School Funding, School Choice and the Establishment Clause

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Question:  What caused the narrative of the Supreme Court’s doctrine with regard to school choice and voucher programs to change from its initial ruling in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)?

As the nature of the public school system is rapidly changing in the 21st century, school choice plans have become more and more commonplace.  These programs naturally impact those religious academies (predominantly being Catholic schools) that served as the traditional counterpart to the public school system, and the Court has articulated a series of changing arguments with regard to how the government can and cannot aid religious academies.  The triangle of public schools, religious academies and government funding has always created establishment clause concerns, and the Supreme Court has been called upon to resolve these constitutional questions, beginning in 1947 with its landmark incorporation of the establishment clause to the states in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, NJ (330 U.S. 1).  The narrative of the court’s doctrine has changed over time with regard to school choice, and investigating the stimuli behind the court’s changing views with regard to voucher programs, school choice, reimbursement programs, etc. and religious academies can show why the court has granted increase deference to educational policymakers in the 21st century.  When evaluating programs of school choice, the Court must weigh facilitating the individual freedom of parents to decide how to educate their children with the constitutional prohibition of government directly aiding or meddling with religion and religious organizations (Minnow 816).  Looking at the full text of the court’s opinions and dissents, along with a discussion of changes in educational policy, can show why the court has increasingly ruled to uphold programs of school choice, even when squared against the establishment clause.  In the 21st century as problems associated with the nation’s public school system grew increasingly pressing, the court has granted greater leeway to policymakers in using religious academies as parts of voucher or school choice programs.  The increasingly compelling state interest in ameliorating public schools have certainly resulted in the Court granting increased deference to educational policymakers, but the partisan shifts to the right on the nation’s highest legal bench from Everson to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) have been the deciding factor in changing the narrative of the Court’s legal doctrine.  While grating greater policymaking “slack” to those in the educational field may be an auxiliary factor, the dominant factor has been the addition of justices who envision the “wall of separation” between church and state as being shorter than some of their colleagues from the mid-to-late of the 20th century.  In the end, some regard indirect aid to religious institutions as unconstitutional, while other jurists see indirect as a matter of private choice.

The court first began asserting the establishment clause with regard to such programs in Everson, when the court held that Ewing, NJ’s use of township monies to compensate the transportation costs for parents who send their kids to religious academies did not constitute a 1st Amendment violation.  The opinion of the court, written by Justice Hugo Black – an ex-Klansmen appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would become one of the constitution’s strongest textural defenders – incorporated the Establishment Clause to the states and used Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” to guide future cases concerning government establishment of religion (330 U.S. 15, Feldman 65).  Black believed that the government had a compelling interest in using taxpayer monies to provide fire and police protection, sewer lines and other services to religious organizations and schools, and that remunerating student transportation costs served the interest of student safety and was analogous to the aforementioned programs (330 U.S. 17-20).  Furthermore, since the township’s compensation program gave the reimbursement to parents and not the religious organizations themselves, the aid to religion was even more indirect than police protection, sewer lines, etc.  The first dissent in the case, written by Justice Robert Jackson, stated that the program itself did not pass Black’s own “wall of separation” standard, and that taxpayers only assume the responsibility of paying for public schools.  Justice Rutledge’s separate dissent stated famously that “Certainly the fire department must not stand idly by while the church burns (330 U.S. 61). Nor is this reason why the state should pay the expense of transportation or other items of the cost of religious education.”  The case was decided by a divisive 5-4 vote, and the dissents proved to be more influential in later cases like Lemon v. Kurtzman and Flast v. Cohen.  In Everson, the court upheld the transportation compensation program as indirect aid to religious organizations, and as being within the compelling interest of the state to provide for public safety.  The most influential aspect of Everson however, was its incorporation of the establishment clause to the states, which would allow for future judicial review of state programs that might offend the 1st amendment (330 U.S. 18).

