FL teacher/union member: Lawsuit wrong against school choice program

A Florida public school teacher and teachers union member is speaking out against the lawsuit that threatens to dismantle the nation’s largest private school choice program – and take away the scholarship that is benefitting one of her children.

In an op-ed in today’s Miami Herald, Miami teacher and union steward Marlene Desdunes describes the lawsuit against Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which is serving about 69,000 low-income students this year, as spiteful and “antithetical to our values” as teachers. She writes:

How could we, in the name of teaching, uproot these children from schools that are working for them? No one asked me whether my $837 in annual union dues could be used to try to throw my daughter out of St. Mary’s, and this court fight is turning school and union leaders whom I admire into politicians that I hardly recognize.

In Miami-Dade, more than 18,000 students use the scholarship, and yet when some of the parents showed up at a recent School Board meeting to protest the lawsuit, the board voted not to even hear what they had to say. That’s a degree of callous indifference to poor parents of color that I don’t ever remember seeing from the School Board. Do children in our community not matter unless they attend a district-operated school?

Desdunes’s op-ed notes she is the mother of three students – one who attends a Miami-Dade district school, another who attends a private school with help from a tax credit scholarship, and a third who attends a private with help from a McKay scholarship for students with disabilities. She is also among 15 parents who were granted intervenor status earlier this month to help defend the program against the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups who filed suit against it Aug. 28. The program is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Desdunes isn’t the only public school teacher making her opposition known. Continue Reading →


Wishing for educational opportunity to be extended to all

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow

Editor’s note: This is the first post in our school choice wish series. See the rest of the line-up here.

The power of a scholarship can open up doors not only to a new school, but to a new path in life. That reality has brought one Denver man back to his roots, where he works full time to help provide those opportunities for a new generation.

Fifteen years ago, James Coleman was an African-American middle school kid living with his mom. They had been back in Denver for a year, after a painful separation from James’ stepfather in Florida. He had spent most of his young life with relatives in a gang-ridden neighborhood in Las Vegas.school choice wish 2014 logo

Back in the city of his birth, 12-year-old James seemed to be on a predictable, and not very hopeful, course. Enthralled with an urban subculture in which it was cool to act like a “punk,” he was getting in a lot of trouble at Smiley Middle School.

“My issue was discipline,” James tells me in a phone conversation. “As a result of not being disciplined, I wasn’t focusing in class. I was a distraction to other students, too.”

Enter ACE Scholarships, then a brand-new nonprofit organization dedicated to giving K-12 students private tuition aid. James’ mother learned about ACE from her friend Kathy Porter, whom the organization had hired to help administer the program.

An ACE scholarship helped give the young man a fresh start at Excel Institute, a Baptist school that primarily serves the African-American community. Administrator Vivian Wilson’s higher behavioral expectations, strictly enforced, set a tone for focused learning. So did the daily dress code.

“Black slacks, black tie, blue Oxford shirt, black shoes,” James quickly fires off. His recollection is noteworthy, considering he only spent the seventh grade at Excel. But it was consequential. “That one year set me straight.”

Thankfully, the ACE scholarship moved with James’ family as they relocated farther east to the city of Aurora. He attended Aurora Christian Academy for the next five years thanks, in part, to ACE’s support. His mom also sacrificed to cover part of the tuition, and the private school found additional resources as well.

That’s what James describes as the scholarship organization’s secret sauce: “ACE works because we don’t do it alone. The family comes to the table with funds; the community, through ACE, comes to the table with funds; and the private school also invests in the child. All three working together to give a child a better life.”

James earned his high school diploma at Aurora Christian with a lasting appreciation. He also met his future wife Shayna there. They are now blessed with 4-year-old twins. Continue Reading →


Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Charter school funds are mine, mine, mine

MrGibbonsReportCardThe Ohio Charter School Accountability Project

The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, an ally of the state teachers union, claims school districts in the state received $1,596 less per-pupil, on average, than charter schools from the state budget. With this dash of data, the organization argues districts end up subsidizing charter school enrollment by having to make up this difference through budget cuts or new taxes.

According to Aaron Churchill, a policy analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Accountability Project’s claims are only partially correct. Citing a report from the University of Arkansas, he notes charter schools do receive more in state funds than district schools, but get no local tax revenues. Overall, charter schools have about $2,400 per-pupil less to spend than district schools.

minebirdsLike most states, Ohio requires local districts to raise support for schools. To ensure equity between districts, the state provides more resources to poorer districts that cannot raise as much local support. A similar rationale comes into play for charter schools which, again, get no local support. The difference in state funding between charters and districts is exacerbated in the wealthier areas that receive little state support. If a rich district received $1,000 in state support and $9,000 in local support, the Accountability Project wants charter schools to receive ONLY the $1,000 in state support. That simply isn’t reasonable.

But does that mean districts are subsidizing charter school enrollment as the Accountability Project claims? Nope. “Their logic is tortured,” says Churchill.

