Florida schools roundup: Vouchers, charter schools, tech ed & more

Vouchers: Three weeks after Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a “massive increase” in school choice scholarships for underprivileged schoolchildren, his chamber releases a 40-page bill. redefinED. The proposal is expected to be one of the most-contentious education battles of the 2014 legislative session. The News Service of Florida. More from CBS Miami.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools: Hillsborough County charter school operators organize their first school choice fair for parents and students to learn about nontraditional public school offerings. The Tampa Tribune. 

Technology: Leon County and other school districts across the state begin to realize the potential of putting a computer in every student’s hands, and the obstacles they will have to clear to make that happen. Tallahassee Democrat. Pasco classrooms are opening up to new technology coaches. Tampa Bay Times.

Rick Scott: As a Florida governor, Rick Scott will never be confused with Jeb Bush. Tampa Bay Times.

School boards: Palm Beach school board members should be careful bypassing the superintendent to deal with district personnel issues, writes the Palm Beach Post.

2014 session: Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg tells the Gradebook there is no must-pass bill this year. House Democrats say session will be ‘class warfare.’ The Florida News Current.

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More access & oversight proposed for FL tax credit scholarships

Jon East

Jon East

Three weeks after Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a “massive increase” in school choice scholarships for underprivileged schoolchildren, his chamber has released a 40-page bill. By common political measurement, he has lived up to his word.

The bill takes broad aim at the Tax Credit Scholarship, which has tripled its enrollment in the past six years but is still struggling to keep pace with demand. This year, the scholarship is serving 59,674 K-12 students in 1,414 private schools, yet applications were shut off nearly two months early with 34,000 more students who had already started.

The main reason the enrollment is limited is because the scholarship is financed by corporate contributions that receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit, and those credits are capped by budget writers. That puts them on a different footing than scholarships for disabled students or charter schools or most any other choice option, none of which have statewide enrollment limits. So the bill takes a stab at accelerating an already ambitious rate of growth.

Under current law, the cap is set to increase from $286.2 million this year to $357.8 million next year, under a formula that allows it to grow by 25 percent following any year in which 90 percent of the cap is reached. The House bill would up that ante by roughly $32 million, taking the cap in 2014-15 to $390 million and allowing the program to serve an estimated 75,000 students. In turn, the cap in the following three years would also be increased beyond current law by roughly $30 million, which means it could grow to $475 million, $590 million and $730 million. By that fourth year, enrollment could have doubled, to nearly 120,000 students.

Regular readers of this blog will know it is produced by Step Up For Students, which helps administer the tax credit scholarship (three other nonprofits have also signed up to do that next year). So we can claim a thorough working knowledge of the scholarship and how the bill might affect it, even as we acknowledge our obvious potential for bias here.

The increase in the cap is but one of at least a half-dozen bill features that are worthy of note.  In no particular order, the bill would also:

•             Increase the scholarship amount. The current scholarship, $4,880, is the lowest-cost education option in the state and covers only about two-thirds of the average tuition and fees for participating schools. Every year, thousands of students are approved for scholarships but then turn them down because their families cannot afford to cover the gap. The scholarship is pegged to the unweighted average of the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is the technical description for how much operational money the state budgets for each public school student. The scholarship is on a path to reach 80 percent of the FEFP in 2015-16. The bill would take that one step further, to 84 percent, in 2016-17.

•             Partial scholarships for higher-income students. The scholarship is targeted at students whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty or $44,122 for a household of four. These students can remain on the program, as long as their household income does not exceed 230 percent of poverty, with the scholarship amount being reduced in the process. But there is no way for a new student with income greater than 185 percent to get any scholarship help. The bill would change that by allowing partial scholarships for both new and existing students. The scholarship amount would be reduced in proportion to the size of the income. At the top, a student whose household income is 260 percent of poverty, or $62,010 for a household of four, would be eligible for a 50 percent scholarship. The bill mandates that students in the lowest-income category, 185 percent and below, receive first priority. It also would require that any new partial-scholarship student have attended a public school the prior year, except for those entering kindergarten and first grade.