After the Court’s ruling in Everson, state governments and Congress began initiating programs that were seen as indirectly aiding religious academies, or aiding them in a secular manner.  Such was the intent behind Pennsylvania’s Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, a statute which used taxpayer dollars to supplement salaries for teachers of secular subjects within private schools, including religious academies (403 U.S. 606-612).  The Court had changed too, with the addition of liberal justices William Brennan, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun to the high bench.  Alton J. Lemon, a resident of Pennsylvania sued challenging the statute as violating the establishment clause.  When the case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, reached the high court in 1971, it was consolidated with a case challenging the constitutionality of a similar program in Rhode Island.  Almost a quarter-century had passed from the court’s landmark ruling in Everson, and the nation’s educational system, while not perfect by any means, was not yet suffering from the salient problems that would later drive considerable media, legal and constitutional attention.  When the court issued its ruling in Lemon, it struck down the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes as violating the establishment clause.  The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Richard Nixon appointee and conservative jurist, articulated a three-pronged standard that still guides Supreme Court doctrine.  Quoting from Chief Justice Burger’s opinion, “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion…finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion’” (403 U.S. 602 612-613).  If a statute failed any of the three prongs, it would be invalidated.  Burger stated that the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes served secular interests in promoting the teaching of secular subjects, and were offered to all private academies regardless of what faith they aligned with, so it satisfied the religious neutrality prong of the test.  What created the establishment clause violation Burger stated, was that government would have to monitor whether the funds went only to the teaching of secular subjects, so it violated the famous “excessive entanglement” prong of the test.

The two legislatures, however, have also recognized that church-related elementary and secondary schools have a significant religious mission, and that a substantial portion of their activities is religiously oriented. They have therefore sought to create statutory restrictions designed to guarantee the separation between secular and religious educational functions, and to ensure that State financial aid supports only the former. All these provisions are precautions taken in candid recognition that these programs approached, even if they did not intrude upon, the forbidden areas under the Religion Clauses. We need not decide whether these legislative precautions restrict the principal or primary effect of the programs to the point where they do not offend the Religion [p614] Clauses, for we conclude that the cumulative impact of the entire relationship arising under the statutes in each State involves excessive entanglement between government and religion” (403 U.S. 602 613-614)

While what was or was not “excessive entanglement”, or what kind of entanglement could be defined as “excessive” made the Lemon Standard an inherently vague piece of legal doctrine, but it has held sway in establishment clause cases from its birth in 1971 to present day cases like Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012).  What distinguished the case from Everson however, was what Justice Brennan called in his concurring opinion a “case of direct subsidy” since the monies went directly to the religious institutions in question (403 U.S. 653).  Since the funds went directly to the religious organizations, the government would have to “foster an excessive entanglement” to make sure that they did not advance any sort of religious teaching.  While the government may have been able to aid secular subjects in a separate hypothetical situation where it would be easy to monitor the strictly secular use of the funds, the facts of the case distinguished it enough for the two statutes to be invalidated by an 8-0 vote (with Justice Marshall abstaining).  Ultimately, the “excessive entanglement” prong would prove vague in future Court doctrine, but here it provided a clear legal impetus for the invalidation of the programs in question.  The addition of liberal justices to the Court from Everson to Lemon certainly served as an important factor in the invalidation of the statutes.  While the conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger authored the standard in Lemon, the clear and impactful support of left-leaning jurists like Justice Brennan surely had a strong impact on the resolution of the case.  Ultimately, Justice White set the stage for the future in his partial concurrence, stating

“Our prior cases have recognized the dual role of parochial schools in American society: they perform both religious and secular functions. See Board of Education v. Allen, supra, at 248. Our cases also recognize that legislation having a secular purpose and extending governmental assistance to sectarian schools in the performance of their secular functions does not constitute “law[s] respecting an establishment of religion” forbidden by the First Amendment merely because a secular program may incidentally benefit a church in fulfilling its religious mission. That religion may indirectly benefit from governmental aid to the secular activities of churches does not convert that aid into an impermissible establishment of religion.” (403 U.S. 663-664)

The impact of Justice White’s concurrence cannot be understated.  The notion that religion can indirectly benefit from government aid may not seem like anything outlandish.  After all, it is the logical conclusion of Justice Black’s opinion in Everson.  While the program in Lemon benefited secular and religious schools equally, the aid was seen as more direct, which would require the sort of “excessive entanglement” the Court feared.  Ultimately, the Court did not attack the notion of indirect benefits to religious institutions not being unconstitutional, and precedent set in Everson in that regard would rear its head in future decisions.

