Author Archive | Ron Matus

Duval Republicans take aim at FSBA over school choice suit

The Republican leadership in one of Florida’s biggest counties passed a resolution Monday night condemning the Florida School Boards Association and other groups for filing suit against the state’s tax credit scholarship program and potentially snuffing out academic options for nearly 70,000 low-income students.



The strongly-worded resolution by the Republican Executive Committee in Duval County, a conservative stronghold that includes the city of Jacksonville, calls on all registered Republicans to stand in opposition to the suit. It also urges those elected to serve on school boards to “take all appropriate measures to force the Florida School Boards Association to remove itself as a litigant.”

“They’re denying children an opportunity to get a good education and they’re doing it strictly for dollars,” Rick Hartley, chairman of the Republican Party of Duval County, told redefinED. “They’re fighting over dollars and they don’t care about the kids. That’s not appropriate.”

The move in Duval is the latest example of pushback following the suit’s filing on Aug. 28. Florida’s 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program is the largest private school choice program in the nation, with 67,000 students enrolled this fall, nearly 70 percent of them black or Hispanic. Evidence shows the students tended to be the lowest performers in the public schools they left behind.

In the suit’s aftermath, state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, a key education leader with a reputation for listening to all sides, declined to accept the FSBA’s “Legislator of the Year” award; state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a moderate with close ties to teachers unions, expressed concern about the potential displacement of low-income students; and a handful of local school board members around the state penned newspaper op-eds denouncing it.

Duval isn’t the only county where Republican leaders are taking action. Last week, the executive board of the REC in neighboring, suburban Clay County passed a similar resolution, which will go before the full membership next week. Leslie Dougher, who heads the Clay REC, is also chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida. Continue Reading →


Howard Fuller: Parental choice fight in Florida is national issue

If its import wasn’t apparent already, parental choice leader Howard Fuller said Florida should be a national battleground after the Florida School Boards Association, Florida Education Association and other groups filed suit Aug. 28 to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program.

“First off, we got to fight, and we need to make Florida a national issue,” Fuller, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, told redefinED this week. “It isn’t just a Florida issue. It has to be a national issue, for all of us who care, not just about parental choice as a policy, but care about 70,000 poor kids not having the opportunity to go to the schools of their choice. So we need to become very focused on that.”

The suit is targeting the 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program, which is serving more than 67,000 students this fall. All are low-income, and nearly 70 percent are black or Hispanic. The program is administered by scholarships funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Fuller said the suit should be a lesson to school choice supporters that they must be ever vigilant.

“They just told us, we don’t care. We don’t care. And we’re going to continue to try to protect our power,” he said, referring to the plaintiffs. Continue Reading →


What drives a parental choice warrior

fuller bookIn 1998, at a luncheon in Chicago, former superintendent, activist and now-icon Howard Fuller was on an education panel with an up-and-coming state senator. Barack Obama told the audience that vouchers were a “distraction,” and said those who support them don’t want to tackle the difficulties of changing the “entire system.”

Dr. Fuller

Dr. Fuller

Fuller laments the spectacle of black leaders going toe to toe in public, but he did not shy from a retort. As he recalls in his just-released autobiography, “No Struggle, No Progress,” he answered from experience about teachers unions’ resistance to change, then lowered the boom:

“And you sit here and claim that we can make changes in the existing system? If you can do that, God bless you. But I’m going to tell you this. Those of us who are out there fighting are not going to wait for you to do that. We’re going to keep trying to find ways to help people whose kids are being undereducated, miseducated, not educated.”

Howard Fuller’s passion for parental choice is common knowledge in choice circles. He is arguably the best known and most revered figure in that realm. But thanks to his book, a wider swath of people will get a chance to meet him. Written with noted author Lisa Frazier Page, the book would compel even if school choice wasn’t such a hot topic; it chronicles an extraordinary American life. But it has the potential, too, of knocking a few more holes into the tired narratives about choice supporters and what motivates them.

Low-income parents are lining up in droves for alternatives to district schools, and one prominent Democrat after another is swinging towards them, including President Obama who, while still hung up on vouchers, wholeheartedly supports charter schools. The Dem divide is real, and as it grows, more rank-and-file Democrats will have second thoughts. Fuller’s story can hasten the process. Politically, he’s part of the same extended tribe, and for many folks that external validation makes all the difference.

It wasn’t until after he embraced vouchers in the late 1980s, Fuller notes, that he heard of economist Milton Friedman. Fuller’s views about education and everything else were forged in a different world: through his own humble upbringing by strong black women who found ways to get him the best education possible (including stints in Catholic schools); and in the tumult of the 1960s – in civil rights and Black Power, in protest marches and rent strikes.

