Florida roundup: Charter schools, lawsuits, pay raises and more

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Lawsuits. Families with children receiving tax credit scholarships look to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the program. Gradebook. Sentinel School ZoneredefinED. The program is administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Charter schools. Florida may be moving into uncharted territory with a new effort to stoke collaboration among charter schools and school districts. Education Week. Local officials and homeowners association members raise questions about a planned charter school in the flight path of an airport. Florida Times-Union. The Polk school board rejects a series of charter applications. Lakeland Ledger.

Budgets. Pinellas schools bring in substitute teachers en masse to help comply with class-size rules during enrollment counts. Tampa Bay Times. The Brevard school board approves a list of schools it would close if a tax referendum fails. Florida Today.

Pay raises. School boards around the state take steps toward teacher pay raises. Bradenton Herald. Pensacola News-Journal. Tampa Tribune. Tampa Bay Times. Hillsborough school district employees may also be in line for raises. Tampa Tribune.

Campaigns. The National Education Association puts money behind grassroots political efforts in Florida and other states. Education Intelligence Agency. A Clay County voter survey spurs a bitter lawsuit from a school board candidate. Florida Times-Union. A ballot glitch snares a Palm Beach school board candidate. Palm Beach Post.

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Parents intervene in lawsuit to defend Florida tax credit scholarships

tax credit scholarship anti-lawsuit rally

Students protest a lawsuit challenging Florida tax credit scholarships during an August rally in Tallahassee.

Fifteen parents are asking a Florida circuit court to allow them to help defend the country’s largest private school choice program against a constitutional challenge.

Between them, the parents have 32 children who attend private schools using Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Many of them also have children in other choice programs – McKay scholarships for special needs students, Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or charter schools – which their lawyers contend would also be threatened by the legal arguments in the case.

The parents include a single mother on disability from Gadsden County, a former teachers union organizer, and a doctor’s assistant who fled Venezuela after the election of Hugo Chavez. They plan to intervene in the lawsuit to represent some 69,000 low-income students who use the scholarships to attend private schools.

They argue in court papers filed Tuesday that if the lawsuit succeeded and their children were uprooted  from their current schools, “They would suffer not merely the financial loss of the scholarships, but also a serious blow to the Low Income Families’ educational hopes for their children.”

The lawsuit, filed in late August by the statewide teachers union, the Florida School Boards Association, the NAACP, the statewide PTA and other groups, argues the tax credit scholarship program violates the state constitution by creating a parallel education system backed by public money. They also argue the program violates a prohibition on state money going to religious institutions.

In their motion to intervene, lawyers for the parents say that logic could threaten other educational options, including charter schools and special needs scholarships that also help families pay private school tuition. They point to a separate, far broader lawsuit against the state, which makes arguments challenging those other options.

In their motion, filed in Leon County Circuit Court, their lawyers note participants in the tax credit scholarship are predominantly minorities, by definition low-income, and often among the lowest-scoring students in the public schools they leave behind. Several of the parents note their children used the scholarships to escape academic turmoil or bullying.

“In the absence of the Program, the Low Income Families reasonably fear for the educational future of their children, not to mention their safety,” the legal filing states.

The other parties in McCall v. Scott have already agreed to let the parents intervene in the case, but the plaintiffs are questioning whether the parents should have the ability to participate as a full-blown party to the lawsuit.

The parents’ lawyers contend their interest in keeping their scholarships is “direct, substantial and immediate, and will not vary over the course of this litigation, whereas the (state) Defendants’ interests in this lawsuit are liable to shift with the political winds.”

A judge has dismissed a third lawsuit, challenging legislation that expanded tax credit scholarships and created the personal learning scholarship accounts, but the Florida Education Association has until next Tuesday to re-work its legal arguments.

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Florida schools roundup: Special needs, testing, campaigns and more

florida-roundup-logoSpecial needs. A program unique to the Volusia school district helps parents identify their children’s autism early. Daytona Beach News Journal.

Virtual schools. A study shows they do not harm students’ academic progress. Gradebook.

Testing. Parents at an emotionally charged meeting on testing and Common Core are told that opting out is not an option. Palm Beach Post. More from Extra Credit. Central Florida school board officials air complaints about state testing requirements. Orlando Sentinel. Marion teachers plan to rally against testing. Ocala Star-Banner.

Growth. Enrollment is rebounding in Tampa Bay-area public schools after languishing during the recession. Tampa Bay Times.

Campaigns and referenda. A political consulting group alleges the Broward school district created a “sham” political action committee to promote a tax referendum and skirt election laws. Sun-Sentinel. Brevard schools will soon name the schools slated for closure if a tax referendum fails. Florida Today. School board candidates debate in Collier County. Naples Daily News.

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Charter school, district tussle over busing

School bus

Charter schools often rely on methods other than traditional school buses to meet their transportation needs.

If a charter school doesn’t provide busing to its students, do they still have equal access?

That’s the question at the center of a legal dispute between a Florida school district and one of the nation’s largest charter school networks.

