FL Senate proposes new path on school choice accounts for disabled students

The Florida Senate has proposed taking a new path on legislation that would create individual accounts for special-needs students.

Under a rewrite approved this morning by the Education Appropriations panel, the legislation would create “enhancements” of the existing services for children with disabilities.

Earlier versions of the bill would have created education savings accounts based on the state’s core per-pupil education funding. The new proposal would create a Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, overseen by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and paid for by $18.4 million in separate funding.

The program would be open to students with conditions like autism and cerebral palsy who participate in home-education programs, or attend public or private schools.

Like the original proposal, it would give their parents a way to pay for additional instructional materials, private school tuition, or certain kinds of therapy. They could also use the money to save for college or pay for services provided by school districts.

“To me it’s very simple. It’s about more money to kids who need it the most,” said Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, who noted some of the bill’s initial opponents were concerned about funding the accounts in the state’s education budget. “This is additional money for additional services for all kids.”

“What it begins to recognize is that our public schools cannot be health-care providers for everyone,” he added.

Advocates for students with disabilities, including Robyn Rennick of the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, spoke in favor of the bill. Representatives for the statewide teachers union, which opposed the original legislation, withdrew their opposition after the changes were approved. Continue Reading →

More nuance on testing for school choice students

The debate over whether and how to test students in private school choice programs has been swirling through school choice circles for years, and it’s no idle debate. The prospects for Florida’s tax credit scholarship legislation, in fact, may hinge on how lawmakers decide to resolve the issue.

So it’s worth noting a couple of coincidental developments on this front – even if, in the end, they don’t impact the Florida debate.

First: A slight shift in position at the Fordham Institute, which promotes both school choice and common academic standards. In recent policy papers and on this blog, Fordham has made the case for requiring students in school voucher and tax credit scholarship programs to take the same statewide, standardized tests as their public school counterparts.

This morning, however, Fordham leaders Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli wrote in the National Review that they’re willing to compromise with school choice advocates who bristle at the same-test requirement. The re-calibration comes as Florida and most other state prepare to test their students for the first time on the Common Core State Standards. Write Finn and Petrilli:

But now that most states are transitioning to the Common Core, the state test will soon be some sort of Common Core test. And that has freaked out some choice supporters, some private-school teachers, and some charter-school teachers, too. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, Common Core, prayer and more

Charter schools. Florida State College at Jacksonville prepares to close its charter school. Florida Times-Union. The Duval County School Board green lights a separate charter proposal. Times-Union. The school district in Pinellas County considers taking over a charter school for at-risk students. Tampa Bay Times. A second Pinellas charter school is set to close in June. Tampa Tribune. A municipal charter in Miami-Dade gets a new director. Miami Herald. A Sunshine State News columnist chides liberals for their stances on charter schools.

florida-roundup-logoCommon Core. While Florida is largely sticking with the standards, the political backlash against them is prompting some legislative changes. Associated Press. One example: A textbook bill that cleared a House panel Tuesday. Extra credit. That’s not enough for opponents of the standards, who are calling “mayday” to their allies nationally. Sentinel School Zone.

Prayer. A family says their 5-year-old daughter was told not to pray in her Seminole County school. Orlando Sentinel. The incident stirs controversy. WKMGGradebook.

Dual enrollment. The Lee County School Board reaches a deal with local colleges to cover the costs. Fort Myers News-Press.

Student safety. The Hillsborough County School Board approves a settlement in the wake of a girl’s death. Tampa TribuneTampa Bay Times.

Employees. The Pasco school board overturns an employees suspension. Tampa TribuneGradebook. A Vietnamese former employee alleges racial discrimination in a lawsuit against the Palm Beach County school district. Extra Credit.

Administration. The Walton school board prepares to appoint a new superintendent. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Teachers. Volusia County schools have more than 600 first-year teachers. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Transportation. The Hernando school board considers a “hub” model. Gradebook.


House, Senate advance digital learning bills but differences remain

Key lawmakers have raised questions about the quality of information they have at their disposal on the progress Florida school districts are making toward the state’s digital learning goals.

The situation could soon improve under digital learning proposals that have advanced quickly and with little controversy in both the House and Senate.

