Why are the FEA, PTA blocking school choice for low-income parents?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Editor’s note: This post recently appeared as an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun. It was published before the House proposal was changed to include no increase in the program cap. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In a state that gives parents an expanding array of options on where to send their children to school, the Legislature is looking this year to improve a choice it gives to the least among us. That some education groups are fighting it is disappointing.

The bill provides for a modest expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 59,765 low-income students in 1,425 private schools. The average household income for these students is only 9 percent above poverty. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half live with a single parent.

Research shows us they were struggling academically in the public school they left behind, and standardized tests show us they are now achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Why would worthy organizations, such as the Florida Education Association and the Florida PTA, fight so hard to deny this opportunity?

Many of the opponents are turning to distortion and deception, as well. One of them wrote in The Sun recently that the bill represented “the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history” and would “divert $2.3 billion… between now and 2016.”

For the record, the bill would add $30 million to the cap for each of the next five years, which amounts to an 8.3 percent increase next year and 3.5 percent increase in the fifth year. Those increases add up to $90 million by 2016, not $2.3 billion. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Teacher quality, charter schools, vouchers and more

Teacher quality. The Duval County school district announces a incentive program to bring more teachers into high-needs areas. Florida Times-UnionWJCT. WJXT. First Coast News.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A Broward charter once on the verge of closing can stay open after finding a permanent home. Sun-Sentinel. A former astronaut addresses students at three Lake Wales charter schools. Lakeland Ledger.

Vouchers. A poll commissioned by Sunshine State News finds voters do not support using “taxpayer funds” for scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools.

Magnet schools. A Hernando County magnet program uses field trips to teach kids about environmental science. Tampa Bay Times.

Career education. Pinellas schools name a new director. Gradebook. Clay County grows its career academies. WJXT.

Facilities: Business groups back a half-cent sales tax for school construction and technology in Volusia. Daytona Beach News-Journal. After a $55 million renovation, a Miami high school is being rededicated as a “palace of learning.” Miami Herald.

Early learning. A change of providers in Duval County means Head Start teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. Florida Times-Union.

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The teacher union’s amusing hypocrisy about Big $ in politics

Editor’s note: This post was originally published as an op-ed in today’s Orlando Sentinel. The state’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

follow the moneyThe politics of school choice are particularly unforgiving these days, but one of the messages being sold in this year’s Florida legislative session is amusingly hypocritical.

The backdrop is a bill to strengthen a scholarship that for the past 12 years has provided some economically disadvantaged Florida children access to private schools. Though the effort has been cast by opponents as a dramatic expansion, the bill headed for a House floor vote on Friday has been changed so it no longer contains either an increase in the statewide cap or a sales-tax credit — two of the most contentious parts. It’s worth remembering that this scholarship is the only choice program with a statewide cap.

In politics, though, the size of the debate doesn’t always conform to the size of the legislation. The Florida Education Association has launched an aggressive campaign to block it, including a requisite attempt to discredit the supporters. But what is especially entertaining is the FEA’s feigned shock that scholarship advocates might invest in political campaigns involving Democrats.

The FEA is distributing a video from a 2011 school-choice conference in Berkeley, Calif., that features Doug Tuthill, who is president of the nonprofit that administers the tax-credit program and a former chapter president for FEA. The conference was put together by a group that includes many liberal academicians who appreciate the historical role teachers unions have played in providing financial support for Democrats. But they asked him how to break that grip because they are dismayed the money now comes with a prohibition on voting for private school choice.

Tuthill’s answer was honest and direct: Invest in legislative races, just like the union does.

This is an unsurprising statement to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with modern politics, but FEA Vice President Joanne McCall was aghast: “This video reveals that it’s all about the money.”

