Cheese, charter schools & promising developments in special ed

cheeseCharter schools often have an awkward, if not contentious, relationship with their local districts. That makes sense, as the public charter school movement is essentially a reaction to what can be a cookie cutter way of educating kids in neighborhood schools. Yet charter schools are part of the very same district (or state) that funds the neighborhood schools. It’s as if they’re siblings – they have the same parents but are often rivals – vying for funding, control, students, and political power among other things. Some district/charter relationships are cooperative, but others are rancorous, as illustrated by recent disputes in New York City and Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, both those disputes involved special education to some extent – probably the most complex, expensive and controversial area of teaching.

In most states, charter schools have the option of freeing themselves from these and other disputes by essentially becoming their own districts (legally termed Local Education Agencies or “LEAs”).  But the vast majority of charters, even in states like California, where they have the option of becoming their own LEAs, have not taken on the responsibility of fully controlling their own special education programs – possibly out of fear, ignorance or politics.  Fortunately, many of the more competent and high-achieving California charters – like KIPP, Aspire, and Rocketship – have chosen the path of autonomy and accountability and are leaving behind special education disputes with districts.

Where I work in Florida, where essentially charter schools don’t have the option of becoming their own LEAs (as is also the case in places like Virginia, Maryland and Kansas, and in New York for special education purposes), these special education disputes are problematic for many reasons. They’re terribly inefficient; they come at the expense of children; and they fly in the face of the charter school movement’s supposed commitment to autonomy and accountability.

To illustrate why it makes sense that some of the most competent charters are choosing to become their own LEAs and take full responsibility for special education, I’m going to use a business analogy that doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of disabled children.

Imagine a young entrepreneur who runs a new and successful Italian restaurant called “Vagare.” Vagare (i.e., the charter school in this story) has grown to serve roughly 300 customers a day. But in this city there’s a local corporate giant: “The Italian Restaurant Company” (i.e., the district). Founded in the late 1800’s, the IRC has virtually cornered the market on Italian restaurants. It serves thousands of customers daily, owns hundreds of locations, and controls restaurant supply firms and food supply chains. You get the picture.

The IRC has contracted out some of its locations and provides certain supplies to Vagare and other smaller restaurants. Vagare locally sources most of its ingredients except for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which, by contract, it is required to obtain from the IRC, which buys it in bulk from Italy. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, private schools, civil rights and more


Charter schools. High-performing Plato Academy plans to expand in Pinellas. Tampa Bay Times. The district is moving to take over a foundering charter for at-risk students. Tampa Tribune. The Palm Beach Post rips Mavericks High School in an editorial.

Private schools. A new Christian school in Ocala hopes to grow in the upcoming year. Ocala Star-Banner.

Civil rights. A federal investigation questions whether Hillsborough minority students have less access to experienced teachers and face tougher discipline. Tampa Bay TimesTampa Tribune.

Books. A parent’s complaint gets a novel pulled from a summer reading list. Tampa Bay Times.

Campaigns. Miami-Dade school board members rake in contributions despite facing little opposition. Miami Herald.

Finance. The Hernando district is spending more than it takes in. Tampa Bay Times. Manatee’s budget situation is improving. Bradenton Herald.

Superintendents. Pinellas’ chief gets his contract extended to 2020. Tampa Tribune.

Boundaries. Orange County approves a plan to redraw attendance boundaries for Jones High School. Orlando Sentinel.

Administration. The Okaloosa school district moves to standardize staff at all its schools. Northwest Florida Daily News. The Lee County school board approves a reorganization plan. Fort Myers News-Press. The Orange County school system is wasting money hiring class-size officers, an Orlando Sentinel columnist argues. Hillsborough schools get new principals. Tampa Tribune.

Vals and Sals. Broward schools keep their honorary titles. Sun-Sentinel.

In Florida’s pre-K program, a sign of bigger things to come

Jane school pic 120513

After making rapid progress through Pre-K, Jane Phillips is ready for kindergarten.

This August, Stacy Phillips of Pensacola, Fla. will see her daughter turn five and start her first day of kindergarten, enrolled in a mainstream class like other girls her age.

A year ago, she didn’t think that would be possible.

After Jane Phillips was born, an accumulation of fluid in her ear affected her hearing and left her with a speech impediment. As a result, when Phillips signed her up for Pre-K, she had to enroll in an exceptional education program.

But the staff at her daughter’s Pre-K center gave her a flyer about a new program for Florida’s early learners with special needs. The Specialized Instructional Services program, or SIS, allows parents to use funding from the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program for therapies or other services that support their educational needs.

