Fla. House approves charter school bill

The Florida House approved a bill today that would ease contract negotiations between charter schools and school districts, but its fate is still uncertain.

The 68-50 vote fell largely along party lines, though five Republicans also opposed the measure, which would require school districts to resolve key points of contention with charter schools during the application process.

Charter school advocates say the bill would help ensure schools can open once their charter applications are approved. School districts have objected that it would give them less flexibility to negotiate contract terms with charter schools they authorize.

Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, praised separate provisions that are intended to help high-profile charter school networks expand from outside the state.

“We should be doing what we can to help high-performing Florida charter schools replicate and encourage proven, high-quality out-of-state entities to come to the Sunshine State,” she said in a statement. “For all students, but especially students zoned for low-performing schools, this added access to a quality, customized education can be life-changing.”

Those provisions have been stripped from the Senate bill. The question in the next 10 days is how the competing plans will be resolved.

“We’ve got two weeks left. We’ll see how it goes,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said Monday, according to the Scripps/Tribune capital bureau. “It’s just that time of year. We’re not in the fourth quarter quite yet.”


Senate adds tax credit provisions to school choice legislation

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students could see increased scrutiny under school choice legislation approved Tuesday by a Senate panel.

In a move that mirrors the House’s approach, the Senate combined tax credit scholarship legislation with a bill creating personal education accounts for special-needs students.

Substantial differences remain between the two chambers on both of those components. But House Speaker Will Weatherford said the move increases the chances of the differences getting resolved before the legislative session is scheduled to end on May 2.

“I think people have overestimated how far apart the House and Senate are on that bill,” he told reporters. “We’re trying to define the new accountability measurements,  what they should be, and what they need to look like, and I think there’s plenty of time to get that done.”

Like earlier tax credit scholarship proposals this legislative session, the Senate’s new plan would eliminate prior public school attendance requirements for scholarship eligibility in grades 6-12 and increase access to the program for foster children. However, it does not include some of the other provisions expanding the program, such as language in the House bill that would allow families with higher incomes to receive partial scholarships.

While earlier debates had centered on testing, the new bill would not require students who receive scholarships to take the same tests as public school students. But it would change the way the state handles the students’ test results.

State law currently requires scholarship students to take norm-referenced tests. The results are sent to an independent researcher, who is contracted by the state Department of Education to analyze the results and prepare a report each year. The Senate proposal would replace the current researcher, David Figlio of Northwestern University, with the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. It would also require the institute to report the students’ overall performance instead of their learning gains from one year to the next.

Among other things, changes approved Tuesday would also place more stringent auditing requirements on the non-profit organizations that administer the program, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. It would also allow universities to serve as scholarship funding organizations.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who offered the amendment, said his proposal “increases the scrutiny” for scholarship organizations, something that was important to Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who is also the CEO of the state school superintendents association.

“The taxpayer deserves to know how every penny of that is being spent,” Montford said. Continue Reading →


School choice scholarships help Florida families

Editor’s post: This piece by James Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference and occasional contributor to redefinED, ran over the weekend in the Palm Beach Post. The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

James Herzog

James Herzog

The low-income mom from Boynton Beach felt the school was hamstrung from providing the well-rounded academic and social environment her fifth-grade daughter needed to succeed. So last year, she did what many low-income parents could once only dream about: She transferred her child to another school.

With help from a Florida tax credit scholarship, she enrolled her daughter, now 11, into St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic School in Delray Beach. The scholarship, valued at $4,880 this year, didn’t cover the full cost of tuition. But the mom was willing to make the sacrifice to pay the additional $1,520. She was thrilled to have a choice.

Now her daughter is thriving.

Student by student, the scholarship program is making a profound difference this year for 9,448 K-12 students in Florida Catholic schools. Now serving nearly 60,000 students statewide, it also helps families who seek education opportunities offered by other faith-based or independent schools. By offering more options for the students who are often the lowest performers in public schools, it helps the state as a whole, too.

During the current legislative session, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has made House Bill 7167 regarding educational choice a top priority. Sponsored by House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the bill deserves support from all of us who believe in expanding opportunity for families who need it the most.

