redefinED roundup: vouchers in TN, ESAs and scholarships in FL, tax credit critics in KS & more

MondayRoundUp_magentaAlabama: Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, says the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows students in failing districts to transfer to private schools, is a failed experiment (Anniston Star). A lower court dismisses a suit filed by students to stop the state’s school choice program (Associated Press).

Alaska: A private school tax credit bill passes through the House (Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch).

Arizona: School districts are worried about education savings accounts expanding (Ahwatukee Foothill News). Applications for state voucher programs doubled over last year (Associated Press).

California: More students in southern California are switching to virtual schools (Daily Press). Two charter schools in LA are given permission to enter into negotiations with the school district to take over vacant school buildings (LA Times).

Connecticut: A group called Connecticut Voices for Children reports that school choice programs segregate special needs and English Language Learners (New Haven Register, Connecticut Mirror). However, that same report shows charter schools are far more likely to serve minority students.

D.C.: The district releases the full data on parental school choice lottery preferences (Washington Post). Mayor Vincent Gray outlines a new school boundary proposal that includes lottery-based open enrollment (Washington Post).

Delaware: Stacie Beck and Eleanor Craig, associate professors of economics at the University of Delaware, make the case for tax-credit scholarships (The News Journal).

Florida: A bill to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and create education savings accounts for special-needs students  advances out of the House on a mostly party-line vote (Capital SoupOrlando SentinelWFSUSun SentinelFlorida CurrentredefinED). (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Earlier in the week, a House committee voted to strip the tax credit proposal of additional funding but the bill will still increase the income eligibility (Orlando SentinelPalm Beach PostTampa Bay TimesAssociated Press, News-JournalredefinED). Continue Reading →

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Florida House approves school choice legislation

After a contentious debate, the Florida House approved school choice legislation that would create education savings accounts for special needs students and allow students with higher incomes to participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

Rep. Gaetz

Rep. Gaetz

Friday’s 73-43 vote fell on party lines. Many of the Democrats who opposed the bill focused their arguments on testing and accountability. So did one notable supporter: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Gaetz said he believes in school choice. But he also said he agreed with Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, who on Wednesday proposed an amendment that would require students receiving scholarships to take standardized tests that allow for more direct comparisons with public school students.

Florida’s system of standardized testing and school grades, Gaetz said, helps explain why Florida’s graduation rates have risen and its achievement gaps have shrunk. Republicans, he said, have been “the party of accountability.”

“We should be the ones that seize this mantle of accountability, because it’s worked,” Gaetz said. “That’s why we’re doing so well in our public schools.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Gaetz’s father, Senate President Don Gaetz, has also called for more comparable standardized tests to be given to scholarship students. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Democrats also seized on a provision that would expand program eligibility to families whose incomes are currently too high to qualify. The bill would allow partial scholarships, on a sliding scale, to families earning up to 260 percent of the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a household income of $62,010 would be eligible for half the scholarship amount. The scholarship is currently worth $4,880 a year.

Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said the scholarships were “designed for the truly needy.” But the new eligibility standards would “get close to the middle class.”

“I believe in public money for public schools,” he said. “I was willing to make an exception here. I’d like it to stay the way it is.”

In his closing arguments on the bill, its sponsor, Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said wealthy parents have always had the ability to enroll their children in private schools, and the existing programs help people with lower incomes. He said the changes would expand options for the “largest class” – people with middle incomes.

Supporters of school choice, he said, are on “the right side of history.”

“It’s coming. It’s happening. It’s a feature of education that is going to happen. Look around. All the fights are between institutions and groups that are somehow embedded in a system,” he said. “Forget about the system. Let’s talk about the kids.”

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Why are the FEA, PTA blocking school choice for low-income parents?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Editor’s note: This post recently appeared as an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun. It was published before the House proposal was changed to include no increase in the program cap. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In a state that gives parents an expanding array of options on where to send their children to school, the Legislature is looking this year to improve a choice it gives to the least among us. That some education groups are fighting it is disappointing.

The bill provides for a modest expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 59,765 low-income students in 1,425 private schools. The average household income for these students is only 9 percent above poverty. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half live with a single parent.

Research shows us they were struggling academically in the public school they left behind, and standardized tests show us they are now achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Why would worthy organizations, such as the Florida Education Association and the Florida PTA, fight so hard to deny this opportunity?

