The faces of school choice

Rallies tend to be choreographed political endeavors, but the video above is worth your four minutes if for no other reason than the glimpses of the parents who participated.

This school choice rally was held at the Florida Capitol on April 3, and it represents something you don’t see every day. It brought more than 1,000 students, parents and activists together to celebrate the full spectrum of school choice – from magnet schools to career academies to charter schools to online courses to tax credit scholarships for low-income students and vouchers for students with learning disabilities.

Forget the attendance numbers, which incidentally were stronger than any of the PTA-type parent rallies in recent years, and look instead at the faces. They are remarkably diverse, racially and economically, and some of them traveled all night and missed work to be there. They brought with them their passion and their belief that the school they chose is working for their children. And they are hardly alone. In Florida last year, 1.5 million of the students in PreK-12 – or 43 percent – attended something other than their assigned neighborhood school, and this kind of event is a reminder that parents are choosing their schools in ways that also change the politics of public education.

No one should read too much into a political rally, but, at a time when the more traditional parent associations continue to fight many of the learning options these parents consider essential to their children’s future, there is something poignant here. Many of these parents have felt disenfranchised in the past, and their magnet choice or charter school or scholarship has given them a sense of educational ownership. To see them fight to keep these school choice options is uplifting, and not because it reflects one political ideology or another. It means they believe in their child’s education, and that has to accrue to their child’s benefit.


Florida roundup: parent power, Common Core, Rick Scott & more

Parent power. Florida gets high marks from the Center for Education Reform. Jacksonville Business Journal.

florida roundup logoCommon Core. Andy Ford’s take on Common Core. StateImpact Florida.

Teacher evaluations. Don’t shield the data from public scrutiny. Florida Times Union.

Rick Scott. Talks with superintendents about teacher pay, teacher evals, Common Core – and gets kind words from Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Coverage from The Buzz, News Service of Florida, Tallahassee Democrat.

School reform. Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego is taking a more thoughtful approach to struggling schools than the state has, writes Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano.

Career education. It’s good the Legislature is expanding opportunities here, writes Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson. Continue Reading →


Charter-like? Not quite. But more flexibility may be coming to some Florida schools

It’s an idea gaining momentum in Florida this legislative session: letting a few district schools choose curriculum, lease buildings and enjoy wiggle room when it comes to class size.

Sound familiar?

The concept, coined “district innovation schools,’’ would allow high-performing public schools to operate with some of the same freedom that has helped many charter schools succeed.

Assuming the legislation passes – and its odds look good at this point – it remains to be seen whether the innovation schools can carve out flexible terms during collective bargaining with teachers unions – like, say, having more power over hiring and firing. But even if that doesn’t happen, some observers said, the added leeway still could make a difference.

Sen. Montford

Sen. Bill Montford

“We’ve learned a lot from charter schools,’’ Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and the bill sponsor, told redefinED. “They have been able to think outside the box.’’

Montford is a former Leon County superintendent and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Charters are funded by taxpayer dollars, but have their own governing boards and power over personnel decisions. They also can meet the state’s stringent class-size mandate for core classes on a schoolwide average instead of class by class – something districts must do or pay hefty fines.

The result, some say, is charters can be more innovative, creative – and academically successful. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: teacher eval lawsuit, Michelle Rhee, budget requests & more

Teacher evaluations. The NEA and FEA file a federal suit against the new teacher evaluations system in Florida. Coverage from the Orlando Sentinel, Associated Press, Times/HeraldTallahassee Democrat, Gainesville Sun, Pensacola News JournalGradebook, Education Week, PolitiJax, State Impact Florida, New York TimesAnswer Sheet. FEA statement here. Lawmakers need to fix glaring flaws, editorializes the Lakeland Ledger. The Miami-Dade system plows ahead with its own remedies, reports the Miami Herald. School districts around the state are cooperating more to create the hundreds of new tests needed for the teacher evaluations, reports the Tallahassee Democrat.

florida roundup logoTony Bennett. Indiana folks make up his inner circle at DOE. Gradebook.

Michelle Rhee. Michelle Rhee was in Tallahassee Monday, meeting with lawmakers. Naked Politics.

School choice. With rezoning issues out of the way, Bay County cranks up its district school choice process.

Career education. A big hit in Okaloosa. Northwest Florida Daily News.