After Lemon, Chief Justice Burger’s three-pronged standard faced tough tests in several cases, but was still used as the legal maxim as late as 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.  Earlier in 1997 however, the Court had stated that the third prong of the test, “excessive entanglement” did not apply to school funding programs.  The case, Agnostini v. Felton (521 U.S. 203), invalidated the third prong and further strengthened the case for the constitutionality of programs that indirectly aid religious institutions.  While Agnostini can be considered a landmark case in its own right, its use as precedent in the Court’s 2000 decision in Mitchell v. Helms (530 U.S. 793), is extremely important.  The opinion of the Court in Mitchell, written by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, upheld a program that loaned school materials (like textbooks) to secular and sectarian institutions because the aid went to serve the needs of students, as opposed to schools.  Since where their children went to school was determined “only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of individuals.” – citing Agnostini in affirming the statement – the aid to religious academies was indirect, and ergo constitutional, even when squared with the Establishment Clause (530 U.S. 810).  The doctrine regarding indirect impacts on religious institutions, first detailed by Justice Black, had been amplified by the addition of Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and the elevation of William Rehnquist to Chief Justice.  In the twenty-one years following Lemon, four conservative justices were appointed the Court, and the Court’s doctrine changed in a variety of fields of law, including school choice and the Establishment Clause.  Mitchell is an important case in its own right, just as Agnostini certainly is, but it served an important role as a legal facilitator for the Court’s landmark foray into efforts to reform the nation’s failing schools in 2002.

The Court’s monumentally important decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris (536 U.S. 639), the most important Establishment Clause case of the Rehnquist Court era, was saw the affirmation an important legal doctrines.  The opinion of the Court, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, stated that the final destination of government aid does not impact a program’s constitutionality if citizens make “true private choice[s]” in determining how the assistance (monetary or otherwise) is used (536 U.S. 650).  The case divided the court along ideological lines, with the five conservative justices (Rehnquist, Thomas, Kennedy, O’Connor and Scalia) opposing the weakened liberal wing composed of Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer.  The Court in Zelman set a new five-pronged test to further weigh programs of school choice or others that indirectly aided religious institutions against the Establishment Clause.  Following the Lemon Test, the Chief Justice articulated the “True Private Choice” standard, which stated that programs must have a legitimate secular purpose, benefit a wide range of persons, be religiously neutral, include adequate secular alternatives and provide the aid to parents as opposed to the institutions themselves.  The background facts for Zelman only serve to cloud the test.  Cleveland’s urban schools were among the worst in the nation, and the state of Ohio, with the city of Cleveland, implemented a voucher program that allowed parents to send their children to sectarian institutions – which do a remarkably good job educating inner-city minority students – or private secular institutions if they were below the federal poverty line (Ravitch 116-125).  Certainly there was a legitimate secular purpose in ameliorating the city’s failing schools and it did benefit a wide range of impoverished families in Cleveland, but the remaining three prongs divided the court.  For one, the liberal justices disagreed with the notion that indirect aid to religious was automatically constitutional, as seen in the dissenting opinions in Agnostini, Mitchell, and Zelman.  Secondly, the program in question gave vouchers that amounted to less money than the state gave to public schools on a per-student basis.  It almost seemed as if the program was designed specifically to benefit religious institutions.  As for the religious neutrality prong of the test, the government aid could certainly find its way to a wide variety of religious institutions as noted by the majority of the Court, but it did have a disproportionate impact on Catholic institutions, a point noted by Justice Breyer in his dissent (538 U.S. 639).  Moving to the adequate secular alternatives prong, the justices again remained divided.  Justice Souter wrote in his dissent that more than 95% of the participating voucher schools were private, religious academies, which muddled the implementation of the prong.  As previously stated, public schools in Cleveland had little incentive to participate, and secular private schools asked for far greater amounts in tuition money than the voucher offered, and few had open seats available (539 U.S. 639).  While the conservative wing of the court believed there were adequate nonreligious options, the liberal justices aptly countered by noting, again, that more than 95% of the participating schools were religious schools.  The last prong of the test, concerning indirect aid, similarly divided the Court.  While there are specific liberal/conservative differences in opinion regarding indirect aid, the vouchers were given to parents, but the money itself was given directly to religious institutions.  The conservative justices likened it to a tax credit, if a citizen receives money back on their taxes and donates some to his church, it should not be an Establishment Clause violation.  The liberal justices however, were concerned with the fact that the vouchers were given to schools by the parents, but the money itself was given directly from taxpayer funds to the institutions themselves.