In Jane’s case, it allowed her to see a speech therapist roughly 45 times to get the intensive help she needed to improve her verbal skills. “It moved her ahead so much faster,” Phillips said. And now, thanks to her progress, “she’s going to Kindergarten just as a regular student.”

In coming years, expect to hear a lot more about programs that give parents educational choices that go beyond deciding which school their children attend.

At the K-12 level, education savings accounts allow parents to use public money on a wide array of education-related services, rather than just tuition at a single school. Arizona created the first such program several years ago, and on Friday, Florida followed suit when Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill creating “personal learning scholarship accounts” for special-needs students.

SIS was quietly ahead of the curve. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Digital learning, campaigns, special needs and more

Digital learning. Two previously defunct Pinellas schools are set to reopen as magnets focused on digital instruction. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoCampaigns. Collier County school board candidates express “general support for school choice” during a public forum that touches on charters and vouchers. Naples Daily News. An Okaloosa County School Board candidate campaigns on reversing a slide in school grades. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Special needs. Florida’s school choice legislation could spark efforts in other states to offer customized learning options to special needs students. A special needs advocate raises questions about the legislation. Gradebook. A new school aimed at exceptional students with start as a private school with hopes of becoming a charter. Winter Haven News Chief.

School climate. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on parent and teacher surveys.

Teachers unions. One candidate files suit in a protracted union leadership election. Palm Beach Post.

Finance. Vanished emails hamper an investigation into misspent bond money. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Superintendents. Alachua County’s new schools chief signs his contract. Gainesville Sun.

Nutrition. Participation grows at a Marion summer meal program. Ocala Star-Banner.

Parental choice must include faith-based schools

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee. Alan Bonsteel is an associate of the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog.

faith based schoolsSchool choice is winning decisively in California. We have the highest number of charter schools – our public schools of choice – of any state, with 1,130 schools serving more than 500,000 students as of fall 2013, and with 44 charter schools just in Sacramento County. The astounding 7 percent annual growth rate of our charter school enrollment has actually accelerated in recent years.

New Orleans has just transformed itself into a model of all of their public schools being charters, with the last traditional public school there having closed its doors on May 30. This revolution came about because the charter schools so convincingly outperformed traditional public schools, with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

There is, however, an extremely important school choice option that is lagging, both in California and the nation. Literally the most faithful of our private schools are being harmed: Our K-12 religious schools.

This is because the fastest growth in school choice has been in public charter schools, which may not offer religious instruction. With their excellent quality and high test scores, charter schools have siphoned away enrollment from our religious-based private schools.

This, of course, is all the more frustrating in California, a state that has always been known for its tolerance and its diversity of spiritual paths.

When Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, she credited her Catholic school education with putting her on the path to historic achievements. When she heard that her school, Blessed Sacrament in New York City, had closed, she said she was “heartbroken.” Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: School choice, charter schools, campaigns and more

School choice. Gov. Rick Scott signs major legislation expanding eligibility for tax credit scholarships and creating the second education savings account program in the country. redefinED. Associated Press. Tampa Bay Times. EdWeek. News Service of Florida.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A big Sun-Sentinel investigation focuses on failed charter schools in South Florida. A Palm Beach tax referendum is dogged by questions about whether the district should share the proceeds with charters. Palm Beach Post. Construction is under way while an Orange County charter school’s application remains undecided. Orlando Sentinel.

Campaigns. Education issues are key in the electoral slugfest between Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott. Orlando Sentinel. Candidate qualifying wraps up in school board races. Miami Herald. Florida Today. Lakeland LedgerSarasota Heald-Tribune. Tallahassee Democrat. Jackson County Floridian. The Tampa Bay Times looks at fields in Hernado, Hillsborough and Pinellas. The Sun-Sentinel looks at Broward and Palm Beach. Hillsborough candidates get grilled by their local Tiger Bay club. Tampa Tribune.

Finance. Duval schools officials consider selling bonds to fund technology purchases. Florida Times-Union. The Palm Beach school board turns to businesses for cost-saving ideas. Palm Beach Post. The Manatee County school board will review the use of bond funds that drew scrutiny from state auditors. Bradenton Herald. The board will consider a draft $367 million budget, the Herald reports.

Teachers. South Florida teachers raise questions about the shift to performance pay. Sun-Sentinel. A residency program aims to prepare Duval teachers for challenging urban classrooms. Florida Times-Union. Teacher preparation programs receive poor marks. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Pasco schools aim to attract more qualified substitutes. Tampa Bay Times. It’s professional development season in Lee County. Fort Myers News-Press.