In October 2013 – some two months after the Renaissance Charter School at Tradition first opened its doors – the St. Lucie County School District told the school it needed to provide bus service to students living more than two miles away, legal documents show. The school, which is managed by Charter Schools USA, has challenged that requirement in two legal proceedings, pitting the high-profile charter operator against a district that allows most of its students to exercise some form of district-operated school choice.

The standoff centers on a provision in Florida charter school law that affects students statewide. Florida statutes require districts and charters to work together so that transportation does not become “a barrier to equal access for all students residing within a reasonable distance of the charter school.”

That has meant different things in different districts. The 40,000-student St. Lucie district contends charter schools should be required to provide bus service. The school at Tradition counters that the law doesn’t give the district the authority to place that requirement on charter schools, and that transportation has not been a barrier to its students. After all, the school is oversubscribed.

“Since its inception, Tradition has had more students enrolled than it projected and the charter school currently has a waiting list of students hoping to matriculate there despite the fact that it does not offer regular busing to its students absent exceptional circumstances required by law (as is the case, upon information and belief, with most charter schools in Florida),” the school’s attorney wrote in a legal brief.

The school’s transportation plan includes helping parents arrange carpools to ensure their children can get to school, a practice employed by other charter schools around the state.

John Ferguson, the school district’s attorney, however, said carpools fall short of the requirements in the district’s charter contracts. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, testing, career education and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigates charter school operator Mavericks in Education.

Tax credit scholarships. In a Fox News guest column, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio says school choice programs increase options for disadvantaged children.

Career education. More students are being told they have options aside from a traditional four-year college. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Project-based learning. A Florida Times-Union exploration of recent curricular changes focuses on a Jacksonville private school.

Digital learning. Students who do not have home Internet access must rely on public libraries. Miami Herald.

Testing. The Polk County school board is poised to take up anti-testing resolutions approved by its counterparts elsewhere. Lakeland Ledger. The Florida Department of Education is preparing to take legal action over required testing for English language learners. Gradebook. An outgoing administrator criticizes the state’s testing system. Gradebook. Tampa Tribune. Lake County schools plan to scale back some local assessments. Orlando Sentinel.

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Rubio: Attack on school choice in FL should concern parents everywhere

From an op-ed on FoxNews.com today authored by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio:

Sen. Rubio

Sen. Rubio

Last year in my home state of Florida, over 40% of children educated with taxpayer funds didn’t attend their zoned public school. They attended district run magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools and dual enrollment programs with colleges. This customization has enabled Florida to have great achievement gains for its lower-income and minority children over the last decade.

For 13 years, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has played a critical role in this progress. The program provides tax credits to companies that donate to scholarship-granting organizations. It’s been so successful in Florida that I used it as a model for federal legislation I’ve introduced.

Today roughly 68,000 low-income parents use the program to send their child to a school that better fits his or her unique learning needs. Test scores show that these children were the lowest performers in their public schools when they left but now see learning gains equal to children of all incomes.

Incredibly, in spite of this clear success, the Florida teachers union and the Florida School Boards Association filed suit in August to shut down the program. 

Should the suit succeed, these 68,000 needy children – 70% of which are either African-American, or of Hispanic or Haitian descent – will be evicted from their chosen schools. Further, hundreds of private schools in Florida serving minority children will be forced to close their doors.

Although this is happening in Florida, it should concern all parents across the entire country who want and deserve the freedom and opportunity to give their kids better education options.

Full op-ed here.

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Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: AU, not so fast!

MrGibbonsReportCardAmericans United for Separation of Church and State

Americans United for Separation of Church and State backs the lawsuit seeking to terminate the Florida tax credit scholarship program for low-income students, and the president of its national board of trustees is listed as a plaintiff. But that’s not why it’s receiving a “Needs Improvement” today. Getting basic facts about the case wrong earns it that distinction.

The biggest error is from AU’s blog, where blogger Rob Boston wrote,

“The plaintiffs and the groups backing them argue that the program shares the same flaws that ultimately condemned the state’s previous voucher system, mainly, the overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the current plan are sectarian.”

“Separation of church and state” may be AU’s bailiwick, but it clearly overstates the claims here. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional, but it dodged the question of whether the program crossed church-state lines. That’s because in 2002, after the Florida suit had been filed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents can in fact use vouchers to send their children to religious schools.

If scholarships to sectarian private schools was really a main flaw of the Florida program, as AU alleges, we might expect that argument to occupy more than one page of 20 in the plaintiffs’ complaint.

(As always, we note the scholarship program is run by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Grade: Needs Improvement

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Florida schools roundup: Accountability, enrollment growth, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoAccountability. A new report criticizes Florida’s accountability system for not emphasizing the performance of certain demographic subgroups. Education Week. Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute responds that states like Florida have it right.

Growth. The Lee County school district appears be straining capacity as official enrollment counts begin. Fort Myers News-Press.

Testing. Complaints from public school educators have yet to generate wholesale changes to the state’s testing and accountability system. Tampa Bay Times.

Private schools. A Southwest Florida private school marks a milestone. Fort Myers News-Press.

Campaigns. Next month’s election could significantly reshape a Hernando school board with two open seats. Tampa Bay Times.

Readiness. Pasco elementary schools adopt the AVID program to lay the groundwork for college readiness. Tampa Bay Times.

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