Ultimately, the Court’s opinion in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris was highly divisive.  In addition to the fact that the programs were upheld by a 5-4 vote, the case produced six separate opinions, further evidence that the Court’s membership could not agree on a single legal conclusion regarding the constitutionality of the voucher program.  The end result of Zelman however, was the affirmation of the principles outlined by Hugo Black in Everson.  When the government indirectly aids religious schools, and when parents make private choices in where and how that aid is used, the programs are upheld.  It is clear from the opinions of the Court’s conservative justices however, that these programs are being upheld not as an act of deferring to local and state educational policymakers, but rather because they see Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” as being far shorter than their liberal colleagues.  In an alternate metaphor, programs of “true private choice” that give indirect harm can also be seen as a door allowing the Court to uphold them.

The problems plaguing the nation’s public schools are great in number, size and scope, and the Court’s decision in Zelman certainly enlarged the toolbox available to policymakers, but the motivation behind the Court’s ruling does not lie in aiding educational policymakers.  Instead, it is simply a side effect of the Supreme Court’s ideological shift to the right, especially in the eras of the Burger and Rehnquist Courts.  There is no evidence in the Court’s many opinions in these cases to support a the conclusion that the Court has lowered the wall with the express purpose of aiding educational policymakers.  The Court’s lowering of the wall of separation is primarily driven by an ideological interpretation of the Establishment Clause that tolerates government aid to religious schools, institutions and affairs.  The key factor behind the changes in Court doctrine lie in the changes in its membership.  From Everson to Lemon, five liberal and two conservative justices were added to the Court (joining two liberal justices who remained on the high bench), and from Lemon to Agnostini, Mitchell and Zelman, five conservative and four liberal justices were added.  Ultimately, the narrative of the Court’s doctrine regarding school funding, voucher programs and school choice has been parabolic, moving to uphold such programs in Everson, striking them down in the Lemon era, and again moving to keep them in place as the Court shifted to the right in the late 20th and early 21st century.  The primary cause of the parabolic nature of the Court’s doctrine however was not a desire by the Court to give education policymakers greater deference, but rather was caused by shifts to the political right among its membership.

Works Cited

330 U.S. 1 (1947) Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, NJ

403 U.S. 602 (1971) Lemon v. Kurtzman

521 U.S. 203 (1997) Agnostini v. Felton

530 U.S. 793 (2000) Mitchell v. Helms

539 U.S. 639 (2002) Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Feldman, Noah. Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices. New York: Twelve, 2010. Print.

Minow, Martha. “Confronting the Seduction of Choice: Law, Education, and American

Pluralism.” Yale Law Journal 120 (2011): 814-48. The Yale Law Journal Online.

Yale University, Jan. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <,-education,-and-american-pluralism/>.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing

and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

George Phillips- Research Paper Proposal

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  • Given the growing number of school choice and voucher programs being implemented in the public school system, and how they impact religious academies, it is important to explore the changes in legal reasoning that have increased the legality and feasibility of appropriating governmental monies to programs of school choice that include religious schools.  The question this paper will explore deals explicitly with Supreme Court decisions in the 20th century related to religious academies, school choice/voucher programs and the changing scope of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
  • How and why did the Supreme Court doctrine change with regard to school choice and voucher programs and religious schools from its decision in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) to its recent ruling in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011)


