Survey: Support and opposition growing for school vouchers

Public support may be growing nationally for school voucher programs, but so is opposition, according to a new survey by a pro-parental choice think tank.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice polled more than 1,007 U.S. adults in its latest annual survey on a wide range of education-related topics, from school spending to Common Core State Standards.

The results of the 2014 Schooling in America Survey, released Thursday, show nearly two out of three Americans support vouchers, and suggest more people are forming opinions about them. The survey found support for vouchers has climbed seven percentage points over the past two years, while opposition grew by five percentage points.

Public opinion

A Friedman Foundation survey gauges public opinion on parental choice options.

The survey first asked people whether they support “school vouchers” without providing a definition, and found 43 percent in support and 21 percent in opposition. Support rose to 63 percent, and opposition to 33 percent, after people were given this definition:

A school voucher system allows parents the option of sending their child to a school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a “school voucher” to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s school.

A separate question provided a definition of tax credit scholarship programs and found a similar level of support (64 percent) but less opposition (25 percent) than it did for vouchers. Florida has both voucher and tax credit programs. While vouchers are funded directly through the state budget, tax credit scholarships allow companies to reduce their tax bills by donating money to scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The survey found less support but still a majority (56 percent) in favor of education savings accounts, which will soon be available to special needs students in Florida under legislation signed last week by Gov. Rick Scott.

The survey also shows people younger than 34 are more likely to support vouchers than those older than 55.

The results contrast with a Florida-based survey published earlier this year. The Sunshine State News poll showed “voters” narrowly oppose voucher programs. Because it surveyed likely voters and not the general population, it included a greater proportion of older people, who were less likely to support private school choice programs. It also worded its question differently, asking about scholarships for “low-income” students.

The Friedman Foundation has a mission of promoting educational choice. It provides a breakdown of its findings, methods and survey questions along with the full report. The American Enterprise Institute this afternoon will host a panel discussion and webcast on the results.

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Report: Charter schools aren’t pushing out special needs students

Are special needs students being pushed out of public charter schools? Enrollment data shows special needs enrollment in charter schools is lower than in traditional public schools, and critics have used this data to accuse charter schools of discrimination. But is this outcome the result of nefarious motives?

No, according to a new paper by Marcus Winters of the University of Colorado, who examined the large and growing special needs enrollment gap in Denver.

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According to Winters, “Nearly half (46 percent) of the growth in the gap between kindergarten and fifth grade occurs because charter schools are less likely to classify students as in need of special education services, and more likely to declassify them, than are traditional public schools.”

You might think removing the “special needs” classification from students is a way to cheat federal rules governing special needs education. But a large percentage of Denver-area special needs students were classified with “specific learning disability,” the least severe classification.

Previous research by Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas found public schools might be over prescribing this “specific learning disability” classification, in part due to the additional funding provided by state and federal programs. Charter schools may simply be recognizing that these students aren’t struggling because of a learning disability, but because of other factors (perhaps a disruptive home environment, lack of good nutrition, or poor instruction from a previous teacher).

The remainder of the gap in Denver is explained by growing enrollment in higher grades of students who aren’t classified as special needs.

The report’s findings aren’t a surprise. Many of them echo a previous study on charter schools in New York City.

Winters also found 65 percent of special needs charter school students remained enrolled in their original charter school, nearly double the rate of special needs students in public schools. If charters were counseling out special needs students, we would expect these students to transfer to other schools at higher rates than public schools. But this is not occurring.

One question that requires more investigation is the initial enrollment gap of two points. This gap could be the result of admissions discrimination, as critics and the U.S. Department of Education contend. Or it could be that traditional public schools generally have more resources to devote to special needs students, or that many traditional public school parents are satisfied with their schools and reluctant to transfer to a charter.

As we discussed on this blog earlier, new regulations may not be the best way to address these gaps. It may be better to ensure all schools have the resources they need to educate the students who enroll.

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Florida roundup: CAPE, Common Core, magnet schools and more

Tax credit scholarships. Students with higher incomes can now qualify for partial scholarships through Florida’s program, but how does that compare nationally? EdWeek. More on the Legislation from the South Florida Times. GTN News.

florida-roundup-logoCommon Core. Parents sound off on the standards in Hillsborough. Tampa Tribune.

