In D.C., bureaucracy at issue, not school vouchers

Last Friday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report highlighting flaws and failures in the oversight of Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship program. But contrary to what you may have read in some newspapers and blogs (especially if you just skimmed headlines like this and this), the GAO’s findings were not an attack on vouchers or school choice.

Perhaps the most egregious offender published a headline which read “Report slams D.C’s federally funded school voucher program,” with the author also incorrectly stating “public money shouldn’t be used for tuition at private schools where there is no public oversight.”

The D.C. voucher program has, on paper, considerable public oversight (three layers, in fact). The problem is, the government agencies responsible for that oversight fell woefully short.

First, a little background: The U.S. Department of Education is required to appoint a non-profit organization to administer the program. The department is responsible for helping the non-profit develop policies and procedures to accomplish that task. The District of Columbia is responsible for inspecting private schools to ensure compliance with federal law.

In 2010, the Obama administration’s education department selected the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a government-affiliated non-profit, to administer the program. The non-profit is not without its own prior controversies, including having $350,000 of its money embezzled by an elected D.C. politician, but that is another story.

In 2011, Congress passed the SOAR Act, keeping the voucher program alive and funded for another five years. According to the GAO, new regulations were added that required the non-profit administrator to provide parents a directory of participating schools; ensure participating private schools were compliant with the law; ensure private school teachers had a bachelor’s degree or higher; and advertise the program to prospective students in public schools designated as “needs improvement.” The non-profit’s original duties included verifying household income for students to ensure eligibility and administering a lottery to award scholarships.

But as the GAO report point out, the non-profit administrator fumbled many of those tasks: Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Magnet schools, charters, achievement gap & more

Charter schools: The Lake Wales Charter School system is creating a new position to help with private fundraising. The Ledger.

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools: Beginning next school year, Hernando County’s magnet schools will be able to send students with attendance problems, excessive tardiness, behavior issues or poor grades back to their zoned schools. Tampa Bay Times. Pinellas County School District officials want to add more magnets, fundamental programs, career academies and other options to the district’s school choice mix. The Tampa Tribune.

Achievement gap: Two prominent community leaders say Pinellas County schools could do more to close the achievement gap between black and white students. Tampa Bay Times.

School safety: Pinellas considers scaling back five school police officers’ schedules by June 2014. Instead of working 12 months, these officers would work 10, aligning with the school year. Tampa Bay Times.

School nurses: The Palm Beach County School District plans to ask the health care district for help finding as much as $600,000 for eight additional school nurse positions this year. Palm Beach Post.

Continue Reading →

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Smarick: In new era, faith-based schools need more transparency, accountability

Smarick

Smarick

Few people in the field of education bring the kind of credibility to a debate on faith-based schools that Andy Smarick brings. So his keynote speech Tuesday to the American Center for School Choice’s Commission on Faith-based Schools in New York was all the more riveting for his decision not to preach to the choir. His message – that to reverse the decline, faith-based educators need also to look in the mirror – amounted to a family intervention.

“Without putting too fine of a point on it,” Smarick said, “an H.G. Wells quote seems particularly fitting: ‘Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.’ ”

Smarick criticized faith-based schools – and private schools in general – for not adapting to a new educational environment driven by regulatory accountability and performance measures, and for not being more transparent about their academic performance. He challenged a passage in the commission’s report:

“The following paragraph from your report is particularly instructive: ‘America is losing a valuable national asset — not because it has become obsolescent, not because the demand for it has disappeared, not because the need for it has been satisfied by other entities, but because we have a misguided public policy … ‘

“It is my humble contention that these policies are misguided as much because of our behavior as anyone else’s. I’m sad to say, most believe we currently don’t deserve better policies. Our elected officials are understandably making education decisions based on the conditions of 2013, and we’re acting like it’s 1963.”

