Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: A Senator suspected of scandal and a perfidious principal’s punctuality

MrGibbonsReportCardArizona State Sen. Steven Yarbrough

Steven Yarbrough is a state senator in Arizona and founder and CEO of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, a tax-credit scholarship granting organization. Last week an investigative journalist at CBS 5 accused Yarbrough of profiting from a program he helped found. Two of the charges levied by the news organization turned out to be false. Sen. Yarbrough was elected to office four years after he founded the scholarship organization, and SB 1047, which Yarbrough did co-author, did not increase scholarship organization management fees as the investigator claimed.

Senator Yarbrough

However, Yarbrough does admit to earning money by renting real estate to his own scholarship organization and through a third-party data processing company he co-owns. This extra income is in addition to his $96,000-a-year salary from the scholarship organization. Yarbrough is up front with these expenditures, declaring them in both his 990 and in an email with the journalist. But being up front with such expenditures, sadly, isn’t enough.

While the Arizona Senate Ethics Committee has cleared Yarbrough of wrongdoing, school choice proponents must hold themselves to a higher standard. School choice is still in a tenuous position and critics will latch onto any fear (real or imagined) to prevent, or even eliminate, choice programs. Even the perception of someone making money from choice programs (even if they take a financial loss, or offer professional services cheaper than competitors) does harm to the movement.

Grade: Needs Improvement


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Public boarding school with college-prep focus set to open in Florida

SEED-School_MiamiThe newest addition to Florida’s portfolio of learning options is part of a public boarding school network that 60 Minutes called “one of the most successful and innovative public schools in the country.”

The SEED Foundation school in Miami, set to open this fall, is modeled after the college-prep SEED schools in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. According to the foundation, 90 percent of its graduates have enrolled in college and 60 percent have graduated or soon will graduate from college.

“We offer the gift of time, education and support, 24 hours a day, five days a week,” Kara Locke, who will become head of school in Miami, said in a phone interview with redefinED.

Business consultants Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota established The SEED Foundation in 1997 after spotting an opportunity to provide better education options for at-risk students. “There’s boarding schools for rich kids; why aren’t there boarding schools for poor kids?” Vinnakota told 60 Minutes in 2010. “The intense academic environment, the 24-hour aspect and constant access to role models. Why wouldn’t all of those things be just as important for poor kids as it would be for rich kids?”

SEED schools emphasize traditional academics, college preparation, self-confidence, discipline, responsibility, athletics and performing arts. Along with a safe place to live, play and study, students receive three meals a day and the opportunity to develop relationships with strong mentors and role models.

Tuition is free. The school receives public support for operating costs but raises private funds to support capital and start-up costs. Students live in a dormitory during the week. “It is a home” and “a nurturing place,” said Locke, who served as principal of the SEED school in D.C. from 2007 to 2013 and lived in the school’s dormitories for the last five years.

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Florida schools roundup: Private schools, charters, Florida Virtual & more

Private schools: A Broward County private K-12 welcomes Animal Planet’s “Gator Boys” to help open the school’s $600,000 center that provides students with an outdoor classroom. Sun Sentinel.

florida roundup logoDistrict schools: A Brevard County elementary school wins a statewide contest for a video that promotes reading. Florida Today. Plans for a cell tower at a Naples elementary school campus are on hold. Naples Daily News. It’s the time of year when thousands of children and parents in Lee County make a decision on which school they want to attend. Fort Myers News-Press. An internal auditor reviews Pasco County schools and suggests looking more closely at the way money flows inside the campuses. Tampa Bay Times.

Charter schools: A new report looks at the lasting impacts charters have on students and whether the schools help determine paychecks later in life. The answer, in a word, is yes, writes Collin Hitt for Jay P. Greene’s blog.

Florida Virtual School: For the first time, FLVS offers an opportunity for online students outside of the state to earn their high school diploma through a virtual school. GettingSmart. The state Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 in a dispute about whether Florida Virtual School can sue K12 Inc. for alleged trademark infringement. News Service of Florida.

Mental health:  Sandy Pines Residential Treatment Center in Palm Beach County opens with three dozen new beds to fill the growing need for more mental health care for children. Palm Beach Post.