Grade: Needs Improvement


Christian Schneider – Milwaukee Sentinel Journal columnist

Higher Ed Vouchers

What if there was a voucher that could be used at private religious schools and that fact bothered no one? What if that voucher program was so uncontroversial that public schools happily co-existed with publicly funded private options? That is the thought exercise Christian Schneider proposes to his readers in the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal before dropping a bomb: such a program already exists in Wisconsin. It’s just for higher education.

So why don’t K-12 school vouchers receive the same treatment? Good question.

Florida also has a highly popular, higher ed voucher (the Bright Futures Scholarship) that allows students to receive tax dollars to attend private religious schools. In fact, the program is so uncontroversial (at least in terms of where students choose to use the scholarships) that people even call it a scholarship, rather than a voucher. You’ll find few people doing the same for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which, by definition, is not a voucher. (The tax credit scholarship program is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: School grades, charter schools, salaries and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool grades. High school grades are out; graduation rates are up; results vary widely from one district to the next, but in general, school grades dropped due to a tougher state grading scale. Tampa Bay TimesMiami Herald. Florida Times-Union. Orlando SentinelPalm Beach Post. Tampa Tribune. Sun-SentinelOcala Star-Banner. Gainesville Sun. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Naples Daily News. Fort Myers News-PressBradenton Herald. Lakeland Ledger. Pensacola News-JournalDaytona Beach News-Journal. Tallahassee Democrat. Panama City News Herald. Northwest Florida Daily NewsBay News 9. Associated Press. Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. Florida Today. Charter schools rack up A’s and F’s. redefinED.

Charter schools. A parent writes to the Palm Beach Post supporting charter schools.

Politics. StateImpact looks at public opinion on Jeb Bush and Common Core.

Salaries. The Brevard school board cuts members’ pay to bring their salaries in line with teachers. Florida Today.

Budgets. Hernando County, home of a failed schools tax referendum, looks to learn from other counties that passed them. Tampa Bay Times. The Brevard school board begins making plans for its sales tax revenue. Florida Today.

Testing. Brevard lawmakers hear from the public on testing, teacher evaluation and more. Florida Today.

Administration. The Manatee school board attorney sides with district staff on a controversial hiring decision. Bradenton Herald.

Teachers. Leon County Schools name their teacher of the year. Tallahassee Democrat.

Boundaries. The prospect of school rezoning makes some communities anxious. Tampa Bay Times.


Florida charter schools post more A’s, more F’s in latest high school grades

Charter school A-F graph

As is often the case, Florida’s charter schools were likely to earn both A’s and F’s than their district counterparts.

Dozens of Florida charter schools withstood tougher high school grading rules and kept their top marks in a new state accountability report released today.

For both charter and district schools, there were more F’s and fewer A’s in Thursday’s annual release of high school grades than a year ago. Elementary and middle school grades came out earlier this year.

In what has become a familiar pattern, charters were more likely than district schools to land at either the highest or lowest ends of the grading scale, and less likely to receive B’s and C’s.

Just over 56 percent of charter high schools earned A’s for the 2013-14 school year, a decline of about 10 percentage points from a year earlier. The percentage of A-rated district high schools fell to 32 percent, from nearly 48 percent a year earlier.

All but four of the 39 charter high schools that received A’s in 2013 held on to their grades. Two more rose to A’s this year, including Marco Island Academy in Collier County, which climbed all the way from a D.

One Central Florida charter school – Acclaim Academy of Florida Inc. in Osceola County – faces automatic closure after receiving its second-consecutive F.

The declines came despite another round of good news for the state’s high schools: Florida’s statewide graduation rate climbed another half a percentage point last school year. It now tops 76 percent, an all-time high.

On a conference call with reporters, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said this reflects an upward ratcheting of state grading standards. Last year’s strong performance triggered an automatic toughening of the grading scale for high schools.

The state is now moving to new standards and new tests, which will bring another overhaul of the formula used to calculate the letter grades expected to be issued next fall. While they will be measured by a different yardstick, and the consequences of school grades will be suspended for one year of transition, Stewart predicted the higher standards would lead to better results in  the long run.

“Historically that is what has happened,” she said. “As we’ve raised the bar, (student) performance has adjusted and moved up.”


10 school choice wishes

school choice wish 2014 logoIf you could change one thing to move the ball on parental school choice, what would it be? As we’ve done the past couple of years, we posed that question to a range of folks in the school choice universe. Over the next two weeks, we’ll publish their responses.

Our contributors reflect the incredible diversity of voices supporting choice – voices many of us find compelling and complementary. They are Republican and Democrat; conservative and liberal; black, white and Hispanic. Folks from think tanks and advocacy groups and academia kindly took time to weigh in. So did a community organizer and a school board member. So did a mom.

Here’s the line-up:

Friday: Dec. 19: Ben DeGrow, education policy analyst with the Colorado-based Independence Institute.

Monday, Dec. 22: Peter Hanley, executive director of the American Center for School Choice.

Tuesday, Dec. 23: Sharhonda Bossier, vice president, advocacy and engagement, at Education Cities.