Both chambers have proposed bills that would require school districts and state officials to outline clearer plans to use technology in their classrooms, as well as budget proposals that would earmark funding for schools’ technology needs.

The lower chamber’s digital learning bill passed the Education Appropriations panel unanimously this morning, which means both measures are ready for votes on the floor. The competing spending plans, meanwhile, will be debated later this week.

Both the House and Senate have produced proposals that would:

  • Require the state Department of Education to draw up a five-year statewide school technology plan
  • Require school districts to come up with annual technology plans that tie their digital learning initiatives to improving student performance, and report on their technology spending
  • Create a new category of state education funding earmarked for technology
  • Ensure that smaller rural districts district receive at least $250,000 in state technology funding

Some differences remain between the two chamber’s digital learning approaches, in terms of both policy and funding. Among them:

  • The Senate legislation would encourage school districts to offer more computer-science courses, and would allow students to use those courses to meet other graduation requirements.
  • The Senate plan would set an annual funding goal for lawmakers that would equal some $100 million under current spending levels; the House plan would not.
  • The House’s budget would set aside a total of $81.3 million for technology upgrades. The Senate’s would set aside $40 million.
  • A separate House education funding bill would require school districts to boost their bandwidth to one megabit per student by the 2017-18 school year.

The digital learning provisions that have attracted the most controversy are the portions of the Senate bill that would allow students to replace math, science and physical education credits with computer-science courses. Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, the bill’s sponsor, has offered some compromises, and said he does not want to pile additional graduation requirements onto students’ already-crowded schedules.

School choice parents to PTA: ‘Stop the attack on our children’

The Florida PTA encouraged its members to fight a bill that would strengthen and expand Florida's tax credit scholarship program, which serves low-income families.

The Florida PTA encouraged its members to fight a bill that would strengthen and expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which serves low-income families.

Last week, the Florida PTA sent an action alert to its members, pressing them to call lawmakers about the bill to expand tax credit scholarships for low-income students. The alert said, “Tell them to “STOP THE ATTACK ON OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS!”

Parents of children with tax credit scholarships fired back. One wrote, “Stop the attack on our children.”

Some sent messages to the PTA; some to the same lawmakers targeted by the PTA; some to both. (The scholarship parents were notified about the PTA missive and encouraged to respond by Step Up For Students, which administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.)

One of the ways we believe our blog can add value is by highlighting the voices of those central to the  school choice debate and yet too often not heard. To that end, we think the parent responses to the PTA are worth consideration. Here are excerpts:

Thank you!

Can I just take a minute to say that again?  THANK YOU!

For the past year, my third grade daughter has been able to attend a private school, with a student/teacher ratio of 1/17.  She LOVES her classes, and is excelling quickly–so far making straight A’s. There is no way my husband and I could afford to send her to private school without the help of the Step-Up-For-Students scholarship.  Unfortunately, I had to put her 7th grade brother into a public school system this year in order for him to be able to potentially qualify for the private school scholarship next year. Within the first two weeks of public school, he asked if I would personally provide his transportation rather than having to ride the bus.  His reason, “I am required to sit by these boys on the bus, and they are perverted.  They look at everything as perverted, and constantly make disgusting jokes.”  He also told me the other day, “I don’t think I have a single friend at school who doesn’t cuss, although a few of them are trying to stop.” Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Open enrollment, tax credit scholarships, charter schools and more

Open enrollment. Duval County’s plan for universal public school choice is now on hold indefinitely, the Florida Times-Union reports. More from WJCT. WJXT.

florida-roundup-logo Tax credit scholarships. The Florida PTA comes out against legislation expanding the tax credit scholarships program. Extra Credit. A Tampa Bay Times columnist rails against the program, seizing on the fact that students do not take the statewide standardized tests. More on the bill from Watchdog.Org.

Charter schools. Einstein Academies gain a foothold in South Florida. Sun-Sentinel. A Brevard charter school wins local recognition for its “green” practices. Florida Today. NBC Miami tackles facilities funding questions.

Common Core. Trouble finding quality textbooks aligned to the standards prompts Pasco schools to delay a round of textbook adoption decisions. Gradebook.

Textbooks. Scripps/Tribune writes up the bill that could soon remove the state from adoption decisions.

