Educators: Parental choice isn’t public vs. private

same teamAnybody watching the scrum over the tax credit scholarship bill in Florida has been treated to quite the display of dueling op-eds.

Educators (like here and here) have been among those weighing in against the bill and/or the scholarship program, which is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. But it’s noteworthy, given prevailing narratives, that a number of educators have been on the pro-parental choice side, too.

Their views and backgrounds are diverse (see here), so pigeonhole at your peril. But several respectfully stressed that support for expanding  school choice does not pit public vs. private.

Wrote Stacy Angier, principal of Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, in the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

“Our scholarship parents tell us, all the time, that their children are doing better, that their children love school now. I don’t bring this up as a knock on their former schools. It doesn’t mean our school is better; it means we’re different – and for individual students, different may be better.”

Wrote Steve Knellinger, lead administrator at St. Petersburg Christian School, in the Tampa Bay Times:

“We view public schools in Pinellas County as partners, not adversaries. We believe we are helping them, and they are helping us. If students want to attend a traditional neighborhood public school, or a fundamental school, or a magnet school, because that’s where they’re most likely to find success, why not? At the same time, if students who are not successful in public schools can find success at a private school like ours, why not?”

Wrote Nadia Hionides, principal of The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, in Context Florida:

“I know that the more choices we offer, the more opportunities there are for children to succeed. Only in the diversity that is offered by all of these choices, public and private, can we possibly meet the endlessly diverse needs of all our children.”

Several of the op-eds also have this thread in common: Respect for parents’ ability to know what is best for their kids. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, facilities, tax credit scholarships and more

Charter schools. A Miami charter school is under new management and getting a new landlord. Miami Herald. Pasco families fight to keep open a school for children with autism. Tampa Bay Times.

florida-roundup-logoTax credit scholarships. Don’t blame poor science instruction on choice, Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute writes. Tallahassee Democrat. An Orlando Weekly article rails against the program. The debate over its effect on ESOL students continues.

Facilities. Polk County schools officials claim they lose out in the latest deal over capital projects. Lakeland Ledger. Leon County schools officials are accused of steering no-bid contracts to political supporters. Tallahassee Democrat.

School grades. Accountability transition legislation is poised to pass the House. News Service of Florida.

Special needs. The death of a special needs student casts a long shadow over Hillsborough County schools. Tampa Tribune.

Teacher conduct. A Pinellas teacher will retire after facing allegations of inappropriate conduct with female students. Tampa Tribune.

At-risk students. Pinellas schools give out college scholarships. Tampa Tribune.

When Catholic schools become charter schools

When it comes to urban private schools competing against free public charter schools the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” rings true. Charter schools have considerably more freedom than traditional public schools and this allows them to offer a private-school-style education without the private-school-education price tag. Since it is very hard to compete against a “free” education, many urban private schools, especially Catholic schools, have closed, consolidated or converted to charter schools.

A new report, “Switchers: Why Catholic Schools Convert to Charters and What Happens Next,” by education researchers Michael Q. McShane and Andrew P. Kelly, examines the how, what and why of Catholic school conversion to charters.

It is worth noting that the Catholic dioceses interviewed by the researchers oppose use of the terms “switchers” and “converting.” Catholic leaders maintain the religious mission is fundamental to a Catholic school education and since this aspect is lacking in the charter school curriculum, the new schools are completely different entities even if they rent the same building, employ the same teachers and enroll the same students.

The report examines several Catholic private schools in Indianapolis, Miami and Washington D.C. In all instances, the schools suffered severe enrollment drops in the years leading up to closure and conversion.

Figure 4On average, Catholic schools lost 7.3 students per year with an average enrollment of just 153 students in the school’s final year of operation. Upon closing and converting the space to a charter school, the schools saw an enrollment growth of 34.4 students per year.

These new charter schools also saw a significant increase in minority students. Minority enrollment climbed from 79 percent during the Catholic schools’ final year to 93 percent within two years of re-opening as a charter school. Continue Reading →

Virtual school, charter school funding set in Florida budget deal

Florida’s virtual schools could see a slight funding boost, while charter schools would receive less money for facilities than they did last year, under budget agreements reached by state lawmakers.

House and Senate negotiators met until about midnight on Monday, reaching agreement on budget fine print and their last remaining spending items, including a total of $75 million in capital funding for charter schools and a larger amount for school districts.

Budget negotiators had previously agreed not to overhaul the state’s funding for virtual education programs as proposed by the Senate. Instead, their agreement includes a slight increase in the funding supplement for virtual schools, known as the virtual education contribution.

