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.

Continue Reading →

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 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 →

Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Unions unite for school choice, public school choice gains ground in FL

MrGibbonsReportCardNew York Unions

Unions uniting for school choice? You might think you woke up in an alternate dimension but no, this news comes from New York.

Earlier this week, leaders from several unions, including the New York City police and fire unions, called for the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass a school choice program which will help fund $150 million worth of private education for students of need.

The proposed bill isn’t devoted exclusively to private school choice, and perhaps that sweetened the pot.  It will allow tax credits to be issued for teacher reimbursements; classroom projects; art, music and sports instruction; as well as scholarships for private schools. Half of the $300 million in available credits will be reserved for public schools, leaving $150 million for private school scholarships.

The teacher unions still oppose school choice, and the bill. But this represents a monumental shift in thinking among union members on education policy.

Grade: Satisfactory


Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools

Nikolai Vitti wants to win students back to Duval County public schools. His plan would allow parents open enrollment access to any public school in the district. According to the Florida Times-Union, this would be the “first blanket, open enrollment policy of its kind” of any major urban district in Florida.

Vitti told the newspaper: “For me the conversation begins with empowering parents. I believe the parents are best situated to make the right decisions for their child. They’re likely to invest more in their child’s education and to own the process more if they have a choice.”

That all sounds good to me, but we will still need to read the fine print when it emerges later. How long will the open enrollment window last? How long before transportation is provided to choice schools? Will parents get to change their mind during the middle of the school year? District open enrollment policies are often fairly limited. At the same time, more choice is better than no choice.

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →

Florida Roundup: School choice, tax credit scholarships, Common Core and more

Public-school choice. A plan to create public-school choice throughout Duval County divides the school board, the Florida Times-Union reports. Some board members warn of “unintended consequences.” WJXT. More from First Coast News and WJCT.

florida-roundup-logoTax credit scholarships. The St. Augustine Record editorial board comes out against legislation that would expand the program.

School choice. A Sun-Sentinel op-ed tees off on the a range of choice options, arguing they run counter to the state constitutional provision requiring a “uniform” education system,.while a separate guest column argues choice programs open opportunities to minority students, and opposition is being fueled by unions.

Magnet schools. A student in the jazz band at an Osceola County arts magnet program advanced to a national competition. Orlando Sentinel.

Common Core. Gov. Rick Scott stands by the standards as opponents see a lack of action in the Legislature. Miami Herald. 

Textbooks. Bill to put adoption decisions totally in district hands appears to be getting support in both chambers of the Legislature. Gradebook. Palm Beach County officials oppose it. Extra Credit.

Funding. The state’s revenue picture got even better this week, and the Florida House wants to increase spending on public schools. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Current.

School boards. The Hernando school board approves a re-organization plan. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher pay. A mediator’s decision could pave the way for raises in Orange County. Orlando Sentinel.

Poverty. Blessings in a Backpack helps fight hunger among students in Seminole County. Sentinel.

Florida gets better marks for digital learning

A digital learning advocacy group says Florida is one of 22 states that improved their policies over the past year.

Digital Learning mapFlorida ranks second out of 50 states in Digital Learning Now’s latest annual report card, trailing only Utah. That’s where it stood last year, too, but several pieces of legislation passed in 2013 helped the state raise its score from a B-plus to an A-minus.

Overall, states passed 132 new digital-learning laws last year, according to the report. Florida accounted for seven of them.

They included SB 1514, a controversial overhaul of the funding formula for virtual courses that could eventually allow more online-course providers to receive state funding, and HB 7029, which among other things requires the Department of Education to create an online course catalog and lays the groundwork for more “course choice.”

“In Florida, we are trying to expand access for students, while helping to demystify digital learning for the public so that they are more comfortable with these new models of learning,” Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is quoted as saying in the report.

The digital-learning group is backed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is led by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

While Florida’s polices get good marks in most areas, its score suffers in the categories that measure access to Internet-connected devices for teachers and students, and the availability of high-speed broadband connections for schools.

Some lawmakers say they plan to address those issues this session by requiring school districts to draft long-term technology plans and setting aside more funding for technology needs.

School choice, accountability & the problem with sameness

penaltyAccountability in education has been a contentious issue for decades. Unfortunately, the word accountability is too often used to mean “sameness” rather than “to be held responsible for results.” The misuse of the term complicates school choice debates as both choice supporters and critics tend to forget the political and historical context surrounding education “accountability.”

Take Wisconsin’s voucher program. Republican lawmakers proposed an “accountability” bill in late 2013 that would have required private schools accepting voucher students to a) use the same state standards b) use the same state test to measure student achievement c) be graded on performance in the same manner as public schools and d) face sanctions for low-performance.

Democrats and the teacher union in Wisconsin wanted even more “accountability,” arguing the need for state certified teachers in participating private schools as well.

Only “sanctions for low-performance” meet the definition of “accountability.” Sanctions, such as closing or restructuring schools, are a means of holding schools responsible for results. The rest are either inputs – believed by some to be necessary for desired results – or are a means of measuring results.

How, for example, does requiring all private school teachers to be state certified hold schools responsible for results? A state certified teacher is an input, not a result. This is clearly an example of someone using the word “accountability” to mean “sameness,” not “holding responsible for results.”

The misuse of the term appears to be rooted in a belief that it might be unfair, or even hypocritical, to operate school choice programs without subjecting private schools to the same rules as traditional district schools. A little history is in order. Continue Reading →