FL school boards set to sue nation’s largest school choice program

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, helps to administer the tax credit scholarship program in Florida. Tampa businessman John Kirtley is chairman of the Step Up board of directors and is also chairman of Florida Federation for Children and Florida Voices for Choices.

Karen Disney-Brombach

Karen Disney-Brombach

Diane Smith

Diane Smith

With the Florida School Boards Association on the cusp of filing suit against the state’s popular scholarship for low-income students, its president and president-elect were upset Tuesday in local elections that bore the imprint of school choice organizations.

Karen Disney-Brombach, a two-term Indian River School Board member who is the new FSBA president, was defeated by a former science teacher and political newcomer, Shawn Frost. Diane Smith, a two-term Volusia County School Board member who is the FSBA president-elect, was beaten by a physician’s assistant and political newcomer, Melody Johnson.

At least two choice organizations were involved in the races. Florida Voices for Choices, a new 501(c)(4) that organizes parents and supporters of all school options, spread word about the incumbents’ expressed opposition to many choice programs. The Florida Federation For Children, an electioneering organization tied to the American Federation For Children, issued a statement saying that it invested money in state school board races for the first time in its history. Its chairman, John Kirtley, said bluntly: “If the FSBA proceeds with the suit, FFC will be heavily invested in these races around the state for years to come.”

“Parents talked a lot about how they felt bullied by a school board association that, through the lawsuit, wants to take away their scholarships,” said Voices for Choices executive director Catherine Durkin Robinson, a former Step Up employee. “So we talked about what to do with bullies.”

Scripps Media reported today that Indian River County Tax Collector Carole Jean Jordan, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, sent out emails on Friday retracting her support of Disney-Brombach after learning that she voted to sue the scholarship program. “Disney-Brombach said her ties with the Florida School Board Association may have led to her loss,” wrote Colleen Wixon.

Gary Chartrand, chairman of the state Board of Education, also issued a statement today opposing a lawsuit. It said, in part, that FSBA “is acting without consideration for this population by filing a lawsuit against this program. This is surprising and disheartening, and I call on them to rethink their position and withdraw the lawsuit.”

At issue is a vote by the FSBA board of directors on June 11 to move forward with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax credit scholarship program, which is now in its 13th year and is expected to serve 69,000 economically disadvantaged students. The action followed a presentation by FSBA attorney Ron Meyer, who also represents the Florida Education Association teacher union and filed a lawsuit last month challenging the process by which the Legislature enacted a bill this year expanding the scholarship and creating a new program for students with significant special needs.

Sources say the FSBA is planning to file the suit on Thursday. FSBA Executive Director Wayne Blanton could not be immediately reached for comment.

The reaction among parents and private school leaders has been swift. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Choice, charters and school board election results

florida-roundup-logoOusters.  Both the president and presdent-elect of the Florida School Boards Association are ousted in elections in which school choice figures prominently. Indian River Press Journal. Central Florida News 13. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Charter schools. A pair of charter school supporters seek Collier school board seats. One prevails. Naples Daily News. A charter school administrator defeats a Walton incumbent. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Incumbents. Sitting school board members have good Election Nights in Alachua County, Tampa Bay and South Florida. GradebookMiami HeraldSun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Gainesville Sun. A Broward incumbent overcomes an N-word controversy. Miami Herald.

Runoffs. School board races aren’t over in Hillsborough, Marion, Putnam and Manatee Counties. Tampa Bay Times. Ocala Star-Banner. Florida Times-UnionBradenton Herald.

Gestures. Two Volusia school board candidates pledge to donate their salaries. Orlando Sentinel.

Budgets. School tax referenda pass in Orange and Volusia Counties Orlando Sentinel. WKMG.

Testing. A standardized testing critic wins a school board seat in Lee County. Fort Myers News-Press.

Labor. Meanwhile, Brevard approves a new teacher contract. Florida Today.

Security. The Manatee school board delays a vote on hiring a private security firm. Bradenton Herald.

Adult education. A 79-year-old woman earns a high school diploma. Panama City News Herald.


Gloria Romero gives parent empowerment a new push

California’s parent empowerment law spawned organizing campaigns aimed at transforming individual schools by parent petition, and went on to inspire legislative showdowns over similar “parent trigger” legislation across the country, including in Florida.