Transportation. Safety concerns and other complaints are mounting among Hillsborough bus drivers, and school board members are heating about it. Tampa TribuneTampa Bay Times. Officials look to make buses safer for disabled students. Tampa Tribune.

Student discipline. Advocates seek changes to zero-tolerance policies. Tampa Bay Times. The Senate advances the “pop-tart” zero-tolerance overhaul. WFSU.

Teacher conduct. Penalties for sexual misconduct could soon get steeper. Sun-Sentinel.

Athletic transfers. An internal investigation turns up no wrongdoing in Okaloosa County. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Politics. A Gainesville middle school teacher prepares to run against a controversial Congressman. Gainesville Sun.

Does more school choice ‘lift all ships’?

Can giving low-income families more access to private schools spur the growth of more school choice options in the public school system?

erik fresenThe question came up during the most recent debate over legislation that would accelerate the growth of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, asked whether the bill could help spur “school boards and school districts to create more options for magnet schools.”

Pointing to the growth of magnet programs and other public school choices in his hometown, the chair of the House Education Appropriations panel, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he believed it could.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the explosion of magnet schools and of schools of choice within the public school system happened at the exact same time that options outside of the conventional public school system were happening,” he said.

The New York Times recently highlighted the growth of Miami-Dade’s magnet programs in a story about the revitalization of magnet programs in urban districts around the country. Originally conceived as a way to increase demographic diversity in the era of racial integration, the Times observed magnet programs have seen renewed growth “as traditional public schools come under increasing pressure from charter schools and vouchers for private schools.”

The number of children in Miami-Dade County attending magnet programs — which admit students from anywhere in the district and focus on themes like art, law or technology — has grown by 35 percent in the past four years. These children now account for about one in six students in the district.

The pattern is similar across the country. There are now about 2.8 million students attending magnet schools — more than the nearly 2.6 million enrolled in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

“That’s what we’ve always theorized from the moment that we started talking about choice and choice options was that, not only would it lift all ships,” Fresen said, but it would also spur school districts to create new programs “to meet different needs of students.”

“I do think that the more that you expand choice options outside of the conventional public school system, the more the conventional public school system will innovate itself, and start responding to those demands and those changes,” he said. Continue Reading →

Twisted words and imagined conspiracy

funhouse mirrorHaving written editorials for a metropolitan newspaper for more than 20 years, I’ve had more than my share of those who have adamantly disagreed. But I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone so willfully distort what I wrote as Valerie Strauss did on Saturday.

Whether you think the original post on Friday, “The genuine surge in scholarship applications,” was fact or fiction, the point was to demonstrate the clear uptick in enrollment demand for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship over the past four years. In turn, the Washington Post blogger responded with a headline that read “Long ‘waiting list’ for Florida vouchers doesn’t actually exist” and a lead that said: “This belongs in the you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff category.” Her only seeming recognition that I made precisely the opposite point was a cryptic introductory phrase in the last sentence: “Whatever the demand …”

For the record, the scholarship processing team at Step Up For Students, which administers the scholarship and sponsors this blog, stopped keeping a waiting list not because the list had dwindled but because it had become unmanageably large. Being on a waiting list carries with it an expectation that you might still have a chance, and our applications experts felt it had come to the point where Step Up was peddling false hope.

That’s why applications in 2013 were cut off earlier than in 2012 even though the program expanded by 8,690 students. It’s why they are likely to be cut off in 2014 earlier than in both previous years, even though enrollment will increase again by another 8,000 students (more if legislation this year passes). Though students were not placed on a waiting list last year, the reality is that 94,104 of them had begun an application before Step Up stopped processing. As of Sunday, 80,354 had started applications for the fall.

The most befuddling part about the way scholarship opponents have seized on this scholarship demand question is that it doesn’t really matter under the law. The program will grow in size only if eligible students sign up for it. The tax-credited contributions made to scholarship organizations, under any-sized tax credit cap, must be used for scholarships or returned to the state treasury. That’s in the law. So the cap could be increased to $1 billion next year but if only 60,000 students showed up, the same as this year, roughly three-fourths of those dollars would end up back in the government’s bank.

As a conspiracy theory, this lacks even the conspiracy.