Author Archive | Ron Matus

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.


It’s opening day for new parental choice program in Florida

One parent told us it was a blessing. Another said it was like winning the lottery. Another said she and her son, an eighth-grader with autism, had “finally won.”

plsa-header_july14Today marks the start of a new K-12 scholarship program in Florida and maybe even a new era in parental choice – a shift from simply giving parents the power to choose from amongst schools to something more personal and far-reaching. The early reaction from parents suggests it couldn’t have happened soon enough, and to a more deserving group.

“This scholarship will make all the difference in the world,” said Dorothy Famiano of Brooksville, who has two eligible children – Nicholas, who has Spina bifida, and Danielle, who has been diagnosed with autism.

Starting at 9 a.m., Famiano and other parents of children with significant special needs including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy can apply for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. PLSAs will allow parents to use the money to choose from a variety of educational options – not just tuition and fees at private schools, but therapists, specialists, tutors, curricula and materials, even contributions to a prepaid college fund.

The program reflects the obvious benefits of tailoring a child’s education to his or her specific needs; the explosion in educational options that makes customization more possible and fine-tuned; and the sensibility of giving parents the power to make those choices. But don’t take our word for it.

Michele Kaplan of Coral Gables said a scholarship account will be a game changer for her son, Matthew, 9, who has a dual diagnosis of autism and Fragile X syndrome. Continue Reading →


Education Week: Florida’s graduation rate still low but improving fast

Florida’s high school graduation rate remains one of the lowest in the country, but continues to be among the fastest rising, according to the latest graduation rate report from Education Week.

Florida’s graduation rate was 75 percent in 2012, ranking it at No. 43 with Alabama, shows the report released Thursday afternoon. The national average was 81 percent.

Between 2007 and 2012, Florida’s rate jumped 10 percentage points. That puts it in a tie with five other states for the fourth-fastest rate increase. New Mexico led the pack with a 15 point increase, followed by South Carolina (+13), California (+11) and Louisiana (+11). The national rate improved 7 points over that span.

Previous Education Week reports showed a higher ranking for Florida, and a smaller gap between the Florida and national averages. (Last year’s report put Florida at No. 34 with a 72.9 percent graduation rate in 2010, just below the national average of 74.7). Education Week normally crunches federal data using its own graduation rate formula, but could not this year because, “Unfortunately, the release of that federal database has been significantly delayed.”


Invisible no more: New book profiles school choice success stories

9781442226098_fcIn 2006, thousands of people jammed the courtyard next to the Florida Capitol not long after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s first school voucher program. I was a reporter covering the state education beat, and in the second sentence of my story I noted the obvious: The majority of rally goers were black.

Somehow, almost every other print reporter missed that, leaving readers with an incomplete picture of an extraordinary event. The omission baffled me then, but I’ve since learned to expect it. It doesn’t take a sophisticated media analysis to see that the parents and children who are clamoring for and benefiting from expanded learning options are too often left out of the story.

Against that backdrop, a new book by former Wall Street Journal editor and writer Naomi Schaefer Riley fills in the gaps. To give visibility to those at the heart of the school choice debate, and to dispel the abstractions that cloud it, Riley follows a simple formula.

She tells us about the kids.

There’s a lot of pluck and love in the 10 profiles in “Opportunity and Hope.” And a lot of shattered stereotypes about low-income parents and faith-based schools. And a hammered-home fact that is again obvious but overlooked: a different school can put a child on a remarkably different trajectory in life.



Aleysha Taveras’s mother, a teacher’s aide at a public school in the Bronx, saw too much violence and too little learning. So she enrolled her daughter in a Catholic school with, as Aleysha puts it, “teachers who would always be on top of me.” Now Aleysha is on the verge of graduating from Manhattan College and embarking on a career as a teacher.

Carlos Battle was raised by a single mom in a tough Washington D.C. neighborhood. He had ADHD. But after a stint in a private school, Carlos got a full ride to Northeastern University in Boston, where he’s now majoring in psychology and social service. He envisions starting a nonprofit that will rescue kids from being stuck in neighborhoods like his. “I just want to break that cycle of stuckness,” he says.

Most of the black and Latino students profiled by Riley received scholarships through the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the pioneering, privately funded choice program started in 1998 by Ted Forstmann and John Walton. Danielle Stone is one of the exceptions, with her scholarship coming from Step Up For Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Riley lets the students and parents do most of the talking. She asks the basics. Who are these kids? What were their lives like before the scholarship? What are they like now? What made the difference? Continue Reading →


Brickman: Course choice can modernize, customize education



Imagine if parents could pick and choose individual courses for their children, from an endless array of different providers, in the same way they now pick and choose other products online. Michael Brickman, the national policy analyst for the Fordham Institute, says that world may not too far in the future, thanks to a budding parental choice trend folks are calling “course choice.”

“Ideally parents and students can sit down at the computer and “shop” online for courses,” Brickman said during a live chat Wednesday with redefinED. “This is so commonplace and mundane when we go on sites like and add items from different sellers from around the world to our virtual shopping cart. Hopefully through (course choice), education can catch up to the rest of the world in this regard.”

A handful of states are moving ahead with course choice, including Louisiana and Wisconsin, where Brickman served as a policy advisor in Gov. Scott Walker’s office before joining Fordham. Florida is among those taking a close look. Brickman recently authored a policy brief that gives education officials a primer on course choice and the challenges ahead.

Course choice is complementary to parental choice options such as charter schools and vouchers, he said during the chat. But it can spur those options to innovate even more.

“I love traditional school choice and think it’s nowhere near obsolete as of now,” he said in response to a question. “But one of the frustrating things about these reforms is how similar the schools look to one another. The point of additional flexibility is to INNOVATE. Some charter and private models are off and running with this but many are still lining up 30 desks in each room, putting a teacher in front of the class for 7 hours a day, etc.”

You can read the entirety of the chat in the transcript below.



We all benefit from parental choice

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed in today’s Pensacola News Journal, in response to this op-ed.

myth bustersLast week, parental choice in Florida reached a milestone, with the number of low-income students starting applications for tax credit scholarships this fall reaching 100,000.

The program’s popularity speaks to an untold story: how Florida parents are demanding more learning options for their children, and how the state, school districts and other providers are obliging them.

It is a sea change, and it brings complications worthy of scrutiny. But too often what we get, instead, are op-eds with so many distortions, it’s impossible to respond in 600 words. Here are basic points I hope readers will consider when criticisms surface.

The need for options. Florida public schools are making strides, especially with low-income students, but they need help. In 2013, low-income fourth-graders in Florida were number one among all states in reading, after being among the lowest-performers in the 1990s. Public schools deserve far more credit than they get for gains like this. But being number one still means only 27 percent are proficient.

The cherry picking myth. Scholarship students are required by law to take standardized tests (though few take the FCAT), with the results analyzed by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio. Contrary to statements in a recent op-ed, Figlio found those students “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school,” a trend that is “becoming stronger over time.” In other words, if private schools are out to cherry pick, they’re doing a lousy job.

Results. Figlio’s conclusion was also mangled in the op-ed. Here are his words, straight from his report: “… a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”

The draining myth. The scholarships don’t hurt public school funding. Many think they do, and in a state that ranks low in per-pupil spending, that’s a killer. But the truth is, taxpayers pay about half as much per scholarship as they do per student in public school. The scholarship is $4,880 this year; it’ll be $5,272 next year. Seven different analyses conclude the program does not drain public school funding. Not a single one concludes it does. Continue Reading →