Ep. 301: Big Ideas — with Denisha Merriweather and Ron Matus

February 23, 2022

Ron Matus, director of policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students in Florida, and Denisha Merriweather, director of public relations and content marketing for the American Federation for Children, and the founder of Black Minds Matter, joins the show. Matus and Merriweather are the co-authors of a new report titled, Controlling the Narrative, Parental Choice, Black Empowerment and Lessons From Florida.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at Ed Choice, and this is another addition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m excited to be joined by two great guests. Ron Matus is the director of policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students in Florida, and Denisha Merriweather is the director of public relations and content marketing for the American Federation for Children, and the founder of Black Minds Matter. They are the co-authors of a new report titled, Controlling the Narrative, Parental Choice, Black Empowerment and Lessons From Florida. Which is the subject of today’s conversation. So Ron and Denisha, welcome to the podcast.

Denisha Merriweather: Thanks so much for having us.

Ron Matus: Yeah, thanks for having us, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: A little background before we dive into the podcast. Ron, you’ve worked at Step Up for as long as I’ve been involved in the School Choice Movement. Step Up For Students, of course, is the largest scholarship organization in the nation. You have the state’s largest tax credit scholarship program. Could you tell us a little bit about your organization and what you do?

Ron Matus: Sure, absolutely. And thanks very much for having us on and putting a little spotlight on the report, Jason. So Step up For Students is a scholarship funding organization. We’ve been around for a long time now, I’ve been here for 10 years. And we administer a number of the state’s school choice and education choice scholarship programs. So the biggest one, and the one that’s been around the longest time, is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. We’re actually celebrating the 20th anniversary of that this year. So we administer that program, we administer the family empowerment scholarship, the hope scholarship, and also reading scholarship accounts. All together, I think this year we’re serving somewhere around 180,000 students. So literally over the lifetime of Step Up, we’ve been serving hundreds of thousands of families through Choice.

Jason Bedrick: And Denisha, you are not with Step Up, but you have some very personal experience with Step Up. What’s that?

Denisha Merriweather: Yeah. So I’m a beneficiary of the Step Up For Students scholarship. And how I was thrust into this space, I tell people of education reform, I got the Step Up For Students scholarship from sixth to 12th grade to go to a small private school in Jacksonville, Florida. And it changed my life. I failed the third grade twice. I went from just knowing and believing I was dumb and stupid, couldn’t read and was probably going to become a teen parent, the rest of my life as a worker at a fast food restaurant, possibly. And that didn’t happen. I became the first in my family to graduate from high school, and I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree. And all along the way, I began to question the system and look at my own community, look at my family, and see the difference that education really made. And became more and more involved, got involved with Step Up by attending donor events. And then it just grew from there. It grew from attending donor events to MC-ing a 10,000 person rally at the state capital, when the teachers union sued the program, to working at the federal government with Secretary DeVos, to now working at the American Federation for Children and leading up this new project called Black Minds Matter. So it’s been a fun rollercoaster, and I’m actually on the board of Step up now, which that also happened this year. So it’s been a wild, wild ride.

Jason Bedrick: Well, congratulations. You’re doing phenomenal work, both of you. Denisha, maybe you could tell us a little bit more about Black Minds Matter.

Denisha Merriweather: Yeah. Black Minds Matter, I started this officially in February of this year, of 2021. And to bring awareness to the institutional inequalities in the education system, specifically for black students. I already knew it was an issue within my family, within my community, that the public school system didn’t serve us well. We’ve been championing the same message for a long, long time. And so when the world was looking at every organization and peeling back the covers to say, is there any remnants of institutional injustice? Is there any racism within our organizations? And we had syrup companies that changed the logos of their syrup bottles, and organizations who were saying, we might have some institutional inequalities. But no attention was given to the education system and the dismal effects that black students have when they’re not educated. We have the public school to prison pipeline, but there wasn’t enough attention on that. And so that’s why Black Minds Matter, that’s why we started to just raise awareness to say, we need to focus on the education system as well as everything else. We shouldn’t leave that piece out.

Jason Bedrick: Well, one of the things that you’ve been doing to raise awareness is obviously this report, which I first saw when you mentioned just a mind blowing statistic on Twitter, and I’ll just read your eat verbatim. Denisha you said, “Florida now has more than a hundred thousand black students enrolled in charter and private schools. That’s more black students enrolled in choice schools in Florida than 30 states have total black students, period. Including Arkansas, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.” That’s just amazing. Can you maybe just give us a little bit background of this, put that in context, what percent of black kids in the state is that?

Denisha Merriweather: So I’ll turn that question over to Ron. He’s the data and stats person.

Ron Matus: Sure. So it’s 112,000 black students in state-supported, non-district options as of last fall. So that’s roughly one in six black students in the state. And that’s up from one in 12 a decade ago. So this migration of black families in Florida from district schools to Choice schools is pretty huge.

