FL Gov. Rick Scott signs school choice expansion bill

Gov. Scott

Gov. Scott

Florida continues its national pace setting on parental choice under a bill signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

SB 850 allows more students to qualify for the nation’s largest publicly funded private school choice program, which is expected to serve more than 67,000 low-income students this fall. It makes Florida the second state in the nation to offer new personalized learning scholarship accounts for special needs students.

Those changes helped make the bill one of the most contentious of the state’s 2014 legislative session.

The bill mandates more state oversight of organizations that administer the scholarship program. (Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is the only organization doing so at the moment).

The bill also increases the financial incentives for schools to expand career academies. And a provision backed by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz will push the state’s community colleges to offer at least one “collegiate high school” program in every school district in the state, which would allow students to finish a year’s worth of college credits before graduating high school.

“Finally, every student in each of Florida’s 67 school districts is afforded the opportunity for advancement through a collegiate high school, and is more adequately prepared for their future careers,” Legg said in a statement.

The portion of the bill dealing with tax credit scholarships increases the scholarship amount; removes the requirement that in order to qualify, students in grades 6-12 must have been in public school the year prior; and, beginning in 2016, offers partial scholarships to working-class families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

The scholarship program is funded by corporations that get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The original legislation included a modest increase in the state-imposed spending cap, which will be $357.8 million next year. The final bill included no change.

Critics of the scholarship program, including the statewide teachers union, seized on the fact that participating students do not take the same assessments as their counterparts in public schools. They are required to take standardized tests, and schools are required to report the results to an independent researcher for analysis.

“Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates,” Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools.

The personal learning scholarship accounts will allow parents of certain special-needs students to access 90 percent of the funding a school district would have received for that student, and to direct it to a wide range of uses, including private school tuition, tutoring programs and therapy sessions. The Legislature set aside $18.4 million for the program for the 2014-15 school year.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is among the new program’s key backers. He is the father of a child with Down syndrome and is set to take over as Senate President after the November elections. He has said he intends to support policies that allow children with disabilities to graduate high school ready to enter the workforce.

In a statement, he said the accounts will allow parents to “make certain our students receive an education tailored to their unique abilities.”

Other coverage: Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Education Week. Associated Press, News Service of Florida, SaintPetersBlog, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, WFSU.


Parents talk choice & accountability

The word “accountability” can have different meanings in education policy debates. For two parents who spoke Thursday to a room full of public school administrators, it comes down to knowing what’s happening in their schools.


Photo by Glen Gilzean

That includes test scores and other data that allow them to track their students’ progress. But it also involves other forms of transparency, including communication with the people who run their schools.

“As far as transparency, I know everything that’s going on. I feel completely connected, regardless of the distance,” Theresa Seits, the parent of two magnet school students, said during a panel at the Florida Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in Tampa. “Information is always available to me as far as how my students are doing, personally, and how the schools are doing as well.”

The word “accountability,” and competing arguments about how it should be achieved, have been at the center of debates over school choice in Florida and beyond. It came up repeatedly during Thursday’s panel discussion.

Seits, who is also an administrator at a Hillsborough County elementary school, said her oldest son could always get good grades and score well on tests. But he did not flourish until she enrolled him in the STEM magnet program at Hillsborough’s Middleton High School, where other kids shared his interest in technology and robotics. In other words, test scores showed her son was making progress, but she needed to find a school that met his needs on other counts. That, she said, “leaves a lot up to parents to have to research and understand” what options work best for their children.

Parent and panelist Shannon Coates said she, too, kept close tabs on what was happening in her daughter’s schools. Her daughter attended private schools with the help of the Florida tax credit scholarship program before moving to a performing arts conservatory in California. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

But Coates said she also tracked her daughter’s progress using the results from standardized tests. That let her know her daughter was performing on grade level when she left eighth grade to focus on dance. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, politics, philanthropy and more

Tax credit scholarships. Will the program drain $3 billion from public schools? Mostly false. PolitiFact.

florida-roundup-logoPolitics. Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab chides a local school board candidate who attacked the “toxic culture of education” for over-the-top political rhetoric.