•             A sixth tax source. The bill would add the sales tax to the other five tax sources for which companies can receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for contributions to scholarship organizations. The potential sales tax pot would be the biggest of the six, but adding it to the mix has no impact on the state budget because the tax credits are capped across the board. In other words, the size of tax-credit pie is the same, but this change would allow it to be sliced into six pieces, not five. The sales tax credits would pose no legal obstacles under the 2006 Bush v. Holmes decision outlawing Opportunity Scholarships, according to constitutional attorney Barry Richard, because they are not earmarked or appropriated specifically for public education. Continue Reading →


Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Ed leaders tout school choice, professor outraged about informing parents of choice

MrGibbonsReportCardJohn Huppenthal and John Deasy

John Huppenthal is the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. John Deasy is the Superintendent of the LA Unified School District. They’re both leaders of public education.


They’re also big supporters of school choice.

Huppenthal participated in a phone campaign in Arizona that targeted low-income parents (and upset many school choice critics). The call informed parents of their right to choose a private or public school through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program.


Meanwhile, Deasy spoke at the School Choice Week rally in L.A. and told the crowd, “We believe that every single family and student has the right to a choice of a highly effective school in Los Angeles.”

These two men represent a “new guard” of education leadership that sees public education in a better way. To them (and many others), public education is not a destination, but the idea that the public helps children find the best possible education, wherever that might be.

Grade: Satisfactory

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

Charter schools: Three Broward County charter schools could owe the state as much as $1.5 million for failing to provide sufficient instructional hours and receiving funds for ineligible students, and the district is worried it may get stuck with the bill. Sun Sentinel. More from the Miami Herald.

Faith-based schools: The University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education park their national tour bus at Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park to promote Catholic schools. redefinED.

florida-roundup-logoBetter Ed: Let’s remove the hurdles, reduce the bureaucracy, and empower teachers with the resources and autonomy to allow them to do their jobs, writes former Florida Sen. Paula Dockery for The Ledger. Florida students of all races Continue to meet higher standards in education. Sunshine State News.

Common Core: Florida Parents Against Common Core co-founder Laura Zorc says she is undaunted by the Florida State Board of Education’s vote pushing forward the Common Core State Standards and will continue to fight to stop implementation of the new measures. TC Palm. An Orlando mom explains why Florida’s testing policy needs to change. StateImpact Florida.

School boards: Palm Beach County School Board members warn the superintendent that if he doesn’t hire a chief of staff soon – they will. Palm Beach Post. Charles Brink, the businessman-turned-education advocate, is not running for the Hillsborough County School Board after all. Tampa Bay Times.

School spending: The Manatee County School District Audit Committee calls the internal information technology department “outdated and inflexible.” Bradenton Herald. Rising prescription drug costs and coverage plans for retirees may add up to higher health insurance costs for Pinellas County school employees next year. The Tampa Tribune.

Teachers: Hillsborough County’s top teacher of the year finalists welcome the challenges of modern education. The Tampa Tribune.

Bullying: Harlem Globetrotter Shane “Scooter” Christensen talks to Pensacola elementary students about bullying and its impact on schools. Pensacola News-Journal.

Conduct: The Broward School Board dismisses its complaint against a Weston teacher accused of sleeping at his desk after an administrative law judge says it’s impossible to prove the educator dozed off. Sun Sentinel.


Rolling across Florida to raise awareness about Catholic schools

Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg helps celebrate the growth of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Florida, and other Catholic schools across the state during the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education bus tour.

Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg helps celebrate the growth of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Florida, and other Catholic schools across the state during the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education bus tour that made a stop in the Tampa Bay area.

Nearly two decades ago, Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pinellas Park, Fla. was on the “death watch list,’’ said Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Families struggled to afford private school tuition, enrollment dwindled and tough decisions loomed for school leaders.

But instead of closing the school, Lynch forged a partnership with the University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education, a graduate program that trains future Catholic teachers and leaders.

Nearly 17 years later, Sacred Heart has more than 200 students and, like other Tampa Bay area Catholic schools, is expecting more growth in the years to come. It’s a success story that owes a lot to ACE.

“It saved these … schools,’’ Lynch told redefinED Wednesday, during a celebration that brought a giant blue RV emblazoned with the University of Notre Dame and ACE logos onto the grounds of Sacred Heart.

The stop was part of a national 50-city tour called Fighting for Our Children’s Future. It’s designed to raise awareness about the value of Catholic education and the profound impact it can have on children’s lives. It also stresses the need to keep Catholic schools relevant, active – and open. More than 1,300 U.S. Catholic schools have closed in the past 20 years.

“I just knew ACE coming to our diocese would be a blessing,’’ Lynch told an audience of students, parents, school donors and ACE leaders. “ACE is grace. It is the catalyst. It’s been the yeast that has raised the leaven – and the Catholic education.”