Security. More than half of Hillsborough students say they feel safe at school. Most of the rest say they aren’t sure. Tampa Tribune.

Start times. Legislation changing school start times could resurface as the debate continues. Orlando Sentinel.

Unions. Palm Beach teachers have yet to pick a new union leader. Extra Credit.

Nutrition. Pinellas schools look to keep students nourished over the summer. Tampa Bay Times. Hillsborough delivers meals to students in yellow buses. Tampa Tribune.

Higher ed. A new state report tracks debt and earnings for Florida graduates. StateImpact. Gradebook.

FL Gov. Rick Scott signs school choice expansion bill

Gov. Scott

Gov. Scott

Florida continues its national pace setting on parental choice under a bill signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

SB 850 allows more students to qualify for the nation’s largest publicly funded private school choice program, which is expected to serve more than 67,000 low-income students this fall. It makes Florida the second state in the nation to offer new personalized learning scholarship accounts for special needs students.

Those changes helped make the bill one of the most contentious of the state’s 2014 legislative session.

The bill mandates more state oversight of organizations that administer the scholarship program. (Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is the only organization doing so at the moment).

The bill also increases the financial incentives for schools to expand career academies. And a provision backed by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz will push the state’s community colleges to offer at least one “collegiate high school” program in every school district in the state, which would allow students to finish a year’s worth of college credits before graduating high school.

“Finally, every student in each of Florida’s 67 school districts is afforded the opportunity for advancement through a collegiate high school, and is more adequately prepared for their future careers,” Legg said in a statement.

The portion of the bill dealing with tax credit scholarships increases the scholarship amount; removes the requirement that in order to qualify, students in grades 6-12 must have been in public school the year prior; and, beginning in 2016, offers partial scholarships to working-class families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

The scholarship program is funded by corporations that get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The original legislation included a modest increase in the state-imposed spending cap, which will be $357.8 million next year. The final bill included no change.

Critics of the scholarship program, including the statewide teachers union, seized on the fact that participating students do not take the same assessments as their counterparts in public schools. They are required to take standardized tests, and schools are required to report the results to an independent researcher for analysis.

“Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates,” Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools.

The personal learning scholarship accounts will allow parents of certain special-needs students to access 90 percent of the funding a school district would have received for that student, and to direct it to a wide range of uses, including private school tuition, tutoring programs and therapy sessions. The Legislature set aside $18.4 million for the program for the 2014-15 school year.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is among the new program’s key backers. He is the father of a child with Down syndrome and is set to take over as Senate President after the November elections. He has said he intends to support policies that allow children with disabilities to graduate high school ready to enter the workforce.

In a statement, he said the accounts will allow parents to “make certain our students receive an education tailored to their unique abilities.”

Other coverage: Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Education Week. Associated Press, News Service of Florida, SaintPetersBlog, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, WFSU.

Parents talk choice & accountability

The word “accountability” can have different meanings in education policy debates. For two parents who spoke Thursday to a room full of public school administrators, it comes down to knowing what’s happening in their schools.


Photo by Glen Gilzean

That includes test scores and other data that allow them to track their students’ progress. But it also involves other forms of transparency, including communication with the people who run their schools.

“As far as transparency, I know everything that’s going on. I feel completely connected, regardless of the distance,” Theresa Seits, the parent of two magnet school students, said during a panel at the Florida Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in Tampa. “Information is always available to me as far as how my students are doing, personally, and how the schools are doing as well.”

The word “accountability,” and competing arguments about how it should be achieved, have been at the center of debates over school choice in Florida and beyond. It came up repeatedly during Thursday’s panel discussion.

Seits, who is also an administrator at a Hillsborough County elementary school, said her oldest son could always get good grades and score well on tests. But he did not flourish until she enrolled him in the STEM magnet program at Hillsborough’s Middleton High School, where other kids shared his interest in technology and robotics. In other words, test scores showed her son was making progress, but she needed to find a school that met his needs on other counts. That, she said, “leaves a lot up to parents to have to research and understand” what options work best for their children.

Parent and panelist Shannon Coates said she, too, kept close tabs on what was happening in her daughter’s schools. Her daughter attended private schools with the help of the Florida tax credit scholarship program before moving to a performing arts conservatory in California. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

But Coates said she also tracked her daughter’s progress using the results from standardized tests. That let her know her daughter was performing on grade level when she left eighth grade to focus on dance. Continue Reading →