Gloria Romero

Gloria Romero

Yet that was only half of what the law did.  Another part of the 2010 statute could affect students at 1,000 California schools, and one of the law’s original architects says that provision has yet to get the attention it deserves.

In brief, it also allows parents at those schools, determined to be the lowest-performing in the state, to transfer their children to a higher-performing public school. It’s analogous to Florida’s Opportunity Scholarships, which allow children assigned to schools that earn low grades to transfer to other public schools.

California’s program casts a wider net that could affect nearly 10 times the number of schools. But it can’t help parents who don’t know it exists, or whether its applies to their schools, or what it allows them to do.

For that reason, former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored the original legislation, has set up a new organization aimed at informing parents of their rights under the law.

“We want to create public awareness – to reach out to parents whose kids are enrolled in one of these 1,000 schools,” she said.

Starting this summmer, the Center for Parent Empowerment has been operating out of an office in East Los Angeles. In addition to cajoling education officials to support the goals of the law she helped put on the books, the Democratic former lawmaker says she plans to hold meetings with parents from key schools on the list.

In a recent phone interview, Romero said the state’s convoluted formula for selecting the “persistently lowest achieving” schools isn’t perfect. But she’s also had a hard time getting good information from school districts about how many parents are taking advantage of the law, and what’s being done to inform them of their options. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: School board races, enrollment, start times and more


Education reform. Gov. Rick Scott releases a second-term education agenda. Times/Herald. Tampa Tribune. Gainesville SunredefinED. A Tampa Bay Times columnist criticizes the governor over testing.

Campaigns. It’s election day. Charter schools are among the issues at stake in Clay County school board races. Florida Times-Union. Common Core looms large at all levels. Naples Daily News. WJCT looks at spending in school board races.

Enrollment. Sarasota classrooms aren’t as crowded as officials expected. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Start times. Advocates for a later start to the school day have their cause bolstered by a new study. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Accountability. This will be a lower-stakes “baseline year” for school accountability. Ocala Star-Banner.

Continue Reading →


Scott: Let more children access Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts

Florida’s Republican governor says he wants to expand the pool of children who would qualify for the state’s new personal learning accounts.

Scott Personal Learning Scholarship Account event

Gov. Rick Scott at a recent campaign event focused on special needs students.

In the midst of a contentious back-and-forth over education, Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign released a second-term agenda Monday morning. The Associated Press has fleshed out some details already, but one noteworthy proposal hasn’t gotten much attention: A declaration that, if re-elected, the governor “will expand the list of disabilities that are eligible for the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts.”

Now in their first year, the accounts are available to children in eight categories of significant special needs, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Scott indicated during previous campaign events that he planned to expand the accounts, but had not specified what form he hoped that expansion would take.

Education has become a central issue in the the governor’s race. Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to gain the Democratic nomination after Tuesday’s primary, recently attacked Scott on education funding during a statewide bus tour.

Scott has responded with pledges to spend a record amount on public schools next year, followed by the more detailed education agenda released Monday. The agenda also includes an idea Crist has also endorsed: Allowing businesses to apply for tax credits if they donate to public schools. That plan is intended to mimic the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which allows companies to receive tax credits if they help fund tuition for private-school students. It’s not clear exactly how the idea would work in practice.

Both the tax credit scholarships and personal learning accounts are administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The Crist campaign dismissed the Monday announcement, with a spokesman repeating its attacks on education cuts during Scott’s first year in office to the the Miami Herald.


Parents hope to revive F-rated charter school poised for closure

The parents love the school, even though the state says it’s failing. So against all odds, they’re looking for options to stave off its closure.

Shing Star charter school

Shining Star Academy of the Arts

Shining Star Academy of the Arts, a charter school in Columbia County, Fla., received F grades from the state in its first two years of operation. Under state law, it must lose its charter. But supporters say its music, drama and arts programs provide unique options to rural students in North Florida.

So they’ve come up with a plan. Over the next three months, while the current school winds down, they want to fast-track an application for a new, academically revitalized institution that could take over in the middle of the school year, serving the same children in the same location under new leadership.

