Florida Senate advances school choice accounts for special-needs students

The push to create individual accounts for students with disabilities picked up bipartisan support in its first Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Sen. Stargel

Sen. Stargel

But the bill to create “personalized accounts for learning” that parents could use to pay for tutoring and therapy for their children also attracted opposition from groups like the Florida PTA and the statewide teachers union.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the proposal would be confined to “a very small population of our students” with conditions like spina bifida and cerebral palsy, which would qualify them for a high level of accommodations in the public school system.

“It’s just very difficult for our system to meet all their needs,” she said during the Senate Education Committee hearing. “This gives them another option for their parents to decide the best approach to get their child the best education.”

Several public school teachers spoke against the bill. Joy Jackson, a teacher at Robert Renick Educational Center in Miami-Dade County, said the program could compete for scarce resources with the accommodations made by school districts.

“This is currently a very small population, but if history with these programs has shown us anything, it is that as soon as these programs are made available, they become quite large, quite fast,” said Lynda Russell of the Florida Education Association.

The bill received support in previous hearings from parents who educate their special-needs children at home. They were joined Tuesday by Elias Seife, a Miami-Dade parent who said his daughter has received “excellent support” in the public school system.
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Florida selects contractor for new tests tied to Common Core

From the News Service of Florida:

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said Monday she has selected the non-profit group American Institutes for Research to design the state’s new tests for public schools, the final step in an effort to tamp down grassroots anger over learning standards.

The $220 million contract with AIR will run for six years and will be cheaper than it would have been to go forward with a test developed by a multi-state consortium that Gov. Rick Scott ordered Stewart to back away from last year, according to the Department of Education.

“I feel very confident that it is the best choice for Florida students,” Stewart said in a conference call with reporters.

Scott’s decision last year to distance the state from the consortium — the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC — was part of an executive order meant to assuage largely conservative activists worried about the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core standards, adopted by about four dozen states, were tweaked by the State Board of Education last month. Officials have begun referring to the revised version as the “Florida Standards.”

But AIR and another company that will work with it on the Florida tests, Data Recognition Corporation, have also helped to develop the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Like PARCC, that test is being put together by a multi-state consortium that hopes to use it to measure student learning under Common Core.

Stewart said the two systems would be separate.

“This is a platform and assessment for Florida,” she said. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, testing, teachers unions and more

Charter schools. More could be closing in Broward. South Florida Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald.

florida-roundup-logoTax credit scholarships. Did top Step Up For Students officials need to register as lobbyists? Times/Herald. (Step Up co-hosts this blog.)

Testing. Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart picks AIR to develop the new wave of tests tied to Common Core. News Service of Florida. StateImpact Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Associated Press. EdWeek. WFSU. Naples Daily News.

STEM. Manatee County schools focus on growing its science and math programs. Bradenton Herald.

Teacher unions. Allegations of inappropriate behavior with students dogs some candidates for union president in Pinellas. Tampa Bay Times.

Bullying. Polk Sheriff Grady Judd says parents need to be a bigger deterrent. The Ledger.

Budgets. Brevard parents hope to stave off school closures as money gets tight at the school district. Florida Today.

Textbooks. Lawmakers advance a bill that would remove the state from the textbook adoption process advances. Orlando Sentinel.

Rep. Diaz: I oppose testing mandate for FL school choice scholarships

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

A key player in legislation to expand school choice scholarships in Florida said Monday he will fight to keep scholarship students from having to take the same standardized tests as their public school counterparts.

The comments from state Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, are squarely at odds with calls for a same-test mandate by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and suggest positions may be hardening over a critical potential piece of the legislation.

“I do want to see any mandates to require the state test,” Diaz, who is shepherding the bill for House Speaker Will Weatherford, said during a live chat with redefinED.

“I plan to fight to keep away from any mandate of state testing that would stymy innovation at these schools,” he continued. “Since there is no current new state test in Florida this would be a mistake. I believe that as we work this (through) the process we will find a solution that will show this program has accountability without placing it in a one-size-fits-all box.”

Diaz’s comments came on the eve of the bill’s hearing Tuesday in the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee. So far, no testing language has surfaced with the House bill or its Senate counterpart, but Gaetz has indicated that additional testing requirements are a priority. Currently, tax credit scholarship students are required to take state-approved, norm-referenced tests in reading and math, but not the same tests taken by public school students.

