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.

redefinED roundup: school choice advances in FL, protection for NYC charters and more news


Arizona: Former state Sen. Tom Patterson says school choice is opposed by unions because the unions feel school choice threatens jobs for adults (East Valley Tribune). An advancing bill will allow special needs kids to have access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts without having to get approval from school districts first (Associated Press).

Florida: The tax credit scholarship expansion bill that was killed in the senate gets new life (Miami Herald). A bill that would allow education savings accounts and an expansion of the tax-credit scholarship program advances out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on a party line vote (redefinEdOrlando SentinelMiami HeraldWFSUAssociated PressThe Florida Current). There has been a genuine surge in applications for tax credit scholarships, so much so that processors stopped keeping a waiting list for fear of creating false hope. (redefinED). Valerie Strauss says there was never a wait list for the tax-credit scholarship program (Washington Post).

Lawmakers look to make opening charter schools easier (WPTV) and give charter schools access to unused school district buildings (redefinED). A bill to allow school choice students to participate in extracurricular activities at a local public school advances unanimously through three committees (redefinED). One out of every 10 students in Palm Beach now attend a charter school (Palm Beach Post).

Illinois: The Chicago Tribune editorial board says the state should expand charter school authorizers and not eliminate the new Charter School Commission.

Kansas: Republicans remove a tax-credit scholarship proposal from the education funding bill (Witchita Eagle).

Kentucky: The state senate passes a bill which would allow low-performing public schools to be converted to charter schools (Education Week).

Louisiana: The Lafayette Charter Foundation says charter schools are public schools (The Advertiser). Charles Lussier of The Advocate, says the state’s charter schools have been strong performers but new schools in Baton Rouge must must be better.

Massachusetts: Hundreds of parents protest the expansion of charter schools (Boston Globe). Charter school supporters want to lift the state cap on charters (Salem News). A bill to expand the number of charter schools in the state fails to meet a deadline (Education Week, Milford Daily News). Continue Reading →

Florida Roundup: Tax credit scholarships, extracurricular activities, testing and more

Tax credit scholarships. Revived legislation expanding the program clears a House-panel on a party-line vote. Florida Times-Union. Capitol News Service. News Service of Florida. Times/Herald. Palm Beach Post. Associated Press. WFSUThe legislation could extend scholarships to middle-class families. Sun-Sentinel. A Washington Post blogger seizes on inconsistent uses of the term “waiting list.” Answer Sheet. A Palm Beach Post columnist likens the bill to a “zombie that won’t die.” The program is administered by Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. Hillsborough schools officials raise questions about the non-profit organizations that hired Charter Schools USA to run three charter schools in the county. Tampa Bay Times. Charter schools compete with school districts for limited construction funds in the state budget. Times/Herald.

Extracurricular activities. The Florida Times-Union writes up a bill that would expand access for students in school choice programs.

Testing. School administrators say they need more time before the state switches standardized tests. Tampa Tribune. Duval’s superintendent pledges to pare back the number of tests given in the district next year. Florida Times-Union.

Teachers.  A Lee County Schools program aims to bring new teachers into high-need areas. Naples Daily News. Collier schools turn to recent retirees to make up for a substitute shortage. Naples Daily News. A recent statewide teacher of the year criticizes the use value-added scores to judge teachers, among other state education policies. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →

The genuine surge in scholarship applications in Florida

FTC enrollment growthA Florida House committee debate this morning about a new Tax Credit Scholarship bill included some fair questions, obvious skepticism and dueling numbers about how many students want in. One reason for the confusion might be this little-known fact: Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that processes the applications, has stopped keeping waiting lists.

That may sound like an alarming development, but the reason is not what you might think. The people who process applications at Step Up, which publishes this blog, have become so overwhelmed in recent years that they no longer wanted to give low-income families false hope. They concluded that the main reason for the waiting list was mostly for show, and they wanted no part of that.

So when we are asked by lawmakers or reporters or state officials about a waiting list, we try our best to respond by describing the accelerated pace of applications. That trend is clear.

In 2012-13, the cap limit of $229 million allowed Step Up to serve 51,075 students. That year, it was receiving so many applications that it shut off newcomers beginning on Aug. 3, a couple of weeks before school started. And it’s worth noting here that scholarship parents are no different than the adults who are being asked to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act: they often wait until the last minute. Even so, 87,540 students had already started an application.

For the current school year, 2013-14, the cap limit of $286 million has allowed Step Up to serve 59,765 low-income students. But applications were coming in so fast last spring that the processing team decided to stop taking them on June 28, about as month-and-a-half before school started. Even so, 94,104 students had already started.

