Charters, disadvantaged students, and arguments about education

Jack Schneider is an education historian who studies the arguments people make about schools, and host of an Education Week blog on that topic. Recently, he contended charter schools were harming the most disadvantaged students, and I took issue with that claim.

To his credit, he let me state the case, and I think the resulting exchange was fair.

He’s right that charter schools, by their nature, are going to draw students who have certain advantages (namely, parents who care enough about their education to actively seek other options). And the evidence he cites on “peer effects” raises a real issue for the school system as a whole. But I also think so-called cream-skimming isn’t inevitable:

There is a stereotype that low-income or disadvantaged families are less likely to be engaged in their children’s education, and therefore less likely to participate in school choice. Participation data from the Florida tax credit scholarship program (Disclosure: My employer helps administer this program)—which is open only to low-income families—suggest it’s not true. We’re seeing the opposite. Students who actually use the scholarships to attend private schools tend to be from families with even lower incomes than the overall pool of low-income families who qualify, and annual program evaluations show that tendency is getting stronger over time. Their test scores also tend to be lower than their peers. Yet their parents are engaged enough to actively choose to send them to other schools.

This is a means-tested private school choice program, so the experience of those parents might be different from those who enroll in charters. But there’s also evidence to suggest that school choice is fungible for at least some families. That is to say, some families who accept private school scholarships might just as well opt for charters, career academies, or other district-operated schools of choice when those are accessible to them.

It’s a long post, so check out the whole thing.

Schneider, meanwhile, takes issue with horse-race comparisons between public schools and charter schools, especially those that rely on narrow measures like test scores.

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School choice scholarship gives FL family more nurturing options

The Nelson family

The Nelson family

After looking at the school options for her firstborn, Benjamin, Autumn Nelson of Yalaha in Lake County, didn’t like what she saw.

“We wanted an environment that was really nurturing and we just didn’t see that in our neighborhood school,” Autumn said.

 The neighborhood school they were zoned for was a D and has since fallen to an F, so she started homeschooling. When it got closer for her younger children, Nathaniel and Meghan, to start school, she rethought that option, too.

“Looking down the pipeline and seeing that I had two more coming up, I knew that it was going to be a little too stressful for me for me to homeschool all three,” Nelson said.

She and her husband, Daniel, started looking at private schools and learned about Step Up For Students school choice scholarships, but at the time students had to attend a public school for a year prior to becoming eligible for the scholarship. The Nelsons obtained a zone waiver for Benjamin, so he could attend a public school outside of his neighborhood for a year and become eligible for Step Up. This one was rated a C.

“He cried every day. Every day,” Autumn recalled.

Nathaniel, however, was able to start at kindergarten at Liberty Christian Prep School in Tavares with the help of a Step Up school choice scholarship. The family immediately fell in love with the school, even Benjamin, who looked forward to starting there the following year. He would attend fairs at the school and was very impressed the teachers knew his name even before he began attending.

When he could start at Liberty in third grade, everything changed for Benjamin.

“His first day at Liberty he said he loved his teacher, and he wanted to stay at the school forever.  As a mom, that sealed the deal for me,” said Autumn.

Now all three of her children attend the school and are doing well.

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Florida schools roundup: Testing, lawsuits, poverty and more

florida-roundup-logoTesting. A testing compromise may suspend the using of testing for third grade retention. Associated Press. Miami Herald. A Pasco parent is part of a new state advisory panel on standards and testing. Tampa Bay Times.

Lawsuits. NBC Miami looks at the lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, and the teachers union argues the program is no longer needed because public school choices have grown. The scholarships are administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Jeb Bush. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer is the latest to look at the former Florida governor’s education record.

Teachers. Collier school board members raise concerns about political advocacy by teachers. Naples Daily News.

Poverty. A new center in Eastern Hillsborough County aims to provide clothing and other necessities to children in need. Tampa Bay Times.

Athletics. Some high school coaches are outraged by legislation aimed at the Florida High School Athletic Association and the relationship between athletics and school choice. Tampa Bay Times.

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Expansion of special needs scholarship accounts advances in Florida Legislature

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

More Florida students will be able to access the state’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts under legislation now ready for floor votes in both chambers.

The bills, approved unanimously by House and Senate panels this week, would allow more students to qualify for the accounts, which help parents pay for tutoring, therapies, private school tuition and other education-related expenses for special needs children. The House proposes $31.9 million for 2015-16 and the Senate proposes $50 million. For the first year, the state appropriated $18.4 million.

