Florida lawmakers look to set new tone on charter schools

Florida’s past few legislative sessions have seen some contentious battles between school districts and charter schools over issues like applications and capital funding, especially in the House.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs a key education panel, is trying to set a more collaborative tone this year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

This week, he introduced legislation that would allow districts to seek charter-like flexibility in exchange for more regulatory freedom. On Wednesday, he brought in a group of district and charter representatives to talk charter school authorizing.

The two sides have for the past few years been trying to reach agreements on issues like promoting quality charters and screening out schools that aren’t qualified.

Lawmakers have heard or floated proposals on both fronts in the run-up to the legislative session that begins in March, but this year’s key charter school bills have yet to emerge.

Diaz said that while charter school issues have brought “fireworks” to the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee in the past, “You see some common ground. Everyone involved in this wants the best for the kids and wants quality charter schools.”

While lawmakers want to “provide the environment for quality charter schools to exist,” he said, “there’s no one here that wants to allow fly-by-nights, or folks who are in it for the wrong reasons to be in this industry.”

Tim Kitts, the leader of a small Northwest Florida charter school network, has become a vocal advocate for stopping unqualified charters. He told the committee that around the state, he’s seen “bad actors” on both sides – charter schools that aren’t prepared to educate students, and districts that throw roadblocks in the way of charter operators with proven track records.

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How regulations affect private schools’ participation in choice programs

AEI coverA new survey suggests excessive regulation of school choice programs could cause some private schools not to enroll students who use vouchers or tax credit scholarships.

The report released this morning by the American Enterprise Institute is the result of what its authors call “the largest and most in-depth survey of its kind.”

The think tank hired a team of University of Arkansas researchers, who polled leaders of hundreds of private schools in Indiana and Louisiana, which have voucher programs, and Florida, which is home to a tax credit scholarship program administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Of the three states, leaders in Florida’s private schools appear to be least troubled by state regulations, and most likely to participate in its scholarship program.

“It is imperative that policymakers develop the best mechanisms possible to facilitate successful programs,” the authors write in their conclusion. “Policies meant to burden private schools, starve them, or regulate them into the public school mold are inconsistent with school choice theory and could ultimately hurt the students these policies are designed to help.”

Participating private schools

Charts use data from the report, but were produced by redefinED.

More than half the schools accepting Florida’s scholarships cited the possibility of the program ending one day as a “major concern.” Half were also greatly worried about whether the size of scholarship payments would continue growing to keep up with their increasing costs. The surveys were done last spring, amid a contentious debate over regulation and expansion of the program, but before it was challenged in court.

On the other hand, more than nine in ten schools accepting vouchers in the other two states were at least somewhat concerned about paperwork requirements and the prospect of future regulations. Florida’s schools shared those concerns, but not at the same magnitude.

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, curriculum, superintendents and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A key lawmaker files a bill to give district schools some of the flexibility enjoyed by charter schools in exchange for greater academic accountability. Sentinel School ZoneGradebook. The Duval school board may vote to terminate a small, struggling charter school. Florida Times-Union.

Curriculum. Angry parents weigh in on district textbook decisions during a marathon school board meeting in Collier County. Naples Daily News.

Superintendents. The Hillsborough school board votes to terminate MaryEllen Elia, the award-winning but embattled superintendent of one of the country’s largest school districts. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Tribune. WTSP. WFTS. Business groups had rallied around her. Tampa Tribune.

School choice. Open enrollment begins in Lee County. Naples Daily News. Fort Myers News-Press.

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Faith-based schools look to raise academic bar

Across Florida, public schools are preparing for new standards and assessments that are expected to demand more of their students and teachers.

But they’re not alone. There’s a similar shift going on at the 62 schools in the Archdiocese of Miami. They enroll as many students as a mid-size Florida school district, and their students will one day be applying to the same colleges as their public-school counterparts.

For that reason, Kim Pryzbylski, the Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, told a gathering of education researchers and advocates in South Florida that as public schools are raising the bar, Catholic schools will, too. That means training teachers and preparing students for more challenging course work, much like public schools are doing in their first year teaching all students under the new Florida Standards.

“The rigor of those standards … and meeting the students’ needs is very different,” Pryzbylski said. “We have to look at educating our teachers in a different way, to prepare them to instruct the students.”

She took part in a panel discussion at the Fourth International Conference on School Choice and Reform in Fort Lauderdale that addressed one of the central challenges of faith-based schools.