Philanthropy. Teach for America recruits appear to be helping Miami-Dade students in math but not reading, a study shows. Miami Herald. An alumna of the program from Brooksville is now an “education superstar” in DC public schools, a Tampa Bay Times columnist writes. A prep school student raises money for laptops at a nearby Title I school. Tampa Bay Times. A Gates Foundation program aims to help more Jacksonville students receive full scholarships. WJCT.

Testing. Some superintendents question falling FCAT writing scores. Tampa Bay Times.

Administration. Administrators reprimand a Hernando County band director who rallied parents behind his program. Tampa Bay Times. The Palm Beach school baord approves hires. Palm Beach Post.

Labor. Collier County teachers say if they’re required to be on annual contracts, their principals should be, too. Naples Daily News.

STEM. A UF project aims to help students improve in algebra. StateImpact.

Facilities. Escambia County school district sells off the last of its vacant property. Pensacola News-Journal.

Summer. The City of Jacksonville runs camps for at-risk kids. Florida Times-Union. Libraries in the city aim to help students over the summer. Florida Times-Union.

Employee conduct. A Hillsborough teacher faces criminal charges after leaving the scene of a car wreck. Tampa Bay Times.


Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: MO limits school choice, Dems supporting vouchers, Reps opposing vouchers


Missouri Board of Education

The Missouri State Board of Education took steps this week to curtail public school transfers between school districts. State law currently allows students in failing public school districts (read unaccredited districts) to transfer to higher-performing districts. Receiving districts were required to accept all students, and sending districts were required to pay whatever was required.

In the first year, the Normandy School District outside St. Louis saw more than 900 students – about a quarter of all students – flee its borders to neighboring districts. That resulted in the district falling into financial insolvency before finally being taken over by the state.

travelsforchoiceNow that the state is in charge, it is trying to curtail transfers. The state will now limit payments to $7,200 per student; receiving districts may refuse transfers; and students must have attended a Normandy school for at least one semester during the 2012-13 school year. That last rule guarantees 131 students will be forced back into schools they just escaped. And that is a big problem considering some were willing to travel three hours a day to attend the school they wanted.

Worse still, the state is “resetting” the district’s accreditation status for three years to prevent any future students from leaving the district.

For students in Normandy Public Schools, school choice is limited to other public schools outside the district. School choice opponents can’t muddy the debate by claiming profit motives, or arguing that choice schools operate under a different set of rules, or lack accountability. With public school choice the issue boils down to its pure essence: finding the right school for that individual child. Any excuse to limit or eliminate that kind of choice can’t be focused on the students.

Grade: Needs Improvement


Marcus Brandon D-NC

Marcus Brandon D-NC

Rep. Marcus Brandon and Rep. Edward Hanes Jr.

Late last week, Democrats in North Carolina attempted to kill the state’s new voucher program by axing the $10 million appropriation in a budget amendment. Republicans mounted a defense, but according to Ann Doss Helms, a journalist at the Charlotte Observer, the most vigorous support for vouchers came from two Democrats.

Rep. Marcus Brandon argued public schools in his district weren’t enough to meet student needs. He didn’t blame public school teachers or principals, but a “bad system.” Brandon was troubled by his party’s unwillingness to support learning options for low-income students. “There is nothing unconstitutional about giving poor and minority children the same opportunity as other children,” he argued.

Rep. Edward Hanes Jr., meanwhile, called out members of his caucus. He noted several of his party’s members send their own kids to private schools, but want to deny the same options for low-income parents who need help paying tuition.

The amendment to kill the program failed 43-71.

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Migrant students, whistleblowers, campaigns and more

Tax credit scholarships. A Miami Herald guest column attacks the program for not being subject to the same regulations as the public school system. Students in the program should be assessed in science, FSU professor Paul Cottle writes in the Tallahassee Democrat.

florida-roundup-logoMigrant students. The Miami-Dade school board plans to seek more federal funding to accommodate an influx of migrant children fleeing from Central America. Miami Herald.

Whistleblowers. The Palm Beach school board tosses a retaliation complaint against its inspector general. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. More here. More school district employees become whistleblowers in a Leon County contracting scandal. Tallahassee Democrat.