As the nature of the public school system is rapidly changing in the 21st century, school     choice plans have become more and more commonplace.  These programs naturally impact those religious academies (predominantly being Catholic schools) that served as the traditional counterpart to the public school system, and the Court has articulated a series of changing arguments with regard to how the government can and cannot aid religious academies.  From its initial ruling in Everson, the court has held that Ewing, NJ’s use of township monies to compensate the transportation costs for parents who send their kids to religious academies did not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause.  The opinion of the court, written by Justice Hugo Black, incorporated the Establishment Clause to the states and used Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” to guide future cases concerning government establishment of religion.  Black believed that the government had a compelling interest in using taxpayer monies to provide fire and police protection, sewer lines and other services to religious organizations and schools, and that remunerating student transportation costs served the interest of student safety and was analogous to the aforementioned programs.  The dissent in the case, written by Justice Robert Jackson, believed that the program itself did not pass Black’s own “wall of separation” standard.  Justice Rutledge’s separate dissent stated famously that “Certainly the fire department must not stand idly by while the church burns. Nor is this reason why the state should pay the expense of transportation or other items of the cost of religious education.”  The case was decided by a divisive 5-4 vote, and the dissents proved to be more influential in later cases like Lemon v. Kurtzman and Flast v. Cohen.  These cases struck down programs that assisted religious institutions as violations of the Establishment Clause, and the tests prescribed by each case were dominant court doctrine in their time.

In the 21st century however, as the Court’s demographic shifted profoundly to the legal right, and as school choice and voucher programs were revived as a means of ameliorating the nation’s schools, the Court has upheld the constitutionality of voucher programs providing assistance to religious academies through three landmark cases.  The first, Mitchell v. Helms (2000), upheld a program that gave material assistance to religious academies so long as they did not aid those teachers and those classes that centered on religious teaching.  The second, Zellman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) concerns the Cleveland voucher program, and the court ruled 6-3 that a voucher program allowing government monies to find its way to religious institutions did not constitute an establishment of religion because it was a program of “pure private choice”, to use the words of Chief Justice Rehnquist.  Recently, the court has increased the burden of proof required for citizens in areas that implement voucher programs through its decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011) by stating that tax credits to citizens that reach religious institutions (even if they had the specific intent of doing so, as was the case in Arizona) did not give taxpayers the legal standing to sue challenging the program’s constitutionality.  Clearly, the court has returned to the philosophy of Justice Black’s decision in Everson, abandoning its decisions in Lemon and Flast in the process.  By carefully examining the facts of each case, the oral arguments presented to the court and the decisions of the Justices themselves, the evolution of the legal narrative regarding voucher programs, religious institutions and the Establishment Clause will be given an exhaustive review and critique.

As voucher programs and school choice have come to dominate discussions of Educational Policy in the 21st century, the changing legal perspective with regard to these programs can be traced to both the changing demographic of the Court’s membership and their insistence on increased deference to said programs.  As public schooling problems continue to dominate policy foci at all levels of government, the court appears to be giving tremendous leeway to policymakers when it comes to these programs because of the potential for positive changes in public schooling.  After all, if religious academies, which traditionally have admirably and effectively taught minority students in poor urban areas for quite some time, are suffering in the charter school era (and Diane Ravitch would certainly agree with both points), then the Court’s deferring to said programs would widen the possibilities for voucher and school choice programs and would have ameliorative effects on educational policy.  The metaphorical balancing the court must perform in these cases however, concerns weighing the potential educational and choice benefits of said programs, and potential infringements of the Establishment Clause.  As the outcome of this balancing act shifts towards policymakers at an increasing rate in the 21st century, tracing the changes in legal reasoning serves to elucidate how voucher programs and school choice have increased in quality and quantity.


  • The vast majority of the sources will be the full and complete decisions of the Justices in each case, all of which can be found through a simple Google search of the case name with the word “Cornell” attached to it.  Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute has full digital copies of every Supreme Court decision.  Since Supreme Court decisions are government documents, they have their own special citation.  A sample citation for Everson is given below.  This citation is only used when referencing the opinion of the court, which would be Justice Black’s for Everson.  The syllabus, or a statement of the facts, is at the beginning of any Supreme Court decision, and is cited the same as the opinion of the court.
    • Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, NJ 330 U.S. 1, 52 (1947)
  • Each case has separate opinions, so the specific opinions referenced within each case must be cited additionally, a sample for Justice Rutledge’s dissenting opinion in Everson is given below
    • Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, NJ 330 U.S. 1, 52 (1947) (Rutledge, J. with Frankfurter, J., Jackson, J. & Burton, J., dissenting)
  • I will also use an article from the Yale Law Journal written by Martha Minow in 2011 about the Supreme Court and its changing view towards programs of school choice.  It give a historical overview of the concept of school choice and how it relates to past and present constitutional challenges mounted against said programs.  The citation is as follows.
    • Minow, Martha. “Confronting the Seduction of Choice: Law, Education, and American Pluralism.” Yale Law Journal 120 (2011): 814-48. The Yale Law Journal Online. Yale University, Jan. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <,education,-and-american-pluralism/>.

