From the Silver State to the Sunshine State: A look at how far you’ve come

(books on tape and caffeine are highly recommended for long road trips in western states!)

(books on tape and caffeine are highly recommended for long road trips in western states!)

After 2,500 miles through high deserts, forested mountains, windswept prairies, and boggy woodlands – and 190 gallons of gas and one flat tire – I’ve reached my education destination. For the past five years in Nevada, I made a consistent pitch to my colleagues and lawmakers and the governor: “Copy Florida.” Now I live here in Tampa.

Resident Floridians may not realize how well their state actually performs on the education front. You may not even recognize the similarities between Nevada and Florida.

Yes, Nevada and Florida have a very different geography and climate. For one thing, Nevada is the driest state in the U.S., and Florida will receive twice as much rain in July as Nevada gets in an entire year. Florida’s tropical climate is thick with forests, swamps and beautiful beaches. Meanwhile, Nevada occupies the Great Basin and Mohave Desert; a dry desolate place known for prickly Joshua trees, barren mountains and temperatures that soar above 120 degrees.

The landscapes aside, Nevada and Florida share similar public education students and challenges. Both states have a student population that is majority minority today.  Student poverty rates and disability rates are also comparable, though Nevada has a larger English language learner population. Nevada and Florida also spend about the same amount per pupil. Interestingly, both states are vacation and retirement destinations with more tourists than residents.

Not surprisingly, education attainment rates were once very similar.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam shows that Nevada and Florida had virtually indistinguishable achievement rates just 15 years ago. That has changed dramatically. While Nevada in the past few years has started to catch up with Florida on math, the Sunshine State has soared past the Silver State in reading. NAEP’s 4th grade reading scores are also a good barometer for education success and graduation rates.

These reading achievement levels are also striking when we zero in on low-income students who are on free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). In the charts below, we compare Nevada and Florida’s FRL students on the NAEP 4th grade reading exam. In this way we examine only the attainment for the most disadvantaged students in both states. Continue Reading →


Florida private school “voucher” parents join PTA

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

Earlier this month, the Florida PTA held its annual convention with at least 20 new members in attendance: parents of children who receive tax credit scholarships to attend private schools.

Many of them took time off from one or two jobs to attend. And in doing so, they participated in what is, if not a historic first, certainly very unusual – private school inclusion in an organization that  historically has been devoted to public schools.

Who knows where this will lead. But good things can happen when people who are supposedly on different sides of an issue actually meet face to face. Even when the issue is something like private school “vouchers.”

As an organizer for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the scholarships (and co-hosts this blog) my job was to attend the convention as well and facilitate a meeting between PTA leaders and scholarship parents.

One of the first things we all noticed was the PTA’s platform, included in the tote bag that participants received. The platform explained that while the PTA opposes vouchers in all its forms, including tax credit scholarships, it urges the Legislature to impose strict eligibility requirements and accountability measures on all private schools participating in these programs.

“What does this mean?” one mother asked me.

“It means they’re against our program, but believe private schools should administer the same standardized tests, like FCAT,” I said.

It’s easy to be against a program you don’t know about or really understand. So, I told our parents, go to the sessions, visit the vendors, and attend receptions. “Meet with these folks and make sure they put a face to this program,” I said. “You’re our ambassadors and I’m sure this weekend will lead to understanding and a better relationship between Step Up For Students and the PTA.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: School grades, Common Core, charter schools & more

School grades: Florida has a record-high 107 F-rated schools this year. Miami Herald. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando all earned overall “C” grades. Tampa Bay Times. Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie says the district’s school grade drops mirror declines statewide, but students still performed better or as well as last year. Sun-Sentinel. florida roundup logoFor the first time in nine years, the Palm Beach County School District is not getting an A on its report card. Palm Beach Post. The Polk County School District has six “F” schools and received an overall “C” from the state. The Ledger. Two of Duval County’s “F” schools rose in the state’s ranking system to a “D” while the other two received another failing grade. Florida Times-Union. Brevard elementary schools earned 21 “A” grades, 25 ”B” grades, eight ”C” grades, one ”D” and one ”F” - Endeavour Elementary in Cocoa. Florida Today. Lee, Charlotte, and Glades school districts dropped from a “B” to a “C”; Collier dropped from an “A” to a “B”; and Hendry County dropped from a ”C” to a “D.” Fort Myers News-Press.

Tax credit scholarships: The number of students attending private schools on tax-credit scholarships, administered by Step Up For Students, jumped 27 percent last year, reaching a record high of 51,075 kids. Miami Herald.