They may set aside time every day for religious instruction and honor events on their liturgical calendar, but they still have to meet their students’ core academic needs. It’s a challenge that spans denominations, and one school leaders from a variety of religious backgrounds said parents expect them to meet.

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, superintendents, evaluations and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Collier County’s only charter applicant this year pulls its application. Naples Daily News.

Private schools. A Christian school prepares to host its first-even film festival. Bradenton Herald.

Tax credit scholarships. Joanne McCall, the teachers union leader who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the program, criticizes it in a Context Florida column.

Growth. A new school proposed in Lee County has residents buzzing in one high-growth city. Fort Myers News-Press. The Polk district considers a new K-8 school. Lakeland Ledger.

Rankings. Florida’s decline in national rankings was fueled by a change in methodology, but it still matters, Matt Reed writes in Florida Today.

College. A Cape Coral woman tries to crowd-fund her college costs. Fort Myers News-Press.

Superintendents. Large numbers of people are expected to weigh in on the future of Hillsborough’s superintendent. Tampa Tribune. Gradebook.

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Competition, growth, and Florida’s new legal battles over school choice

Florida’s public charter schools and tax credit scholarships have a few things in common. Both are growing by at least ten thousand students a year. And both are facing new legal hurdles, or in the case of the scholarships, an outright constitutional challenge.

Daniel Woodring, a former general counsel in the state Department of Education whose clients now include both charter schools and tax credit scholarship parents, says that’s no coincidence. This school year, Florida’s charter schools grew to enroll more than 250,000 students – about one of every 11 children attending the state’s public schools.

Speaking on Saturday to a global gathering of education reform researchers and practitioners in South Florida, Woodring said that growth helps explain why some charter organizations now have to fight legal battles or overcome new roadblocks in the same Florida school districts that approved them a few years earlier, and why even charter schools with solid track records are having trouble opening new schools.

“Their concern is very simple,” he said of districts subjecting charters to new levels of scrutiny. “It’s competition. It’s economics.”

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Florida schools roundup: Teachers, superintendents, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. New checks on charter schools join testing among South Florida districts’ top legislative priorities. Sun-Sentinel.

Curriculum. A showdown over textbooks in Collier schools could be a preview of controversies elsewhere. Naples Daily News.

Teachers. The first year in the classroom proves exhausting but fulfilling for a teacher profiled by the Orlando Sentinel in an article highlighting challenges with teacher turnover. Orange County teachers will get raises and bonuses under a new contract. Orlando Sentinel.

Superintendents. Hillsborough Superintedent MaryEllen Elia faces political pressure despite winning plaudits from her peers around the country. Tampa Bay Times. Her potential ouster could cost the district $1 million. Tampa TribuneTampa Bay Times. Accolades don’t always insulate district leaders from hostile school boards. Tampa Bay Times. A one-month contract extension could net Palm Beach’s superintendent $19,000 in pension benefits. Palm Beach Post.

Testing. People who support school choice but oppose parents opting out of high-stakes tests are being hypocritical, Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano argues. Parents need to help students prepare for new assessments, Gadsden County’s superintendent says. Havana Herald, via Gradebook.

STEM. Students at Title I schools in Palm Beach County take part in neuroscience labs. Palm Beach Post.

Allegations. Volusia schools officials investigate allegations that district employees went out for a night on the town paid for by an instructional materials vendor. Daytona Beach News-Journal. An investigation clears Lee County’s superintendent of wrongdoing. Fort Myers News-Press.

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Scott seeks charter school funding boost; backers hope it’s a ‘starting point’

Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday that he wants state lawmakers to boost charter school capital funding to $100 million for the 2015-16 school year. That would be a high-water mark since he took office office, and a $25 million increase from a year before, when charter schools’ construction funding was reduced.

Construction funds have been scarce for all types of schools since the end of the last recession. They’ve started to recover, but charter schools often have to compete with school districts, colleges and universities for facilities funding in the state budget.

Charter school capital outlay graph

Construction funding for charter schools has fluctuated while enrollment has surged. Figures are based on total charter enrollment and charter school capital outlay amounts.

Charters received $75 million for the current year, a reduction of more than $15 million from a year earlier, or  about $299 for every charter school student in the state.

This school year, Florida’s charter school enrollment surpassed the quarter-million mark, reaching 250,430 according to the state’s latest statistics. That steady growth means the fluctuating amounts in the charter school capital outlay fund are constantly being stretched among more students and schools.

Robert Haag, the president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that advocates “appreciate Governor Scott’s support of parental choice” in his early budget announcements.

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