This school year, two scholarship organizations have awarded more than 1,700 student accounts. One of those organizations, Step Up For Students, co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

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Tampa private school excels at chess

Michael Young with Munoz

Young talks strategy with seventh-grader Jonathan Munoz during class recently. Jonathan, 13, won first place at the recent state scholastic chess tournament. Photo by Sherri Ackerman

When fifth graders enroll at Tampa’s Academy Prep Center, they usually haven’t played chess before.

But they learn quickly, as a group of sixth- and seventh- graders showed when they traveled to a state chess tournament in Miami last weekend, and came home with a win.

They took the top two spots in their division, and four out of the top 10 in a field of about 50 students. The five students who entered in the K-8 Under-900 division all placed in the top 20, and their team brought home the state trophy (find the full results here).

Their private school caters exclusively to low-income students. It teaches all of them chess.

Michael Young, who teaches Academy Prep’s chess classes and coaches its teams, said learning the game can help students develop important skills: Focus, patience, pattern recognition, creative problem-solving.

It can also give them a chance to travel to other cities and compete with more affluent peers. The students who competed in the Florida State Scholastic chess Championship hadn’t been exposed to the game before they arrived at the school. Continue Reading →


Expanding public school choice: It’s about logistics


Rep. Chris Sprowls

School districts and their representatives raised a number of logistical issues as a Florida House panel advanced a bill that would expand public school choice and give students more freedom to cross district lines.

It seems like a simple concept: Allow parents to enroll their children in any public school where there’s room.

The bill cleared the K-12 Subcommittee with bipartisan support, but not before its sponsor, Rep. Chris Sprowls, a freshman Republican from Palm Harbor, fielded a litany of questions about how it would affect everything from funding to high school athletics.

Ruth Melton of the Florida School Boards Association praised the idea of promoting school choice among districts, but suggested lawmakers look for more ways to accommodate low-income families who want to take advantage of the bill.

“There are a number of concerns,” she said, “… but none of them insurmountable.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues that came up:


Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, wanted to know what the “rationale” was for allowing students to attend public schools across district lines.

Sprowls’ short answer: “Opportunity, sir.”

He elaborated: “We can’t always choose where we come from, what neighborhood we’re born into. But what we can do as a Legislature is do what we’re trying to do with this bill, to empower parents, regardless of where they come from or what neighborhood that they’re in. It’s to give their child an opportunity. That opportunity, hopefully, is right down the street. But if it’s across the bridge, in another school district, they’ll have that opportunity as well.”

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Florida schools roundup: School choice, Jeb Bush, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. A Florida House panel approves a bill expanding public school choices. News Service of Florida. Gradebook.

Charter schools. The Polk County School Board plans to take a proposed charter school to court after the state Board of Education approved its appeal. Lakeland Ledger.

Testing. Education organizations continue to raise testing issues in the Legislature. Gradebook. Spring break study camps help kids bone up for assessments. Orlando Sentinel. A Southwest Florida group protests testing. Naples Daily News.

Jeb Bush. The Daily Signal looks at the former governor’s education record in Florida.

STEM. Just because a science course is advertised as college-level doesn’t mean it will help students build toward a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Bridge to Tomorrow.

Security. A bill allowing armed security guards at schools would address an with security guards that flared last year in Manatee County. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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Florida House panel approves public school choice bill

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

A bill that would allow parents more freedom to choose where their children go to school was overwhelmingly approved Tuesday by a House panel, even as some critics and educators worried the legislation is moving too quickly.

The measure (HB 1145) – sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor – was approved by the House K-12 Subcommittee in an 11-2 vote, with two Democrats joining the panel’s nine Republicans in voting for the bill.

It would allow parents to transfer their students to any school in the state that had not reached 90 percent of its capacity, regardless of county lines. It would also require districts to set up a process for parents to request that their children be removed from teachers’ classes.

Supporters have touted the legislation as the logical extension of the state’s school-choice reform movement, while opponents have raised questions about whether the process could be orderly.

Even speakers who were not overtly opposed to the bill raised questions about whether the legislation is too ambitious. Vern Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for Palm Beach County schools, said the July 1 effective date of the legislation could force school districts to adjust quickly to the new landscape.

“To try to have this implemented this next school year is something resembling organized chaos,” he said. Continue Reading →