Wednesday, Dec. 24: Rev. Timothy Scully, founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame.

Friday, Dec. 26: Two posts: The first by Charles Glenn, noted education researcher at Boston University; the second by Jason Crye, executive director of Hispanics for School Choice.

Monday, Dec. 29: Wevlyn Graves, a Florida parent of a tax credit scholarship student.

Tuesday, Dec. 30: Nicole Stelle Garnett, professor at Notre Dame Law School and co-author of the 2014 book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America.”

Wednesday, Dec. 31: Gary Beckner, founder and executive director of the Association of American Educators.

Friday, Jan. 2: Jeff Bergosh, a member of the Escambia County (Fla.) School Board. Continue Reading →


Eric Garner and the soul of education reform: Derrell Bradford, podcastED

Eric Garner protest

Photo via Graeme Stoker.

The tragedies that drew thousands of people into the streets in cities around the country this past weekend have also prompted soul-searching in the education reform movement.

If our goal is to respond to the educational needs of disadvantaged communities, can we ignore the other injustices in their lives? How can we help transform the institutions that failed Eric Garner, long before he died at the hands of New York City Police?

Derrell Bradford, executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, wrote this reaction to the non-indictment of the officers responsible for Garner’s death, which is worth reading in full:

These children, overwhelmingly black and brown, are financial assets of the highest order. Despite this, they graduate from high school with limited economic possibilities and, very likely, broken souls. And like many other young black men whose God-given potential has been squandered in schools with long histories of underperformance, they act out in a manner that ultimately becomes criminal. Here we find Garner, who despite being described by his minister as a “gentle giant,” was arrested almost 30 times during his life-cut-short, and more than once for selling loose cigarettes. And while he spent nights in local precincts, and other men like him spent nights in prisons, they again gave the city and the state the right to tax on their behalf. This time, however, it was not for his or their own freedom or safety, but for the ostensible freedom and safety of others. According to Pew, in 2010 black men were six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. In New York City it costs $167,000 a year to keep a person jailed. The average corrections officer with 10 years on the job makes $60,000 annually.

Continue Reading →


Raoul Cantero on the legal landscape for school choice scholarships

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero: "While I disagreed with the result of Bush v. Holmes, fortunately that decision does not dictate that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is unconstitutional. A key reason is that a tax credit scholarship is legally distinct from a directly appropriated scholarship."

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero: “While I disagreed with the result of Bush v. Holmes, fortunately that decision does not dictate that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is unconstitutional. A key reason is that a tax credit scholarship is legally distinct from a directly appropriated scholarship.” (Photo credit: Johana Sanchez)

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the state’s first K-12 voucher program in 2006, but that decision “does not and should not apply” to the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which is now under legal attack by the Florida teachers union and Florida School Boards Association, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero said last week.

In a keynote address to the Hispanic Coalition for Reform and Educational Options, Cantero noted important distinctions between vouchers and tax credit scholarships, and offered wide-ranging views on the legal landscape for such programs. Cantero was a dissenter to the majority decision in Bush v. Holmes, but we think his views are worth considering no matter where you stand on school choice.

The former justice is helping to represent 15 scholarship parents who have intervened to defend the scholarship program, with the costs paid for by the Alliance for School Choice. As always, we note the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. Here are Cantero’s prepared remarks in full:

Good afternoon. I am so honored to be here at the HCREO National Summit. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. Making sure all of our children have the opportunity to succeed, particularly those children of modest means, has always been important to me. Providing educational opportunities for all children in our community, not just those in living in the right zip code, is the proven way to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in life. I appreciate all that HCREO does on this front, for I believe access to meaningful educational opportunities is one of the civil rights struggles of our generation.

Here in Florida, as part of the legal team defending the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from constitutional challenge, I have the privilege to play a small part in furthering the opportunities for educational choice for the neediest members of our Hispanic community. I know many of you are familiar with this scholarship program, but for those of you who are not, let me give a short description.

The Florida Legislature created the tax credit scholarship program for low income children in 2001. Under this program, private companies may donate funds to a non-profit scholarship funding organization. The company receives up to a 100 percent tax credit for their donation. The non-profit organization awards scholarships to low-income children, and they use the scholarships to pay for tuition at the private school of their parents’ choice. About 1,500 private schools in Florida accept scholarship students under this program, and there are now roughly 70,000 children using this program statewide, with over 400,000 total scholarships awarded since 2001.

The average household income of the scholarship families is about $24,000. And roughly 75 percent of the students are minorities. 40 percent are Hispanic. Studies of test scores show that the students entering the program are the worst performers in their public schools, but improve their overall educational performance in their new environments. And the program even improves the academic performance of the regular public schools.

Now, note this crucial aspect of the program: the scholarship money goes from the participating private company, to the non-profit, and then to the school at the parent’s direction. The money donated for scholarships never makes it into the state Treasury and is never appropriated by the Legislature, any more than any other charitable contribution by a private corporation or an individual that results in a tax credit or deduction. Continue Reading →