FL’s new special needs scholarship accounts can support college ambitions

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida’s experiment with personalized accounts that help parents meet the educational needs of their special needs children is only beginning. In coming years, it could support a key priority for the incoming president of the state senate: Helping more of those children gain access to a college education.

Senate President Andy Gardiner told a room full of education advocates and pro-reform lawmakers in Washington D.C. Thursday that he wants to work with colleges and universities to expand higher education options for special needs students. He hopes parents who use Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for special needs students will be better able to take advantage of those options.

The accounts, created by legislation signed into law this year, allow parents of students with specific special needs to use state education funds to pay for a mix of private school tuition, therapies, home-school curriculum, and other educational expenses. They can also use the accounts to start saving for college. The program is administered by organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Gardiner, who is the father of an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, said college often seems out of reach for parents of special needs students. They must overcome a belief that “in the eyes of society, they’re not going to be able to get to that point.”

He said he wants that to change. Some Florida colleges are already creating programs aimed at special-needs students, and Gardiner, who eschews the term “disabilities,” hopes to create more of them.

“We’ll come forward with a plan for a post-secondary option for individuals — not with disabilities, but unique abilities,” he said during a panel discussion at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual summit.

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Should school choice parents be allowed to stay in struggling schools?

As school vouchers, tax credit scholarships and related educational options continue to grow, the school choice movement will have an increasingly visible debate over the right regulatory consequences for providers whose students persistently fail to make academic gains.

So said a leader of the nation’s largest school choice organization Thursday during an education reform summit in Washington D.C. As if on cue, Scott Jensen with the American Federation for Children and his fellow panelists proceeded to politely sketch out different positions.

It’s an issue that has surfaced repeatedly at a national conference on education reform and will gain importance as choice becomes more common and a growing school choice movement pushes to improve quality.

Jensen, who hails from Wisconsin, home to the nation’s longest-running school voucher program in Milwaukee, made the case for some sort of government response. Jensen said school choice supporters in Wisconsin believed in the beginning that poor performing private schools wouldn’t survive, because parents would naturally gravitate away from them. But in an educational marketplace that’s still maturing, that hasn’t always happened, he said. And the resulting negative publicity has been bad for the movement.

“We get haunted by the small number of bad stories,” said Jensen, a senior strategist with AFC. They “drive the political conversation” and it’s hard to convince politicians and the public that “there’s an acceptable level of failure.”

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Jeb Bush to states that reject Common Core: Push standards “even higher”



States should not back away from higher expectations for their students in the face of a contentious debate over the education standards, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday.

In a closely watched address that marked the start of the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s National Summit on Education Reform, Bush said the debate of the Common Core State Standards, which have caused a rift among conservative reformers, is “troubling.”

He called for the federal government to scale back its role dictating education policy. At the same time, he said, “the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms.”

“For those states that are choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine, except you should be aiming even higher, and be bolder, and raise standards, and ask more for our students and the system,” he told the gathering of hundreds of education reformers in Washington.

Citing a policy in Orange County schools that recently made headlines, in which students receive a minimum score of 50 out of 100, he called for reformers to push back against the drive to ease expectations for students in the name of protecting their “self esteem.”

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FL DOE: District retaliated against administrators in thwarted charter conversion

In the first case of its kind, the state has sided with two South Florida school administrators who faced retaliation for trying to convert their public school to a charter.

This month’s ruling by the state Department of Education upholds the findings of an administrative law judge, who found Miami-Dade schools unlawfully retaliated against a principal and assistant principal by assigning them to other jobs, where they had to perform menial tasks.

Florida law protects school employees from reprisal by school districts if they support charter conversions, and this is the case in which administrators relied on those protections.

Administrators will be compensated for attorneys fees bonuses they would have received if they had remained in their leadership posts at Neva King Cooper Educational Center.

But their charter conversion efforts remain thwarted, and the school district will not have to return them to their old positions. The department’s final order in the case notes that the school district has placed them in equivalent positions.

A Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman told the Miami Herald, which first reported the ruling, that the district was now “satisfied” with the outcome.

The original ruling in the case can be found here. We explored the significance of this case in an interview with Robin Gibson, the attorney who represented the administrators.


Florida roundup: Jeb Bush, digital learning, private schools and more

florida-roundup-logoJeb Bush. The Wall Street Journal sets a political stage for the former Florida governor’s speech, coming this morning at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual conference.

Digital Learning. President Obama praises educators’ efforts to close the digital divide in Florida and elsewhere. Miami Herald.

Private schools. A Catholic school in Tampa prepares a major renovation. Tampa Tribune.

Boundaries. A South Florida boundary plan draws parents’ ire. Sun-Sentinel. Rezoning is coming to Pasco elementary schools. Tampa Bay Times.

Discipline. Duval schools consider whether to admit students who were expelled elsewhere. Florida Times-Union.

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Chartrand: Parents at turnaround schools should know about choices

gary chartrand

Gary Chartrand

On Tuesday, when the Florida Board of Education somewhat grudgingly approved turnaround plans for dozens of D- and F-rated public schools, several board members said they want to explore ways to revamp the process for transforming schools that are struggling academically.

One suggestion from board chairman Gary Chartrand: Parents at those schools need to know what other choices are available.

Chartrand has been a backer of philanthropic efforts to improve education options in inner-city Jacksonville. He was an early supporter of the effort to bring KIPP to the city, and sits on its board.

Parents often face barriers to true school choice, and one of the most basic is a lack of information, he said. If they’re in a school where student achievement lags, it’s especially important that they know about their options.

“It can get complicated for parents to know what all their choices are, and I particularly get concerned about the lack of choice for those that are the most undeserved, because they don’t have the flexibility to move,” he said in a brief interview after the meeting. “When you don’t offer other choices for that child, then we’re not doing our job.”

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Florida charter school advocates: Focus on quality, stop bad schools

Florida’s charter school movement needs to turn its attention to quality, and its prognosis could turn grim if bad schools aren’t stopped.

That was the case laid out by some of the state’s leading charter school advocates at the start of a three-day conference in Orlando.

Some of the strongest warnings came from Jim Horne, a former state Senator and education commissioner who now lobbies for several charter school organizations.

“I would challenge you that we will have to double down on quality, or else we will start to decline,” he said.

He was joined in a panel discussion by other leaders of the state’s charter movement. Several said they agreed with his diagnosis, and some called for stronger steps to stop unqualified schools from opening in the first place.

With charters in Florida approaching 650 schools and poised to surpass 10 percent of public school enrollment, Horne said the onus is on charters to figure out how to police their own. A handful of closures in one district can explode into a larger controversy, prompting charter school opponents to call for more regulation, threatening to roll back the original bargain behind the charter school concept.

“We weren’t supposed to look like, act like, and behave like district-managed schools,” Horne said, drawing some of the loudest applause from the audience of charter school educators and supporters. “We were supposed to have freedom … but in return for that freedom, we had to perform at a higher level.”

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Florida schools roundup: Testing, school boards, GEDs and more

florida-roundup-logoTesting. Some grades will take Florida’s state writing assessment using paper and pencil. Orlando Sentinel. School boards take aim at testing in Pasco and Pinellas. Gradebook. A Palm Beach Post columnist criticizes testing.

Turnarounds. The State Board of Education approves new accountability rules and turnaround plans for schools, but members say the process needs to be strengthened. Gradebook.

School boards. New school board members take office and choose their leaders. Tampa Bay Times, more here. Tampa Tribune. Florida Times-Union. Florida Today. Bradenton Herald. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Ocala Star-Banner. Tallahassee Democrat. Brevard school board members lower their salaries to those of first-year teachers. Florida Today.

GEDs. A single mom goes back to school to get a GED as a first step in her climb out of poverty. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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