Many of the opponents are turning to distortion and deception, as well. One of them wrote in The Sun recently that the bill represented “the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history” and would “divert $2.3 billion… between now and 2016.”

For the record, the bill would add $30 million to the cap for each of the next five years, which amounts to an 8.3 percent increase next year and 3.5 percent increase in the fifth year. Those increases add up to $90 million by 2016, not $2.3 billion. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Teacher quality, charter schools, vouchers and more

Teacher quality. The Duval County school district announces a incentive program to bring more teachers into high-needs areas. Florida Times-UnionWJCT. WJXT. First Coast News.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A Broward charter once on the verge of closing can stay open after finding a permanent home. Sun-Sentinel. A former astronaut addresses students at three Lake Wales charter schools. Lakeland Ledger.

Vouchers. A poll commissioned by Sunshine State News finds voters do not support using “taxpayer funds” for scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools.

Magnet schools. A Hernando County magnet program uses field trips to teach kids about environmental science. Tampa Bay Times.

Career education. Pinellas schools name a new director. Gradebook. Clay County grows its career academies. WJXT.

Facilities: Business groups back a half-cent sales tax for school construction and technology in Volusia. Daytona Beach News-Journal. After a $55 million renovation, a Miami high school is being rededicated as a “palace of learning.” Miami Herald.

Early learning. A change of providers in Duval County means Head Start teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. Florida Times-Union.

Continue Reading →

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The teacher union’s amusing hypocrisy about Big $ in politics

Editor’s note: This post was originally published as an op-ed in today’s Orlando Sentinel. The state’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

follow the moneyThe politics of school choice are particularly unforgiving these days, but one of the messages being sold in this year’s Florida legislative session is amusingly hypocritical.

The backdrop is a bill to strengthen a scholarship that for the past 12 years has provided some economically disadvantaged Florida children access to private schools. Though the effort has been cast by opponents as a dramatic expansion, the bill headed for a House floor vote on Friday has been changed so it no longer contains either an increase in the statewide cap or a sales-tax credit — two of the most contentious parts. It’s worth remembering that this scholarship is the only choice program with a statewide cap.

In politics, though, the size of the debate doesn’t always conform to the size of the legislation. The Florida Education Association has launched an aggressive campaign to block it, including a requisite attempt to discredit the supporters. But what is especially entertaining is the FEA’s feigned shock that scholarship advocates might invest in political campaigns involving Democrats.

The FEA is distributing a video from a 2011 school-choice conference in Berkeley, Calif., that features Doug Tuthill, who is president of the nonprofit that administers the tax-credit program and a former chapter president for FEA. The conference was put together by a group that includes many liberal academicians who appreciate the historical role teachers unions have played in providing financial support for Democrats. But they asked him how to break that grip because they are dismayed the money now comes with a prohibition on voting for private school choice.

Tuthill’s answer was honest and direct: Invest in legislative races, just like the union does.

This is an unsurprising statement to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with modern politics, but FEA Vice President Joanne McCall was aghast: “This video reveals that it’s all about the money.”

Now I do not defend the way big money is impacting modern politics or the coarse campaigns that are often a byproduct, but to be lectured on the evils of campaign spending by the FEA is surreal. It is the FEA’s primary political weapon. Since 2002, the FEA and its national affiliates have invested $20.1 million in Florida campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Its money is so integral to Florida Democratic legislators that no one raises an eyebrow when all the party’s House and Senate members meet, as they did on April 2, at FEA headquarters. The low-income parents for whom the school-choice movement fights don’t have money for campaigns. I am honored to fight for them and to help their voices be heard. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, Broad Prize, charter schools and more

Tax credit scholarships. A bill that would expand access to the program is ready for a final vote in the House. News Service of FloridaAssociated PressTimes/Herald. Palm Beach Post.

Broad prize. The award for urban school districts raises its standards, naming only two finalists for this year’s prize. One of them is Orange County, Fla. Orlando Sentinel. EdWeek.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A former teacher lodges a complaint about a Hillsborough charter school, alleging it does not use properly certified teachers. Tampa Bay Times.

School safety. Miami-Dade schools hope to tamp rumors that circulate among students with a new text-messaging system. Miami Herald.

Career academies. A Glades construction academy could become a reality thanks to a recent donation. Extra Credit.

