Florida roundup: Virtual schools, testing, teaching and more

florida-roundup-logoVirtual school. Florida Virtual School recruits students for its new on-campus option. Orlando Sentinel. Pasco’s virtual school gave a high school senior the flexibility to learn how to fly planes. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. The Florida Senate’s deliberations over testing issues are intensifying. Gradebook. A proposed limit on testing time might not lead to fewer assessments. StateImpact. It’s too early to say whether parents took part in an Orange County testing boycott. Sentinel School Zone.

Teaching.  Pinellas teachers say they want more freedom to teach. Gradebook.

Rigor. A new college-prep program is coming to some Jacksonville middle schools. Florida Times-Union.

Community schools. A new K-8 community school could open in one of Tampa’s struggling neighborhoods. Tampa Bay Times.

Athletics. A Catholic school with a young but successful football program recruits a new coach. Ocala Star-Banner.

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Parents speak out for private school scholarships in Tallahassee

Headlines in the days leading up to Jeb Bush’s closely watched visit to Tallahassee promised there would be protests. As it turned out, there were two demonstrations, one supporting private school choice programs and one opposing them.

On Tuesday, a phalanx of nearly 20 protesters gathered in a barricaded area outside a Foundation for Florida’s Future event where the former governor spoke. They included current and former teachers, who railed against standardized testing and privatization. A few wore red t-shirts signaling their affiliation with the Badass Teachers Association, whose members are among the most virulent critics of Bush’s education reforms.

McKay Protest picture

Students and parents who rallied for school choice scholarships in Tallahassee.

Before the event, a contingent of students, parents and teachers staged a separate demonstration in favor of school choice. Many of them were supporters of McKay Scholarships for special needs students, one of Florida’s three private school choice programs (another of those, the tax credit scholarship program, is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post).

Wendy Blair is a teacher at the Arbor School of Central Florida in Winter Springs, which caters to students with special needs. She said that without McKay scholarships, its services would likely be out of reach for most of the children who attend. She said the program poses no threat to public education, pointing to studies showing it has saved school districts money.

Alexandria Forsh said her son attends Atlantic Inclusive Academy in Cocoa, a private school that accepts school choice scholarships. She said she had nothing against public schools, but parents often have a hard time advocating for special needs children and negotiating Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, with their school districts.

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, school choice, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Draft House legislation includes provisions aimed at screening out unqualified charter schools. Naples Daily News.

Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor talks school choice and accountability in Tallahassee. Times/Herald. Scripps/TribunePalm Beach Post. Associated PressReuters. Time. Tallahassee Democrat. Wall Street Journal. The New Yorker.

School choice. Magnet and fundamental schools again see an increase in applications in Pinellas County. Gradebook. School choice is bad for students, the director of the National School Boards Association writes in the Palm Beach Post.

Lawsuits. The St. Augustine Record supports the lawsuit against Florida’s tax credit scholarship program in an editorial. A Hebrew school rallies for choice. Sun-Sentinel.

Testing. Broward schools look to pare back the number of tests. Sun-Sentinel. Anti-testing protesters rally in Southwest Florida and Volusia County. Fort Myers News-Press. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Gov. Rick Scott says there is “too much testing” going on in schools. Sentinel School Zone. Opt-out proponents encourage parents to keep their kids home. Orlando Sentinel.

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Who will advocate for teachers who support parental choice?

As more students gravitate to charter schools and other options outside traditional school districts, a similar shift is happening among teachers.

Look, for instance, at the growing number of Florida teachers employed by charter schools.

There’s a desire among some education reformers to accelerate this shift by giving teachers the means to start their own charter schools or develop their own courses, which they can offer to students through course access programs.

A new member survey released last week by the Association of American Educators suggests there are educators who are seeking these options. The survey results show the group’s members overwhelmingly support parental choice, from charters to course choice programs and scholarship accounts for special needs students.

Of the teachers surveyed, 97 percent said they support charter schools, the most popular option. Spokeswoman Alexandra Freeze said there were more than 1,000 survey participants among the group’s 20,000 members from around the country.

The organization positions itself as an alternative to teachers unions, catering to reform-minded teachers by offering member perks and advocacy without engaging in collective bargaining. It’s open to teachers from all types of employers, including those, like charters, that typically aren’t unionized.

It has attracted members like Rhonda Lochiatto, who taught in district schools for 15 years before she moved to Reading Edge Academy, a Volusia County charter school where she teaches fourth grade.

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Florida roundup: Lawsuits, school choice, Jeb Bush and more

florida-roundup-logoLawsuits. A judge hears arguments in Florida’s tax credit scholarship lawsuit. Gradebook. Palm Beach Post. WTSP. Bay News 9. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. Capitol News Service. redefinED.

School choice. Florida students who don’t have much use for National School Choice Week scarves in a subtropical climate produce a video on ways to repurpose them. Sentinel School Zone.

