Teachers union rekindles legal challenge of Florida school choice law

A lawsuit challenging Florida school choice legislation will continue, as Florida’s statewide teachers union has reworked its legal arguments and added public-school parents as plaintiffs.

The union filed an amended legal complaint Tuesday in Leon County Court, revamping its challenge of the law creating new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for disabled students and expanding access to tax credit scholarships.

The Florida Education Association argues lawmakers improperly combined too many unrelated provisions into a wide-ranging piece of education legislation on the last day of the legislative session.

A Tallahassee judge dismissed the case, deciding the plaintiffs could not show they were harmed by the legislation. They had a Wednesday deadline to rework their lawsuit to show they had standing to challenge the law.

Three public school parents have joined a history teacher from Southwest Florida as plaintiffs, arguing they are “threatened with injury” by the provisions of Senate bill 850, including the expansion of the tax credit scholarship program.

“The significant expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program … will result in additional funds being diverted from the public schools (including from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Lee County Public Schools) to private schools, thus further undermining the quality of education” in the public schools, the union’s lawyers argue in an updated legal filing.

The legislation, passed this spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, did not raise the cap on the amount of funding that could flow to tax credit scholarships. It did expand the pool of children who would be eligible, by increasing access for foster children and allowing families with higher incomes to qualify for partial scholarships.

Studies of the financial impact of the tax credit scholarship program have consistently found the program generates savings for the state.

The program is administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Coverage elsewhere:

Miami Herald

Gradebook

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Longtime Florida school boards leader announces retirement

Blanton

Blanton

From the News Service of Florida:

The head of the Florida School Boards Association is stepping down in February.

Wayne Blanton, who will have served as executive director of the organization for 30 years when he retires and who worked for the association for 10 years before that, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that he’s decided it’s time.

“Forty years is a long time to do the same thing,” said Blanton, 68. He said he will continue working on education issues and will do some consulting work, but not full-time.

“I’m retiring, but not disappearing,” Blanton said.

The association represents school boards before the Legislature, state agencies and the federal government.

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Rural charter schools only part of the solution

A couple education policy wonks have weighed in on whether rural charter schools help improve the education options in rural communities. Do they create welcome alternatives to district schools, or do they dilute already thinly spread resources?

Florida’s experience suggests the answer is: It depends.

Matt Richmond recently wrote that while charter schools might provide students better options in urban school systems, the opposite may be true in rural communities, which “have a much harder time attracting the kind of resources necessary to benefit from increased ‘choice.’”

Often times, a decreased government presence means fewer good choices and a decrease in quality of (affordable) options. In these cases, the market does not improve the situation; it only makes things worse. Consider rural school districts today: Many are faced with small (and shrinking) budgets, have a difficult time attracting and retaining quality staff, are burdened with large transportation costs, and have very little support from community organizations. Their largest challenges are tied to lack of connectedness to resources and economies of scale. Reducing the government’s role and introducing competition to that environment will only exacerbate current problems.

As Andrew Rotherham noted in a more recent response, the biggest challenges in rural districts tend to be issues of capacity.

One can argue that rather than more charters, what we have in rural education is too many charter-like schools now. Because of aspects of policy and benign neglect many rural schools enjoy a fairly high degree of flexibility, and by necessity autonomy, today.  Bootstrapping is common because there is more work than personnel to do it. So while the best charter schools increasingly leverage the power of network – basically becoming high-performing but not geographically contiguous school districts – rural schools are left on their own. It’s the romantic ideal of American education and it doesn’t work very well in too many cases.

That’s why a theory of action that posits that what these schools and communities need is more autonomy and flexibility raises some questions.

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, campaigns, charter schools and more

florida-roundup-logoLawsuits. An advertisement targeting the lawsuit against Florida’s tax credit scholarship program airs during Florida’s gubernatorial debate. Orlando Sentinel.