That scenario would likely be unprecedented for a Florida charter school that faces closure under the state’s “double-F” law. Getting the local school board to approve the plan may be a long shot. But there’s nothing in state law that prevents supporters from trying. They say they plan to raise the idea at the board’s meeting Tuesday, when it’s scheduled to formally terminate the school’s charter.

Shining Star’s attributes, including its heavy focus on the arts, drew parents from surrounding rural counties, undeterred by its academic struggles. Sometimes, there’s a big disconnect between what regulators and parents think is a good school.

“My kids had never been able to learn music,” said Takeya Cray, who said she planned to keep her fifth grader and eighth grader enrolled as long as the school stayed open. “Now, one of them plays the guitar, one of them plays the cello. I like that.”

Tony Buzzella, the founder and current principal, opened the Shining Star more than two years ago, not long after the death of his friend and mentor, the prominent Lake City musician and educator Alfonso Levy. The two men envisioned a K-8 school where children could learn to play instruments and cultivate a love for the arts. Buzzella said the school had realized key parts of that vision – as he put it, “More arts, no bullies.”

What was lacking, especially in the early going, was academics. Particularly math.

In the 2012-13 school year, one out of four fourth graders scored a 3 or higher on the FCAT math tests. In other grades, the numbers were worse. Buzzella made changes. He replaced a math teacher and extended the school day. Test scores rose in some areas in the second year, but remained among the lowest in the county, and the school still got an F.

Buzzella said the school had shown improvement, and one more year would be enough to right its course.

Many parents – some of whom had previously eschewed the public school system – were in his corner.

Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charter schools, teacher conduct, testing and more

Charter schools. A host of new schools, not all of them reputable, submit charter applications. Sun-Sentinel. Fewer charter schools apply in Flagler and Volusia Counties. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Officials debate the location of a planned West Palm Beach charter. Palm Beach Post. A Post columnist weighs in.

florida-roundup-logoTeacher conduct. Administrative law judges repeatedly thwart Broward’s attempts to fire teachers. Sun-Sentinel. A Southwest Florida teacher is accused of sleeping in class. Naples Daily News.

Digital learning. A state Board of Education member helps create financial incentives for children to obtain technology-related industry certifications. Keynoter.

Campaigns. WFTV offers its take on school choice supporters getting involved in school board races. Pinellas school board candidates debate background checks and felony records. Tampa Bay Times.

Career education. A Hernando aviation program launches as hoped after enrollment rises. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. The FCAT reading exam trips up a recent Chinese immigrant on the path to a diploma, drawing a lawmaker’s attention. Orlando Sentinel. A South Florida teacher is accused of helping students during FCAT testing. Sun-Sentinel. Summer algebra camps boost the pass rate on algebra end-of-course exams. Lakeland Ledger. Opting out becomes a hot topic in Palm Beach. Palm Beach Post.

Private schools. The Bradenton Herald profiles an Episcopal school’s cultural exchange program with Chinese students.

Continue Reading →


More Florida parents choose home education

For a growing number of Florida families, back-to-school season doesn’t mean a return to the classroom, per se. In the past several years, the state’s home education programs have grown faster than most of its school districts.

Home education enrollment

The top 10 Florida school districts for homeschooling remained the same in the two most recent school years, but enrollment patterns shifted.

That remained true last year, even though growth in homeschool enrollment slowed considerably, according to the latest annual report, released this week by the state Department of Education.

The report is based on data collected by school districts, which help keep track of home education students. It shows the number of students enrolled in home education grew 1.7 percent last school year, its slowest growth rate since 2008. That still outpaced enrollment increases in the state’s 2.7 million-student public school system, which grew by less than 1 percent.

And by another measure – the number of participating families – home education grew more quickly.

Statewide, nearly 57,000 families chose to homeschool their children in the 2013-14 school year, a 4.6 percent increase from the year before. There’s also some significant variations in homeschool participation in different parts of the state.

Duval County, Florida’s sixth-largest school district, has the largest number of homeschool students and accounted for 7.7 percent of the state total. The largest district, Miami-Dade County, is home to less than 5 percent of Florida’s homeschool students, and has fewer than some smaller districts like Orange and Brevard, according to the report.

While the top 10 school districts remained the same in both 2012-13 and 2013-14, there were some shifts. The share of home-education students coming from Hillsborough declined, but the share in Pasco increased.