School safety: The ACLU responds to Hillsborough County’s security proposal with a letter that contends the more guards you put in the schools, the more likely you are to criminalize behavior that could better be corrected without exposing the child to the criminal justice system. Tampa Bay Times.

Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor addresses ideas about immigration, education and the plight of youths in a speech at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. Florida Times-Union. Continue Reading →


Next week: Live chat with Mike Petrilli about school choice & accountability



Is parental choice alone accountability enough for private schools that accept students with vouchers and tax credit scholarships?

The pro-school-choice Fordham Institute says no. In a policy toolkit released this week, it again made the case for some measure of regulatory accountability – and promptly drew fire from other school choice stalwarts at the Friedman Foundation, the Cato Institute and elsewhere (see here and here).

To continue the debate, Fordham Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli will be our guest next week for a live, hour-long chat.

The chat is like a press conference, only it’s in writing and open to anyone with a good question. To participate, just come back to the blog on Tuesday. We’ll start promptly at 10 a.m. All you have to do is click in to the live chat program, which you’ll find here.

In the meantime, you can send questions in advance. Either leave them here in the comment section, send them to, tweet them to @redefinEDonline and/or post them on our facebook page. See you next week!


Good news doesn’t travel fast for Florida public schools

good newsFlorida public schools rank No. 7 in K-12 achievement this year, which, considering their unfortunate rep, is good news with a pigs-fly twist, right?

And yet, across the state’s newspapers and TV stations, the ranking spawned a total of three short stories, two blog posts and one TV report, averaging less than seven paragraphs each. Florida’s school boards, superintendents, PTAs and teacher unions didn’t acknowledge the news either. Not even a tweet!

I wish it weren’t true, but that pattern has been in place for years. The volume is often cranked when there’s a negative story about Florida ed reforms and/or student performance. But when evidence suggests reforms may be working and/or Florida students are moving up, the amp gets switched off. That’s not healthy for the debate we’re having about our schools and kids.

So, for the record, here’s a little more detail about the good news: The No. 7 rank comes from Education Week, essentially the national newspaper of record for ed news. Its quality is top notch; its reporters, excellent. Every year, it ranks state education systems in a variety of ways.

With K-12 achievement, it looks at NAEP scores, AP results and grad rates, and considers proficiency, progress and achievement gaps. The No. 7 rank is based on a formula that incorporates all of that. But Florida looks good in the achievement subcategories, too. It ranks No. 4 in closing achievement gaps and No. 5 in improvement over time. In proficiency, it ranks No. 22, up from No. 30 last year.

The last part may sound middling, until you see how Florida is moving past states with lower rates of poor kids. In fact, no state outperforms its demographic more. To see, just put the proficiency ranks side-by-side with the percentage of kids in each state who are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. (See chart below.)

The Sunshine State ranks No. 43 in the latter, at 56 percent. But again, it ranks No. 22 in proficiency. It’s passing states with better academic reps, like Iowa (No. 23 in proficiency; 39 percent FRL), and closing fast on others like Utah (No. 18 in proficiency; 38 percent FRL). Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Single gender, vouchers, pay hikes & more

Single gender: StateImpact Florida talks to the principal of an all-girls public school in Hillsborough County.

florida-roundup-logoVouchers: From the Gradebook blog: A husband and wife whose private Milwaukee voucher school abruptly closes last month move to Florida and open a new school in Daytona Beach. Journal Sentinel.

Pay raises: About 2,000 Palm Beach County administrators and other nonunion school employees will receive raises this year. Sun Sentinel. More from the Palm Beach Post.

Teachers: Orange County’s Dorina Sackman is recognized as one of the best teachers in the nation. Orlando SentinelFive teachers are up for suspension in Hillsborough County for performance reasons. Tampa Bay Times.

Restructuring: Hernando County schools superintendent Lori Romano will soon submit a proposal to restructure the district’s administration. Tampa Bay Times.

Say no: Inspired by his loved ones’ struggles with drug addiction, a Cooper City middleschooler wins a national contest to dress up his home with a drug-free message. Sun Sentinel.