One key provision would empower parents of children in grades six through 12 to have the same type of school choice as that enjoyed by parents of children in kindergarten to fifth grade. This would be accomplished by removing the requirement that students in grades six through 12 attend public schools before they’re eligible for the scholarships.

We know more options are needed. Over the past 15 years, no state has made bigger gains for its low-income students than Florida. In 1998, Florida’s low-income fourth-graders ranked No. 35 among states in reading. Now they rank No. 1. And yet, being No. 1 still means only 27 percent of them are reading at a level considered proficient. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, charter schools, teacher evaluations and more

Tax credit scholarships. The Senate introduces new language that would place new regulations on scholarship organizations, including Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, in an effort to re-start negotiations with the House. News Service of Florida. Gradebook.

Charter schools. Supporters fend off hostile amendments to House legislation. Scripps/TribuneFlorida Current. Post on Politics. Florida is one of 11 states that require low-performing charters to shut down. EdWeek.

florida-roundup-logoTesting. Florida’s next standardized assessment gets a test drive in Utah. Desert News, via StateImpact, which also looks at the movement of parents trying to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Teacher evaluations. The system is causing some districts to pare back electives, giving ammunition to opponents of education reform, Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab writes. An Orange County teacher says he’s “humiliated” by the new system. WKMG.

Teacher conduct. A Polk County charter school teacher faces sexual harassment allegations. Lakeland Ledger. A teacher is accused of choking a student. WJXT.

Administration. A Hernando County principal files an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the superintendent. Tampa Bay Times. A Manatee County administrator begins a state disciplinary hearing. Bradenton Herald.


Leveling the playing field between charter schools and school districts

After rejecting a handful of proposed amendments, the Florida House is now ready to take a final vote on its charter school legislation. But one of the most interesting proposals on the floor today was one that was not adopted.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, proposed an amendment that would have given school districts more flexibility under state building regulations. He pulled the proposal, citing concerns that it wasn’t germane to the charter school bill.

bilecaBut it’s part of a larger thrust among lawmakers trying to navigate tensions between charter schools and school districts. Charter schools do not have to comply with all the state’s regulations for school facilities, but they still have to comply with building codes. Districts have asked for some of the flexibility enjoyed by charter schools, and state panels have discussed the issue when they grappled with plans to address long-range capital funding needs.

“It’s strongly supported and was done at the urging of our school districts, many of them in the state,” Bileca said of his proposal, which would have given school district more flexibility in the ways they design their parking lots and build interior walls.

It’s not clear what will become of that idea, but there are other ideas still in play that fit with a similar theme. Charter schools also enjoy more flexibility under class-size requirements in the state constitution. Their financial penalties for failing to comply with the class-size rules are based on the school-wide average.

The budget conference announced today includes an education funding bill (HB 5101) that would extend the same flexibility to school districts. That proposal, however, remains controversial. It was one of the reasons cited by Democrats for votes against the bill earlier this month. Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, cited the measure as part of a “slow attrition” of the constitutional provision.

“I feel very strongly that when the voters passed the class-size amendment in 2002, we got clear directive. We got clear directive that our class sizes should stay small,” he said.

The idea has been proposed before. It advanced last session but did not pass. Supporters note the penalty calculations are not enshrined in the constitution, and that changes could save the school system money. Regardless of how the idea fares in the next two weeks, it’s part of a larger theme to keep an eye on as lawmakers resolve their differences over charter school legislation and facilities funding.


Democrat: Stop casting school choice parents as villains in public ed

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed today in Florida Today, in response to a column by former state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. It’s authored by former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who is a member of the Step Up For Students board of directors. The state’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Sen. Lawson

Sen. Lawson

The most significant expansion of Florida’s scholarships for low-income children came in 2010, and the bipartisan spirit was so strong I was allowed as Democratic leader to make the closing argument in a Senate controlled by Republicans.

We found common ground because the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is focused on economically disadvantaged students in a way that strengthens public education.

So it is with considerable disappointment to see the partisan fractures this year, as the Legislature considers more modest improvements. And it is hard to miss the extent to which the Florida Education Association is driving the wedge.

