A little context for a rough patch in Florida ed reform

Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Florida high school graduates passing college-caliber Advanced Placement exams jumped from 36,707 to 39,306 – a robust 7.1 percent. The increase wasn’t an anomaly. Florida ranks No. 4 in the country in the rate of grads passing AP exams. Over the past decade, it ranks No. 2 in gains.

These AP results are but one of the encouraging indicators of academic progress in Florida schools. But you wouldn’t know it from some of the media coverage, which often overlooks them and ignores or distorts the context. The same goes for a good number of critics. Many of them continue to be quoted as credible sources, rarely if ever challenged, despite assertions that are at odds with credible evidence.

In the wake of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett’s departure, some particularly harsh spotlights have been put on Florida’s school grading system and on former Gov. Jeb Bush, who led the effort to install it. I can’t defend some of the recent problems with grading (the errors, the padding) and I do wonder whether there should be more value put on progress than proficiency.

But I have no doubt, from years of reporting on Florida schools, that school grades and other Bush-era policies nudged schools and school districts into putting more time, energy and creativity on the low-income and minority kids who struggle the most. I also have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle for those students and the system as a whole. To cite but one example: Between 2003 and 2011, Florida comes in at No. 9 among states in closing the achievement gap, in fourth-grade reading, between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In closing the gap in eighth-grade math, it comes in at No. 6. But don’t believe me. Take it from Education Week, where those rankings come from.

To those who approach education improvement with an open mind: Isn’t it troubling that such stats are rarely reported? And isn’t it odd that they’re rarely commended by teachers unions, school boards and superintendents who should be claiming credit? Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: District virtual schools, adult ed, charters & more

Virtual school: The Pinellas County School District sees a surge in its in-house virtual school programs, prompting school officials to close the application period a week early. Tampa Bay Times.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools: One of Tallahassee’s oldest and most successful charter schools looks to expand, while another that caters to middle school hopes to add an elementary. Tallahassee Democrat. A struggling Palm Beach County charter school agrees to stay closed the entire school year to right its ship and repay about $56,000 in taxpayer funding. Palm Beach Post. Gulf Coast Academy South opens with a waiting list almost as large as its current enrollment. Naples Daily News.

Ed poll: A new education poll looks at standardized testing with just 22 percent of respondents saying the increased use of such tests has helped schools; 36 percent said the testing hurts schools; 41 percent said it made no difference. StateImpact Florida.

Adult ed: Hernando County’s adult technical education programs suffer from low enrollment. Tampa Bay Times.

Common Core: StateImpact Florida asks teachers what they think about the new education standards. Sarasota state Rep. Ray Pilon breaks ranks from local Republicans and opposes the standards. “My vote is going to be get rid of it,” he wrote on Facebook. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Continue Reading →

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Beyond the market argument for school choice

Coons: "The health of the lower-income family is under siege from many an enemy. But none is more insidious than the conscription of its children."

Coons: “The health of the lower-income family is under siege from many an enemy. But none is more insidious than the conscription of its children.”

Arguments for subsidized parental choice date to the 18th century. Kept in check by the dominant political mystique that came to favor government schools, the idea lay largely dormant in the U.S. until the 1950s. The sadder realities of monopoly public schooling – especially for the poor – began at last to emerge after World War II, at the same time America was rediscovering the lure of the free market, temporarily obscured by war and depression. The possibility of profound structural reform brought many of us to give a fair hearing to Milton Friedman’s revival of the choice thesis. His prescription seemed simple; if society would subsidize the customers of schooling instead of monopolistic government providers, America would be smarter, and individuals would be freer and more self-satisfied.

To the mind of many hopefuls this looked a good idea, in part for its very simplicity. And, in an important sense, subsidized choice is, indeed, simple. Who needs school boards and their agents to decide where Susie learns her ABCs? As the consumer chooses soap, so the consumer would choose the formal educator.

But in fact school choice differs from the ordinary free market in important ways. And its champions’ own failure to confront these differences in public forums helped scar the rocky political path that choice would have to trudge until this generation. The irony is these very differences and complexities would largely cut in favor of the idea as a realistic political hope. In recent decades the debate happily has opened up, inviting a richer and more balanced discourse and – paradoxically – allowing us to illuminate at least one complexity whose neglect in choice politics had impaired our capacity to grasp implications of school choice far richer and more positive than the picture of the consumer getting her private druthers in a free market.