Great Path Magnet School and Student Discipline

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HARTFORD, CT- In the Superintendent’s Conference Room (located at 960 Main St. in Hartford next to Capitol Community College) for the Hartford Public School System, Chairman Mark Poland and the Board of Education called a special meeting February 28th to discuss the proposed renewal of the Great Path Academy Magnet School in Manchester, CT.  Great Path, founded in 2002, is seeking to renew its charter with Hartford Public Schools instead of CREC, but has come across some unexpected resistance from the Hartford Public School system.  A Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) academy, Great Path shares a campus with Manchester Community College and is one of a growing number of “middle colleges” that align the latter years of high school with collegiate education.  Great Path initially served 11th and 12th grades but expanded to a 10th grade in 2008.  Part of their proposed internal reforms going forward include the formation of a 9th grade, which they believe (and historical data in Hartford confirms) will increase parental and student interest in the academy.  Given the educational framework laid out in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, middle colleges will likely play a critical role in streamlining, coordinating and improving the path from high school to college and eventually employment.  These schools and similar academies that place high school students on college campuses have serious logistical issues they must first conquer if they wish to play an increasingly important role in the educational progression of American students.

Great Path Academy at Manchester Community College

The special session began with a presentation by Manchester Community College and Great Path’s management staff showing the school’s financial data and student body breakdown.  Board members immediately questioned why the school had shown a decrease in the amount (and ratio) of Hartford students at their academy.  For the Hartford Public School system to eventually take over Great Path (which they hope will occur within three years), the board strongly emphasized that that number would have to increase.  HPS would like to see a higher ratio of Hartford students than had been allowed by CREC if it is going to manage the academy going forward.  The ratio of Hartford to Suburban students peaked in 2009 but has since decreased.  From a quantitative standpoint, the number of Hartforders at Great Path has increased at a decreasing rate since 2007, and the Board and Superintendent Poland explicitly stated that it should be an area of particular concern.

After the meeting began as a prepared presentation by Great Path’s representatives and questioning by the board members, the session took a sharp turn when the discussion turned to school discipline at Great Path.  Great Path and Manchester Community College worked with Manchester State Senators to introduce Senate Bill 857, a recently rejected measure that would have treated Manchester Community College students and Great Path Academy students equally with regards to discipline.  The measure was defeated due to intense pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and other educational groups.

Chairman Poland first inquired about Great Path’s stance on student discipline and Senate Bill 857, and the remainder of the meeting dealt with the issue of student discipline.  The polemical nature of the proposed legislation and of Great Path’s disciplinary history stems from their use of the Manchester Police Department as an enforcement body.  When a MCC student commits a crime, the police take over from a putative standpoint, but current Connecticut law dictates that a magnet school student must face disciplinary action (and, if necessary) a hearing through their home or “sending” district.  Senate Bill 857, Great Path’s representatives say, was designed to streamline and centralize the disciplinary process at magnet schools, especially those that share a campus with an institution of higher learning.  In a skeptical and prepared response, board members raised a statistic about Great Path saying 63 incidents had occurred in which a Great Path student was involved in that brought police involvement.  Speaking with Chairman Poland after the meeting, he agreed that there is a qualitiative difference between a high school student (especially an early high school student) and a college-age adult.  Clearly, Matthew Poland and the majority of the board were worried about the disciplinary tactics employed by Great Path.

The whos, whats, how and whys of student discipline are all complicated issues for a school like Great Path because of the mixing of collegiate and high school students in the same space.  Clearly it is not appropriate to treat college students as one would treat a high school student when it comes to disciplinary action and vice versa, making the issue a frustrating and contentious one for educational policymakers.  What was intended to be a terse special session for a previously tabled issue became a 90 minute debate on the complex reality that is magnet school, middle college and high school/college partnership student discipline.  The meeting ended without a final vote on the Great Path charter renewal, and the issue was further tabled.  While the board praised the school’s principal, teachers, management and campus, it found serious flaws with its disciplinary strategy and student body demographic ratio.  It seems like Great Path has hit some serious roadblocks on the way to a renewed charter through HPS, but the individual debate on disciplinary strategies on mixed campuses is indicative of the larger frustrations that officials at similar schools and policymakers face nationwide.  Ultimately, the qualitative differences between one student and another at a mixed educational setting will likely make the road to charter renewal a bumpy one for Great Path and similar institutions going forward.

