An argument for school vouchers amidst fight over Obamacare

Linda Greenhouse

Linda Greenhouse

Arguments supporting parental school choice can crop up in unexpected places. Even in a left-leaning take on a particularly controversial piece of Obamacare.

In her Nov. 28 column, Linda Greenhouse, the esteemed former New York Times reporter who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years, discussed two current Supreme Court cases focused on whether corporations can be required to provide health benefits that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs. The cases are part of a flood of litigation challenging whether the government can force employers, including churches, to provide employee benefits such as birth control.

Greenhouse concludes her column by suggesting that forcing employers to provide a prescribed set of health benefits does not violate their religious beliefs since the employees are choosing how to use these benefits, not the employer. She cites parents using publicly funded school vouchers to pay private school tuition to bolster her argument:

“By paying employees as the law requires, neither a corporation nor its owner is endorsing the employees’ choice of what to spend their money on – no more than a local government endorses a parent’s choice to use a taxpayer-funded voucher for religious-school tuition. The Supreme Court for  decades has embraced the notion that an intervening private choice of this sort, even when a government program is clearly designed to channel public money to religious institutions, avoids what would otherwise be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

Greenhouse isn’t just any legal observer. She won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Supreme Court. She now teaches at Yale Law School. As a longtime Greenhouse reader, I feel comfortable describing her as a left-of-center progressive Democrat. For someone of her stature and political persuasion to acknowledge the constitutionality of parents using school vouchers to attend faith-based K-12 schools – an argument more often advanced by the political right – is another small but significant milestone in the redefinition of public education. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Charters, private schools, special needs & more

Charter schools: Pinellas County’s University Prep organizes a local board and moves forward in the search for a new principal. Tampa Bay Times. A proposal for a charter school on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa still awaits a recommendation from Hillsborough district staff. Tampa Bay Times.  

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools: Florida Air Academy in Brevard County has done away with text books and moved to iPad-only classes. Florida Today.

Virtual school: The exponential growth Florida Virtual School and online learning have experienced will continue as we transform education worldwide, writes Julie Young for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Special needs: Special needs students in Hillsborough County are treated to music lessons. Tampa Bay Times.

Hydroponics 101: A Cape Coral high school’s aquaculture and hydroponics class draws students from around Florida and even outside the state. Fort Myers News-Press.

Lawsuit: The Hillsborough County School Board will vote next week on a decision to pay more than $500,000 to the family of a special-needs child who drowned behind her Riverview middle school. Tampa Bay Times. More from The Tampa Tribune.

Quality teachers: The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida launches a fundraising campaign to raise $50 million to pay for more high-quality public school teachers in high-demand areas like math and science. Florida Trend.  Continue Reading →


FL bill proposes new way to curb charter schools

A Florida lawmaker wants to bar new charter schools if they can’t prove they’re unique.

Senate Bill 452, filed last week by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would require charter schools to meet a specific instructional need that local district schools can’t in order to obtain approval.

Sen. Jeff Clemens

Sen. Jeff Clemens

“I think charter schools are there to serve the needs that the (traditional) public school system can’t,’’ Clemens told The Florida Current. “If they’re just going to do the same thing that we’re doing in public schools then I think it is a poor use of our tax resources.’’

It’s unclear who, exactly, would determine whether there’s an unmet need, and whether a proposed charter school could fill it. But the bill would seem to give school districts more power to turn down charter applications. In Florida, district school boards are the sole authorizers of charter schools, though the state Board of Education can overturn denied applications on appeal.

Clemens could not be reached for comment.

Not surprisingly, his bill drew criticism from charter school supporters, including Jim Horne, a former Florida legislator and education commissioner who lobbies for Charter Schools USA.

“It is interesting now after 18 years of Florida charter schools when we have statistical data that clearly shows that Florida charter schools are outperforming district managed schools in most grade levels and gaining increasing market share that suddenly we see legislation that is aimed at severely limiting the growth of charter schools,’’ Horne said in an email to redefinED. “In other words, if you can’t compete with them then let’s just stop them from opening in the first place.”