But it is wrong to cast a $4,880 scholarship for 60,000 underprivileged children as an attack on public education. It is, to quote public educator and former House Education Policy Council ranking Democrat Bill Heller, “in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity.”

With 12 years under our belt, we know a great deal about how this scholarship works.

The program serves children whose household income is only 9 percent above poverty. More than two-thirds of them are black or Hispanic. These children struggled academically in the public schools they left. Most importantly, their annual standardized test scores have shown they are consistently achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

Whether these students should take the state, rather than national, test is a fair question. But let’s not pretend as though we have no measure for how well they are performing. We know how scholarship kids are doing at individual private schools, as the schools must report their learning gains if they have a minimum number of scholarship recipients.

Let’s also call an end to the deceit that this program hurts public schools financially, and that “money used for vouchers is taken away from basic public school needs,” as syndicated columnist Paula Dockery stated in her recent column in FLORIDA TODAY. Continue Reading →


A real debate to be had over charter school funding

Over the past decade, Florida’s proliferating charter schools have seen state funding for their buildings lag enrollment growth and efforts to give them access to other sources of capital funding fizzle.

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

But they received a boost in the most recent state budget, and school districts facing a decline in their own capital funding have started to notice.

With enrollment increasing and capital funding approaching the symbolic threshold of $100 million, some lawmakers who support capital funding for charter schools say the state should take a closer look at how that money gets spent.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He’s likely to have a say in how talks over capital funding and charter school legislation shake out in the waning days of the session. But he also says there are some longer-range issues lawmakers should start looking at as the charter sector grows.

Are charter schools spending their money on long-term leases, or are they building up equity in their facilities? And what should happen if they ever leave those buildings behind?

Legg knows the business side of charter schools from personal experience. When he helped start Pasco County’s Dayspring Academy 15 years ago, the new school faced a decision about whether to rent or to buy its facilities.

He said it usually makes  financial sense for a school to buy its building and invest in improvements over time – much like a homeowner trying to build up equity. Charter schools can use their capital funding to pay for construction costs or long-term leases. But Legg said the state should try to avoid situations where “we are still paying rent 15 years down that road for a building that that charter school will never own.”

In addition, he said his school has a clause in its contract that stipulates that if it ever closes, the building would be turned over to the school district, which could use it for another public purpose. He said lawmakers should consider efforts to encourage that practice. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, charter schools, competition and more

Tax credit scholarships. Parents of children who receive scholarships answer critics in the Florida Times-Union and the Ocala Star-Banner. The program enhances public education, Doug Tuthill writes in the Miami Herald. He is the president of Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog. The president of the Alachua County League of Women Voters criticizes charters and vouchers in the Gainesville Sun. A school board member also criticizes tax credit scholarships in the Sun, focusing on religious education. State standardized testing requirements won’t appease all critics, but they might help the program in the long run, Paul Cottle writes at Bridge to Tomorrow.


School choice. Private and charter schools compete with magnet and career education programs in Palm Beach County, fueling a drive to create new options. Palm Beach Post.

Charter schools. Hillsborough officials are scrutinizing the boards that oversee schools managed by Charter Schools USA as lawmakers debate charter legislation. Tampa Tribune. The management group Academica faces federal scrutiny. Miami Herald. The Volusia County school district prepares to end a long legal battle with a failed charter school. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Dropout prevention. Pinellas schools plan a new alternative school aimed at at-risk students. Tampa Tribune.

Digital learning. Replacing old computers won’t be cheap for Marion County schools. Ocala Star-Banner. Technology helps a Southwest Florida teacher enhance instruction. Naples Daily News.

Discipline. Kindergarten students face increased suspensions, which disproportionately affect minorities. Florida Times-Union.

Testing. A computer glitch affects FCAT administration in Miami-Dade schools. Miami Herald. A group of parents and teachers protests high-stakes testing. Fort Myers News-Press. Even at the height of FCAT season, educators say kids need a chance to get outside and play. Tampa Bay Times.

Continue Reading →