Disabled students: The Palm Beach County School District plans to spend $18 million during the next 10 years to fix nearly 100,000 disabled access issues. Palm Beach Post.

Recruiting: Despite the lure of extra cash, teachers aren’t fighting to get into some of Pinellas County’s lowest-performing schools. In many cases, they’re trying to get out. Tampa Bay Times.

Common  Core: Sen. Marco Rubio has joined growing criticism of the education standards known as Common Core, putting him at odds with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The Buzz. And Bush, once a strong force in shaping the state’s education policies, is taking some big hits, lately. The Buzz. If Education Commissioner Tony Bennett agrees with legislative leaders that Florida should create its own assessments, his proposal has to be better than PARCC’s. Tampa Bay Times. The standards registered little excitement when Florida adopted them three years ago, but now … . Palm Beach Post. We don’t need to panic about the new national standards, writes columnist Beth Kassab. But we do need patience. Orlando Sentinel.

Charter schools: More students are going charter in Hillsborough County. Tampa Bay Times. Lauderdale Lakes is reconsidering its decision to allow the new Ivy Academies Charter Schools to open in August. Sun Sentinel. Lake Wales Charter Schools has a $700,000 surplus. News Chief. There’s mounting evidence that charter schools aren’t a panacea in public education and are enabling our return to racial segregation, writes columnist Bill Maxwell. Tampa Bay Times.

Budgets: The complicated formula used by the state to match local property tax dollars with state money has required a tax increase for nearly 20 out of the state’s 67 school districts. Associated Press.  Pinellas County School District’s upcoming operating fund reflects an additional $38.2 million - one of the biggest increases in recent years, but that doesn’t mean an easier year for the district. The Tampa Tribune. Continue Reading →


redefinED roundup: Vouchers in N.C., voucher politics in N.J., charter school grades in Florida & more


Arkansas: The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses a lawsuit to overturn the state’s public school choice law, which will allow public school students to openly transfer to other public schools outside their district (Arkansas TimesArkansas Online).

Arizona: The state sees an upswing in school districts wanting to convert some of their traditional schools into charters (Arizona Daily Star). Charter schools in Arizona will get greater parity in funding for vocational programs (Arizona Daily Star).

Florida: Charter schools again earn A and F grades at higher rates than district schools under the state’s grading system (redefinED). A breakdown provided by the Hillsborough County School District, the eighth largest in the country, shows that in some district schools, 100 or more students have left for charters (Tampa Bay Times).

Louisiana: The U.S. 5th Circuit Court  of Appeals partially dismisses the Louisiana Department of Education’s appeal on the injunction against the state’s new education voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish (The Advocate).

Michigan: Detroit may be shrinking, but charter schools in Michigan are growing (Detroit News).

Nevada: Wait-lists for magnet, charter and private schools grow in the Silver State as demand exceeds the available options to Nevada’s public school students (Reason Magazine).

New Jersey: Gov. Chris Christie’s administration approves six new charter schools for next fall, bringing the total statewide to 87 (New Jersey Spotlight). Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan says his likely Democratic rival, Newark Mayor C0ry Booker, needs to “man up” and admit whether he is for or against school vouchers (Newsworks New Jersey) Continue Reading →


Florida charter schools rack up A’s & F’s

As they have in the past, Florida charter schools earned both A and F grades at higher rates than district schools this year, according to data released Friday by the Florida Department of Education.

According to our preliminary number crunching, 38 percent of the 340 elementary, middle and K-8 charter schools that received grades earned A’s, compared to 27 percent of 2,278 district schools. Meanwhile, 7 percent of charter schools earned F’s (24 total), compared to 4 percent of district schools (83 total).

High school grades won’t be released until later this year.

Schools in both the charter and traditional sectors earned fewer A’s and more F’s this year due to tougher accountability standards.

Charter school performance is under scrutiny in Florida, as it is in many states. Florida charters have higher rates of minority students than district schools (64 percent to 57 percent), but lower rates of low-income students (47 percent to 57 percent).

Studies have come to different conclusions about their performance. DOE numbers based on 2011-12 data show charter school students outperforming their district peers by most comparisons. On the other hand, a recent study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, based on 2010-11 data, shows them on par with district peers in math but seven days behind in reading.


Common Core will hurt school choice

Editor’s note:  Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. 

Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick

Earlier this week, Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, argued that Common Core can help school choice. Tuthill is a champion of school choice whose organization has helped hundreds of thousands of Florida students attend their preferred schools. That’s why it is all the more disappointing to see him advocating for a policy that would undermine the very system of diverse educational options that he’s worked tirelessly to promote.