Now I do not defend the way big money is impacting modern politics or the coarse campaigns that are often a byproduct, but to be lectured on the evils of campaign spending by the FEA is surreal. It is the FEA’s primary political weapon. Since 2002, the FEA and its national affiliates have invested $20.1 million in Florida campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Its money is so integral to Florida Democratic legislators that no one raises an eyebrow when all the party’s House and Senate members meet, as they did on April 2, at FEA headquarters. The low-income parents for whom the school-choice movement fights don’t have money for campaigns. I am honored to fight for them and to help their voices be heard. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, Broad Prize, charter schools and more

Tax credit scholarships. A bill that would expand access to the program is ready for a final vote in the House. News Service of FloridaAssociated PressTimes/Herald. Palm Beach Post.

Broad prize. The award for urban school districts raises its standards, naming only two finalists for this year’s prize. One of them is Orange County, Fla. Orlando Sentinel. EdWeek.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A former teacher lodges a complaint about a Hillsborough charter school, alleging it does not use properly certified teachers. Tampa Bay Times.

School safety. Miami-Dade schools hope to tamp rumors that circulate among students with a new text-messaging system. Miami Herald.

Career academies. A Glades construction academy could become a reality thanks to a recent donation. Extra Credit.

Teacher quality. Duval schools prepare a new initiative to lure high-caliber teachers and administrators to high-need areas. Florida Times-Union.

Superintendents. Seminole County’s Walt Griffin gets a contract extension. Orlando Sentinel.

Common Core. A survey shows public opinion on the standards is split. Sunshine State News.

School days. Hernando schools consider six-period days to save money and give kids more time in each class. Tampa Bay Times.

Economic development. Palm Beach County schools and other officials are promoting their school system in an effort to lure new businesses into the area. South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Maintenance. A bell in front of a Manatee County elementary school gets a rare cleaning. Bradenton Herald.

Awards. A newspaper honors 45 high school seniors. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Gainesville students are named Achievement Scholars. Gainesville Sun.


Florida school choice bill ready for final vote in House

School choice legislation that would expand eligibility for the country’s largest tax credit scholarship program and create new personal learning accounts for special needs students is ready for a final vote in the Florida House.

Lawmakers on Wednesday removed a $30 million increase on the caps that limit the growth of the tax-credit scholarship program, though the state’s current law would still allow the program to grow by as much as 25 percent a year.

erik fresen

Rep. Erik Fresen

The change did little to tamp opposition among House Democrats.

They proposed a series of contentious changes during nearly two hours of floor discussion on Wednesday, including a proposed requirement that schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program administer state’s standardized tests. The Democrats’ amendments were defeated, largely along party lines.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, broke with his fellow Republicans to vote in favor of the testing requirement, which also would have required schools with scholarship students to participate in the state’s A-F grading system for schools.  His father, Don Gaetz, is the Senate President, and has called for requiring state assessments for scholarship students, an idea that remains controversial among some school choice supporters.

The House voted down other Democratic proposals, which among other things would have required private schools with scholarship students to hire state-certified teachers, mandated that they teach the state’s education standards and restricted the way scholarship funding organizations that administer the program can use their revenue. Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, is a scholarship funding organization.

Requiring state standards in private schools “would ensure private schools are going to be accepting public money, that they do something similar to the public schools and reach the same standards that we have for those schools,” said Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said parents chose private schools for a host of reasons, including the kind of learning environment they offer.

“If we are providing an option for those families, then why, I ask you, would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for their child?” she asked.

While the full House could approve the school choice bill as early as Friday, the Senate has so far taken a different approach to school choice legislation after withdrawing its original tax credit scholarship bill from consideration earlier in the session.

Florida is one of seven states where lawmakers this year have considered creating education savings accounts for special-needs students, and competing proposals have gained traction in both chambers.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the sponsor of the House bill, noted the state already offers McKay Scholarships that allow special needs students to attend private schools. He said the bill is intended to help students whose conditions are so severe that they may not benefit from attending school for a whole day. Parents could use the accounts to pay for other education-related services, including speech therapy.

“It allows incredibly more flexibility to the parents’ use for specific services that they know their child needs,” he said.

