Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, charter schools, teacher evaluations and more

Tax credit scholarships. The Senate introduces new language that would place new regulations on scholarship organizations, including Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, in an effort to re-start negotiations with the House. News Service of Florida. Gradebook.

Charter schools. Supporters fend off hostile amendments to House legislation. Scripps/TribuneFlorida Current. Post on Politics. Florida is one of 11 states that require low-performing charters to shut down. EdWeek.

florida-roundup-logoTesting. Florida’s next standardized assessment gets a test drive in Utah. Desert News, via StateImpact, which also looks at the movement of parents trying to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Teacher evaluations. The system is causing some districts to pare back electives, giving ammunition to opponents of education reform, Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab writes. An Orange County teacher says he’s “humiliated” by the new system. WKMG.

Teacher conduct. A Polk County charter school teacher faces sexual harassment allegations. Lakeland Ledger. A teacher is accused of choking a student. WJXT.

Administration. A Hernando County principal files an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the superintendent. Tampa Bay Times. A Manatee County administrator begins a state disciplinary hearing. Bradenton Herald.

Leveling the playing field between charter schools and school districts

After rejecting a handful of proposed amendments, the Florida House is now ready to take a final vote on its charter school legislation. But one of the most interesting proposals on the floor today was one that was not adopted.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, proposed an amendment that would have given school districts more flexibility under state building regulations. He pulled the proposal, citing concerns that it wasn’t germane to the charter school bill.

bilecaBut it’s part of a larger thrust among lawmakers trying to navigate tensions between charter schools and school districts. Charter schools do not have to comply with all the state’s regulations for school facilities, but they still have to comply with building codes. Districts have asked for some of the flexibility enjoyed by charter schools, and state panels have discussed the issue when they grappled with plans to address long-range capital funding needs.

“It’s strongly supported and was done at the urging of our school districts, many of them in the state,” Bileca said of his proposal, which would have given school district more flexibility in the ways they design their parking lots and build interior walls.

It’s not clear what will become of that idea, but there are other ideas still in play that fit with a similar theme. Charter schools also enjoy more flexibility under class-size requirements in the state constitution. Their financial penalties for failing to comply with the class-size rules are based on the school-wide average.

The budget conference announced today includes an education funding bill (HB 5101) that would extend the same flexibility to school districts. That proposal, however, remains controversial. It was one of the reasons cited by Democrats for votes against the bill earlier this month. Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, cited the measure as part of a “slow attrition” of the constitutional provision.

“I feel very strongly that when the voters passed the class-size amendment in 2002, we got clear directive. We got clear directive that our class sizes should stay small,” he said.

The idea has been proposed before. It advanced last session but did not pass. Supporters note the penalty calculations are not enshrined in the constitution, and that changes could save the school system money. Regardless of how the idea fares in the next two weeks, it’s part of a larger theme to keep an eye on as lawmakers resolve their differences over charter school legislation and facilities funding.

Democrat: Stop casting school choice parents as villains in public ed

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed today in Florida Today, in response to a column by former state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. It’s authored by former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who is a member of the Step Up For Students board of directors. The state’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Sen. Lawson

Sen. Lawson

The most significant expansion of Florida’s scholarships for low-income children came in 2010, and the bipartisan spirit was so strong I was allowed as Democratic leader to make the closing argument in a Senate controlled by Republicans.

We found common ground because the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is focused on economically disadvantaged students in a way that strengthens public education.

So it is with considerable disappointment to see the partisan fractures this year, as the Legislature considers more modest improvements. And it is hard to miss the extent to which the Florida Education Association is driving the wedge.

But it is wrong to cast a $4,880 scholarship for 60,000 underprivileged children as an attack on public education. It is, to quote public educator and former House Education Policy Council ranking Democrat Bill Heller, “in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity.”

With 12 years under our belt, we know a great deal about how this scholarship works.

The program serves children whose household income is only 9 percent above poverty. More than two-thirds of them are black or Hispanic. These children struggled academically in the public schools they left. Most importantly, their annual standardized test scores have shown they are consistently achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

Whether these students should take the state, rather than national, test is a fair question. But let’s not pretend as though we have no measure for how well they are performing. We know how scholarship kids are doing at individual private schools, as the schools must report their learning gains if they have a minimum number of scholarship recipients.

