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FL families begin using new parental choice scholarship accounts

One of the nation’s newest parental choice programs is shifting into higher gear.

PLSAFamilies of hundreds of Florida students with significant special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, have been given the green light to begin using Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for the 2014-15 school year.

So far, parents of more than 1,200 students have been awarded PLSAs, which give them the resources and flexibility to access a range of educational services, including private schools, tutors, therapists, curriculum and materials. The Florida program is the second of its kind in the country, and some education policy experts see it and a similar program in Arizona as models for a new wave in parental choice.

Last week, the parents of 616 students were notified that they can begin using the accounts, which are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students (which also co-hosts this blog and administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students). Parents of 298 more are expected to get the same notification in a few weeks.

The PLSA program was passed by the Legislature last spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 20. The scholarships are available to students in kindergarten through 12th grade with one of eight diagnosed disabilities. The state set aside $18.4 million for the first year of the program – enough for an estimated 1,800 students awarded an average of $10,000 each. To date, the parents of more than 4,500 students have started applications.

The scholarship accounts allow participating parents and service providers to be reimbursed for a wide range of state-approved educational services and materials. For expenses that are not pre-approved, parents can submit requests for consideration prior to incurring the expense. There is also a payment process for parents with special circumstances who cannot make purchases out of pocket.

Parents and providers can track invoices and payments electronically. Funds that aren’t used roll over to the next year. They can continue to be used for education-related expenses until the student graduates from a post-secondary education institution, such as a college or technical institute, or has gone four consecutive years after high school with no further education. At that point, the account is closed and any remaining money reverts to the state.

The application process for the new scholarships opened on July 18, two days after the Florida teachers union filed suit against SB 850, the bill that created the PLSA program. A Leon County circuit judge dismissed the suit on Sept. 24, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case. The teachers union filed an amended complaint on Oct. 22.

Parents of students with special needs have welcomed the program, and several PLSA parents are intervenors in the union lawsuit. See here and here for other recent coverage.

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Former school choice scholarship student tells success story in WSJ

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha Merriweather

Switching to a different school didn’t just make dreams come true, “it allowed me to have dreams I didn’t know I could have,” writes a former school choice scholarship student in an op-ed published today in the Wall Street Journal.

Denisha Merriweather of Jacksonville, Fla., says by fourth grade, she disliked school so much she thought she’d eventually drop out. But at the urging of her godmother, and help from a tax credit scholarship for low-income students, she enrolled in a private school, graduated with honors and became the first member of her family to attend college. A few months ago, she earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science and is now headed to graduate school.

“This didn’t happen by chance, or by hard work alone,” she writes. “It happened because I was given an opportunity.”

Merriweather’s piece notes the lawsuit that the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed Aug. 28 to end the 13-year-old scholarship program, which is administered by non-profits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. The program serves nearly 70,000 students this fall, more than two thirds of them black or Hispanic.

Merriweather is also featured in a new TV ad, paid for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which encourages the teachers union and school boards association to drop the lawsuit. In the Wall Street Journal, she said she hopes people who care about disadvantaged children pause to hear stories like hers. Read the full op-ed on the Wall Street Journal here.

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Ending school choice for 68,000 low-income kids? “That’s just wrong”

A new video spotlighting a former Florida tax credit scholarship student is urging the Florida teachers union and Florida School Boards Association to drop its lawsuit against the nation’s largest private school choice program. It appeared in some Florida TV markets last night during the gubernatorial debate between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

Financed by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the video features Denisha Merriweather, who became the first member of her family to graduate from college and is now headed to graduate school. The 13-year-old scholarship program serves more than 68,000 students this year, two-thirds of them black or Hispanic. It’s administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

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Rubio: Attack on school choice in FL should concern parents everywhere

From an op-ed on FoxNews.com today authored by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio:

Sen. Rubio

Sen. Rubio

Last year in my home state of Florida, over 40% of children educated with taxpayer funds didn’t attend their zoned public school. They attended district run magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools and dual enrollment programs with colleges. This customization has enabled Florida to have great achievement gains for its lower-income and minority children over the last decade.

For 13 years, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has played a critical role in this progress. The program provides tax credits to companies that donate to scholarship-granting organizations. It’s been so successful in Florida that I used it as a model for federal legislation I’ve introduced.

Today roughly 68,000 low-income parents use the program to send their child to a school that better fits his or her unique learning needs. Test scores show that these children were the lowest performers in their public schools when they left but now see learning gains equal to children of all incomes.

Incredibly, in spite of this clear success, the Florida teachers union and the Florida School Boards Association filed suit in August to shut down the program. 

Should the suit succeed, these 68,000 needy children – 70% of which are either African-American, or of Hispanic or Haitian descent – will be evicted from their chosen schools. Further, hundreds of private schools in Florida serving minority children will be forced to close their doors.

Although this is happening in Florida, it should concern all parents across the entire country who want and deserve the freedom and opportunity to give their kids better education options.

Full op-ed here.

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Civil rights leader: FL school choice program strengthens public education

Rev. Matthews

Rev. Matthews

Last month, Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights leader in Florida who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, pleaded with Charlie Crist to publicly denounce the lawsuit against the tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. Crist would not do so, but Matthews has not given up his fight against the suit.