Campaigns. An Orlando Sentinel columnist castigates political mailers from a pro-school choice group. A spat over a pro-school choice group’s backing briefly sidetracks a Sarasota school board meeting. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Two education veterans angle for a Hillsborough school board seat. Tampa Tribune.

Charter schools. The Broward school district moves to close two charters, citing academic shortcomings and accounting problems. Sun-Sentinel. Lee county rejects five charter applications. Naples Daily News. A former city mayor questions the racial balance at a charter school. Extra Credit.

Career education. Vocational classes return to Flagler high school campuses. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Testing. The state needs fewer, better, meaningful tests, Patricia Levesque writes for Sunshine State News. More from Gradebook. Broward school board protests high-stakes testing. Sun-Sentinel. The Alachua school board calls for a delay of testing consequences. Gainesville Sun.

School boards. Wayne Blanton, the longtime leader of the Florida School Boards Association, announces his retirement. Gradebook.

Common Core. An anti-Common Core group is backing Gov. Rick Scott. Sunshine State News.

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Four districts apply for Florida charter school collaboration grants

Four of Florida’s largest urban school districts have applied for state grants intended help bring high-impact charter school networks into areas with high academic needs.

Six districts had a Friday deadline to submit proposals for the first-of-its-kind program, which is intended to stoke collaborations between districts and charter schools. The four districts to submit proposals to the state Department of Education were Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval and Hillsborough.

Documents seeking proposals for the grants, funded by Race to the Top and private philanthropy, say the plan calls for awarding three districts grants up to $3 million each. State charter school officials say they hope to decide which districts will receive grants before the end of the year.

Two of the districts now in contention – Miami-Dade and Duval – applied for initial planning grants, which means some hints of their plans have already been released. In a letter to the department, Duval schools officials said they were interested in expanding the district’s relationship with KIPP, which already operates a middle school and an elementary school in Jacksonville.

DCPS believes in educating all students and supporting them to reach their academic and civic potential, whether this occurs in traditional public schools or in a charter school. The community expects us to demand excellence at all schools. We believe this grant offers us the opportunity for the district to strengthen its relationship with a charter organization that has a proven track record of raising student achievement nationally, and most importantly, in Jacksonville. That charter organization is Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). What separates KIPP from other charter operators is their commitment to serving at-risk youth coupled with their ability to show results.

Hillsborough’s proposal involves working with a charter organization to target over-age middle-school students – a group considered at risk of dropping out, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said in an email. He said the district has not yet chosen the charter organization it plans to work with.

As noted recently in Education Week, what sets Florida’s effort apart from district-charter collaborations in other places is that it’s being driven by the state, and will be implemented in multiple districts at the same time.

In an interview with redefinED, Sarah Yatsko, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said for that reason, Florida’s effort will likely be watched around the country.

“I find this idea, and the work in Florida, to be exciting,” she said. “I do view it as the next phase of evolution in this work.”

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Florida roundup: School choice, campaigns, teachers and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. The Associated Press and Miami Herald break down Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist’s respective positions on school choice, including charters and vouchers.

Campaigns. A pro-school choice group, the Florida Federation for Children, gets involved in school board races and other campaigns. Sarasota Herald-TribuneWFTV. Party politics become a factor in a Volusia school board race. Daytona Beach News-Journal. A candidate in another Volusia race is criticized for supporting school choice and enrolling his children in private school. DBNJ. School board races heat up in Marion and Manatee Counties. Ocala Star-BannerBradenton Herald.

Teachers. The Orlando Sentinel profiles a teacher who, like many of her students now, grew up with financial struggles.

Private schools. The Lakeland Ledger profiles a principal at a private school that focuses on students who struggled in other settings. Lakeland Ledger.

Growth. Manatee schools see an influx of new students. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Testing. The Broward school board is poised to become the latest to back a statewide anti-testing resolution. Sun-Sentinel.