******As an extra inclusion, the issue of student discipline in high school/college partnership environments appears to be left unsettled when it comes to Trinity College’s partnership with Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA), formerly known as Hartford Magnet Middle School).  While the high school currently only has a 9th grade, it is expected to expand each year until it is a four year institution that allows seniors to take certain courses at Trinity.  The issue of how HMTCA students would face disciplinary action while taking classes at Trinity College have not been entirely settled in the school’s code of conduct.  It appears like a disciplinary strategy will be worked out in the two years between now and when the first HMTCA students step into a McCook classroom as students, but it is clear from the Great Path and Senate Bill 857 debates that the formulation of said strategy will likely be a contentious issue for HMTCA and Trinity College officials going forward.******

ADDENDUM: Great Path’s transfer from CREC to HPS was recently approved by the Board of Education at another meeting.  Here’s the article from the Hartford Courant.

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Example 1: Plagiarize the original text by copying portions of it word-for-word.

No measure is perfect, but the estimates of value-added and other “growth models,” which attempt to isolate the “true effect” of an individual teacher through his or her students’ test scores, are alarmingly error-prone in any given year.

Example 2: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, without copying it word-for-word.

There won’t always be stability in these rankings, but some of these will reflect changes in real performance.

Example 3: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, and include a citation. Even though you cited it, paraphrasing too closely is still plagiarism.

It’s difficult to have faith in performance evaluations if the chance of getting the same rating the next year is about as good as the odds when you flip a coin (Ravitch 271).

Example 4: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, and include a citation to the original source.

A teacher who is ranked at one level is not very likely to be ranked in the same level after the next evaluation (Ravitch 271).

Example 5: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, add a direct quote, and include a citation to the original source.

No measure is perfect, and value-added assessments have significant flaws as an evaluating tool because there is inherent “…instability in these rankings…” (Ravitch 271).

On “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

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Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary on the American public schools system released in 2010.  The film follows five children and their concerned parents beginning with their current situations in declining public schools and concludes dramatically with each family participating in a lottery admissions system for an elite charter school they expect will insure their children enjoy a life better than the one their parents and guardians enjoy.  The film not only depicts the process by which these families try and do right by their children, it also describes the narrative of decline the films producers, including famed writer and director Davis Guggenheim (24, An Inconvenient Truth) see as plaguing our nation’s public schools.

The film’s highly anticipated release occurred in September 2010, and prior to, and after its release it captivated the world of education policy.  The film was featured on the cover of Time, discussed on Oprah, and NBC devoted an entire week of programming to covering the films themes and heroes (Ravitch 252).  The films backers included the largest and most influential of foundations, and Bill Gates, one of the films experts, so successfully publicized the film through a $2 million donation (Ravitch 252).  In addition, the five children featured in the film were invited to the White House to meet President Obama after its release (Ravitch 252).  The films audience is primarily concerned parents and teachers (films website), and it is designed to show that the nation’s public schools are in a state of disrepair because their rigid design of 50 years is not compatible with contemporary economic and societal realities.  Schools are designed to “track” to insure that some kids go to college and others are prepared for entry into lower levels of employment, training or academia.  In a modern economy where almost everyone needs a college degree to insure success, the film argues that our educational system is neither prepared enough nor capable of achieving high rates of college acceptance.

If the current school system is the problem, then why not change it to make it more successful?  The film argues that the system has inherent hurdles that impede reform efforts, especially teachers unions.  The structure of the film highlights the current state of our system, contrasting it with how successful it was in the 1970’s.  ***Which, by the way, is a complete fallacy; we have never had the best school system in the world (Ravitch 249)*** As seen in the screenshot below they do an excellent cinematic job of showing the sad state of contemporary schools, utilizing dark music, dark colors and moving animated graphics to show just how bad our schools are today (seen at 0:18).