Also during the chat, Diaz said he believed the bill will still earn some bipartisan support, as similar legislation has in recent years. No Democrats voted in favor of the bill during its first stop two weeks ago in the House Finance & Taxation Subcommittee. Continue Reading →

How close are Florida school districts to their digital learning goals?

Four years from now, Florida school districts will be expected to have a computer or tablet for every student in their classrooms, allowing digital devices to replace many of their paper worksheets and cardboard-bound textbooks.

Will they be ready?

Photo via Michael Coghlan, Flikr

The state Board of Education on Tuesday is set to hear a report on districts’ progress toward the state’s digital learning goals.

The districts reported in surveys taken last semester that 70 percent of their classrooms meet the state’s wireless specifications, and they offer students more than 918,000 desktop computers, tablets and laptops  that meet the state’s specifications. That’s more than one device for every three students enrolled in Florida public schools.

But a closer look at the survey results shows wide variation from one school district to another, and sometimes between schools in the same district. Ten districts reported student-to-computer ratios below 2-to-1, outpacing the goals laid out in the Florida Department of Education’s strategic plan. At the same time, half a dozen reported student-to-computer ratios higher than 5-to-1. (The ratios do not include computers that fall short of the specifications set by the state. See the full surveys here, and a compilation of self-reported student-to-computer ratios here).

State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the survey data has limitations. He likened the surveys to someone placing their hand in a pool of water to test whether it was hot or cold. They help officials take the “temperature” of school districts around the state. But the data on the number of devices or the strength of their broadband connections may be imprecise because it is self-reported. It also might not tell the whole story about whether school districts are prepared to make the shift to digital instruction.

“You can have devices and no infrastructure,” Legg said. “You can have devices and infrastructure, but no professional development, and no content.”

He is sponsoring legislation intended to give officials a clearer picture. SB 790 would earmark about $100 million for technology funding. But the state board would have to approve a detailed technology plan that ties the growth of digital learning to improving student achievement. Before they receive the money, school districts would have to submit a plan to the state explaining their plans for training teachers and improving student results.

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Florida roundup: Tax-credit scholarships, charter schools, Common Core and more

Tax-credit scholarships. Some fear Step Up For Students could become a “taxpayer-financed monopoly” as the cap on tax-credit contributions increases, bringing in more money under the 3 percent administrative allowance used to run the program. Palm Beach Post.  Jason Bedrick of CATO responds to a Miami Herald editorial that opposed legislation expanding the program. The legislation has prompted a back-and-forth between state Rep. Ritch Workman and his local school board. Florida Today.The Heartland Institute writes up the bill, while Watchdog.org looks at the testing question. (Step Up administers the program and co-hosts this blog.)

florida-roundup-logoOpen enrollment. Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s plan to have district-wide open enrollment would create more choices, but the most revered schools are already over-booked. Florida Times Union.

Charter schools. A collaboration between a charter school and a private college blurs lines between K-12 and higher education, and raises questions among Miami-Dade school district officials, the Miami Herald reports. Orange County school district officials want to take one charter school’s application appeal before a judge, but construction has already begun. Orlando Sentinel. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, questions state funding intended to help SEED open one of its boarding schools in Miami-Dade. WFSU.

Common Core. A new Achieve survey probes public opinion on the standards. Sentinel School Zone flags one major finding: Most people still say they know little about them. The standards have become an issue in a Republican congressional primary involving state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

School choice. A raft of legislation, from charter schools to education savings accounts, is proving controversial this legislative session. Miami Herald.

Career Academies. Senate President Don Gaetz touts efforts to expand them in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed.

Turnaround schools. Efforts get a mixed reception among Pinellas County parents. Tampa Bay Times.

Virtual schools. Florida Virtual School puts on a demonstration at the Capitol. WCTV.

Teacher evals. Answer Sheet picks up a post from a Hillsborough media specialist who takes aim at VAM.

Rick Scott. The governor the Republican-led Legislature has continued to “gut” public education by promoting charter schools and vouchers, says South Florida Sun Sentinel columnist Stephen Goldstein.

Student discipline. Santa Rosa County Schools plan to eliminate corporal punishment. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Substitute teachers. New laws and tight budgets are prompting some school districts to change how they manage a crucial part of their workforce, and in some cases outsourcing it. Tampa Bay Times.

Special needs. Hillsborough officials prepare to settle a case in the wake of a child’s death. Times.

redefinED roundup: de Blasio sparks debate on charter schools, focus shifts to FL tax credit scholarships & more

MondayRoundUp_magentaAlabama: A bill advances to increase the individual tax credit for donations to private scholarship organizations (Montgomery Advertiser).