It’s clear from every page that Fuller is motivated by love for “my people,” and for finding ways to right wrongs and uplift them. “No Struggle, No Progress” is brimming with passages that speak to his heart – passages like this one, where Fuller describes one of the Durham, N.C. neighborhoods he was assigned to help as a community organizer in the 1960s:

“Though I’d grown up in public housing and spent my earliest days in a poor southern community, I’d never seen poverty and neglect like this. Hayti, the largest neighborhood in my target area, sat in the heart of a major city, yet some areas still had dirt streets. Dirt streets! In the middle of town! That was incomprehensible to me. Shotgun shacks were everywhere, and some of them had no running water indoors. My heart hurt when I saw how my people were living and how they had accommodated themselves to survive under conditions that no human being should have to endure. Anger burned deep inside. But far from feeling overwhelmed, it made me even more determined to figure out how to change the condition.”

Early on, Fuller was captivated by another concept too: “maximum feasible participation.” Continue Reading →


Dissenting FL school board members criticize anti- school choice suit

The Florida School Boards Association is facing some pushback from within its own ranks for moving to end the nation’s largest private school program program.







In recent days, three local school board members – Jason Fischer from Duval County, Jeff Bergosh from Escambia County and Dale Simchick from Indian River County – all weighed in with op-eds in their local newspapers. All three criticized the lawsuit that the FSBA and others filed Aug. 28 against the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which, if successful, could dramatically curb educational options for tens of thousands of low-income families.

The 13-year-old program, which never faced a standalone legal challenge until now, provides scholarships for low-income students to attend more than 1,400 participating private schools. It is expected to serve nearly 70,000 students this school year, more than 70 percent of them minorities. The program is administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The suit “literally asks a judge to uproot these 67,000 students from schools that appear to be working for them, leaving particularly urban districts in the position of scrambling to find room for them,” Simchick wrote on, which serves Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties. “This feels more like a temper tantrum than a strategy for helping disadvantaged children.”

In his piece for the Pensacola News Journal, Bergosh quoted letters he received from parents in support of the program, then wrote: “Instead of listening to biased, self-obsessed labor unions and other special interest lobbying entities, I’m listening to my constituents; I’m in agreement with them and together we are on the right side of this issue. I hope Florida legislators and other education leaders with courage will listen to students, parents, and taxpayers that benefit from this worthwhile program, too.”

It’s unclear how much dissent there may be amongst other rank-and-file school board members. The FSBA leadership did not consult members before voting in June to proceed with the suit, which also includes the Florida Education Association, Florida PTA, Florida NAACP and other groups as plaintiffs. Continue Reading →


FL school board dodges vote on lawsuit against school choice program

About a dozen tax credit scholarship parents, including this one, attending the Duval County School Board meeting.

About a dozen tax credit scholarship parents, including this one, attending the Duval County School Board meeting.

School board members in Duval County, Fla., blocked a motion Tuesday night that would have forced them to vote on a resolution opposing a lawsuit that seeks to end the nation’s largest private school choice program.

Board member Jason Fischer, who crafted the resolution, tried to add it to the agenda, but could not get a second. Two of his six fellow board members, Becki Couch and Paula Wright, are in leadership positions in the Florida School Boards Association, which, along with the Florida teachers union, Florida PTA and other groups, filed suit last week against the state’s 13-year-old tax credit scholarship program.

Fischer couldn’t bring the resolution forward sooner because the agenda was published before the suit was filed. But with the FSBA board of directors meeting Wednesday in Vero Beach, and the families of more than 60,000 scholarship students in limbo, Fischer said it couldn’t wait.

“We are dues paying members of FSBA and as you know if their lawsuit is successful it would deny low-income children, some of the poorest children in our community, their right to attend a school of their choice,” said Fischer, who vowed to try again with the resolution next month. “This is an issue that has unnecessarily created concern and chaos in the lives of tens of thousands of disadvantaged families across the state of Florida, almost 5,000 in Duval County alone. It is appalling. It is shameful.”

“Why in the world would anyone attack the students who are the most vulnerable and the most struggling?”

Couch’s response: The program doesn’t come with enough regulatory accountability.

“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools that accept the scholarships and do a great job because there are,” she said, according to WJCT News. “But it’s having that consistency across the state to ensure that all children receive a quality education and that there’s accountability for that.”

About a dozen tax credit scholarship parents attended the board meeting, and a half-dozen spoke to board members.

“I totally believe in what the public school has to offer, but as parents, we have the right to choose what is best for our children,” said parent Tiffany Clark, according to WJCT. Continue Reading →


Strong demand for Florida’s new educational choice option

Parents are definitely interested in Florida’s latest educational choice program.

