Florida roundup: Scholarship accounts, school choice, Common Core and more

Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Florida’s newest school choice program officially opened Friday. WCJB. Sentinel School ZoneredefinED. State Sen. Andy Gardiner explains the program on the EdFly.


Charter schools. Half a dozen new ones, with a diverse set of offerings, are slated to open in Hillsborough this fall. Tampa Tribune.

Tax credit scholarships. A lawsuit by the statewide teachers union brings the regulation of private schools under renewed scrutiny. Daytona Beach News-Journal. The Florida Education Association’s lawyer tells Watchdog.org that the union was most concerned about the tax credit scholarship legislation, and the personal learning accounts program could be a “collateral casualty” of its recently announced lawsuit.

Early learning. Kindergarten, and even pre-K, may be too late for low-income parents to start thinking about their children’s education, experts tell the Orlando Sentinel.

Teacher conduct. A South Florida judge sides with a teacher who protested her firing after she allowed her daughter to be beaten with an extension cord. Sun-Sentinel.

Magnet schools. A Palm Beach County elementary retools into an arts magnet. Palm Beach Post.

Special needs. A reorganization of Pinellas’ special education program has not gone as planned. Tampa Bay Times. A child care center that caters to exceptional children reaches a milestone. Florida Times-Union.

Campaigns. PolitiFact crunches numbers on education spending, a subject of many gubernatorial talking points. The wife of a Republican lawmaker challenges the longest-serving member of the Pinellas school board. Tampa Bay Times.

Continue Reading →


FL parents speaking up for special needs scholarship accounts

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

The Florida teachers union got a lot of ink this week after it filed suit against SB 850, the bill that created a new scholarship accounts program for students with special needs. No surprise there. But a good bit of the coverage also featured something often missing in stories about parental choice.

Actual parents.

From across the state, parents of students with significant special needs are weighing in on behalf of the new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, which some have likened to manna from heaven and winning the lottery. And thanks to some fair reporting, readers and viewers from across the state are seeing and hearing their stories.

For example, from the Tampa Tribune:

It’s just a phenomenal opportunity,” said John Kurnik of Tampa, who hopes to open an account for his son John, who is home-schooled and has autism. “We haven’t had a whole lot of luck with services for John. The resources we have as home-school families aren’t that plentiful.

And from WEAR TV in Pensacola:

Alisha Sloan of Pensacola is applying for her son Christopher, who is living with autism. “To hear about this scholarship was very exciting to us, because with Christopher, you know, there are different things that you need, software, adaptive curriculum, different therapies that would definitely help in taking him out and homeschooling him.

And from the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville:

Some parents, such as Northside resident Melissa Ward, fear the lawsuit’s effect on students, especially students with special needs.

She home-schools Ethan, her 8-year-old third-grader, who has cerebral palsy. The family of four children has thousands of dollars in medical and therapy debts already, she said, so she rations his physical, occupational and speech therapy, paying for only one therapy at a time over several months, even though he needs them all.

She hopes the new personal learning scholarship program will help her afford more therapy and a math tutor.

“If these programs … are going to provide services to people that need help, I don’t see why getting bogged down in a bureaucratic mess would be beneficial to anyone,” she said.

“You need to look at what the purposes of the program are and what they can accomplish. I hope that people would not want to deny children what they need.”

Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is among the organizations authorized to administer PLSAs. As the lawsuit plays out, don’t be surprised if more parents speak up for the scholarship accounts. In the meantime, here are more examples of others who already have: First Coast News in JacksonvilleWCJB in GainesvilleNBC-2 in Fort MyersThe Florida Channel in Tallahassee.

A mom speaks to FCN about how PLSAs can help her son.

Melissa, a Jacksonville mom, speaks to FCN about how PLSAs can help her son Ethan.


A Gainesville mom speaks with TV 20 News about how the PLSA will help her son who has Down syndrome.

Barbara, a mom in Gainesville, speaks with TV 20 News about how the PLSA will help her son who has Down syndrome.


The FEA is suing to stop the new PLSA but Aleta says she needs the scholarship to help her child.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.

Ashli McCall of Tallahassee speaks with the Florida Channel about how the new PLSA will benefit her son Emmil who has been diagnosed with Autism.



Alisha of Pensacola speaks with WEAR TV about a new scholarship that will benefit her son.