In Tuthill’s view, common standards merely “serve the same function as the operating systems in computers or smart phones” in that they provide a common platform that’s open to an “endless supply” of different applications (curricula, lesson plans, activities, etc.) that can be customized by users.

But Common Core is not just an open-platform operating system. As Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has written, standards-based accountability requires a “tripod of standards, testing, and accountability.” My colleague, Neal McCluskey, has pointed out that a system of national standards like Common Core requires a “national tripod”: “all schools must use the same standards and tests to compare how all kids are doing, and there must be uniform punishments for schools that do not do well.”

Tuthill claims there’s nothing to fear because private schools and their parents “value their autonomy. They will oppose government efforts to mandate curriculum or instructional strategies.” But the government doesn’t have to mandate a curriculum to control content. When standards are tied to tests by which a school’s performance is evaluated, schools will have little choice but to conform. The tests will de facto dictate content: what concepts are taught when and perhaps even how. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute has written:

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

Rather than providing a mere operating system, it’s as though Apple told app-designers they could make any kind of app they want so long as all the apps perform the same basic function, operate at the same speed, and cost the same amount. Of course, they’re welcome to vary the color scheme. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Dress codes, summer reading, charter schools & more

Charter to private: After continually receiving “F” grades from the state, Escambia County’s A.A. Dixon charter school opens next month as a private school in a new location. Pensacola News Journal.

florida roundup logoBudgets: A Manatee County school official calls the district’s budget process ”excruciating” as board members begin to review a 17-page proposal. Bradenton Herald. More on Manatee’s budget, including indications that the board may lower the tax rate from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Pasco County School Board adopts a budget that includes a slight tax increase and $26 million in spending reductions. Tampa Bay Times. Broward County teachers will get raises in the district’s $3 billion budget proposal that includes a small tax increase. Sun Sentinel.

Dress codes: Two more Pinellas County schools join the list that want modified dress codes for students to put the emphasis on academics. Tampa Bay Times.

GPAs: The Pasco County School Board adopts a new formula for figuring grade point averages that includes courses taken online and in middle school. Tampa Bay Times.

Conduct:  The Lee County school district investigation of former Chief Administrative Officer Alberto Rodriguez suggests he violated school board policy by misusing district phones, conducted personal business on school time and had an improper relationship with another district employee. Fort Myers News-Press. Another Lee County district investigation clears a teacher accused of striking a 10-year-old  student with special needs. Fort Myers News-Press. A controversial community organizer accused of trying to extort nearly $1 million and financial favors from Palm Beach County school district officials asks for a new lawyer. Palm Beach Post.

Back to school: The Florida Retail Federation anticipates the state will buck the national trend, with shoppers here spending more for back-to-school supplies. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

TV class: A TV and film program at Pine Crest, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, now has its own $750,000 on-campus production studio where students will learn to report, produce and edit stories. Sun Sentinel.

Mentors: Leon County is looking for 500 new school mentors. Tallahassee Democrat.

Tony: Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett talks to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers about Common Core, school grades and the role of organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters in education. TCPalm.

Summer school: A mobile media center bus provides books for Polk County students to keep them learning year-round. The Ledger.

On a mission: Jesuit High School students travel to South America on a journey to share their faith. Tampa Bay Times.


North Carolina school vouchers won’t hurt public school budget

The collision of budgetary distress and school vouchers has produced a familiar financial accusation in North Carolina. But an honest accounting of the state’s new scholarships for low-income children finds no conflict with public school spending.

This is not meant to diminish the political fight over the budget there. After all, North Carolina is ranked 45th in per-student spending and 46th in teacher pay, and has been dropping in those rankings in recent years. Even some Republicans voted against the 2013-14 budget this week as the party sent a lean appropriations bill to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday.

The point, rather, is that the education budget is made no worse by the inclusion of a $10 million voucher program for low-income students.

Various activists and commentators have tried to make the opposite case, one portraying  school vouchers as “siphoning public dollars away,” another saying private schools “seek to profit off of public schools,” another finding incongruity in not giving teachers raises while “pumping public funding into a voucher program.” The Progressive Pulse blog wrote “the larger the program becomes, the more money it will lose for North Carolinians.”

The Pulse based its claims on a legislative fiscal evaluation of the scholarship program that was previously approved in the House, but pointedly ignored the local tax savings. When local and state are combined, the evaluation put the five-year savings at between $23.4 million and $52.3 million.

What’s more, the savings are likely to be much greater because the evaluation used a methodology that, to put it charitably, is outside the mainstream. Continue Reading →