School audits: An independent auditor finds problems in bookkeeping practices at 98 percent of Polk County schools reviewed last school year. The Ledger. Continue Reading →


Florida can’t ease up on ed reform

14Ladner1I recently wrote a piece for redefinED about how the Census Bureau projections spell troubled times ahead for Florida. Specifically, the Census Bureau projects a large increase in the youth population to coincide with an explosion in the elderly population. The Cliff Notes version: trouble ahead. Both the young and old consume state services in heavier amounts than average (primarily education and health care respectively) and tend to pay less in the way of taxes on average. The percentage of Florida’s population that will be in the working age population in the years ahead will bear what looks to be a crushing burden in paying for most of this.

The Census Bureau has more detailed projections that give more of a blow by blow of how the forecasts this will play out. First, let’s follow the blue columns. This is the Census Bureau projections of the 5-17 population. Note this figure underestimates the potential size of the school age population increase in several ways. First, Florida 4-year-olds can and do use the Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program. Second, 18-year-olds are often still in high-school. Finally, some children with disabilities remain in public schools until age 21.

With those caveats in mind, note that Florida’s 5-17 year old population goes from around 2.9 million in 2010 to a projected 3.2 million next year, then to 3.5 million in 2020, 3.8 million in 2025 and to a rather alarming 4.1 million in 2030.


So let’s just use rough numbers and say Florida has well over 1.2 million additional students on the way. Fortunately, there are options to deal with this, some or all of which may be used. Florida districts can surround existing school buildings with dozens of portables. At considerable expense, they can build new district schools. They can start running shifts at existing schools.

Perhaps Florida lawmakers will be wise enough to strengthen choice laws to help take the edge off of district enrollment growth. Today a combined 86,000 Florida students attend private schools under the Step Up for Students tax credit and the McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities.

The private choice programs represent an especially strong value to taxpayers because they allow students to be educated without the public expense of building new buildings. These costs prove quite considerable. Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, which opened in 2008, cost $63,000,000 to provide learning space for 2,000 students. Florida has far more than 1.2 million students projected to be on the way in the next decade and a half. A project like Island Coast High School can accommodate .0017 percent of that cohort.

I am confident a great many construction firms and bond brokers would love to either pave Florida over with new district schools or die trying. The red columns, however, show rather conclusively that is not a really an option. Florida’s elderly population is set to more than double between 2010 and 2030. This will translate into a greater demand for a variety of public services, strains on pension funds, and less in the way of tax revenue.

Absent some implausible spike in economic growth, these projections foretell fierce competition for limited public dollars between old and young. Note the elderly tend to be better organized and vote in much greater numbers than public school interests. Place your bets accordingly. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Magnet and private schools, digital learning & more

Magnet schools: A new Polk County policy guarantees current students at Winston Elementary a spot next year at the magnet school, Winston Academy of Engineering. The Ledger.

florida-roundup-logoDigital learning: The Hillsborough County School Board moves closer to allowing students to use their own Internet devices while at school. Tampa Bay Times. More from The Tampa Tribune.

School choice: With a marketing campaign and several new middle school options, Pinellas County schools see a dramatic increase in the number of students applying for choice programs. Tampa Bay Times.

Private schools: Tampa’s Jesuit High is ranked No. 1 among all boys athletic programs in Class 5A as the Florida High School Athletics Association’s Academic Team Champion. The Tampa Tribune. Tampa’s Hillel Academy students create their own tech projects. The Tampa Tribune.

Common Core: Will Florida continue to be part of the Common Core initiative? The answer isn’t clear. The Gradebook. Florida Department of Ed officials propose changes to the standards, from requiring fourth-graders to master cursive writing to re-codifying learning requirements for calculus. Tallahassee Democrat. Many questions focus on copyright issues and the so-called “15 percent” rule for adding changes to the standards. StateImpact Florida. More from The Florida Current.

Class size: The penalties may soon be less severe for school districts that fail to meet state-mandated class-size limits. The Buzz. The Broward school district expects to pay a $200,000 penalty for not meeting the caps, even after the state allowed schoolwide averages for magnet schools. Sun Sentinel.

STEM: Educators from across the country visit a Sarasota County school STEM program. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Continue Reading →