Campaigns. An Orange County teacher whose speech blasting school reform spread around the Internet is now running for school board. Orlando Sentinel. Fields are set in many Southwest Florida school board races. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Charter schools. How does Florida’s sector stack up? Perhaps not so well. Flypaper.

Employee conduct. One Manatee school administrator is acquitted, and another convicted, in a high-profile sex abuse case. Sarasota Hearld-TribuneBradenton Herald.

Teachers. Most days, there are hundreds of substitutes teaching in Pinellas County classrooms. Tampa Bay Times. A report on a teacher prep paints an unflattering picture of Florida colleges. Extra Credit.

Summer. Pasco schools expand their summer course offerings. Tampa Bay Times. Parents don’t always make reading a priority after the school year ends, a survey shows. Orlando Sentinel.

 Attendance.  Hillsborough students are honored for 13 years of perfect attendance. Tampa Tribune.


Teachers will thrive with school choice


Students and parents aren’t the only ones who benefit from school choice. Teachers do, too. We routinely hit on that point, and Doug Tuthill hammered it home last night on conservative news outlet The Blaze.

Here is what Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog), said when asked by host Will Cain about his past as a teacher union president:

“I’ve always been an empowerment guy.  And I got into education, and I got into teacher unions, because I really wanted to empower teachers. But what happens is, teachers are really disempowered in an overly regulated system. … I wish the teacher unions in the country would embrace choice because at the end of the day, it’s good for teachers and for parents.” School choice “allows them to be innovative, entrepreneurial,” Tuthill continued. “And right now, you can’t in the current system.”

The bulk of the interview focused on something we’ve been talking a lot about over the past week – the changing definition of education accountability in an era where parental choice is becoming the norm. The Heartland Institute’s Joy Pullman weighed in on the topic this week in The Federalist, pointing specifically to recent goings-on in Florida, and Cain cited her take during the interview. By all means, click and check it out. :)


Wide variation in private school enrollment in Florida school districts

Slightly more than one in 10 Florida students attends private school, but like other school choice options in Florida, the proportion of private school enrollment varies widely from one school district to the next.

That diversity can serve as a reminder that there a complex set of factors that drive parents’ decisions about where to send their children. Take a look, for example, at the proportion of students enrolled in private schools, according to the Department of Education’s latest report on private school enrollment:

Click a district to show the percentage of students attending private school.

Two rural North Florida districts – Calhoun and Liberty – report zero private-school students. But that same region is home to an outlier at the opposite end of the spectrum: Jefferson County, where more than one in four students attends private school – a share of total enrollment that exceeds the next-highest district by 10 percentage points.

One obvious explanation: The district’s performance in the state’s accountability system (Jefferson’s F grades are frequently cited by parents asking the school board to transfer their children to neighboring school districts).

Another contributing factor could be the lack of charter schools, magnet schools, and other choice options in a district with a single public elementary school and one middle/high school. Private school enrollment plummeted this year in neighboring Madison County, the same year two new charter schools opened.

But those factors still don’t tell the whole story. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Campaigns, charters, school boards and more

Tax credit scholarships. WFTV airs criticisms of school choice programs by Central Florida Democrats.  A Heartland Institute fellow supports the program in an Orlando Sentinel guest column. An administrative law judge supports the state’s decision to keep a private school with an administrator who previously mishandled funds from participating in the program. Tampa Bay Business Journal.

florida-roundup-logoCampaigns. Charlie Crist makes changes to the state’s teacher evaluations a central part of his campaign for governor. Sentinel School Zone. A former porn star makes headlines running for school board on a platform of “technology, innovation, equality, sex education, and secular values.” Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel.

Charter schools. Sarasota County grapples with a raft of charter applications. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A Mavericks charter school appeals a district’s effort to dock it for hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. Palm Beach Post. Outgoing lawmaker Seth McKeel becomes chair of a Polk County charter network’s board. Lakeland Ledger.

School boards. A Duval school board member wants to create a self-defense policy for students. Florida Times-Union. Manatee board members debate giving themselves a raise. Bradenton Herald. A Palm Beach board member takes a new leadership post.  Palm Beach Post.

Reading instruction. More schools will add an extra hour for struggling students. Tampa Tribune.

Continue Reading →