In an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat, Matthews called the lawsuit filed Aug. 28 by the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association, Florida NAACP and other groups “hard to stomach.”

“The truth is that wealthy children have always had choices, whether to neighborhoods with favored public schools or private schools that only money can buy,” Matthews wrote. “The union cries foul when that privilege is extended to those of meager financial means.”

Matthews is part of a politically diverse coalition opposed to the lawsuit that includes a number of prominent black ministers like himself. Nearly 70,000 students are being served by the program this year, more than two-thirds of them black and Hispanic. The program is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In the op-ed, Matthew said he and other school choice supporters are not knocking public schools, calling them “the lifeblood of education.” “But the world is changing, and education needs to change as well,” he continued, noting the proliferation of other school choice options, including magnet schools, charter schools, virtual courses and career academies.

“The scholarship is not an educational miracle,” he concluded. “It’s simply an option that can work for some students but not all. The fact that it grants opportunities to economically disadvantaged students and those of color is something that gives hope to an old civil rights warrior like me.” Read the full post here.

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Charlie Crist: I switched on school choice because of Rick Scott

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Where does Charlie Crist, the now-Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, now stand on tax credit scholarships for low-income students?

As governor, Crist signed the largest expansion of the scholarships into law, but as a candidate he has mostly avoided the subject. A few weeks ago, when asked by a Miami Herald reporter, he refused to condemn the lawsuit that the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed Aug. 28 to end the program. On Sunday, on a Miami TV program, he acknowledged he has changed his views on the scholarship.

Below is a transcript of the exchange (at roughly the 5 minute mark) between Crist and the Channel 10 anchors.

Channel 10: “In 2010, when you were governor, you signed an expansion of the private school tax vouchers. That was something you were very supportive of. Now that’s in litigation with the Florida Education Association, with the union. And now you have said you are against those private school tuition vouchers. What was that change?”

Crist: “Yeah. Of course. It changed because of Rick Scott. As I said before, when he decided to cut $1.3 billion – actually it was worse, he tried to cut almost $4 billion out of education – but he actually cut $1.3 billion out of it. We can’t talk about vouchers, we can’t talk about charters, we can’t talk about diverting money from education, public education, until we get those cuts restored. That’s why I oppose it. I think it’s so important that we get focused, laser focused, on making sure we restore the cuts that, you know, had to have teachers be fired, laid off, after school programs cut. I mean, I talk to teachers every single day. I’m sure you do, too. We have a lot to do to get education back to where it needs to be.”

Channel 10: “So it’s a financial issue. And if the money is there, you would favor tuition vouchers, if the money for public schools is put back?”

Crist: “I’m not even going there now. What I’m saying is we have to get focused on restoring the cuts. And getting education back to where it had been when I was governor. And had the highest per pupil spending, even in the Great Recession. That’s what teachers deserve. That’s what our students deserve. If they’re going to be able to get good jobs when they get out of school, we have to give them a great education while they’re in school.”

Channel 10: “Charlie, you have sided with the Florida Education Association in this voucher fight. But there are a lot of African-American families, and especially clergy, in the state who believe that school vouchers have been a very good thing for black kids. Because it’s given them school choice. They’re allowed to go to a charter school, even a religious school. And there could be some blow back for you from black voters who say you’re wrong on this issue. What do you say to that?”

Crist: “That’s always possible. I don’t think you’re going to see that, though. Not in this race. Because what Rick Scott has done in the African American community and in the Hispanic community, in particular, especially when you look at Bright Futures scholarships. He has cut 50,000 of them out of the program. 50,000 scholarships gone. That’s like wiping out the University of Florida and it’s been most damaging in the African-American and the Hispanic communities in the state. Because they need the help the most to get a higher education.”

Editor’s note: Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

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Leading black minister calls on FSBA, FEA to drop school choice suit

Bishop Curry

Bishop Curry

An especially notable voice has joined the chorus calling on the Florida teachers union and Florida School Boards Association to drop their lawsuit against the nation’s largest private school choice program: Bishop Victor T. Curry, one of Florida’s leading black ministers.

In an op-ed today for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Curry, who leads the New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, called it a “cruel irony” that the FEA and FSBA would file against the tax credit scholarship program on Aug. 28 – the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the Washington Mall. The 13-year-old scholarship program is serving nearly 69,000 low-income students this fall, about 70 percent of them black or Hispanic.

“I have the highest praise for our public school teachers and administrators. Their task is almost inconceivably difficult, and their results are truly heroic,” Curry wrote. “But here in Miami-Dade, we have a student population of incredible diversity — more than 100 languages are spoken in our public schools — and an economic diversity of staggering proportions. Expecting all children to thrive in a school assigned to them by their ZIP code is just not realistic, even with the best teachers.”

Curry mentioned the private school run by his ministry serves 120 children who use tax credit scholarships to cover the cost of tuition, books and supplies. “In turn,” he continued, “these scholarships allow our families to use their limited incomes to put food on the table and turn on the lights.”

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

Curry’s stand comes as drop-the-suit efforts continue to mount (see hereherehere, and here). This morning, a “save our scholarships” coalition of faith and community leaders is scheduled to announce a campaign urging FEA and FSBA to reconsider their position. Check the blog later for more info.

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