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FL’s school choice scholarship program is far cry from a ‘moneymaker’

FEA Vice President Joanne McCall

FEA Vice President Joanne McCall

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall has an obvious motive to discredit the nonprofit that administers a scholarship program she is suing, but her recent claims about its spending practices are nonsensical. Since they also track a growing teacher union narrative suggesting misappropriation in the tax credit scholarship programfor low-income students, they’re worth addressing.

First, the new claim. Asked to respond to a full-page advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat from a diverse coalition of faith, community and education leaders that urged FEA to drop its lawsuit, McCall told SaintPetersblog: “About 3 percent of that scholarship money is being used to do this media campaign, and I’m not sure that taxpayers want their money used for that.”

The money for the scholarship, now in its 13th year and serving nearly 69,000 underprivileged students, is raised and distributed almost entirely by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that also co-hosts this blog. So the implication is that Step Up is robbing from scholarship students to support a newspaper advertisement or media campaign that, by her math, would cost $10.7 million this year.

Since my own paycheck is from Step Up, I, too, have an obvious motive to try to discredit. But SaintPetersblog editor Peter Schorsch beat me to it. The claim was so preposterous that he apparently gave McCall the opportunity to edit her own quote. She declined, sparking Schorsch to call her “reckless” and “desperate.”

Unfortunately, it’s also becoming par for the course.

To set the record straight, the advertisement was financed by a group called HCREO, or Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options. The ad was placed by a top-drawer communications consultant, Sachs Media Group, that is being paid by the Alliance for School Choice, a national education advocacy group that is fighting the lawsuit. In other words, neither the ad nor the Sachs contract is being financed by Step Up.

The 3 percent, though, is not a number McCall pulled from thin air. Under Florida law, state-approved scholarship organizations that operate for three full years with clean audits are then allowed to keep up to 3 percent of the tax-credited scholarship contributions in subsequent years to pay for administrative expenses. Given that the scholarship program this year is $357.8 million, that administrative allowance is now $10.7 million.

The FEA has likened that allowance to a management fee or even a profit. At its announcement of the lawsuit in August, FEA attorney Ron Meyer went so far as to call the program “a moneymaker for scholarship funding organizations.”

If Meyer’s assertion were true, Florida would have nonprofits lined up to get a piece of the action. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, campaigns, STEM and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Collier families have few charter options available. Naples Daily News. Palm Beach charter schools are scrutinized for racial balance. Palm Beach Post. Only one charter school application remains on the table in Sarasota County as other applicants withdraw. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Campaigns. The Tampa Tribune notes charter schools and tax credit scholarships are two areas where gubernatorial challenger Charlie Crist’s views have shifted over time. Common Core opponents back Gov. Rick Scott over Crist. The Buzz. Hillsborough school board candidates spar over conservative credentials. Tampa Bay Times.

Tax credit scholarships. A Miami pastor who crticized a lawsuit challenging the program is honored by the statewide teachers union. Gradebook.

Retention. Students in struggling Pinellas schools often are not retained before third grade, despite evidence that early intervention is key. Tampa Bay Times.

STEM. A Polk County elementary school adds a new STEM-focused academy. Lakeland Ledger. Scientists need to work with schools and get students interested in science fields while they’re young, Paul Cottle writes in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Funding. Florida is among some 30 states where schools funding trails pre-recession levels. Palm Beach Post. Marion County voters will consider a tax to fund operations, including arts programs. Ocala Star-Banner. A former news anchor helps Orange County schools with PR on a tax referendum. Orlando Sentinel. A Palm Beach tax referendum targets funding for art, music and PE programs. Palm Beach Post.

Accountability. Bay County schools officials want the state not to issue letter grades to schools this year. Panama City News Herald.

English language learners. Florida and the federal government are at odds over how to incorporate ELL students into the state’s accountability system. Tampa Bay Times.

Readiness. SAT scores suggest larger numbers of Florida students fall short of being college-ready. Florida Times-Union.

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