The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts are for students with significant special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. And since applications became available a week ago, more than 1,200 parents have started the process. (As of 6:46 a.m. Friday, the number stood at 1,250.)

Not every applicant will qualify. But the initial burst suggests real demand.

The numbers jibe with the enthusiastic comments we’re hearing from parents. And they seem even more notable given that applications opened just two days after the state teachers union sparked widespread publicity by filing suit against SB850, the bill that created the PLSAs. (Step Up For Students, which is authorized to administer the program, and co-hosts this blog, includes a notice about the lawsuit on its application site.)

Florida’s PLSA is the second of its kind in the nation, passed by the Legislature last spring and signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott. The state set aside $18.4 million for the first year of the program, enough for an estimated 1,800 students.

Last week we noted a steady stream of stories about PLSAs that thankfully included the voices of parents. More continue to trickle in. Continue Reading →


School choice scholarships shoring up FL private school enrollment

private schools 2Students using school choice scholarships now make up nearly a third of K-12 students in Florida private schools.

According to final state figures released last week, 88,192 students attended private schools last year using McKay scholarships for students with disabilities or tax credit scholarships for low-income students. That’s 31.2 percent of the total private school enrollment, up from 28.4 percent in 2012-13 and 8.6 percent a decade ago.

Does it matter? At the least, the numbers help paint a more complete portrait of private schools in Florida. As we reported last month, overall private school enrollment in Florida is up slightly for the third straight year. But once Pre-K enrollment and school choice scholarships are factored out, the trend lines show the number of private-paying students in private schools declined for the ninth straight year.

Why are the numbers falling? We touched on this a bit last year. Could be lingering effects of the Great Recession. Could be growing numbers of middle-class families are priced out of private school tuition. Could be more of them are turning to charter schools. According to Florida Department of Education data requested by redefinED, 5,426 students left private schools for charter schools during the 2012-13 school year.

We don’t have data for other years, so we can’t be sure of the trend lines there. But all of this seems worthy of a closer look by all who value a strong public education system.

Here’s a quickie spreadsheet with the numbers. Here’s a few charts with highlights: Continue Reading →


FL parents speaking up for special needs scholarship accounts

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

The Florida teachers union got a lot of ink this week after it filed suit against SB 850, the bill that created a new scholarship accounts program for students with special needs. No surprise there. But a good bit of the coverage also featured something often missing in stories about parental choice.

Actual parents.

From across the state, parents of students with significant special needs are weighing in on behalf of the new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, which some have likened to manna from heaven and winning the lottery. And thanks to some fair reporting, readers and viewers from across the state are seeing and hearing their stories.

For example, from the Tampa Tribune:

It’s just a phenomenal opportunity,” said John Kurnik of Tampa, who hopes to open an account for his son John, who is home-schooled and has autism. “We haven’t had a whole lot of luck with services for John. The resources we have as home-school families aren’t that plentiful.

And from WEAR TV in Pensacola:

Alisha Sloan of Pensacola is applying for her son Christopher, who is living with autism. “To hear about this scholarship was very exciting to us, because with Christopher, you know, there are different things that you need, software, adaptive curriculum, different therapies that would definitely help in taking him out and homeschooling him.

And from the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville:

Some parents, such as Northside resident Melissa Ward, fear the lawsuit’s effect on students, especially students with special needs.

She home-schools Ethan, her 8-year-old third-grader, who has cerebral palsy. The family of four children has thousands of dollars in medical and therapy debts already, she said, so she rations his physical, occupational and speech therapy, paying for only one therapy at a time over several months, even though he needs them all.

She hopes the new personal learning scholarship program will help her afford more therapy and a math tutor.

“If these programs … are going to provide services to people that need help, I don’t see why getting bogged down in a bureaucratic mess would be beneficial to anyone,” she said.

“You need to look at what the purposes of the program are and what they can accomplish. I hope that people would not want to deny children what they need.”

Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is among the organizations authorized to administer PLSAs. As the lawsuit plays out, don’t be surprised if more parents speak up for the scholarship accounts. In the meantime, here are more examples of others who already have: First Coast News in JacksonvilleWCJB in GainesvilleNBC-2 in Fort MyersThe Florida Channel in Tallahassee.

A mom speaks to FCN about how PLSAs can help her son.

Melissa, a Jacksonville mom, speaks to FCN about how PLSAs can help her son Ethan.


A Gainesville mom speaks with TV 20 News about how the PLSA will help her son who has Down syndrome.

Barbara, a mom in Gainesville, speaks with TV 20 News about how the PLSA will help her son who has Down syndrome.


The FEA is suing to stop the new PLSA but Aleta says she needs the scholarship to help her child.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.



Alisha of Pensacola speaks with WEAR TV about a new scholarship that will benefit her son.