Facilities. Two Broward charter schools can stay open after providing the district certificates of occupancy for their buildings. Sun-Sentinel. The Hernando school board votes to patch a leaky roof. Tampa Bay Times.

Magnet schools. The Palm Beach County school district reopens applications for an art and music program. Palm Beach Post.

Career education. Outgoing Senate President Don Gaetz laments that his hometown school district, where CAPE initiatives were born, has slipped to the “middle of the pack” in issuing industry certificates. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Summer. A new Hillsborough program helps students who fall behind catch up to their peers. Tampa Tribune. The Pinellas Summer Bridge program is aimed at helping struggling students avoid learning loss while school’s out. Tampa Bay Times.

Transportation. The Bay County schools superintendent learns a “valuable lesson in securing our buses” after one is stolen by a 12-year-old. Panama City News Herald.

Employee conduct. A teacher is suspended after being accused of improperly restraining a special needs student. Fort Myers News-Press. An assistant principal acquitted for failing to report child abuse fights for his job. Bradenton Herald.

Unions. The Sun-Sentinel writes up the lawsuit in the Palm Beach teachers union election.

Graduation. Some Pasco students won’t have DVDs of their high school graduation. Tampa Bay Times.

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Cheese, charter schools & promising developments in special ed

cheeseCharter schools often have an awkward, if not contentious, relationship with their local districts. That makes sense, as the public charter school movement is essentially a reaction to what can be a cookie cutter way of educating kids in neighborhood schools. Yet charter schools are part of the very same district (or state) that funds the neighborhood schools. It’s as if they’re siblings – they have the same parents but are often rivals – vying for funding, control, students, and political power among other things. Some district/charter relationships are cooperative, but others are rancorous, as illustrated by recent disputes in New York City and Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, both those disputes involved special education to some extent – probably the most complex, expensive and controversial area of teaching.

In most states, charter schools have the option of freeing themselves from these and other disputes by essentially becoming their own districts (legally termed Local Education Agencies or “LEAs”).  But the vast majority of charters, even in states like California, where they have the option of becoming their own LEAs, have not taken on the responsibility of fully controlling their own special education programs – possibly out of fear, ignorance or politics.  Fortunately, many of the more competent and high-achieving California charters – like KIPP, Aspire, and Rocketship – have chosen the path of autonomy and accountability and are leaving behind special education disputes with districts.

Where I work in Florida, where essentially charter schools don’t have the option of becoming their own LEAs (as is also the case in places like Virginia, Maryland and Kansas, and in New York for special education purposes), these special education disputes are problematic for many reasons. They’re terribly inefficient; they come at the expense of children; and they fly in the face of the charter school movement’s supposed commitment to autonomy and accountability.

To illustrate why it makes sense that some of the most competent charters are choosing to become their own LEAs and take full responsibility for special education, I’m going to use a business analogy that doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of disabled children.

Imagine a young entrepreneur who runs a new and successful Italian restaurant called “Vagare.” Vagare (i.e., the charter school in this story) has grown to serve roughly 300 customers a day. But in this city there’s a local corporate giant: “The Italian Restaurant Company” (i.e., the district). Founded in the late 1800’s, the IRC has virtually cornered the market on Italian restaurants. It serves thousands of customers daily, owns hundreds of locations, and controls restaurant supply firms and food supply chains. You get the picture.

The IRC has contracted out some of its locations and provides certain supplies to Vagare and other smaller restaurants. Vagare locally sources most of its ingredients except for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which, by contract, it is required to obtain from the IRC, which buys it in bulk from Italy. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, private schools, civil rights and more

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Charter schools. High-performing Plato Academy plans to expand in Pinellas. Tampa Bay Times. The district is moving to take over a foundering charter for at-risk students. Tampa Tribune. The Palm Beach Post rips Mavericks High School in an editorial.

Private schools. A new Christian school in Ocala hopes to grow in the upcoming year. Ocala Star-Banner.

Civil rights. A federal investigation questions whether Hillsborough minority students have less access to experienced teachers and face tougher discipline. Tampa Bay TimesTampa Tribune.

Books. A parent’s complaint gets a novel pulled from a summer reading list. Tampa Bay Times.

Campaigns. Miami-Dade school board members rake in contributions despite facing little opposition. Miami Herald.

Finance. The Hernando district is spending more than it takes in. Tampa Bay Times. Manatee’s budget situation is improving. Bradenton Herald.