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Federal bill would give more school choice to military families

Some parents living on U.S. military bases could use special military scholarships to send their kids to a public or private school other than the one they are assigned to, under a bill recently filed by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott

The scholarship program would start as a 5-year, $10 million pilot on at least five military installations. Families living on bases without on-site, U.S. Department of Defense schools serving their children would be eligible for up to $12,000 a year to pay tuition and/or transportation costs.

The idea is to ensure soldiers and their families, who usually have less freedom than others to pick their children’s schools, have access to a high quality education, Scott said in a prepared statement.

Scott’s bill, filed last month, dovetails with a couple of school choice trends.

It’s one of several federal school choice proposals now in the hopper, including a bill filed last year by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would create a federal tax credit scholarship. It’s also part of a swirl of initiatives putting a spotlight on the educational needs of military families.

The Department of Defense is looking to close some of its military-run schools to decrease costs and is considering the possibility of more charter schools. Meanwhile, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. – home to U.S. Central Command – is locked in a struggle with the Hillsborough County School District over whether it can have a charter school. In response to the district’s resistance, a key lawmaker has said the Florida Legislature will consider creating an expedited application process for on-base charter schools serving military families.

Scott’s proposal for military scholarships is part of his CHOICE Act, which stands for Creating Hope and Opportunities for Individuals and Communities Through Education. The act also would expand the Opportunity Scholarships voucher program in Washington, D.C. and allow special education dollars to follow children to the school of their choice. So far, there are six sponsors, among them, not surprisingly, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., long a proponent of education funding portability.

Sen. Lamar Alexander

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

Alexander, the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also introduced legislation last month to expand school choice by combining almost every federal program authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into a $24 billion funding stream. As Education Week reported, states could allocate those dollars directly to low-income parents, who could use the money to help pay for private school, supplement their traditional public or charter school’s budget, or cover tutoring or homeschooling expenses.

The Scholarships for Kids Act would let states create scholarships worth $2,100 for 11 million low-income students.


Florida schools roundup: Charters, Common Core, school grades & more

Charter schools: With little discussion, the Pasco County School Board finishes its long-term contract with Pepin Academies, allowing the charter school to move ahead with a fall opening. Tampa Bay Times.

School choice: Flagler parents and students will see more school choice options. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

florida-roundup-logoCommon Core: The state Board of Education approves revisions to the Common Core State Standards, ending a months-long debate over the controversial benchmarks. The Buzz. The changes keep calculus and cursive writing. StateImpact Florida. More from the Palm Beach Post, Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel. 

School grades: The head of the state’s teachers union says Florida needs to suspend the A-F grading system while its schools transition to new testing and education standards. Sun Sentinel. Duval County’s superintendent does not like the proposed changes to high-school grading formula. Florida Times-Union. Florida senators say they also will take a look at the state’s school grading formula. Tampa Bay Times.

Test scores: A new study suggests college and university admissions offices place too much emphasis on SAT and ACT scores as predictors of academic success. Tampa Bay Times.

Legislation: A longtime Leon County educator urges the Senate Education Committee to remove language from a proposed bill that would allow high school students to replace one credit of physical education — a graduation requirement — with a course in computer programming language. Tampa Bay Times.

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Florida Board of Education approves Common Core changes

From the News Service of Florida:

Commissioner Stewart

Commissioner Stewart

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to go forward with dozens of changes to the Common Core State Standards, a move that seemed unlikely to quell the grass-roots furor over the educational benchmarks.

The approval followed a raucous public hearing that seemed to indicate that passionate opposition to the benchmarks remains despite a concerted effort by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Education to tamp down conservative anger over the standards.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has argued that the changes, which include reinserting creative writing into the standards and explicitly including calculus guidelines, as well as the fact that the state has science and social studies standards that aren’t part of the Common Core, justify renaming the initiative as the “Florida Standards.”

Stewart told reporters after the vote that it made the state’s standards clear.

“The vote that the board took today certainly does lay to rest where we’re headed, the direction we’re going with our standards, and this is the right move,” she said.

But dozens of activists slammed the standards during a lengthy public hearing before the vote, portraying Common Core as a federal plot to take over education and blaming it for a variety of ills. While the benchmarks were spearheaded by a coalition of state officials, they have since been encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education.

“I do not want a watered-down, world-class system; I want a school system that promotes American exceptionalism,” said Chris Quackenbush, a leader of the anti-Common Core movement. Continue Reading →