Let’s also call an end to the deceit that this program hurts public schools financially, and that “money used for vouchers is taken away from basic public school needs,” as syndicated columnist Paula Dockery stated in her recent column in FLORIDA TODAY. Continue Reading →

A real debate to be had over charter school funding

Over the past decade, Florida’s proliferating charter schools have seen state funding for their buildings lag enrollment growth and efforts to give them access to other sources of capital funding fizzle.

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

But they received a boost in the most recent state budget, and school districts facing a decline in their own capital funding have started to notice.

With enrollment increasing and capital funding approaching the symbolic threshold of $100 million, some lawmakers who support capital funding for charter schools say the state should take a closer look at how that money gets spent.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He’s likely to have a say in how talks over capital funding and charter school legislation shake out in the waning days of the session. But he also says there are some longer-range issues lawmakers should start looking at as the charter sector grows.

Are charter schools spending their money on long-term leases, or are they building up equity in their facilities? And what should happen if they ever leave those buildings behind?

Legg knows the business side of charter schools from personal experience. When he helped start Pasco County’s Dayspring Academy 15 years ago, the new school faced a decision about whether to rent or to buy its facilities.

He said it usually makes  financial sense for a school to buy its building and invest in improvements over time – much like a homeowner trying to build up equity. Charter schools can use their capital funding to pay for construction costs or long-term leases. But Legg said the state should try to avoid situations where “we are still paying rent 15 years down that road for a building that that charter school will never own.”

In addition, he said his school has a clause in its contract that stipulates that if it ever closes, the building would be turned over to the school district, which could use it for another public purpose. He said lawmakers should consider efforts to encourage that practice. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, charter schools, competition and more

Tax credit scholarships. Parents of children who receive scholarships answer critics in the Florida Times-Union and the Ocala Star-Banner. The program enhances public education, Doug Tuthill writes in the Miami Herald. He is the president of Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog. The president of the Alachua County League of Women Voters criticizes charters and vouchers in the Gainesville Sun. A school board member also criticizes tax credit scholarships in the Sun, focusing on religious education. State standardized testing requirements won’t appease all critics, but they might help the program in the long run, Paul Cottle writes at Bridge to Tomorrow.


School choice. Private and charter schools compete with magnet and career education programs in Palm Beach County, fueling a drive to create new options. Palm Beach Post.

Charter schools. Hillsborough officials are scrutinizing the boards that oversee schools managed by Charter Schools USA as lawmakers debate charter legislation. Tampa Tribune. The management group Academica faces federal scrutiny. Miami Herald. The Volusia County school district prepares to end a long legal battle with a failed charter school. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Dropout prevention. Pinellas schools plan a new alternative school aimed at at-risk students. Tampa Tribune.

Digital learning. Replacing old computers won’t be cheap for Marion County schools. Ocala Star-Banner. Technology helps a Southwest Florida teacher enhance instruction. Naples Daily News.

Discipline. Kindergarten students face increased suspensions, which disproportionately affect minorities. Florida Times-Union.

Testing. A computer glitch affects FCAT administration in Miami-Dade schools. Miami Herald. A group of parents and teachers protests high-stakes testing. Fort Myers News-Press. Even at the height of FCAT season, educators say kids need a chance to get outside and play. Tampa Bay Times.

Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: ESA expansion halted in AZ, court hears tax credit scholarship case in NH and more

MondayRoundUp_magentaAlabama: The Alabama Education Association, which opposes a new tax-credit scholarship program, says former Gov. Bob Riley has personally banked up to $1 million from it (he has made $0) (AL.com). The AEA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to back Republican and Democrat candidates to run against lawmakers that support school choice. (AL.com).

Arizona: A bill to expand the education savings accounts program advances in the Senate (Arizona Capitol TimesAssociated Press) but is defeated after nine Republicans vote no (Arizona Republic, Arizona Daily Star, Associated Press). Laurie Roberts, a columnist for the Arizona Republic, describes the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts expansion as a bill designed to weaken public schools. The accounts allow families access to special needs funds in order to customize the learning options for their children (Wall Street Journal, Jay P. Greene Blog). The editorial board for the Daily Courier says school choice should remain limited to public schools, including public charters. The accounts allow parents to save money for use in future education, including higher education, and David Saifer, a columnist for Tucson Weekly, seems to think  saving money is a terrible idea. So do public education officials (Arizona Capitol Times). A Democrat campaign manager says the accounts will destroy public education (Maricopa.com).

Delaware: State officials approve four new charter schools (The News Journal).

