,” said Harper. “I am against simply having state standards.”
Harper’s pride and joy lies in many aspects of his work, but he is especially proud of his school’s many colorful educational murals. “Every part of the school has a mural, representing what goes on in that part,” he said. “And every part of these murals was done by parents. Our parental involvement is spectacular.”
In the center hallway, 100 feet of wall space is adorned with the largest mural in the school, depicting the comprehensive curriculum of Core Knowledge. It begins with a rainforest, moving onto pictures that represent history, geography, government, literature, art, science, and physical education.
Harper’s favorite mural adorns the middle school hallway. It’s called “Discover the Hero in You,” and it depicts various heroes and heroines of world history. The curriculum of the middle school focuses on why they became heroes, and what they contributed.
“Middle schoolers are right at that age where they’re making life decisions for the first time. They’re looking for role models,” said Harper, and the curriculum provides them.
Harper finds his largest challenge in meeting the expectations of the artists of these murals. “We are accountable to parents directly, because they chose to come to Forsythe,” he said. “They naturally want the school to be perfect. We’re not, of course, but we respond to their every piece of criticism. We take that challenge.”
School Choice Roundup
Tax Credit Program Debated
A March report from the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University contends Arizona’s educational tax credit program has done little to broaden opportunities for the state’s poor families.
The four-year-old Arizona program offers up to $625 in dollar-for-dollar state credits to individual taxpayers for their donations to nonprofit organizations that give private school scholarships to K-12 students. Another tax credit is permitted for donations to offset the cost of extracurricular activities at public schools, such as sports or field trips.
The report’s authors, Alex Molnar and Glen Wilson, say the average tuition grant of $855.81 in 2000 is only a quarter of the average tuition charged at private elementary schools and not large enough to allow significant numbers of poor children to attend private schools. Fewer than 3,900 students—about one in four recipients—have switched from public to private schools under the program, only 2.1 percent of the state’s poor children. The tax credit is expensive and inefficient, they argue, and it should be abolished.
Critics have lumped together two distinctly different credits, responds Darcy Olsen, executive director of the Goldwater Institute. She grants that the tax credit for public schools is of “questionable value” but argues the scholarship tax credit is a different matter entirely. She notes that 19,000 students have received scholarships since 1998, most on the basis of need. Many families struggle financially to send their children to private schools, she observes, and they “should not be punished by making them ineligible for needs-based scholarships.”
As for the charge that the tax credits are “expensive,” Olsen faults the critics for not taking into account the average $4,000 per student the state saves when a child transfers to a private school, which makes the tax credit revenue-neutral. She argues for expanding the credit to businesses to create many more scholarships.
April 15, 2002
Patrick Now Leads Black Alliance
In March, Lawrence C. Patrick III, 26, was named president and CEO of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which recently moved its headquarters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the nation’s capital.
BAEO is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to actively support parental choice in empowering families and increasing educational options for black children. Formed in August 2000, BAEO has chapters under development in 29 cities in 22 states.
Patrick helped co-found the Alliance and served as secretary of its Board of Directors and chair of its Communications Committee. Previously, he was the leader and co-founder of Megaschool, a high-tech start-up company focused on helping inner-city charter schools better utilize technology. A 1993 Knight Ridder Scholar from Detroit, Patrick has worked at the Detroit Free Press, San Jose Mercury News, Tallahassee Democrat, and Knight Ridder New Media in Silicon Valley, where he created and managed e-commerce sites for the nation’s second-largest newspaper company.
“Lawrence’s commitment to parental choice and increased educational options for black children, coupled with his years of experience with this organization, make him an excellent choice,” said BAEO Board Chairman Dr. Howard Fuller. “He brings a high level of professionalism and skills that will benefit our organization and the movement.”
Patrick succeeds Kaleem Caire, who led BAEO during its challenging startup period and recently accepted a position with the Milwaukee-based American Education Reform Council. Caire said his new position would allow him to “continue working actively for expanded parent choice in a role that allows me to spend more time with my family.”
Vouchers from Tax Credits Prove Popular
Three voucher programs have been started in Florida since Governor Jeb Bush took office, and the latest—involving corporate tax credits to fund $3,500 vouchers for low-income children in public schools—is picking up speed much faster than the first two did.
Although the program started only in January, more than 1,000 students already have received vouchers to enroll in private schools across the state, with almost all taking their state-authorized tuition checks to religious schools.
The law permits corporations to take tax credits up to a total of $50 million, which would fund vouchers for almost 14,300 children statewide. By Fall 2002, 11 new private schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Central Florida’s Orange County will offer space for another 1,300 voucher students. Eight of the 11 schools will teach religion in the classes. For example, Vision Academy will integrate faith and academics, helped by retired Orange County teacher and administrator Mildred Eason.
“As we are Christian teachers and being a private-school setting, we don’t have to adhere to the strict guidelines that are handed down by public-school administrators,” Eason told the Orlando Sentinel.
Bush’s first voucher program, which offers children in chronically low-achieving schools Opportunity Scholarships to use at private or better public schools, is utilized by only about 50 students in Escambia County. His second voucher program, which offers special-education students a McKay Scholarship to use at a private school, is utilized by nearly 4,000 students.
April 3, 2002
Schools Mull Whether to Accept Vouchers
With Florida’s Department of Education making the public school grading scale more stringent, five schools in Duval County could receive this June their second F grade in four years. That would make as many as 2,400 students in those schools eligible to use Opportunity Scholarships to transfer to a better public school or an independent school.
But a number of private schools, including three of Northeast Florida’s largest private schools, aren’t jumping at the chance to take the publicly funded vouchers, worth an average of $3,500.