The public and charter sectors are transparent in ways that better inform parents and satisfy the demands of those in government who pay the bills, Smarick told the audience. So private schools that want to constitute a viable third sector need to embrace the reality seen in most Western nations: Continue Reading →

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All aboard for Catholic schools

Members of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education are taking turns traveling cross-country by bus to raise awareness about Catholic schools and faith-based education.

ACE Academies national bus tour

ACE Academies national bus tour

It’s part of a 50-city tour, dubbed Fighting for Our Children’s Future, that’s aimed at highlighting how a Catholic education can have an impact not only on individuals, but on society as a whole.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate the community treasures that we have in Catholic schools,’’ Christian Dallavis, senior director of leadership programs for ACE, told redefinED. “It’s also a chance to recognize people doing heroic work.’’

Much of that work is tied to keeping Catholic schools relevant, vibrant – and open. In the past 20 years, as other school choice options have grown, including tuition-free charter schools, more than 1,300 Catholic schools have closed.

ACE is devoted to saving Catholic schools and helping them fulfill their mission of providing children from all walks of life with a high-quality education. Through graduate level programs, ACE is training the next generation of Catholic school teachers and leaders.

ACE graduates and current leaders are among the contingent participating in the tour, which kicked off in Dallas last month with a forum at the George W. Bush Institute on the campus of Southern Methodist University. That’s where the Rev. Timothy Scully, ACE’s founder and director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, spoke about the role of faith-based schools in America.

“At a time when the dialogue about K-12 education often seems unnecessarily polarized and stultifying, this is an opportunity for leaders across the political and ideological spectrum to re-imagine what faith-based schools can mean to our cities,” said Scully, who recently won the William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship by the Manhattan Institute for his work with ACE. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Charters, private schools, Common Core & more

Charter schools: The superintendent of the Schools of McKeel Academy resigns following an investigation. The Ledger.  A Polk County charter school helps students find job success. The Ledger.  A group that wants to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base pitches its proposal to the Tampa Bay Times’ editorial board.

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools: The Hillel Academy, a private Jewish school in Hillsborough County, is collecting books and money to help an elementary school library in Botswana, Africa. The Tampa Tribune. Students from a Hillsborough County private Catholic middle school help 16 organizations and charities. The Tampa Tribune.

Magnet schools: A new performing arts high school could be on the horizon in Miami-Dade County. Miami Herald. A Workforce Education Expo attracts thousands of students from more than 100 Polk County school academies. The Ledger.

Special needs: This 3,500-student high school in Seminole County has at least four mentoring programs that bring together students with and without disabilities. Orlando Sentinel.

Governor’s race: Democratic candidate Charlie Crist says education and the economy are the most important issues. StateImpact Florida.

Teacher pay: The Broward County School Board approves a plan that gives 14,000 teachers a 5 percent salary bump. Sun Sentinel.

Common Core: Florida school superintendents ask for three additional years to fully switch to the new math, English and literacy standards. StateImpact Florida. More from Tallahassee Democrat. Multiple well-known testing companies are eyeing Florida’s Common Core assessments, which are set to begin next school year. Tallahassee Democrat. Continue Reading →

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Fla. to consider changing, re-branding Common Core

From the News Service of Florida:

The State Board of Education could consider changes to the state’s standards for student learning as soon as February, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said Tuesday.

The changes could also result in a re-branding of sorts for what have until now been known as the “Common Core State Standards” — part of a nationwide movement to set common education benchmarks that have angered conservative activists.

Stewart told the board at its meeting in Gainesville that nearly 19,000 comments had been received since Gov. Rick Scott ordered a fresh review of the standards in September. As part of that effort, three public hearings were held across Florida, and the state accepted comments online.

The Department of Education is working to reach an agreement with a Florida-based researcher to analyze the results of that outreach, with a report on the comments being released in January.

“I think that as we consider moving forward in rule development … this will provide us the opportunity [so] that we can be moving along that direction with the public having the information available to them from those 19,000 comments,” she said.

