Corporate contributions are a good fit for Georgia’s scholarship program

Editor’s Note: The following commentary was published today on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation Forum. It is in response to a previous Forum post by Georgia GOAL founder Jim Kelly.

GPPF-LogoFlorida is one of 14 states that provide tax credit scholarships to children who can’t afford a private school, and a financial approach born of necessity has become one of its greatest strengths. Since the state has no personal income tax, its scholarship relies exclusively on tax-credited contributions from companies.

Those contributions, in turn, have fueled the largest scholarship program in the nation.

In its 13th year, the Florida program is now serving nearly 69,000 of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students in more than 1,500 private schools. The total contributions this year will approach roughly $350 million. In 2012, Education Week described the Florida scholarship law as a national “model.”

The scholarship serves truly needy students, and test scores show they are making solid academic gains. The average household of 3.8 persons has an income is $24,156, or 5 percent above poverty. More than two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic, more than half from single-parent homes. More telling, these students were the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left behind, and for six consecutive years they have achieved the same standardized test score gains as students of all income levels nationally. Continue Reading →


Wishing outrage extended to America’s two-tiered education system



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

I wish those who are outraged and protesting that “black lives matter” over the two-tiered policing and criminal justice system would connect the dots and express similar outrage over our two-tiered, state-operated, feudal education system. Why do so few similar demonstrations occur, and never with a statewide or national scope, about the outcomes American education provides to families generally, but particularly for African-Americans, when the effects on lives are at least equally devastating?school choice wish 2014 logo

At the surface, America has these two exemplary 21st Century societal systems that represent the very core of its founding beliefs – equality, justice, and fairness. Criminal law is not race- or class-based as written in statute. Everyone is equal before the law and no one is above it. Public education is free and, since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, universally open and equal for all. The double standards that in fact exist are neither explicit nor openly condoned. We have reams of data to document the injustices at the hearts of both systems.

From speeding tickets to drug arrests through convictions to imprisonment, African-Americans (as well as Latinos and poor people of all colors) are disproportionately represented, often grossly so. In the 2011 U.S. Department of Justice’s report, Contacts Between Police and the Public, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that while white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped at similar rates nationwide, black drivers were three times as likely to be searched during a stop as white drivers, and twice as likely as Hispanic drivers. During a more than 20-year period, white secondary students were slightly more likely to have abused an illegal substance within a month than a black student, yet black youths were arrested at twice the rate. Although black Americans make up only 12.7 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 48.2 percent of adults in federal, state, or local prisons and jails.

All Americans accused of a crime have an absolute right to an attorney, but the quality of that defense is inconsistent at best. More than 70 percent of American public defenders’ offices reported extreme or very challenging funding issues in 2012. On average, each public defender handled more than one new case for every day of the year at a rate of $414.55 per case. Given that the poverty rate for both African-Americans and Latinos is about 25 percent compared with 9 percent for whites, many more minorities are affected by this overburdened system.

If convicted, Supreme Court decisions that have made an “inadequate defense” argument nearly impossible to win on appeal only further weaken efforts that advocates make for increasing funding for public defenders. Courts have upheld convictions even when defense counsels have slept during trials, used cocaine and heroin throughout trials, and admitted they had not been prepared on the facts or law of the case.

These “dots” that have stirred outrage connect easily into an education system that falls far short of its promise for equality and justice. As the Alliance for School Choice recently noted, 75 percent of state prison inmates are high school dropouts. This failure feeds the criminal justice system.

We are making slow progress to increase parental choice, but most students remain assigned to schools via ZIP code. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Personalization, charters, lawsuits and more

florida-roundup-logoPersonalized learning. With the help of technology and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pinellas County schools plan to transform their classrooms and course structures to better tailor them to individual students. Tampa Bay Times.

Tax credit scholarships. A public school teacher describes the benefits of Florida’s scholarship program in a Miami Herald guest column opposing the lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. In the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, a school administrator criticizes a column by a local school board member that cited the wrong study when describing scholarship students’ learning gains. The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Charter schools. Recently shuttered charter schools owe the Palm Beach County school district thousands of dollars.  WPEC. A network of Southwest Florida municipal charter schools gets a new leader. North Fort Myers Neighbor, via Gradebook.

School choice. Lee County’s schools superintendent talks open enrollment with local business leaders. Fort Myers News-Press. Students in a Polk County choice program called Rock and Roll Academy learn to play pop songs in music classes. Lakeland Ledger. A new collegiate high school program in Walton County sees encouraging results. Northwest Florida Daily News. Students in that district may soon have access to a new engineering academy. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Early learning. Duval early learning advocates celebrate the anniversary of a school rating and information system. Florida Times-Union.

Special needs. A private college’s new program helps special needs students prepare for life on their own. Bradenton Herald.

Continue Reading →


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

thanks_teacherA 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 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.”