Jason Bedrick: And this has been a long time coming. Charter schools have been around, I think in Florida, since the nineties. It was 2001 when Florida adopted tax credit scholarships. But there’s, you mentioned actually, a very long history of black families availing themselves of private school options. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that history? Starting, maybe, with Mary McLeod Bethune, who you mentioned in the report.

Ron Matus: I think there’s no doubt that there’s a long and troubling relationship between black families and public schools going back to the beginning. And we mentioned the Mary McLeod Bethune School, because that was a great early example of educational freedom. Mary McLeod Bethune came to Florida in the early 1900s after having been educated in all-black, faith-based schools and teaching in them. She came to Florida and there were public schools, segregated public schools for black students, but they were horrible. And so she on her own, with none of the resources that we have today through School Choice, created her own school. This was in 1904, it started out as a school for girls. And because she was so tenacious and brilliant, and would stop at nothing, she turned this school into a mighty institution that is now Bethune-Cookman University. There are many, many other examples of that. Less heralded examples of black educators and black communities, on their own, creating options that work for their kids. And we thought that was a really fitting one to include in this report. Because we’re now at a point where black educators all over Florida can create their own institutions, can create their own schools. We’re seeing it happen. And they don’t have to endure just the unbelievable obstacles that Mary McLeod Bethune did. Now with School Choice, if they’ve got a great idea, if they’re putting out a great product, if black families like what their kids are learning in those schools, they can create their own schools. And we’re seeing that happen all over the place. It’s weird that it’s an untold story to some extent, which is another reason why we thought it would be great to do this report. I mean, this is one of those stories that’s happening in plain sight. And yet I don’t think there’s that much awareness about the degree to which black families have migrated to Choice, and increasingly black educators are as well.

Jason Bedrick: And a part of this migration to Choice that you spotlight is the rising demand among black families to avail themselves of these options. So Denisha, maybe you could just talk a little bit about what your report says about the demand for School Choice options among black families.

Denisha Merriweather: The demand is there. And like Ron said, this is not something new, it’s not a new story. We’ve seen, ever since the formation of the Tax Credit Scholarship that students and parents have wanted this option. Even with Ron DeSantis winning as governor, there was an increased demand, and he was elected on the grounds of saying that he was going to eliminate the wait list program. Because there are so many students on wait list. We have over 100,000 students on wait list to receive the scholarship in Florida. So we have the one stat of 100,000 black students who are participating in Choice programs in Florida, but we also have 100,000 students who are on wait list to get into the school of their parents’ choice. Those numbers are humongous. And so when you look at that, that’s basically saying if all of those students who are off wait list, that would be 200,000 black students who are going to schools of their choice in the state of Florida. And that demand is definitely heartwarming to see, that parents want better for their kids. We often hear the myth statement that low-income parents don’t know how to pick the best schools for their kid, or they don’t care enough to put their kids in better schools. And that’s just not true. And based on the numbers, we can see that’s not true. A lot of parents in Florida do want better for their kids. And they just don’t want it, but they’re actively seeking out better options for their students. And the outcomes are proven in their favor, like the outcomes are increasing for these students who are going to Choice programs.

Jason Bedrick: Well, that’s a good segue to my next question for Ron. I mean, obviously this demand is being driven by something, and your report shows that parents have a very solid foundation for wanting to choose these schools because there is a lot of evidence that there are superior outcomes. So Ron, what can you tell us about the outcomes in the Choice schools in Florida?

Ron Matus: Whether you look at charter schools, or whether you look at private school choice scholarships, there is pretty strong evidence of improved academic outcomes and other outcomes. And there is a lot of research outside of Florida about some of those other outcomes, the non-academic positive outcomes, and we really didn’t get into that too much. But if you look at things like test scores, and I realize you take that with a grain of salt, but they are one indicator. If you look at black students in charter schools versus black students in district schools in Florida, there’s clearly better performance on the part of black students in charter schools. And that’s saying a lot, especially considering that black students in district schools are also showing a lot of improvement. So black students in Florida have gone from kind of the back of the pack, when you look at things like NAEP scores, in the nineties to now. And three out of the four core tests being amongst the national leaders. So black students overall are gaining ground. Black charter school students have even steeper trend lines than they do. So I think that’s very encouraging. It’s nowhere near enough, but it’s encouraging. It does show as Denisha said before, that when black families, and families period, have the power to choose what works for their kids, they do in fact, drive quality. They exercise that power wisely. The same thing is true, I think, with the outcomes for the private School Choice scholarships. Now, a lot of that data is isn’t broken down by race. So it’s not as clear-cut as we would like to see. But those programs are, at this point, largely for students of color. And we know from the test score data that those students came into the program being far behind their public school peers. But the longer they stay on the scholarship, the more ground they make up, because they’re basically now making a year’s worth of gains in a year’s worth of time. Beyond the test score data, we also have very good, compelling data from the Urban Institute. Which has done two reports now looking at the long range outcomes of Florida tax credit scholarship students, which is the main private school choice program. And it shows that those students are going to college and earning four-year degrees at much higher rates than like students in district schools. So put all that together, there’s a lot of compelling evidence that black students are benefiting from Choice options. And you see yet another reason why black families would flock to those choices.