Alaska: Vic Fischer, a former delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, opposes any amendment that would allow public funds for private and religious schools (Alaska Dispatch). A bill to allow the public to vote on such an amendment is pulled from the Senate (Alaska Dispatch).

Arizona: A plan to expand Education Scholarship Accounts advances in the legislature (Arizona Republic, Fox News). A special needs parent says public schools work great for her child and she worries that giving options to parents who aren’t satisfied will make her child’s education worse (Arizona Daily Star).

California: The court rules against Rocketship Education, arguing the Santa Clara County School Board cannot override local zoning ordinances to place charter schools (San Jose Mercury News). The CEO of the California Charter School Association says completion rates for college preparatory coursework is twice as high in Oakland-area charter schools than in local district schools (Contra Costa Times). A CREDO report reveals LA area charter schools outperform traditional district schools (KPCC 89.3).

Colorado: School choice critics in Jefferson County might want to tone down their rhetoric, according to columnist Vincent Carroll (Denver Post).

D.C.: Eight education groups apply to open new charter schools (Washington Post).

Florida: The Tampa Tribune editorial board argues in favor of expanding tax credit scholarships. The Miami Herald editorial board says tax credit scholarships drain public school funding. Columnist Frank Cerabino says tax credit scholarships don’t help the poor (Palm Beach Post). The Ocala Star Banner editorial board says the state should increase funding to public schools before funding private scholarships. Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, says tax-credit scholarships help poor students and are functionally no different to a neighborhood school’s budget than a magnet or IB school (Palm Beach Post). Watchdog writes up the proposed expansion bill. The Jewish Leadership Coalition lobbies for tax credit scholarships for Jewish Day Schools (Jewish Journal). Nan Rich, a Democrat candidate for governor, blasts current Gov. Rick Scott and primary challenger Charlie Christ over their support for school choice (Sunshine State News). The state Senate advances a bill that would encourage military bases to explore charter schools (redefinEDTampa Bay Times). Duval County School District may soon allow open enrollment for all public schools in the district (Florida Times-Union, First Coast News, Florida Times Union). Florida Virtual School holds a demonstration at the state Capitol (WCTV). A charter school in Miami-Dade opens a junior college on the campus (Miami Herald). The League of Women Voters draws criticism for opposing school choice and other issues (Tampa Tribune). Tax Credit Scholarships, ESAs and charter schools are among the bills being considered by the state legislature (Miami Herald). The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship cap may  triple in size over the next five years and if it does, so will the state allowances to scholarship granting organizations (Palm Beach Post).

Idaho: The House passes a tax credit scholarship bill (The Friedman Foundation). Continue Reading →

School choice scholarships don’t hurt public education

Editor’s note: This op-ed by Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill was written in response to a March 10 column by Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino. The Post published it online last night.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

Sixty-thousand of Florida’s poorest schoolchildren chose a private school this year with the help of a scholarship, and this 12-year-old program strengthens public education by expanding opportunity.

The program, called the Tax Credit Scholarship, is one learning option for low-income students who face the toughest obstacles, and is part of an expanding universe of educational choices that last year served 1.5 million — or 42 of every 100 — Florida students in PreK-12. Those who suggest scholarships for low-income children harm public education are wrong. These scholarships and the opportunities they provide strengthen public education.

The state’s covenant is to children, not institutions, and these low-income students are being given options their families could not otherwise afford. That their chosen schools are not run by school districts makes them no different than charter schools or McKay Scholarship schools or university lab schools or online courses or dual college enrollment. That the state supports these scholarships is no different than the state paying for these same students to attend a district school. These scholarships are publicly funded, publicly regulated, public education.

Why, then, would a Palm Beach Post columnist suggest that scholarships for low-income children come “at the expense of public education”?

Independent groups and state agencies have repeatedly concluded that these scholarships, worth $4,880 this year, actually save the state money. The most recent projection came from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, which placed the savings last year at $57.9 million. While it is regrettably true that district, charter and virtual schools have suffered financial cutbacks in recent years, they were not caused by these scholarships. In fact, this scholarship program was impacted by those same cuts.

The bill the Legislature is considering this year helps reduce the waiting list for this scholarship, so it is important to know who it serves. On average, the scholarship students live only 9 percent above poverty, more than two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and more than half come from single-parent homes. State research also shows they were also the lowest performers in the public schools they left behind.

These students are required to take a nationally norm-referenced test yearly, and the encouraging news is that they have been achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. Continue Reading →