That’s because participation in the Opportunity Scholarships program bars schools from making students pray or profess a certain ideological belief, while at the same time requiring the schools to accept any student who applies and to accept the voucher as full payment of tuition.
At The Bolles School, for example, tuition ranges from $4,700 to $8,050 a year, and student applicants are screened to make sure they can handle the school’s rigorous curriculum. At other schools, the restrictions are seen as too intrusive.
“There have been just too many requirements that would infringe on the way we teach things,” Clay Lindstam, an administrator at Trinity Christian Academy, told the Jacksonville Times-Union. But if the Opportunity Scholarships were more like the state’s McKay Scholarships, Trinity officials said they would be more interested in participating.
The McKay Scholarship program allows parents of students with disabilities to choose a private school for their children, with participating schools allowed to keep their faith-based curriculum and also given greater flexibility in turning applicants down.
“If it was a no-strings-attached program where students could integrate into our program without any adjustment of how we teach, what we teach, then it would not be difficult,” said Lindstam.
March 26, 2002
Tax Credit Bill Falls Short
In early April, votes in the Illinois House fell short for a bill that would have created up to $50 million a year for scholarships to allow children in limited-income families to attend independent schools. The funds would have come from scholarship organizations through donations from Illinois businesses, which would have received a tax credit of 90 percent for a two-year commitment of up to $100,000 a year.
The bill, HB4077, was placed on postponed consideration, which sponsor State Representative Joseph Lyons (D-Chicago) characterized as “deep coma.”
“The issue should be kept alive for something where the purpose is noble, the cause is worthwhile, and the beneficiaries of this thing are most deserving,” the legislator told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Lyons admitted the timing wasn’t good for a bill that reduces state revenue through tax credits, since the state is currently strapped for cash. On the other hand, Doug Delaney, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, pointed out that 16 schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago are closing and could have benefitted from Lyons’ legislation.
April 10, 2002
District Seeks to Curtail School Choice Options
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act signed into law earlier this year, school districts will be required this Fall to provide busing for students who want to get out of chronically failing schools and into better ones. In Chicago, that means students in 309 of the system’s 596 schools could seek busing to other schools—or be offered private tutoring if they stay. But Chicago Public Schools officials want state legislators to restrict the choices open to students.
One option considered by officials is to split the city into zones and allow students to transfer into schools only within their zone, which would reduce busing costs. Another option would be to limit transfers into the system’s 134 non-failing schools by barring transfers to “crowded” schools, where “crowded” is defined as filled to more than 80 percent of capacity. Transfers also would be limited into the city’s 32 magnet schools and 23 schools with academic admission requirements.
Officials argue that, without some restrictions, the new federal law could lead to overcrowded classrooms, students in mobile trailers, resegregation of the magnet schools, and undermining the few schools that do succeed.
“We are seeking a common-sense approach to this,” Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan told the Chicago Tribune.
March 31, 2002
Privatization, Reorganization Ordered for 70 Schools
A divided Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted on April 17 to privatize 42 of the city’s failing public schools and to substantially reorganize another 28, some of which will become independent charter schools.
Control of the 42 privatized schools—one in six of the city’s public schools—will be transferred to seven school management organizations, including Edison Schools, Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit operator of public schools.
The School Reform Commission consists of three members appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker and two appointed by Philadelphia Mayor John Street, who had appointed the city school board that was relieved of its authority by the state last December. Less than half of the system’s nearly 200,000 students can meet minimum proficiency standards on state reading and math tests. Schweiker’s three appointees voted for the plan, while Street’s two appointees voted against it.
Although still the largest privatization effort ever launched in the United States, the plan fell far short of Schweiker’s original proposal, which envisioned Edison taking over the system’s central administration as well as many more schools. However, the governor retreated when opposition arose from parents, students, the teacher union, and labor groups. Even on April 17, student protests forced the Commission to postpone and relocate its meeting.
Twenty schools were assigned to Edison, with the others assigned to Chancellor Beacon Academies, Inc. (5), Temple University (5), Foundations, Inc. (4), Victory Schools, Inc. (3), the University of Pennsylvania (3), and Universal Companies (2).
New York Times
April 18, 2002
House Passes School Choice Bill
By a 72-67 margin, legislators in the Vermont House on April 17 approved a bill that would allow parents the option of choosing a public school for their children, with approximately $4,500 in state block grant funding following the student to the chosen school. Under current law, passed two years ago, choice is restricted to a limited number of students in grades 9-12.
The bill, H716, phases in the choice options over a period of five years, with limits on the amount of the block grant and the number of students that can leave a school during the first two years. When fully phased in, all students would have the option of choosing another public school, as long the chosen school had capacity to take them. If a school received more applicants than it had space to accept, students would be assigned by lottery.
Lack of House support doomed two expanded choice provisions in the original bill. One would have permitted the block grant funds to follow the child to non-sectarian independent schools, and another would have established a tax credit to encourage taxpayer support of nonprofit organizations that give financial assistance to homeschooled students and students attending independent and parochial schools.
The approved bill now goes to the Senate, where some leaders have voiced opposition. Governor Howard Dean also is opposed to the measure.
“It’s a small step, but it’s a very important step,” Vermonters for Educational Choice President Jeffrey Wennberg told the Rutland Herald.
April 16-17, 2002
Ethan Allen Institute
About the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation
The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization established in 1996 by Milton and Rose Friedman. The origins of the foundation lie in the Friedmans’ long-standing concern about the serious deficiencies in America’s elementary and secondary public schools. The best way to improve the quality of education, they believe, is to enable all parents to have a truly free choice of the schools their children attend. The Friedman Foundation works to build upon this vision, clarify its meaning to the general public, and amplify the national call for true education reform through school choicer. Contact us at www.friedmanfoundation.org for more information.
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