Faith leaders gather to support FL school choice expansion

A contingent of faith leaders and their supporters gathered in the state Capitol Thursday to back a proposed expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students.ExpandEqualOpportunity_Final4

About 200 of them packed a legislative room before the proposed bill got its first hearing before the House Tax & Finance Subcommittee. More than half of them were private school students from Jacksonville, Orlando and Tallahassee, and most wore bright-yellow shirts that said, “Expanding Equal Opportunity.”

“We will fight for a cause that is a righteous cause,” Isha Haley with the Florida Interfaith Alliance for School Choice told the crowd. “There are too many of our babies that are dying. There are too many of our babies that can’t read and write. … They need an opportunity.”

One of the best things to happen to public education “is the recognition that not every school works for every child,” said Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “This scholarship has helped to put many students on the right path. It is by no means a cure all … but surely it is one tool for parents who struggle with poverty.”

The turnout was organized by the interfaith group, which is affiliated with the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, an umbrella group for an array of school choice organizations, including Step Up For Students. The latter administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Nearly 60,000 students now use the school choice scholarships to attend private schools, about 80 percent of which are faith-based. Students must qualify for free- or reduced-price to be eligible for the scholarships. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and test data shows they tended to be the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left.

Mikeya Brown, a 10th grader at Tallavana Christian School west of Tallahassee, described herself as “one of the fortunate ones.” She said she attended public schools in Gadsden County before receiving a tax-credit scholarship in fourth grade. She said she benefited from a Christian-school environment, which her parents could not afford on their own. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, teacher conduct, Andy Ford & more

Tax credit scholarships. On his blog The Fine Print, the AP’s Gary Fineout lists the “voucher” testing debate as one of the five biggest questions of the session. The Times/Herald takes a look at the “powerful political forces” supporting school choice scholarships. (The tax credit scholarships program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. Palm Beach County School District considers expanding district choice. Palm Beach PostSouth Florida Sun Sentinel.

Teacher unions. StateImpact Florida talks with FEA President Andy Ford about this year’s legislative priorities.

Teacher conduct. A former Pinellas high school teacher is sentenced to three years in prison for having sex with a 16-year-old student. Tampa Tribune. Bradenton police are investigations accusations that a Manatee County School District middle school PE coach inappropriately touched female students. Bradenton HeraldSarasota Herald Tribune.

Testing. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano both praises and pans Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s position on testing students with disabilities. Big changes coming for the SAT. Associated Press. Continue Reading →

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Cuomo’s pro-charter speech shows growing consensus on school choice


Look past New York’s political intrigue here, as a popular Democratic governor creates distance between himself and New York City’s newly elected Democratic mayor. The more remarkable takeaway are the words of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one of the nation’s leading elected Democrats. Close your eyes and these animated remarks about school choice could just as easily been spoken by, say, Jeb Bush, who according to presidential polls remains one of the nation’s leading Republicans.

On charter schools: “We are here today to tell you that we stand with you; you are not alone. We WILL save charter schools.”

On teacher unions: “Education is not about the districts and not about the pensions and not about the unions and not about the lobbyists and not about the PR firms. Education is about the student and the students come first.”

On change: “We need new ideas. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result. The education industry has said the same thing for decades: more money, more money, more money, little change. We spend more money per pupil than any state in the nation. We’re No. 32 in results. It’s not just about putting more money in the public school system. It’s trying something new, and that’s what charter schools are all about.”

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Florida lawmakers consider a whole new twist on school choice

Florida lawmakers are working on proposals that would allow parents of children with developmental disabilities to put state education funding to use beyond the traditional public school system – and even beyond private, virtual or other school choice options.

Rep. Bileca

Rep. Bileca

The proposals being considered in the House and Senate resemble the “education savings accounts” that have started getting attention around the country, but they would be available only to certain children with special needs.

Parents of children with conditions like autism, spina bifida or cerebral palsy would be able to use “personalized accounts for learning” to cover expenses like therapy, private tutors or a specialized curriculum. Under a bill already filed in the Senate, they could also use the funds to start saving for college.

While the McKay Scholarship program can allow disabled students to attend public or private schools of their choice, disabled children’s needs often extend beyond the “in-school component” of their education, House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman Mike Bileca, R-Miami, said during a hearing on the proposal Tuesday.

“For some students, a full day at school may not meet their education needs, and the parents have the most valuable perspective and insight into what their children need,” he said.

Ashli McCall, one of two parents who testified in favor of the proposals, told the committee she is the mother of a 15-year-old with Asperger syndrome. She said her son would be stymied by a “total sensory overload” in a traditional public school setting. She said he responds best to one-on-one instruction at home, but could benefit from having more access to therapists.

“If we had had the funding to support the needs of my child at an earlier age, we may have had more success in his academic achievements,” she said. “He struggles with so many issues which interfere with his learning that his academic process has been hindered.” Continue Reading →

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For FL school choice scholarships, it’s which test, not whether to test

just the factsFlorida Senate President Don Gaetz says he wants low-income students on the Tax Credit Scholarship to take a different standardized test, but his message has gotten a bit garbled in translation.

Somehow, the word “different” keeps disappearing.

Gaetz is raising a perfectly legitimate issue – whether a proposed expansion of the 12-year-old scholarship program for economically disadvantaged students should include a requirement that the scholarship students take the same standardized test the state is getting ready to roll out for public students in 2015. That test will be tied to Florida’s version of the Common Core standards. Currently, scholarship students are taking nationally-normed standardized tests approved by the state.

Somehow, even some of the state’s best newspapers have gotten this distinction wrong.