Superintendents. Pinellas’ chief gets his contract extended to 2020. Tampa Tribune.

Boundaries. Orange County approves a plan to redraw attendance boundaries for Jones High School. Orlando Sentinel.

Administration. The Okaloosa school district moves to standardize staff at all its schools. Northwest Florida Daily News. The Lee County school board approves a reorganization plan. Fort Myers News-Press. The Orange County school system is wasting money hiring class-size officers, an Orlando Sentinel columnist argues. Hillsborough schools get new principals. Tampa Tribune.

Vals and Sals. Broward schools keep their honorary titles. Sun-Sentinel.

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In Florida’s pre-K program, a sign of bigger things to come

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After making rapid progress through Pre-K, Jane Phillips is ready for kindergarten.

This August, Stacy Phillips of Pensacola, Fla. will see her daughter turn five and start her first day of kindergarten, enrolled in a mainstream class like other girls her age.

A year ago, she didn’t think that would be possible.

After Jane Phillips was born, an accumulation of fluid in her ear affected her hearing and left her with a speech impediment. As a result, when Phillips signed her up for Pre-K, she had to enroll in an exceptional education program.

But the staff at her daughter’s Pre-K center gave her a flyer about a new program for Florida’s early learners with special needs. The Specialized Instructional Services program, or SIS, allows parents to use funding from the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program for therapies or other services that support their educational needs.

In Jane’s case, it allowed her to see a speech therapist roughly 45 times to get the intensive help she needed to improve her verbal skills. “It moved her ahead so much faster,” Phillips said. And now, thanks to her progress, “she’s going to Kindergarten just as a regular student.”

In coming years, expect to hear a lot more about programs that give parents educational choices that go beyond deciding which school their children attend.

At the K-12 level, education savings accounts allow parents to use public money on a wide array of education-related services, rather than just tuition at a single school. Arizona created the first such program several years ago, and on Friday, Florida followed suit when Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill creating “personal learning scholarship accounts” for special-needs students.

SIS was quietly ahead of the curve. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Digital learning, campaigns, special needs and more

Digital learning. Two previously defunct Pinellas schools are set to reopen as magnets focused on digital instruction. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoCampaigns. Collier County school board candidates express “general support for school choice” during a public forum that touches on charters and vouchers. Naples Daily News. An Okaloosa County School Board candidate campaigns on reversing a slide in school grades. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Special needs. Florida’s school choice legislation could spark efforts in other states to offer customized learning options to special needs students. Watchdog.org. A special needs advocate raises questions about the legislation. Gradebook. A new school aimed at exceptional students with start as a private school with hopes of becoming a charter. Winter Haven News Chief.

School climate. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on parent and teacher surveys.

Teachers unions. One candidate files suit in a protracted union leadership election. Palm Beach Post.

Finance. Vanished emails hamper an investigation into misspent bond money. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Superintendents. Alachua County’s new schools chief signs his contract. Gainesville Sun.

Nutrition. Participation grows at a Marion summer meal program. Ocala Star-Banner.

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Parental choice must include faith-based schools

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee. Alan Bonsteel is an associate of the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog.

faith based schoolsSchool choice is winning decisively in California. We have the highest number of charter schools – our public schools of choice – of any state, with 1,130 schools serving more than 500,000 students as of fall 2013, and with 44 charter schools just in Sacramento County. The astounding 7 percent annual growth rate of our charter school enrollment has actually accelerated in recent years.

New Orleans has just transformed itself into a model of all of their public schools being charters, with the last traditional public school there having closed its doors on May 30. This revolution came about because the charter schools so convincingly outperformed traditional public schools, with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

There is, however, an extremely important school choice option that is lagging, both in California and the nation. Literally the most faithful of our private schools are being harmed: Our K-12 religious schools.

This is because the fastest growth in school choice has been in public charter schools, which may not offer religious instruction. With their excellent quality and high test scores, charter schools have siphoned away enrollment from our religious-based private schools.

This, of course, is all the more frustrating in California, a state that has always been known for its tolerance and its diversity of spiritual paths.

When Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, she credited her Catholic school education with putting her on the path to historic achievements. When she heard that her school, Blessed Sacrament in New York City, had closed, she said she was “heartbroken.” Continue Reading →

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