Additional coverage: Post on PoliticsCentral Florida Political Pulse, Associated Press, Tampa Bay Times.


FL Senate could increase military commanders’ role in charter schools

The Florida Senate wants to increase the role of military base commanders in creating charter schools on their installations.

At its core, the Senate’s charter school legislation remains short and simple, placing it on a potential collision course with the House, which has proposed a broader overhaul of Florida charter school laws.

MacDillUnder the latest rewrite, approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee, the Senate legislation would allow military commanders to sit on charter school governing boards and to submit applications to open charter schools on their bases.

It would avoid more contentious changes to charter school statutes.

Earlier this year, supporters withdrew an appeal to open a charter school on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa after their plan was rebuffed by the local school district (more background here). They have pledged to rework the application and make another attempt.

The issue got the attention of lawmakers, who already have approved legislation intended to encourage charter schools for military families. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said the new charter school legislation would “recognize that there are unique needs at our military installations.”

Democrats proposed a series of other changes to the bill, some them backed by school districts. But they were defeated after Legg and others warned the amendments could make it more difficult for new charter schools to open. The committee heard wide-ranging debate and testimony about various other provisions that are no longer in the bill, but remain part of the House legislation.

“One thing I’ve learned in the Legislature in my now going on 10 sessions is every year we’ll debate a budget, and every year we’ll debate charter schools,” Legg said. “This is the charter school debate of 2014, but it deals with military charter schools, and that’s it.”


Catholic school parents hope to save their school

The desks in Mary Ann Camisa’s classroom are arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, but one sits on its own, in the center.

photo 2The middle spot is reserved for the fourth-grader who is designated the “Christian citizen” – a rotating designation for the student who had come to class the most prepared, or displayed the best attitude.

The seat of honor is a reminder that Pope John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, about 80 miles north of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is different than the other schools in the area, both public and private. It also helps explain why parents in this exurban stretch of Florida are on edge.

Pope John Paul II is the only Catholic school in Citrus County. And like other Catholic schools around the country, its future is in doubt.

Closure would mean long hauls to Ocala or Spring Hill for those who want to keep their kids in Catholic schools. It would also mean the loss of a community anchor – the same kind of loss, frankly, that public school parents often feel when their neighborhood schools are shuttered or at risk of folding.

“What we have here is intangible,” Camisa, a 22-year veteran of the school, said as her students wrapped up a school day late last month. “It’s the environment. It’s something gets instilled along the way.”

Parents learned in early March that the Diocese of St. Petersburg, faced with flagging enrollment and the need for costly repairs, was on the verge of closing the 29-year-old school. It serves about 150 students from preschool to eighth grade.

Since then, the parents have held rallies and enrollment drives. They’ve started raising money for repairs. They’ve tried to spread the word about scholarships and subsidies that can help families afford a Catholic education. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Class size, catholic schools, tax credit scholarships and more

Class size. Duval County schools could achieve more flexibility by designating more “schools of choice.” Florida Times-Union.

florida-roundup-logoCatholic schools. A Tampa Catholic school is back “in the black.” Tampa Tribune. Citrus County parents hope to get their school there, too. RedefinED.

Tax credit scholarships. Parents should have more options, one parent writes in the Sun-Sentinel. The Tampa Bay Times and the Palm Beach Post publish editorials denouncing legislation that would expand the program. An amendment set to be heard today on the House floor would remove a proposed increase in the scholarship cap. News Service of Florida.

Crowding. A Pasco County high school abandons a plan that would have had some students taking classes from home during the day. Tampa Bay Times. Escambia schools work on plans for building, repairing and rezoning their schools with the help of a tax voters would need to approve. Pensacola News-Journal.

Teacher evaluations. The Tampa Tribune writes up the VAM-free approaches being tried in Pinellas, and reports the Gates Foundation is now evaluating Hillsborough’s program.

School boards. The Brevard board sets a new school closure policy. Florida Today. An assistant principal enters the race for a Hernando County seat. Tampa Bay Times.

Continue Reading →