What can Florida learn from open enrollment in Arizona?

Welcome to ArizonaThe Florida Legislature is considering expanding open enrollment for public schools and giving students more freedom to cross district boundaries.

What could change if parents are more able to move their children to schools outside their assigned zones? We can draw some insight from Arizona, which has had a statewide open enrollment policy for nearly two decades.

In a nutshell, public schools in the Grand Canyon State have taken more steps to attract students and please parents, by expanding special programs and marketing their schools.

“Open enrollment has really transformed public education in Arizona,” said Kristine Harrington, a spokeswoman for Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona. The district, she said, has responded to parent demands by creating more International Baccalaureate and magnet school programs, including schools that focus on science and robotics.

Schools near the borders of other districts almost always have long waiting lists, Harrington said. Some of the district’s high schools enroll as many as one third of the students from out-of-district addresses.

Florida’s school districts have embraced IB and magnet programs. In recent years, they’ve expanded them, and considered broader open enrollment policies, sometimes while speaking in explicit terms about competing with a growing charter school sector.

In Arizona, the greater freedom of movement among schools may have helped accelerate a similar trend.

“Open enrollment has been very, very popular,” David Garcia told the Arizona Republic. Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University, said more students use open enrollment to transfer to other public schools than enroll in charter schools. In a state with one of the highest percentages of charter schools in the country, that says something. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Testing, school choice, charter schools and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. The Florida House approves legislation that would expand public school choice and allow more students to attend schools across county lines. Associated Press. Sunshine State NewsTampa Bay Times columnist John Romano criticizes the school choice legislation. Escambia school board member Jeff Bergosh is unsurprised by objections emanating from “guardians of the status quo.”

Tax credit scholarships. The growth of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program may be limited next year by fundraising. Orlando Sentinel. The program is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Charter schools. The Palm Beach Post looks at proposed restrictions county officials may place on local charter schools. A South Florida charter school’s property changes hands. South Florida Business Journal.

Testing. The state faces a crisis of confidence in its new assessment system. Tampa Bay Times. Broward schools plan to do away with locally developed end-of-course exams. Sun-Sentinel. Some districts say they lack clarity on the state’s new testing and accountability law. Orlando Sentinel. The Sentinel‘s editorial board argues districts should be able to use other assessments, like the SAT.

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This week in school choice: As goes Florida…

In 2011, Arizona became the first state to allow parents to use state education funding to mix and match therapies, tutoring, school tuition and other services. Last year, Florida followed suit, creating Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for special needs students.

This week, the idea continued to spread. Legislatures in Tennessee (more here) and Montana approved their versions of education savings accounts.

In Florida, meanwhile, an expansion of the program has received unanimous support. (The author of this update is an employee of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the program.)

While education reform is at a crossroads, perhaps there’s a chance for a consensus around this idea: Give more options to students who need them the most.


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Bill expanding Florida special needs choice accounts passes unanimously



The Florida House this morning unanimously approved legislation that would expand access to the state’s newest parental choice program for children with special needs.

The legislation would allow children with muscular dystrophy and a broader range of students with autism to use Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, a cutting-edge program created last year.

The legislation would also open the program to three- and four-year-olds, expand the services that can be paid for with the accounts, increase oversight for the nonprofit organizations that administer the program, and allow them to collect administrative fees.

The largest such organization is Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Last year, Florida became the second state in the country to create an education savings account program, which allows parents of special needs children to use state education funding to pay for a range of education-related services, from private school tuition to therapies and textbooks.

Rep. Mike Bileca, R-Miami, backed the creation of the program last year, and helped shepherd this year’s bill, which no legislator has voted against. He said he’s been hearing from parents who have begun using the accounts.

“It’s been nothing short of life-changing,” he said before the bill passed 114-0. “Of all things that I’ve done personally on education in this chamber, there’s been nothing more powerful for me than being able to talk with these parents and hear their stories.”

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Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: All About the Volunteers

Mr. Gibbons' Report CardTennessee Education Report

Andy Spears of the Tennessee Education Report says sponsors of Tennessee’s new education savings account program for children with special needs don’t know much about the bill they just passed.