Florida Virtual School is the largest recipient of funds from the virtual education contribution. The money also supports virtual charter schools and virtual education programs run by school districts, and  is intended to bring virtual programs’ funding to the equivalent of $5,200 per full-time student. The new state budget would lift that amount slightly next year, to $5,230.

Star Kraschinsky, FLVS’ director for external affairs, said the slight increase in the virtual education contribution is based on the bonus funding that brick-and-mortar schools receive for students who earn industry certifications and college credits, which virtual schools don’t currently receive.

She said the increase could provide Florida Virtual School with an estimated $1 million in additional revenue, which she said it plans to invest in developing more career-education courses, which legislative leaders like Senate President Don Gaetz have pushed to expand.

That would be an increase of less than 1 percent, but in a year that follows funding changes that cost FLVS tens of millions of dollars, Kraschinsky said the outcome of this year’s budget talks was “very positive” for the award-winning program.

On Monday, budget negotiators also agreed to provide charter schools with $75 million for capital expenditures like leases, construction costs and technology, a reduction of nearly $15 million from what they received last year. They also earmarked $4.8 million for university lab schools, which have also received funding through the charter school capital outlay.

School districts, meanwhile, would receive more than $110 million in state capital funding, the first substantial sum they’ve received in four years. More than half of that total is earmarked for specific construction projects in a handful of rural school districts. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Budgets, graduation rates, school safety and more

Budgets. Lawmakers agree on a spending plan that would boost state construction funding for school districts. Times/Herald. RedefinED.

Graduation rates. Florida’s graduation rate trails the national average. StateImpactAssociated Press. Sentinel School Zone.

florida-roundup-logoSchool safety. The Florida House approves a controversial gun bill. Miami Herald. News Service of Florida. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Scripps/Tribune.

Teacher conduct. Parents receive notice about a teacher arrested on molestation charges. Gainesville Sun. A Pinellas teachers union official is barred from the classroom due to alleged “gross immorality.” Tampa Bay Times.

Textbooks. The House and Senate remain divided over legislation reducing the state’s role in textbook adoption. Tampa Tribune. Associated Press.

Teacher quality. StateImpact looks at Duval County’s efforts to attract teachers to the schools with the greatest needs.

Career and technical education. A Palm Beach County shop class prepares to reopen after an accident. Palm Beach Post.

School choice mom: “Why must this be controversial?”

Faith Manuel

Faith Manuel

Editor’s note: There’s no doubt school choice parents made their voices heard during this year’s debate over tax credit scholarships in the Florida Legislature. They packed committee meetings, responded to misleading news stories and even took on the PTA. Several also penned op-eds for major newspapers in Florida. The latest may be the most powerful.

It’s written by Faith Manuel in response to an off-the-mark news story in the Daytona Beach News Journal. Ms. Manuel notes her son, a former scholarship student, is now studying to be a teacher at Florida State College in Jacksonville, so he can “return the blessing of his education to the state of Florida.” Then she asks some of those obvious questions that somehow get lost in the coverage:

I wouldn’t use the word “poor” to describe our family. The fact that my children have been able to benefit from the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program is a blessing. We are not “poor;” we’re thankful.

My oldest son is currently on the President’s List at Florida State College in Jacksonville. He’s majoring in education and wishes to return the blessing of his education to the state of Florida as an educator.

For me, a single mom, the scholarship is not a political statement. It’s not a criticism of Volusia County public schools, where my other son is doing quite well. It has nothing to do with public vs. private.

The scholarship just gives me another school option, and it worked big-time for Davion, my college student who was born when I was 15. It is putting my middle-school daughter on the same path.

So, as a parent who read The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s front-page story April 20 about this program, I was left to wonder: Why must this be controversial? When an attorney for the Florida Education Association calls the Tax Credit Scholarship “a money-laundering scheme” and questions whether the program should exist at all, it leads me to wonder if his real motivation is education at all. Why would anyone attack and demean a program that has been so beneficial to so many families? To me, it’s not so much about if students are educated via private or public education. What’s most important is that they are being educated. They are being trained and groomed, and in the case of my children (and the many other children we’ve encountered these past seven years), they are becoming great citizens who give back to this community.

Read the full op-ed here.

How Florida’s budget talks could affect charter school funding trends

Florida House and Senate budget negotiators meet today to reconcile their competing spending plans. Like in previous years, one of the last issues to be resolved is how to divvy up the funding for construction at schools, colleges and universities.