It’s opening day for new parental choice program in Florida

One parent told us it was a blessing. Another said it was like winning the lottery. Another said she and her son, an eighth-grader with autism, had “finally won.”

plsa-header_july14Today marks the start of a new K-12 scholarship program in Florida and maybe even a new era in parental choice – a shift from simply giving parents the power to choose from amongst schools to something more personal and far-reaching. The early reaction from parents suggests it couldn’t have happened soon enough, and to a more deserving group.

“This scholarship will make all the difference in the world,” said Dorothy Famiano of Brooksville, who has two eligible children – Nicholas, who has Spina bifida, and Danielle, who has been diagnosed with autism.

Starting at 9 a.m., Famiano and other parents of children with significant special needs including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy can apply for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. PLSAs will allow parents to use the money to choose from a variety of educational options – not just tuition and fees at private schools, but therapists, specialists, tutors, curricula and materials, even contributions to a prepaid college fund.

The program reflects the obvious benefits of tailoring a child’s education to his or her specific needs; the explosion in educational options that makes customization more possible and fine-tuned; and the sensibility of giving parents the power to make those choices. But don’t take our word for it.

Michele Kaplan of Coral Gables said a scholarship account will be a game changer for her son, Matthew, 9, who has a dual diagnosis of autism and Fragile X syndrome. Continue Reading →


Why don’t states work together on new digital learning options?

Leading in an Era of Change

A new report says the time has come for states to work together to manage the mix of new options that could soon be available to students through digital learning.

The report by Digital Learning Now calls on state policymakers to “formalize the establishment of a multi-state network, focused on Course Access programs.”

“Course choice” or “course access” is the next wave in educational choice. In Florida, for example, it won’t be long before students who can’t take, say, a physics or calculus course at their local high school can browse an online course catalog, find a class that works for them, and enroll.

Some might already be able to do that with courses available through Florida Virtual School or a virtual program run by their district. But  the state Department of Education is developing an online course catalog that will allow them to choose from a wider range of options. Due to legislative changes approved in 2013, courses offered in other school districts could also be on the menu. And still other new providers could soon start offering classes through the state’s nascent course choice system.

Florida isn’t alone. States are developing new digital learning programs that expand education options in several ways, notes the report by Digital Learning Now (an effort of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush).  As they do so, they can create new entrepreneurial opportunities for teachers, expand systems that allow students to learn at their own pace, and give school districts a new way to grow enrollment by attracting students outside their geographic boundaries.

Digital learning advocates have started to coalesce around the term “course access.” Only about half of U.S. high schools offer calculus, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, and less than two thirds offer physics. If they’re managed properly, and made accessible to students who need them the most, new digital learning policies have the potential to allow students to take courses that aren’t available on their physical campuses.

The DLN report tries to push the discussion a step further. If blurring geographic boundaries between school districts can expand the number of options available, why not allow the programs to cross state lines too? Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Charters, teachers, personal learning accounts and more

Personal learning accounts. The new scholarship option will help special needs children, a parent writes in the Orlando Sentinel. A Florida Channel news brief covers the opening of applications for the scholarship accounts, as well as the recently announced lawsuit challenging SB 850.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A rural charter in Franklin County makes another A in the latest round of school grades. The Times. The application for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base will be re-submitted, a Charter Schools USA executive writes in the Tampa Tribune, which adds coverage here. Another CUSA official writes  in the Orlando Sentinel that improving school grades show charter schools can succeed.

Campaigns. Charter school funding comes up in a forum for Palm Beach County school board candidates. Palm Beach Post. An Orange County group backs a pending sales tax referendum that would fund facilities. Orlando Sentinel. School board candidates in Sarasota debate their district’s tax referendum. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Open enrollment. The Marion County school board unanimously backs district-wide open enrollment. Ocala Star-Banner.

Advanced Placement. Scores are up in Hernando. Tampa Bay Times.

Enrollment. A historic Orlando high school struggles to attract students. Orlando Sentinel.

Continue Reading →


Vagaries of Vergara

If the long-range outcome of Vergara were merely the death of tenure and LIFO, the servile posture of the lower-income family would be unaltered.

If the long-range outcome of Vergara were merely the death of tenure and LIFO, the servile posture of the lower-income family would be unaltered.

The recent opinion in Vergara v. California deserves the attention it has attracted – and more. It has implications – some good – beyond the weakening of public sector unions. The plaintiff child has successfully attacked both the state’s system for tenuring and de-tenuring teachers and also the LIFO (last in, first out) statute that, in case of layoffs, protects teachers by time of service. If upheld on appeal, that would be a heap of change in the structure.