That number from June is  the origin of the 34,000 “waiting list” that has been asserted many times during the current debate. In reality, it’s not a waiting list, but it’s a powerful indication of demand.

A more compelling gauge, though, may be the applications that are being received right now. A new school year starts in less than five months, applications are in full swing, and the current cap limit of $358 million should allow Step Up to serve about 68,000 students. As of today, 79,915 students have already started an application. So unless there is a precipitous drop in applications, Step Up will shut it down early again – maybe earlier than last year – so as not to create false hope among those who waited too long.

This trend suggests that tens of thousands of students will again be shut out.

The extreme skeptics will question whether Step Up is reporting these numbers faithfully and accurately. But one outside check is enrollment itself. The state Department of Education verifies and reports student enrollment in every quarter and year-end, and the chart attached to this post is pointed distinctly upward. It shows that enrollment is increasing precisely as fast as the caps allow, which is an independent source of data that reinforces what Step Up is reporting in applications.

Combined school choice expansion wins approval from Florida House panel

A Florida House panel approved a new measure Friday that combines two pieces of legislation that would expand school choice programs.

The House revised legislation to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, and folded it into a new bill that combines it with an effort to create education savings accounts for students with disabilities.

The Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved the measure on a party-line vote. Republicans like Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, stressed that while they support investing in public schools, they want to expand other options, too.

“Every child has different needs,” she said. “With the choices that this bill adds today, we’re simply recognizing that.”

Democrats criticized the effort to merge the two school choice proposals after the tax credit scholarship legislation was withdrawn in the Senate last week. The revived House version does not include a contentious provision that would have allowed companies to donate sales-tax collections to the scholarship program. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

While it has attracted opposition, the legislation to create savings accounts for students with disabilities has received bipartisan support in some committee votes. It also has the backing of top Republicans, including Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who is set to become Senate president later this year.

“I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary, and I urge you to vote against this bill,” Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, told the committee.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said it made sense to combine the two plans into a measure that would give “two incredibly necessary pieces of legislation the hope of survival in the session.” He said he expects a vote on the House floor next week.

Democrats also raised the issue of standardized testing, a source of divisions that ensnared the original tax credit scholarship bill in the Senate. Continue Reading →

FEA’s political calculations mislead public on scholarship costs

false-advertisingAs a stalwart defender of funding for public schools, the Florida Education Association (FEA) brings special expertise to the complex, sometimes arcane ways the state produces its education budget. So its oft-repeated claim this year that scholarships for low-income students increase the total cost of education is presumably a political, not fiscal, calculation.

Joanne McCall, the vice president for FEA, used a recent op-ed to press the case. “Vouchers,” she wrote, “do not reduce public education costs. Actually, they increase costs, by requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems: one public and one private.”

Two school systems? That description conveniently tracks the union’s combative narrative of public vs. private. But in a state that pays for 1.5 million preK-12 students to attend schools outside their neighborhood public schools, treating all these students as though divide neatly into two separately funded school systems is form of educational sophistry.

First, a little financial history is in order. In 1973, the Legislature created the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) in an attempt to remove disparities in funding from one county to another. As the Department of Education describes it, “A key feature of the FEFP is that it bases financial support for education upon the individual student participating in a particular educational program rather than upon the number of teachers or classrooms.”

In other words, the state funds students, not systems. More to the current point, it funds the education option the student chooses even if that conflicts with the district school to which the student is assigned. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: School choice, charter schools, Common Core and more

School choice. Legislation expanding education options passes in the Florida House, while the Senate remains more cautious. Times/Herald.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. The sponsor of the House’s charter-school bill taps the breaks as he works on amendments. Florida Current. Palm Beach County officials give a school focused on African-American curriculum one last chance to stay open. Palm Beach Post.

Common Core. The standards will be coming soon to a theater near you. Orlando Sentinel. The statewide teachers union pushes back claims that the standards have been taught in Florida public schools since 2010. Gradebook.

Testing. An Orange County teacher donates his school-recognition bonus to a group that opposes high-stakes testing. Orlando Sentinel. Pasco County schools set up a new online system to help their students prepare for state end of course exams. Tampa Bay Times. Leon County Schools reschedule take-your-kid-to-work day to accommodate the state’s testing schedule. Tallahassee Democrat.

Funding. How much did Gov. Rick Scott propose to cut education spending during his first year in office? PolitiFact. More education funding. lower taxes.  That’s what’s in the budget this year. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Jeb Bush. The Tampa Bay Times writes up his foundation’s campaign touting Florida’s education improvement. The former governor brings his show to Vegas. Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Capital needs. Lee County district officials say they need more funding for buildings to help them deal with enrollment growth. Fort Myers News-Press.