Jason Bedrick: My closing question is a two-parter, and it’s for both of you. What do you see as the next steps for Florida? And what advice do you have for policy makers nationwide, based on the experience that black families have had in Florida?

Denisha Merriweather: So I think the first part of the question, this is an encouraging piece. This is nothing new. And for the folks who’ve been involved in the education space, we’ve known Florida to be a rock star for many, many years. But this piece is more of an encouragement, and to just spotlight all the awesome things that’s happening, not only for Florida students, but for the educators who are now becoming education entrepreneurs. And seeing that with the development of more Choice dollars, they can provide more innovative options for students. And so I think for the state legislature, it gives a new perspective on the use of these programs. Not only are people using them, but they want them. That’s something that Democrats shouldn’t be afraid, we have a lot of great democratic support in the state of Florida when it comes to Choice programs. And so this piece, I hope, will be an encouragement to them. Your support of these programs are definitely wanted and needed. And you have the constituency based to support you when you stand by students and not the system. Because not only are the outcomes benefiting students who are in the Choice programs, but students who are in the district schools are also having positive academic outcomes when Choice programs are expanded. That’s the same message nationwide. When other states are looking to create or expand programs, I think about the state of Nebraska that doesn’t have any charter law or any private school choice law. I’ve spoken with legislators there and they’re hesitant because they only know one type of, quote, “private school.” When Choice is involved, there are more innovative options. We have black school founders. And so these are innovative options for parents that could not have been created if the Choice Program didn’t exist. So there are many different takeaways, and a lot of myth busters that this paper definitely targets. And I just hope legislators will use this as a piece to see all the positive outcomes that students, families, and educators have when choice is expanded.

Ron Matus: I think that was very well said, Denisha. We are so lucky in Florida that we’ve had Choice for 20, 25 years now. Charter school is going back 25 years, private School Choice going back 20 years. And it’s sometimes odd to me to read the coverage, and hear the debate in other states where they don’t have as much School Choice. Legislature is considering a new School Choice program or expanding one that’s tiny. And you hear the same old arguments over, and over, and over again. From state to state, and year after year. And Jason the report that you just put out, in such a fun way, tackled some of that.

Jason Bedrick: [inaudible 00:16:19] was afraid of School Choice reports that we put out, which we have been affectionately calling Chicken Little. You point out all across the country they say, oh, if you pass a School Choice program, it’s going to destroy the public school system. Well, what happened in Florida? Right? Florida’s had it for 30 years. Has it destroyed the public school system in Florida? No. As your report shows, not only are the students participating benefiting, but the public schools have improved as well.

Ron Matus: Absolutely. Your Chicken Little report is the best ever. It’s just such a fun read, and such a creative way to push back against these myths. I’d like to think our little report could be kind of a compliment to that. Because in the same way, it points to a state where we can learn lessons because we have had School Choice for a long time. We do have evidence of outcomes, both for those students in the Choice programs and the students in the district schools. And the sky didn’t fall. We’re not where we need to be, there’s a million miles to go. But there’s no doubt that things have improved in the sunshine state because of choice. And the chapter on black families is one chapter in a bigger story, but a hugely important chapter. And it’s very compelling, and it illuminates the trends that we see for the story overall. So I’m hoping that folks in other states can use this as another tool to give them evidence, to beat back the myths, and to hopefully grow Choice in their states. As far as what we should do in Florida going forward, there’s no doubt that expanding Choice so far has had lots of positive benefits. So I hope we continue to do that. I think the more choice and the more flexibility with that choice, the better. Many families, including black families, appreciate education savings accounts. We’re going to see those numbers grow, I think, pretty significantly going forward. And it just opens up all kinds of opportunities for creativity and innovation. And we’re already starting to see that all over the place. Another story that’s happening right in front of us that doesn’t get covered. But I think we’re going to continue to expand Choice, or at least I hope so, and continue to expand flexibility within that choice.

Jason Bedrick: Well, there may still be a million miles to go, but Florida is about a hundred thousand miles ahead of most states. And they’ve really shown us what it means when policy makers step up and provide more options for families who are looking for them. Thank you both for joining today. Again, our guests today have been Ron Matus, the director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students. And Denisha Merriweather, the director of public relations and content marketing for the American Federation for Children, and founder of Black Minds Matter. Their report, which you can find online, it’s a fantastic report, I highly recommend it. Titled, Controlling the Narrative, Parental Choice, Black Empowerment, and Lessons from Florida. Thanks again for joining the podcast.

Denisha Merriweather: Thank you so much, Jason.

Ron Matus: Thanks, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for joining us. This has been another addition of Ed Choice Chats, the Big Ideas series. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the big idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice. And don’t for forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks so much, we’ll catch you next time.