The court says the tenuring process is too short to allow good administrative judgment – effectively one year and a half. Thereafter, the de-tenuring process is torturous, very long, unpredictable – and expensive – to the district (the union covers teachers’ defense costs). Both practices are held to impair the quality of instruction and to do so in a manner uneven from child to child, thus violating their “fundamental right to equality of the educational experience.” These systemic wrongs are aggravated in districts serving low-income populations, intensifying the violation of equal protection. The seniority system (LIFO) has similar effects with the same conclusion. The case involves state law only. In striking down the tenure part of the system, Judge Rolf Treu emphasized these two sections of the state constitution:

Article I, Section 7(a): “A person may not be … denied equal protection of the law.”

Article IX, section (5): ‘The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools … supported in each district.”

He used both sources again in condemning LIFO. Favoring seniority, it is said, offends rationality and, like tenure, injures children without justification – especially the poor. Taken altogether, this is not equal protection.

I will address the two holdings in order, concentrating upon the tenure problem. As for the flaws in these statutes, Judge Treu relies on precedent construing the educational right of the child and the corresponding duties of the state. The (state) constitution “is the ultimate guarantee of a meaningful educational opportunity … to the student” who also enjoys a “fundamental right to basic equality in public education.” The court thus perceives the right, first, as one of peculiar weight and significance; hence, second, one that must be satisfied by education of basically similar and proper quality for children in similar circumstances.

The history of judicial response to this two-fold claim in the courts of California is instructive. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Lawsuits, magnet schools, school grades and more

Lawsuits. The statewide teachers union is fighting a new school choice law in court over the way the Legislature passed it. Associated Press. News Service of FloridaOrlando Sentinel. Saint Petersblog. Palm Beach PostMiami Herald. Daytona Beach News-JournalThe Tampa TribuneFlorida Times-Union,  NBC2 , WEARTV, and First Cost News talk to parents who hope the law will provide new options for their childrenThe Fort Myers News-Press and Naples Daily News focus on the local teacher who’s the lead plaintiff.

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools.  Gradebook considers how a proposed Pinellas magnet could affect an existing program nearby. A Tallahassee arts magnet wins recognition. Tallahassee Democrat.

School grades. A Pinellas school improves its grade from and F to a C, but not before a turnaround effort brings a staff shakeup. Tampa Bay Times.

Superintendents. Appointed or elected? That’s the controversy before the Clay school board. Florida Times-Union.

STEM. Tougher math and science requirements can drive dropout rates higher. StateImpact. A Latino civil rights organization wants to eliminate ethnic disparities in science and engineering careers. Bridge to Tomorrow.

Budgets. The Okaloosa County school district saves millions with centralized budgeting, and plans to plow the proceeds into technology, transportation and other uses. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Summer. Students do custodial work and receive academic support during a Manatee summer program. Bradenton Herald.

Administration. The Manatee superintendent recommends back pay and benefits for a recently reinstated administrator. Bradenton Herald.


Florida teachers union challenges school choice legislation in court

Florida’s teachers union announced a lawsuit Wednesday aiming to block a new law that, among other things, expands eligibility for tax credit scholarships and creates the second-in-the-nation personal learning scholarship accounts program.

The suit doesn’t argue the programs themselves are unconstitutional. Like a recent challenge of Alabama’s tax credit scholarship program, it focuses on how the law was passed.

The six-page complaint filed in Leon County Circuit Court argues lawmakers violated the state’s “single-subject” rule by combining the school choice measures into a larger education bill that expanded collegiate high schools, created an “early warning system” for struggling middle school students, and grew incentives for schools to offer career education programs.

“It is an outrage that corporate voucher expansion was tacked into an unrelated bill and slipped into law on the final day of session,” Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald.

The lawsuit drew a sharp response from Patricia Levesque of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, who tried to put the focus on the students who would benefit from the new options.

“There are those who believe families should have options and trust parents in those decisions for their kids,” she said in a statement. “And sadly there are those who find educational choices threatening to their political power.”

That’s what at stake. But since the lawsuit itself is about the nuances of legislative procedure, here’s some background.

The single-subject rule. Florida’s constitution requires every law to “embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title.” The union’s legal complaint argues the various provisions of SB 850 “are not related to each other, except in the broad sense that all have something to do with education.” Continue Reading →