The central term in market discourse is freedom of the individual, which, properly understood, is a very important idea. And it is true that, for lower-income families, the present regime in schooling represents the antithesis of freedom. Bureaucratic strangers either decide the specific school for the child or closely limit parental choice to public charter schools. To this point the pure market argument was and remains correct. What its champions had failed to explore (and exploit) was their own peculiar twist on the term “freedom,” a concept which in market scripture denotes an act of pure self-determination by the individual who chooses. Choice of schools is hardly such an act, at least in respect of the person most affected – the quite un-free child. Some adult will decide for every boy and girl; the great and only question is: Will the adult be a parent or some complete stranger representing the state? The promotion of parental choice as policy obviously invites more than ordinary market justification.

To say this is in no way to denigrate the role of choice in the achievement of the parent’s own freedom. Indeed, at last it invites the parents’ deep immersion in the individual and social consequences of schooling. In contrast to blind assignment by government, choice of a particular school by fathers and mothers is an act of adult free expression. More, the parental delivery of this message to child and to society is a primary experience for that very adult who has done the choosing. In a vivid way, parents see themselves – perhaps for the first time – as civic actors and, equally important, as responsible players who – unlike the bureaucrats­ – must live with the consequences. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Virtual school, ACT scores, Tony Bennett & more

District app: The Broward County school district redesigns its website to make it more parent-friendly, adding a mobile app and translating into more than 40 languages. Sun Sentinel.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual school: The Palm Beach County School Board plans to urge state lawmakers to repeal a new funding approach that slashed dollars for the state-run Florida Virtual School. Palm Beach Post.

District vs. charter: Palm Beach County’s L.C. Swain Middle School opens a medical sciences academy and plans a pre-law academy to help the district compete with charter school offerings. Extra Credit.

Charter schools: Sarasota County School Board members say the district has been too generous with charter school funding and needs stricter rules over the process. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Tony Bennett: The latest Whiteboard Advisors’ survey looks at the departure of the former Florida education commissioner and the impact on Common Core, PARCC and other issues. StateImpact Florida.

College ready: A new report finds only 19 percent of Florida’s class of 2013 scored “college-ready” on all four ACT exams — English, math, reading and science. Orlando Sentinel.

Illegal passing: A one day survey shows Orange County drivers illegally passed school buses loading or unloading children 1,851 times. Statewide, 11,684 violations were noted. Orlando Sentinel.

Back pay: The Broward County school district owes its teachers $20 million for teaching an extra period last school year, but wants 20 years to repay the debt. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →

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Enrollment trends in FL private schools

closer look2We reported last month that Florida’s private school enrollment numbers are rising again. And that’s true. But trend lines beneath the surface suggest the modest rebound is tied more to publicly funded options than to private-paying students.

Here’s the thing: McKay scholarships for disabled students and tax credit scholarships for low-income students are making up a fast-growing share of private school enrollment – from 8.5 percent in 2002-03 to 28.4 percent last year. When those students are excluded from enrollment totals, it’s clear privately funded, private school enrollment continues to drop at a steady pace.

What does that mean? It may show private schools are still suffering the effects of a long and  jobless economic recovery, which leaves fewer families able to afford an education option they used to choose. It may reflect that some private-school parents have chosen a different option, charter schools, that barely existed in the first year of our chart and enrolled 203,199 students last year (we have little data, unfortunately, on how many of these students previously attended private school). It may mean the basic economics of private school have changed for many middle-class families, either because tuition has risen too fast or incomes are declining in a more systemic way.

This is an intriguing, and possibly troubling, trend. But we’ll have more on that at another time. For now, here’s a simple spreadsheet with more numbers, all from Florida Department of Education reports. And here’s a few charts with the highlights: Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: First days, Common Core, Jeb Bush & more

School is cool: The Community Foundation of Broward County and other donors launch a School is Cool initiative for middle-schoolers to boost high school graduation rates and competitiveness. Sun Sentinel.

Welcome back: Broward County students are back in class. Sun Sentinel. The re-designed Galaxy Elementary in Boynton Beach opens its “green” doors to 580 students for the first day of school, boasting hallways equipped with interactive white boards, classrooms with sliding glass doors and an auditorium with hands-on kinetic experiments in every corner. Sun Sentinel. More than 179,000 students in the nation’s 11th-largest school district return to school to meet nearly 13,000 Palm Beach County School District teachers. Palm Beach Post. florida-roundup-logoOrange County schools welcome back about 185,000 students and Lake County greets about 4,000. Orlando Sentinel. Miami-Dade County sees more than 600,000 students return to school. Miami Herald. About 85,000 students return to Polk County schools. The Ledger. In Collier County, 45,000 students return. Fort Myers News-Press. More from Naples Daily News. About 65,000 students head to class in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Pensacola News-Journal. Pinellas schools see about 100,000 students return. The Tampa Tribune. Hillsborough County sees about 200,000 students return. Tampa Bay Times. The district reported 64,116 children showed up Monday for classes, up 993 from the first day a year ago. Tampa Bay Times. The Hernando County school district expects to enroll 21,672 students. Tampa Bay Times.