Clemens’ bill isn’t likely to get traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature. But it’s another sign of rising tension between school districts and charter schools as parents continue to flock to the latter. In Florida last school year, 578 charters served 203,000 students – up from 389 schools serving 117,040 five years ago. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Teacher evals, charters, audits & more

Teacher evaluations: Nearly every teacher in Broward and Palm Beach counties earns top marks last school year. Sun Sentinel. A majority of Brevard teachers earned the highest possible rating. Florida Today. The First Coast has more than 4,000 highly effective public school teachers. Florida Times-Union. florida-roundup-logo97.9 percent of teachers evaluated statewide are rated effective and highly effective, and less than 1 percent are unsatisfactory. Tampa Bay Times. The Florida Department of Education and the Florida Education Association have asked the First District Court of Appeal to rehear a case concerning whether teacher value-added model ratings are public record. Tampa Bay Times. No teacher in Pinellas County public schools received a poor rating last year. Tampa Bay Times. The state also releases district administrator eval results. StateImpact Florida. In Collier County, there are no bad teachers. Naples Daily News.

Charter schools: Two autistic sisters report being repeatedly sexually assaulted by older students at a West Palm Beach charter school. Palm Beach Post. A Miami-Dade charter school awards a $400,000 grant to an unaccredited private college – the charter’s partner in a dual-enrollment program. Miami Herald.

District schools: A state audit of the Manatee County School District operational finances could cost the financially embattled administration $7.2 million. Bradenton Herald. More from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

New super: The Flagler County School Board announced a 15-member committee that will help steer the search for the district’s next superintendent. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

College ready: The percentage of high school graduates ready for college when they get there is increasing statewide and in the Tampa Bay region. Tampa Bay Times.

Early start times: A bill that would make it impossible for Florida high schools to start before 8 a.m. has brought new urgency to a debate that has gone on for years. The Tampa Tribune.

Pranks: A parent complaint prompts a Pasco middle school to clamp down on a slapping prank. Tampa Bay Times.


Despite progress, Florida still has far to go, PISA results show

The latest international test results confirm what Florida education reformers have been saying for years: Despite arguably the biggest academic gains in the nation over the past 15 years, Florida students still lag too far behind.

PISA report coverReleased Tuesday, the math, science and reading results on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment tests, better known as PISA, show 15-year-olds in both Florida and the nation are middling, or worse, compared to their peers around the planet.

Sixty-five countries and economies participated in the tests, which have been given every three years since 2000. Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut were the only states whose scores were reported separately.

In math, the U.S. mean score of 481 fell below the mean of 494 for the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In science, the U.S. mean of 497 fell below the OECD mean of 501. In reading, the U.S. mean of 498 was just above the OECD mean of 496.

Florida students scored 467 in math, 485 in science and 492 in reading, far below Massachusetts (at 514, 527 and 527, respectively) and Connecticut (at 506, 521 and 521 respectively). It’s worth noting that Florida has a far higher percentage of low-income students, 56 percent, compared to 34.2 percent for Massachusetts and 34.5 percent for Connecticut.

The trend lines for the U.S. were flat in all three areas. It ranked an estimated No. 26 of the 34 OECD countries in math, an estimated No. 17 in reading and an estimated No. 21 in science.

The three states didn’t participate in prior PISA tests, so it’s unclear from those tests whether they are making gains relative to their peers in the U.S. and beyond. Other academic indicators, including NAEP scores, AP results and graduation rates, show Florida students are among the national leaders in progress.

But when it comes to proficiency, too many aren’t there yet. Continue Reading →


Time for school boards to stop competing, start regulating

The latest evidence that school districts are increasingly acting like commercial businesses comes from the two urban districts in the Tampa Bay area.

McDonald’s would love to control whether a Burger King opens in its community, but giving McDonald’s this power would hurt consumers and undermine the public good. The same goes for school districts that have the power to authorize charter schools.

McDonald’s would love to control whether a Burger King opens in its community, but giving McDonald’s this power would hurt consumers and undermine the public good. The same goes for school districts that have the power to authorize charter schools.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that, “Increased competition for students, declining enrollment in the middle grades, and a need to offer more attractive options to families is leading Pinellas County Schools to open new magnet programs at four middle schools next fall.”

According to Bill Lawrence, the district’s director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity, “It’s important in this day and age, with competition in public education, that we have to do this. Some of our children are choosing other options, so it’s important we do it.” And Amie Hornbaker, the district’s new communications specialist, said, “We try not to say we’re selling (to parents), but essentially, we are.”