Charter schools. A new charter school may be coming to Royal Palm Beach. Palm Beach Post.

Jeb Bush. Florida’s education-minded former governor is expected to draw a crowd in Tallahassee.  Orlando Sentinel. Saint Petersblog.

Private schools. A Christian school could soon occupy Flagler’s historic courthouse. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Testing. Central Florida schools say they can handle computer-based tests but won’t have an easy time accommodating all their students. Orlando Sentinel.

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Judge grills both sides in Florida tax credit scholarship lawsuit

The lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program hinges on a “complex” set of legal issues, a Leon County circuit court judge said Monday after hearing arguments in the case.

Judge George Reynolds grilled lawyers on both sides over whether the groups behind the lawsuit have standing to challenge the program — an issue that has snared challenges to similar programs in other states.

Reynolds repeatedly questioned how the statewide teachers union and other groups could show the tax credits harmed public schools, since the program isn’t funded using money earmarked for public education. He had questions for both sides, and noted late in the hearing that he’s grappling with a range of legal “complications.”

Lawyers for the state and for scholarship parents argued that the tax credits available to companies that contribute to scholarship organizations (including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post) are similar to the tax deductions offered for other charitable donations. The government can’t lay claim to money that never winds up in the state treasury.

Claiming the money that funds scholarships would otherwise have gone to fund public schools requires “speculation heaped on top of speculation,” Blaine Winship argued for the state attorney general’s office. The union’s logic, he added, could be used against other efforts to encourage charitable giving.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the teachers union, countered that the scholarship program is not supported through “garden variety” tax exemptions. Rather, the tax credits support donations for specific purpose: subsidizing private school tuition for low-income students, which the union argues violates the state constitution.

That led to a key exchange, in which Reynolds challenged Meyer.

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What to watch for as Florida court hears arguments on tax credit scholarships

The lawsuit that challenges a scholarship program serving 70,000 low-income children in Florida heads to a Tallahassee courtroom this afternoon.

The issue before Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds will not be the constitutionality of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship itself.

Instead, the arguments will center on an important legal point that has stopped challenges to similar programs in other states: The question of whether the groups behind the lawsuit have standing to bring the case.

For that reason, today’s hearing could be pivotal. Judging from the briefs filed by both sides and relevant cases in Florida and elsewhere, the arguments are likely to fall along two lines: Whether the plaintiffs – which includes the statewide teachers union and other groups – can show the program actually harms them, or whether they have standing to challenge the program simply as taxpayers.

Here are some of the key legal threads to keep an eye on.

Is this lawsuit similar to Bush v. Holmes?

Lawyers for the Florida Education Association and the other groups bringing the lawsuit have made clear that this is the terrain on which they want to fight.

Their core argument is that tax credit scholarships are no different from the school voucher program, called Opportunity Scholarships, that the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2006. They underscored this point in their most recent legal filing late last month: “As explained in the complaint, the only substantive difference between the two programs is the mechanism through which funds are directed from the public fisc to private schools.”

This goes to the heart of the union’s argument that the program harms public schools. In the 2006 decision, Bush v. Holmes, the justices found Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional because the vouchers transferred “tax money earmarked for public education to private schools” — money that came “from each school district’s appropriated funds.”

The state’s lawyers argue the tax credit scholarships are different in legally important ways. As they write early in their motion to dismiss the case: “The program relies on private voluntary donations — not public dollars. And the program provides tax credits to donors — not schools or students.”

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Florida schools roundup: Charter schools, PLSAs, budgets and more

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Proposed legislation could help out-of state charter schools get a foothold in Florida. StateImpact. A shuttered charter school now faces foreclosure of its building site. South Florida Business Journal.

PLSAs. More states are considering account-based scholarship programs like Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Politico.

Lawsuits. Supporters and opponents of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program head to court this afternoon. WTXL. The program is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Testing. The Tampa Bay Times dissects various controversies that have swirled around new state assessments. Florida’s school districts are ready for computer-based assessments this year, the state Department of Education says. Orlando Sentinel. Districts still worry about the shift. Sun-Sentinel. State lawmakers plan testing changes. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A revamp of the SAT coincides with the switch to Common Core. Naples Daily News.

Sports. Competing in interscholastic athletics helps an Islamic school break down cultural barriers. Tampa Bay Times.

Budgets. Childrens’ advocates praise much of Gov. Rick Scott’s spending plan but bemoan low per-student funding for Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten. News Service of Florida. Hernando’s superintendent says budget cuts hurt student performance. Tampa Bay Times.

Advocacy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush returns to Tallahassee to talk education policy and raise money for his new PAC. Palm Beach Post. The Buzz.

Growth. Volusia schools brace for projected enrollment increases. Daytona Beach News-Journal. The Lee County School board is set to discuss a new high school. Naples Daily News. Fort Myers News-Press.

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