Common Core has become a political flashpoint in recent months, with tea party activists and others arguing that the standards amount to a federal intrusion in education, despite the fact that the development of the standards was spearheaded by governors and education officials.

The standards have been adopted in some form by almost four dozen states.

Stewart said a final draft of the benchmarks should be in front of the board by the spring, in February or March.

The new standards might also have a new name, said Joe Follick, a spokesman for the department. Given the input that the state has taken and the changes that are likely to be made, “it would be disingenuous to call them common core standards,” he said.

Some supporters of the emerging benchmarks have begun referring to them as the “Florida standards.” Continue Reading →

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Florida lawmaker wants to expand single-gender classes

All-boys and all-girls education may get a push from the Florida Legislature.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

A bill filed by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would establish a statewide pilot project, allowing up to five large Florida school districts to designate an elementary school as a single-gender school in its core classes. The academic outcomes would then be tracked to see if the concept is worth expanding statewide.

“This is to incentivize some of the districts to create another choice option for parents,’’ Diaz said.

House Bill 313 would help districts by giving them more support and flexibility to be innovative, said Diaz, a public school administrator. Districts would apply to receive extra dollars to train teachers, organize schedules and offer specialized instruction. They also could move attendance boundaries for each gender-specific school to draw students from the whole district like a magnet school.

School districts across the country are experimenting with single-gender classrooms. The idea, borrowed from parochial and private schools, is some boys and girls learn better among same-sex peers. There’s plenty of research that supports that thought, and plenty of critics, including the ACLU, who believe the structure does more harm than good.

Florida has 33 schools in 16 districts that offer single-gender courses, and five single-gender schools in three districts. There are also nine single-gender charter schools statewide.

Under the bill, each school would have at least 350 boys and girls sharing the same lunch periods and recess. They also would share some classes, such as foreign languages, that only have one teacher at the school. But for core subjects like English and math, boys and girls would have separate classrooms.

The schools would open in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. Enrollment would be open to any student in the district where the school is located. Parents in the school zone could opt out of the choice and attend another school, Diaz said.

The bill also calls for the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to compile a report comparing student academic performance in the gender-specific schools with students in traditional district schools. The findings would go to the Florida Senate president and Speaker of the House by December 31, 2016.

“If the data comes back that it doesn’t work then we will know,’’ Diaz said.

Note: This story was updated to include the most recent number of single-gender courses and schools in 2011-12, provided by the Department of Education.

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Report: Proud history, perilous future for faith-based schools

faith-based schools report coverThe new, national Commission on Faith-based Schools holds its first leadership summit in New York City today, aiming to raise awareness about a fact too long overlooked: Faith-based schools in America’s inner cities are in trouble.

To that end, the commission will release its first report to the nation. “Religious Schools in America: A Proud History and Perilous Future” is part myth dispeller, part history lesson, part call to action. It compiles rarely seen data and offers a tight summary of the research regarding outcomes. Its introduction distills what’s at stake:

Faith-based schools are an extension of individual and family religious freedoms in America, tied to an expression of their rights of conscience and rooted deeply in America’s history. These schools—and the rights that they help to protect—are currently under severe financial strains that threaten the existence of many of them. The United States is an aberration among democracies because it does not provide public support for its families to choose a faith-based school when they wish to do so.

U.S. faith-based schools, despite suffering a severe financial disadvantage when compared with public schools and with faith-based schools in other Western democracies, are serving hundreds of thousands of students of color, students from low-income families, students with special needs, and students whose first language is not English.

Finally, faith-based schools are producing above-average academic results with fewer resources, in both traditional academic subjects and also in the development of the virtues of character, respect for differences, and citizenship.

Also today, the commission will unveil a new website stocked with data about religious schools. Compiled by researcher Vicki E. Alger, “Assembling the Evidence” includes a stack of charts, maps with state-by-state breakdowns, and a library with more than 4,000 reports, surveys, and research studies.

Report here. Website here. As always, full disclosure: The commission was founded by the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog.

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