From there, the film showcases trailblazing charter school visionaries as the only people that can save our schools, our children and our society.  Specifically mentioned are Washington D.C.’s SEED boarding school program, Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, a newer suburban San Francisco charter school and the renowned Knowledge Is Power Programs, or KIPP schools.  The film is clearly designed to be a pro-charter school documentary with an anti-union focus (it specifically vilifies unions as one of the chief causes behind failing public schools) and it struck a powerful chord with the nation upon its release, although it was met with academic skepticism.  Several of the key facts stated in the film are only half-truths that, when exposed, attenuate their arguments.

First and foremost is the half-truth stated in the film’s first chart.   While America has doubled funding to public schools, it has gotten little to no positive output from said funding.  This statistic is crucial to the film’s argument that our school system, as currently constructed, is unable to break through the “achievement barrier” and carry America into the 21st century.  The truth of the matter is more complicated than indicated by the film however, and academics from across the field have criticized Waiting for “Superman” for this factual error.  The full truth is that the increased funds came with increased burdens for schools, as federal laws, economic realities, the drug trade and immigration patterns have brought a whole host of “high needs students” into public schools.  These students require tremendous resources to insure a proper education, but their lower academic ability causes test scores to suffer in public schools.  In contrast, charter schools can deny admission to “high needs students” or can counsel them out of their schools.  This has a double-edged affect on the comparison between traditional public and charter schools.  It results in charter schools skimming off the best, brightest, richest and most motivated students from public schools through lotteries and school choice (only knowledgeable parents have the wherewithal to enter their children in the lottery), and ends with public schools having the less motivated, higher needs students that charter schools do not admit (Ravitch 253-255).  If this trend persists, charters might outperform public schools, but their demographics will be starkly dissimilar.  Furthermore, the vast majority of charters are less successful than comparable public schools, and the system itself is fraught with waste, fraud and carelessness (Ravitch 141-143, The Myth of Charter Schools).

All in all, policymakers at local, state and federal levels have responded to the charter school movements well publicized “success” (even though the film admits only 1 of 5 charters achieves “amazing” levels of success promised by nearly all charter applicants) by increasing their charter licensing and by increasing funding to charter schools.  Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top use charter schools as either the example for success or as the avenue through success can be achieved when all else fails, and those decisions are supported by the dynamic cinematography and half-truths espoused by Waiting for “Superman”.  Needless to say, those who see charter schools as the future of schooling responded positively to the film.  The film’s sharp critiques have also been received by policymakers, and are increasing funding not just to increase the number of charter schools, but also to insure they admit the same demographic as traditional public schools do (Megan 1).

Overall, Waiting for “Superman”, despite its strong critics in the academic world, has had a tremendous impact on educational policy.  While it is obviously difficult to draw a correlation between recent increases in charter school funding and the film specifically, it is clear that the views espoused by the film are part of a growing wave of public opinion against traditional public schools and for charter schools, although said wave of opinion is most surely ill-informed on the subject given the dearth of evidence showing the ill-fated future of the vast majority of charter schools.  Ultimately, the film is not touting failing corporate charter schools however, but instead favors schools that have longer hours, increased attention for students, smaller classes and better teachers, although even two of the largest programs mentioned in the film (KIPP and HCZ) have had several well-publicized failures along with their successes.  The film has biases that might not be clear to the average viewer that does not research the film’s funding (especially with the vehemently pro-charter Gates Foundation), and half-truths that are most likely left unnoticed by the majority of viewers.  In the end, the film is most certainly influential, but given the lack of emphasis on telling the WHOLE story with regards to charters or on telling the entire truth with regards to the traditional public school system, and teacher’s unions (especially with teacher tenure), it is probably as manipulative as it is influential.

Works Cited

Megan, Kathleen. “Charter Schools Vow To Broaden Their Enrollment.” The Hartford

Courant Online. 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <,0,7200798.story>.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing

and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Ravitch, Diane. “The Myth of Charter Schools.” The New York Times [New York] 13

Jan. 2011, New York Times Book Review sec. The New York Review of Books. The New York Times, 2011. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <>.

Waiting for Superman. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. By Billy Kimball. Prod. Diane

Weyermann. Participant Media, Walden Media, 2010. DVD. Trinflix. Trinity College, Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <>.