This concern with market share is a logical response to the expanding array of schooling options now available to families, including low-income families. But I’m uncomfortable with school districts becoming businesses in a competitive market place.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, or even hypocritical, coming from the president of the country’s largest private school choice organization.

I believe public education should operate as a well-regulated market. Educators should be empowered to own and manage schools and all parents – not just the affluent – should be empowered to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs. And I’m pleased many district school leaders are increasingly seeing families, and not their bureaucracies, as their primary customers. But if school districts become competitors in a market-driven public education system, who is going to objectively regulate this system?

Good regulatory oversight is a necessary component of an effective school choice system, but that’s not possible if the primary regulator is focused on maximizing its market share. And that’s what is increasingly happening in public education today. A good example is how Florida school districts are treating charter schools. Continue Reading →


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

Charter schools: N.E.W. Generation Preparatory High School of Performing Arts in Broward County has until March to find a secure space to house its 200 students or close down. Sun Sentinel. The Schools of McKeel Academy will likely begin searching for a new leader after the first of the year. The Ledger.

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools: English students at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Brevard County take their Shakespeare discussion online with Twitter. Florida Today.

Common Core: Common standards are the best way to measure how well our students are ready to graduate and enter college, the military or the workforce, writes Tony Buntyn, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, for The Tampa Tribune. Florida won’t participate in PARCC’s field testing of its assessments come springtime. Tampa Bay Times. Yes, the Common Core State Standards are demanding, and they should be, writes Zachary Champagne for the Florida Times-Union. Florida is already headed in the right direction, but Common Core State Standards will continue to lead us to be the top academic state in the nation, writes Lucy Gosselin for Sunshine State News. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) remain contenders for state testing. Sunshine State News.

Start times: Some of Florida’s superintendents are worried about the potential effects of a proposal that high schools statewide be prohibited from starting earlier than 8 a.m. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher pay: Gov. Rick Scott again urges school districts to come through with the contract deals to make the raises reality. The Buzz. Twenty eight school districts have finalized teacher pay hikes, while another 15 have reached tentative agreements still awaiting a vote by school boards. Miami Herald.

PISA: Florida 15-year-olds who took international tests in math, reading and science last year did worse than other teens in the United States overall and far worse than teenagers in the world’s top-performing education systems in Asia, scores released this morning showed. Orlando Sentinel. More from the Florida Times-Union. Locally, the results on the Program for International Student Assessment show the average Florida student scored about the same as the average U.S. student in science and reading. StateImpact Florida. Continue Reading →


Florida private schools hit by funding change to dual enrollment

Some Florida private schools face an unexpected dilemma this school year: Find extra dollars to pay for state college courses their high school students want to take – or deny them the option.

dual enrollment 2

The problem stems from a new law requiring public school districts and individual private schools to cover tuition for students enrolled in the state’s popular dual enrollment program.

Though it’s unclear how many private school schools and students are affected, the change has left some schools curbing participation and others anxious about what they’ll do if local colleges, prompted by the new law, end up hiking charges.

The change “caught everybody off guard,’’ said Howard Burke of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, and immediate past president of Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools (FAANS). “This is a hardship for parents already paying taxes for public schools and paying for private school.’’

His association represents about 140 schools with an average of $4,000 to $5,200 in tuition. Burke said some of those schools are telling parents they now will owe an additional fee for dual enrollment to help schools with the unexpected costs.

“I think it’s obscene,’’ Burke said. “This should not be happening.’’

Dual enrollment lets students knock out college-level credits for free while they’re still in high school so they can earn college degrees faster and save their families – and the state – thousands of dollars.

Currently, there are about 65,000 high school students participating, up 20 percent since 2010-11. Before the change, districts and colleges received additional state funding for the program costs (excluding books and other materials). Private schools, meanwhile, had separate agreements with colleges that allowed their students the same access.

In recent years, however, state colleges lobbied for more money because they said they were losing an estimated $43 million to $58 million a year in tuition. Lawmakers approved a bill last spring that allows the colleges to charge districts a standard fee of $71.98 per credit. The law went into effect in July. Continue Reading →