Florida: Steve Knellinger, an administrator at St. Petersburg Christian School, says tax-credit scholarships create more options and help improve student achievement (Tampa Bay Times). A mother of two tax-credit scholarship students is mad the PTA is fighting thel scholarships (Florida Times-Union). James Herzog, director of education for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, says there is good evidence to prove school choice expansion is needed (Palm Beach Post). Gov. Rick Scott is noncommittal on whether private schools accepting scholarship students should take the same state assessment as public schools (State Impact). The Florida Citizens for Science want private schools that accept tax-credit scholarships and vouchers to teach evolution by state standards (Tallahassee Democrat). A former Republican lawmaker says public schools should be fully funded before allowing voucher programs to expand (The Ledger).  Frank Cerabino, a columnist with the Palm Beach Post, says school choice has been around for a long time for those who can afford it. The Florida Times-Union editorial board says education achievement is getting better and solving poverty is a better solution to improving schools than attempting school choice. Eileen Roy, a school board member in Alachua County, thinks vouchers will destroy public schools (Gainesville Sun). Former state Senator Al Lawson says tax-credit scholarships serve some of the most disadvantaged students in the state and the program deserves to be expanded (Florida Today).

Democratic lawmakers blame charter schools for a decrease in state appropriated capital funding for public schools (Creative Loafing). Charter school critics claim charters get the lion’s share of capital funds but the critics disregard local revenue sources (redefinED). Six single-gender charter schools will open over the next few years in the Jacksonville area (Florida Times-Union). Continue Reading →

Citrus County’s only Catholic school gets a chance to stay open

Parents in Citrus County received some good news going into the holiday weekend. Their community’s only Catholic School, which they had rallying to save, will be able to remain open next school year.

Since they learned in early March that the Diocese of St. Petersburg was thinking about closing Pope John Paul II Catholic School, parents, pastors and alumni had been working with the school’s administration to raise money, recruit more students and come up with a longer-term plan to keep the school viable.

photo 2They met Monday with advisers to Bishop Robert Lynch to discuss their five-year plan to grow enrollment at the school and make it financially sustainable.

“We were very impressed with their work, and the bishop agreed with their proposal and wrote them a letter letting them go forward,” said Frank Murphy, a spokesman for the diocese.

The diocese was concerned about stagnating enrollment at the school, located in Lecanto, about 80 miles north of Tampa in the northern reaches of its territory.

Faced with the impending closure, parents and pastors in the surrounding area spent the past two months working overtime to promote the school’s pre-kindergarten program and scholarships that can help low-income parents afford tuition. Dozens of families came to the school.

“We have never had so many families come through and tour our facility,” said Jennifer Petrella, a parent of kindergarten and fourth grade students who also helps lead the school’s marketing efforts.

Continue Reading →

Why school choice? Because ‘different children have different needs’

Editor’s note: This op-ed by Steve Knellinger, a longtime former public school educator and now private school administrator, ran this week in the Tampa Bay Times. Here’s a snippet:

diversity in applesMore than 30 years ago, parents in Pinellas County showed up at meetings to protest a new school choice program. Schools said they couldn’t compete with it. Critics raised fears of cherry-picking the academically and athletically talented students. But in the end, the program got a green light. Now it’s such a vital piece of the school system, parents would fight to keep it.

The fight back then was over the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, the first IB in Florida. It became a bona fide star in the Pinellas school system and helped usher school choice into the district. I bring it up now because of the school choice concerns with Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

Lawmakers want to modestly expand the program, which now serves about 60,000 low-income children in 1,425 private schools across the state. The teachers’ unions, the PTA, and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board object. I know there is some controversy, and I know there are some issues like testing where people can respectfully disagree. But I also know the program works for most of the struggling children who choose it, and, like IB and so many other choice schools, is an asset to public education.

I know because I’ve been an educator for 44 years, 39 of those years in public schools. I know because I witnessed that IB controversy. And I know because I am now the lead administrator at St. Petersburg Christian School, where some of our 450 students in grades K-8 are on scholarship. They represent less than 20 percent of our school population but are involved in 100 percent of the academic and athletic curriculum.

Like the IB program, the tax credit scholarship program is needed because of something we all know: Different children have different needs. We’re now comfortable with the IB program at St. Petersburg High because we’ve accepted the fact that high-performing students need more options to reach their full potential. It’s only a matter of time before we fully realize the same is true for the students who struggle. In fact, in all probability, they’re the ones who need the most options. Read full op-ed here.