Teacher quality. Duval schools prepare a new initiative to lure high-caliber teachers and administrators to high-need areas. Florida Times-Union.

Superintendents. Seminole County’s Walt Griffin gets a contract extension. Orlando Sentinel.

Common Core. A survey shows public opinion on the standards is split. Sunshine State News.

School days. Hernando schools consider six-period days to save money and give kids more time in each class. Tampa Bay Times.

Economic development. Palm Beach County schools and other officials are promoting their school system in an effort to lure new businesses into the area. South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Maintenance. A bell in front of a Manatee County elementary school gets a rare cleaning. Bradenton Herald.

Awards. A newspaper honors 45 high school seniors. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Gainesville students are named Achievement Scholars. Gainesville Sun.

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Florida school choice bill ready for final vote in House

School choice legislation that would expand eligibility for the country’s largest tax credit scholarship program and create new personal learning accounts for special needs students is ready for a final vote in the Florida House.

Lawmakers on Wednesday removed a $30 million increase on the caps that limit the growth of the tax-credit scholarship program, though the state’s current law would still allow the program to grow by as much as 25 percent a year.

erik fresen

Rep. Erik Fresen

The change did little to tamp opposition among House Democrats.

They proposed a series of contentious changes during nearly two hours of floor discussion on Wednesday, including a proposed requirement that schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program administer state’s standardized tests. The Democrats’ amendments were defeated, largely along party lines.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, broke with his fellow Republicans to vote in favor of the testing requirement, which also would have required schools with scholarship students to participate in the state’s A-F grading system for schools.  His father, Don Gaetz, is the Senate President, and has called for requiring state assessments for scholarship students, an idea that remains controversial among some school choice supporters.

The House voted down other Democratic proposals, which among other things would have required private schools with scholarship students to hire state-certified teachers, mandated that they teach the state’s education standards and restricted the way scholarship funding organizations that administer the program can use their revenue. Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, is a scholarship funding organization.

Requiring state standards in private schools “would ensure private schools are going to be accepting public money, that they do something similar to the public schools and reach the same standards that we have for those schools,” said Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said parents chose private schools for a host of reasons, including the kind of learning environment they offer.

“If we are providing an option for those families, then why, I ask you, would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for their child?” she asked.

While the full House could approve the school choice bill as early as Friday, the Senate has so far taken a different approach to school choice legislation after withdrawing its original tax credit scholarship bill from consideration earlier in the session.

Florida is one of seven states where lawmakers this year have considered creating education savings accounts for special-needs students, and competing proposals have gained traction in both chambers.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the sponsor of the House bill, noted the state already offers McKay Scholarships that allow special needs students to attend private schools. He said the bill is intended to help students whose conditions are so severe that they may not benefit from attending school for a whole day. Parents could use the accounts to pay for other education-related services, including speech therapy.

“It allows incredibly more flexibility to the parents’ use for specific services that they know their child needs,” he said.

Additional coverage: Post on PoliticsCentral Florida Political Pulse, Associated Press, Tampa Bay Times.

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FL Senate could increase military commanders’ role in charter schools

The Florida Senate wants to increase the role of military base commanders in creating charter schools on their installations.

At its core, the Senate’s charter school legislation remains short and simple, placing it on a potential collision course with the House, which has proposed a broader overhaul of Florida charter school laws.

MacDillUnder the latest rewrite, approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee, the Senate legislation would allow military commanders to sit on charter school governing boards and to submit applications to open charter schools on their bases.

It would avoid more contentious changes to charter school statutes.

Earlier this year, supporters withdrew an appeal to open a charter school on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa after their plan was rebuffed by the local school district (more background here). They have pledged to rework the application and make another attempt.

The issue got the attention of lawmakers, who already have approved legislation intended to encourage charter schools for military families. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said the new charter school legislation would “recognize that there are unique needs at our military installations.”

Democrats proposed a series of other changes to the bill, some them backed by school districts. But they were defeated after Legg and others warned the amendments could make it more difficult for new charter schools to open. The committee heard wide-ranging debate and testimony about various other provisions that are no longer in the bill, but remain part of the House legislation.

“One thing I’ve learned in the Legislature in my now going on 10 sessions is every year we’ll debate a budget, and every year we’ll debate charter schools,” Legg said. “This is the charter school debate of 2014, but it deals with military charter schools, and that’s it.”

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