One question to keep an eye on as they try to reach a deal before Tuesday’s deadline: Will charter schools’ funding for buildings and construction keep pace with their growth?

From 2006-07 through 2012-13, charter schools typically received about $55 million each year in capital outlay funds (in some years they received a little more; in some years slightly less). But more than 200 new charter schools opened during those years. While not every charter school receives capital outlay funding, that growth meant a larger number of charter schools split roughly the same amount of money for their facilities.

That changed last legislative session when lawmakers allowed the pie to grow again. They set aside more than $90 million in capital outlay funding for charter schools. The total funding amount was unprecedented, but because there were hundreds more charter schools receiving capital outlay funds, it brought the average per school to just above 2009-10 levels.

Not all charter schools receive state capital outlay funding. The most recent state budget increase brought an increase to the average amount schools that do receive state capital dollars are getting.

Not all charter schools receive state capital outlay funding, which is based on the number of students. This graph shows the change in the average amount that went to  charter schools receiving sate capital outlay funding during the last five state fiscal years. Source: Charter School Capital Outlay.

This fall, charter school enrollment grew to nearly 230,000. That means the amount of capital funding per student is expected to remain lower for charter schools than what districts receive from one of their revenue sources – a tax of up to $1.50 for every $1,000 in local property values.

If recent trends continue, and charter schools grow by another 10 percent or more, the House’s original $100 million capital plan for charter schools would come close to keeping pace, while the Senate’s $50 million plan would set them back. For the first time in four years, both plans set aside a substantial chunk of state capital outlay funding for school districts, though that’s not likely to resolve tensions over how capital funding gets divided.

Expanding parental school choice can help English language learners

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed Sunday on VOXXI, in response to an op-ed by Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg. Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and a member of the board of directors for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Julio Fuentes

Julio Fuentes

In Florida schools, there is no doubt that English language learners, many of them Spanish speakers, are the most vulnerable and most struggling of our students.

To offer but one sad fact, only 11 percent of ELL (English Language Learners) students last year passed the 10th grade FCAT in reading, the test they must pass in order to graduate from high school. Let me repeat that so the gravity of the number sinks in: 11 percent. That’s compared to 54 percent of students overall, 41 percent of low-income students and 21 percent of students with disabilities. To be sure, standardized test scores should often be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s clear they wave a bigger red flag with ELL students than with any other group. And there is no doubt we must move with greater urgency to do all we can to ensure a brighter future for those students.

Given that backdrop, I must respond to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg’s April 24 op-ed, “Students learning ESOL with vouchers might be getting shortchanged.” I have the utmost regard for Dr. Feinberg. I appreciate the expertise she brings to the subject of ELL and ESOL students. And I do think there are some issues involving those students and tax credit scholarships (aka “vouchers”) that are worthy of fair-minded debate. But in this case, I must respectfully say that Dr. Feinberg’s concerns are misplaced, and that she is unfairly tarnishing a tool that can help ELL students.

At the end of the day, what tax credit scholarships do is simply give parents more options. Why in the world would we limit options for students who need help wherever they can get it? Dr. Feinberg listed a slew of things that public schools are required to provide ELL students, including extra funding and extra training for teachers. Many of those policies are well-intentioned and helpful. But the statistics show they’re not helpful enough.

This year, 35 percent of the nearly 60,000 low-income students using tax credit scholarships are Hispanic. Many were not satisfied with public schools, and so they used the scholarships to find something that works better for their children. If the ELL families among them felt their needs were being met in public schools, they wouldn’t have left. There are endless reasons for their frustration, but I have no doubt that the cultural barriers they sometimes face in public schools are among them.

Sometimes Spanish-speaking parents can’t communicate well with the staffs at public schools. At some public schools, there is no one who can help the family because no one at the school speaks their language. I don’t mean this as a knock on public schools, which are too often burdened with the impossible task of being all things to all children. But it’s a fact. It’s also a fact that many private schools serving Spanish students go to great lengths to ensure that even their written communications are in Spanish. I wish I could say the same about public schools, but unfortunately I know more than a few examples where that is not the case.

Perhaps unintentionally, Dr. Feinberg made a case for school choice and parental empowerment in her own op-ed. She suggested to parents, “Visit the school’s ESOL or bilingual classes. Do you think the children are learning English? If the school doesn’t offer these classes, think twice about changing schools.”

We couldn’t agree more. But it’s not in the best interest of ELL students for the parents to limit their visits to public schools. Why not explore all options? Continue Reading →