One report called Gaetz’s idea “a dramatic swing in Florida’s experience with school choice, where critics have complained voucher programs were diluting public schools with no evidence they were improving the outcomes for poor children.” Another said that “Senate leaders are proposing for the first time that scholarship recipients take standardized tests.” An editorial asked of the academic achievement in the program: “How do we know”

This is important because the error feeds a narrative – there is “no evidence” the scholarships are helping children – that is wrong. (For the record, the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: school choice, school grades, Common Core & more

Tax credit scholarships. House Speaker Will Weatherford says with tens of thousands of parents on waiting lists for tax credit scholarships, “Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them.” The Buzz. Senate President reiterates his call for scholarship students to be assessed the same way as public school students. Orlando Sentinel. Gov. Scott doesn’t mention the scholarships or propose expansion. Times/Herald. More from the Sunshine State News. Tax credit scholarships are giving much-need options to the families who need them most, writes Rev. Robert Ward in the Tampa Bay Timesflorida-roundup-logo

Education savings accounts. “Personalized accounts for learning” gets a look in the House Choice & Innovation Committee. The Buzz. More from School Zone.

School choice. Counting its editorial against the proposed expansion of tax credit scholarships, the Orlando Sentinel runs a third opinion piece in a week against school choice. This one bizarrely accuses charter schools of circumventing church-state lines. The Palm Beach County School District considers a massive expansion of within-district school choice. Palm Beach Post.

Charter schools. One on the verge of being shut down in Broward finds a building in the nick of time. South Florida Sun Sentinel. Frank Biden, brother of Joe, is again pushing for charter schools in the Capitol. Post on Politics.

Common Core. Jeb Bush’s challenge. BBC News.

School grades. Senate Education Committee votes 5-1 for a simpler school grades formula. The Buzz. StateImpact Florida, Palm Beach Post, Northwest Florida Daily News. School grades are just part of the corporate reform ideology. Folio Weekly. Continue Reading →

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At start of session, FL legislative leaders call for more school choice

Florida’s top lawmakers opened the legislative session Tuesday with calls to expand school choice.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have included the expansion of career education programs and tax credit scholarships in their agenda for the 60-day session.

In his remarks in the House chamber before Gov. Rick Scott’s state of the state speech, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, framed the expansion of education options as part of an effort to fight “generational poverty.”

“I believe that no child’s success should ever be dictated by their zip code,” he said, appropriating a favorite line of former Gov. Jeb Bush.  “In my opinion, no other issue today personifies freedom, opportunity and the God-given right to rise better than the school choice movement.”

Referring to tax credit scholarships specifically, he added, “There are 60,000 kids who are receiving scholarships today, primarily minority and overwhelmingly low-income. And there are tens of thousands more parents looking for that same opportunity to provide their child with that choice.  Let’s agree not to fight each other. Let’s fight for them. Let’s expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.”

The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. You can read Weatherford’s full speech, as prepared for delivery, here.

Last session, Gaetz, R-Niceville, championed legislation that expanded career education programs offered by school districts. This year, he said, he wants lawmakers to lift funding caps on those programs.

Gaetz also said in his opening remarks that he wants to “end” the waiting list of students hoping to enroll in the tax credit scholarship program. At the same time, he said, the performance of students participating in the program “should be assessed just like the performance of any other child.”

The state does not require private school students who receive tax credit scholarships to take the state’s main standardized test, the FCAT (though some do). Students participating in the program are required, however, to take norm-referenced standardized tests approved by the Department of Education, which provides the data to an outside researcher for analysis.

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Pastor: Let’s debate school choice scholarships with all facts on the table

Editor’s note: With debate heating up over a proposal to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, a good amount of misinformation is circulating too. C.E. Glover, senior pastor and CEO of Mount Bethel Ministries, based in Fort Lauderdale, penned this op-ed in response to an editorial in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Sun Sentinel published Dr. Glover’s piece today. (And again for the record, the school choice scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Dr. Glover

Dr. Glover

Since we opened Mount Bethel Christian Academy in 1990, we have worked with a steady stream of students who arrived in our classrooms academically behind. Many of them were in danger of falling through the cracks in school – and in life.

In recent years, many of them were able to come to us only because of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which offers educational options to the low-income parents who need them the most. And, I’m happy to report, many of those students have gone on to excel not only at our school, but in other schools both public and private.

I bring this up in response to the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial, “Make testing a part of state vouchers.” The suggestion that tax credit scholarship students should take the same standardized tests as public school students is worthy of serious public debate. All of us want to make sure that all students, whether they are in public school or private school or some other sector, are learning enough to succeed in a world that’s getting more competitive and complicated by the second.

But the Sun-Sentinel omitted some important details about the scholarship program that are vital to having an informed debate.

To be clear, tax credit scholarship students are not exempt from accountability tests. Since 2006, they have been required, by state law, to take a state-approved standardized test. At our school, they take the widely respected Stanford Achievement Test. The results are sent to a top-notch education researcher for analysis and comparison to public school students. Since 2010, state law has also required the public disclosure of average test score gains or losses for private schools with 30 or more students in tested grades.

We know two important things from the test data. First, the students who use tax credit scholarships tend to be the lowest-performing students in the public schools. That finding is in sync with our experiences. Second, scholarship students are making the same annual learning gains as students of all income levels nationally. That should be encouraging to parents, taxpayers and policy makers.

It’s worth noting that scholarship students are achieving these results with much less public funding than children in public schools. This year, the scholarship amount was $4,880. And though that’s roughly half of total government spending on children in Florida public schools, it still comes with meaningful requirements for financial accountability. Continue Reading →

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