Common Core: StateImpact Florida takes another look at the new education standards. “Like every government reform project, Common Core will have its glitches, its shortcomings, its setbacks. But The DaVinci Code of the ABCs it is not,” writes Tampa Bay Times columnist Daniel Ruth.

Pre-K: Duval County schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti starts the school year  with increased pre-K classrooms to better  prepare children for kindergarten, narrow the achievement gap and expose low-income students to technology at a younger age. Florida Times-Union.

Charter schools: Florida Intercultural Academy charter school welcomes back students, but sends them to a temporary location while the permanent facility undergoes construction. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →

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States continue increasing or eliminating caps on charter schools

In the past three years, 18 states have lifted caps on the number of charters schools allowed, another sign that lawmakers are embracing charters as valuable options in public education.

national alliance of public charter schools“I think there’s a growing recognition from state policymakers that charter schools are one of the pieces of the puzzle of education reform,’’ said Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “They’re not the silver bullet. They’re not a panacea.’’

But when charter schools are allowed to push the traditional system, they can become the labs of innovation they were designed to be, he said.

The information on caps comes in a new report from the alliance, which also looked at other changes states have made to charter school laws. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools, and the alliance concluded 35 of them strengthened their laws. In the alliance’s view, that could mean anything from increasing transparency of the approval process to ensuring local charter school authorizers are adequately funded.

Most of the progress was on lifting the caps, said Ziebarth, who co-authored the report and is the alliance’s senior vice president for state advocacy and support. Between 2010 and the beginning of 2013, 16 states lifted caps. Since January, Mississippi and Texas have joined the list.

Mississippi went from allowing 12 chronically low-performing traditional schools to convert into charters to an independent authorizer that can approve opening up to 15 startup charters per year. In Texas, which capped charters statewide at 215, new legislation fell short of removing the cap completely but allows for gradual growth to 305 charters by 2019.

Other states that made big changes to caps include Missouri, which once limited charters to St. Louis and Kansas City but now allows them statewide, and North Carolina, which nixed a 100-school limit in 2011.

Federal Race To The Top grants spurred many states to lift or do away with the caps in 2009 because the move was required to compete, Ziebarth said, but that effort had run its course by 2010.

The alliance counts more than 520,000 students on charter school waiting lists nationwide. But Ziebarth said caps aren’t the biggest hurdles to meeting demand. There’s also lack of equitable funding and facilities, and the fact that just about every state allows school districts to authorize charter schools – which can bog down the process of approvals.

“It’s kind of a shot-gun wedding,’’ Ziebarth said.

Those are issues state leaders must address, said alliance President Nina Rees.

“Despite strong, bipartisan progress by many visionary state legislators, most states still have yet to catch up to parental demand,’’ she said in a prepared statement. “And, we have a long way to go to ensure that students in public charter schools receive the same funding as their peers in traditional public schools.’’

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Charter schools size up crowdfunding

When parents in Smyrna, Ga., wanted to open a charter school last year, they didn’t have a big management company to take on start-up costs. So they got creative and turned to gofundme, a crowdfunding site that helps people quickly raise money for projects. Within four months, the Smyrna Academy of Excellence collected $10,000.

Jimmy Arispe

Jimmy Arispe

“We went at it pretty hard,’’ said principal and board chairman Jimmy Arispe, who described the process as quick and easy compared to applying for grants and knocking on foundations doors. “You can send a link to anybody.’’

Crowdfunding is a fairly new concept in education, but the fundraising platform appears to be gaining fans – especially among charter schools. The idea is simple. Put a project or goal on one of the online fundraising sites and ask people from all over the world to help with costs. Typical donations range from 20 bucks to thousands of dollars.

Chicago’s Academy for Global Citizenship charter school has raised $50,000 so far in an ongoing $30 million campaign on indiegogo, an international crowdfunding site. The Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., raised $11,179 for a new gym this past spring during a three-month drive on StartSomeGood.

And a 60-day “Open the Doors’’ campaign on Fundly, which caters to nonprofits, garnered $88,000 for the Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, Calif.

parker-thomas

Parker Thomas

“It’s a really cool idea overall,’’ said Parker Thomas, who, along with another of the school’s co-founders, headlined a crowdfunding seminar in March at a California Charter Schools Association conference.

No one, including the California association, really knows how many schools are crowdfunding.

“We just have a sense that they’re like most organizations or nonprofits and public schools,’’ said the Los Angeles-based group’s spokeswoman, Dannie Tillman. “Crowdfunding is just one of the methods in their fundraising toolbox.’’

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from districts. They receive state dollars, but not as much as their district counterparts, noted Eric Paisner of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. So that has many charter schools raising money, he said. Continue Reading →

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