But it may be Spears who doesn’t understand the bill, as he spends more time speculating on parental rights than explaining what it would do. He also also incorrectly claims that Florida started a “similar program” in 1999.

First, let’s address Tennesee’s new school choice bill. The apparent confusion likely stems from a tendency among critics of private school choice to label all such programs as “vouchers.” Tennessee could soon become the fifth state to implement a flavor of school choice known as education savings accounts, which are different from traditional vouchers.

The new program would allow parents of students with Individualized Education Plans access to education savings accounts worth up to $6,600. The accounts will allow parents to pay for private school tuition, fees, textbooks, school supplies, curriculum, tutoring, exam fees, services contracted by a public school (including individual classes and extracurricular activities), college savings accounts, as well pay for therapies with the child’s physician and more. There is a similar program in Florida, but it started in 2014, not 1999.

The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee

Tennessee – The Volunteer State

The remainder of Spears’ article is dedicated to worrying about parent’s losing their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA was established to ensure that children with special needs had equal access to public education. Since its requirements don’t apply the same way to private schools in the same way as public schools, he worries students won’t get the services they would receive in a public school.

It is a fair concern, but Spears should stop and wonder why so many parents in Florida are have chosen private schools or home education. He might also wonder why, if IDEA ensured every child’s needs were met, a cottage legal industry of parent advocates has sprouted up to sue school districts on behalf of shortchanged students.

For some parents, having a choice protects their children’s rights more effectively than any regulation. It might not be for everyone, but neither is the status quo.

Grade: Needs improvement

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Florida roundup: Testing, school choice, charter schools and more

florida-roundup-logoTesting. Miami-Dade dramatically scales back required assessments. Miami Herald. WPLGStateImpact. Answer Sheet. Sunshine State News. Marion County considers seeking a state waiver from testing. Ocala Star-Banner.

School choice. Opportunity scholarships, one of Florida’s least-used school forms of school choice, won’t be available to new students next year. Gradebook. Charter school provisions are added to school choice legislation. redefinED. Gradebook. Scripps/Tribune.

Charter schools. Two Palm Beach charter schools, including one that is well-regarded, get bad marks from auditors. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. The district could place strict requirements on new charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The County Commission there makes way for a new charter on farmland. Sun-Sentinel. Southwest Florida’s WBBH investigates Lee County charter school bus inspection records and finds not every school keeps them.

Elections. A Hillsborough school board member plans to seek re-election. Tampa Tribune. A Tallahassee city commissioner announces plans to run to lead a district in turmoil. Tallahassee Democrat.

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Charter school changes added to public school choice bill in Florida House



Parents would have more ability to choose among public schools for their children, charter schools would face more scrutiny before opening, and some principals at traditional schools could enjoy more charter-like freedoms under a combined school choice package set for a final vote Friday in the Florida House.

The charter changes and principal autonomy programs had already passed the House, but were added to HB 1145 today to bring it closer to the Senate’s public school choice legislation.

The revised House legislation does not include a contentious plan to help fund charter school facilities with local property tax revenues. A range of funding issues are in flux because of a healthcare standoff that has deadlocked budget negotiations.

The revised House school choice legislation would also require school districts to give each parent a detailed breakdown of spending on their child’s programs, create a new Institute for Charter School Innovation at Florida State University, and offer new incentives for public schools to require uniforms.

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Charter school growth and district budgets



Recent news from Jacksonville, according to the Florida Times-Union: The Duval County School Board is predicting charter schools will continue to grow, drawing more students from district schools and creating a multi-million-dollar shortfall in the district’s budget.

There are a couple of things worth noting here.

  1. Duval’s superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, is not known for being reflexively anti-charter.
  2. The district has proposed closing its budget gap by drawing down reserves or eliminating instructional coaches. The former option isn’t sustainable; the latter option would threaten one of the main drivers of Florida’s recent gains in elementary school reading achievement.
  3. Limiting charter school growth  which by definition is happening because parents want more options  is not a solution. But it’s an idea traditional school advocates are getting behind.
  4. Those of us who support tearing down the walls between parents and the schools they want for their children can’t simply dismiss these budgeting problems as adult issues.

So what to do?

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