School spending. The state Board of Education is not happy after the Department of Education says it overestimated the budget request for new technology by $342 million, reports StateImpact Florida. The Pasco school board decides, for now, not to follow Superintendent Kurt Browning’s proposal to cut media specialists and reading coaches, reports the Tampa Bay Times. The Sarasota board follows through on plans to cut media specialists, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Continue Reading →


School choice for low-income students strengthens public education

all hands on deckEditor’s note: This piece ran in Monday’s Gainesville Sun.

Parents with financial means long have chosen their children’s schools by where they live or which private tuition they pay, but Florida is approaching a remarkable threshold in school choice. Last year, 1.5 million students — or 43 percent — attended something other than their neighborhood school. Of special note, 51,023 of the poorest among them are attending a private school at public expense.

This move toward customizing public education is owed to a simple proposition — that different children learn in different ways — and it represents an extraordinary commitment to equal opportunity. In Alachua County last year, 5,800 students chose magnet or choice programs or used open enrollment, and another 2,200 went to charter schools. This year, 335 low-income students are also attending private schools through state-backed scholarships.

That last learning option, called Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, gives pause to the Alachua League of Women Voters. Its respected president, Kathy Kidder, recently questioned the program’s constitutionality and accountability. She cited a state Supreme Court case, the 2006 dismissal of a voucher given to students in schools judged to be failing, without noting two prominent U.S. Supreme Court precedents that affirm the scholarship’s constitutionality.

The first, a 2002 case from Cleveland, rules that religious schools cannot be excluded from private voucher programs as long as the primary goal is education and parents aren’t coerced into choosing. The second, a 2011 case from Arizona, finds tax credit scholarships to be in a separate constitutional arena altogether. In Arizona, the court ruled that tax-credited contributions are not government expenditures.

The more important measure, though, is educational progress. The $4,335 scholarship is available only to children in K-12 whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, and this year the average income is just 6 percent above the poverty line. Two-thirds of the students are black or Hispanic, and more than half live in households with only one parent. More striking, the students who choose the scholarship are the lowest academic achievers from the public schools they leave behind.

The encouraging news is that these same students, according to the latest annual standardized test scores, are achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: merit pay cheers, parent trigger stink, teacher evals & more

Parent trigger. Parent trigger is not worth the fuss, writes Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab: “We’re wasting time with political gamesmanship over a bill that both sides are making a bigger stink over than it’s worth.”

FL roundup logo snippedTony Bennett. New Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz accuses former super Tony Bennett, of wasteful spending on technology. Indianapolis Star.

English language learners. The growing challenge of growing numbers of ELLs. Associated Press.

Teacher retention. Pinellas is looking at ways to better recruit and retain teachers at high-needs schools. Finally. Gradebook.

Teacher evaluations. The Florida Education Association is planning to file suit over the new eval system, with details coming today. Gradebook and Orlando Sentinel.

Teacher pay. Miami-Dade teachers get performance-based bonuses – and cheer. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →


Charter school + “alternate dimensions” = accelerated science education

Edwin Cruz, 14, is a ninth-grader at Orlando Science School and a member of the robotics team.

Edwin Cruz, 14, is a ninth-grader at Orlando Science School and a member of the robotics team.

Kristopher Pappas, a sixth-grader at Orlando Science School, looks like a lot of 11-year-olds, like he could have a Kindle and a Razor and put a little brother in a headlock. But Kristopher says he wants to be a quantum mechanic, and with a blow dryer and ping pong ball, he proves he’s not an idle dreamer. He turns on the blow dryer and settles the ball atop the little rumble of air stream, where, instead of whooshing away, it shimmies and floats a few inches above the barrel. The trick is cool, but it’s Kristopher’s explanation that fries synapses. “You got to give Bernoulli credit,” he begins.


As a whole, Florida students don’t do well in science. The solid gains they’ve made over the past 15 years in reading and math haven’t been matched in biology, chemistry and physics. But schools of choice like the one in Orlando are giving hope to science diehards.



Orlando Science School is a charter school, tucked away in a nothing-fancy commercial park, next to a city bus maintenance shop. Founder and principal Yalcin Akin has a Ph.D in materials engineering and did research at Florida State University’s world-renowned magnet lab. His school opened in 2008 with 109 sixth- and seventh- graders. Now it has 730 kids in K-11 and serious buzz as the science school in Orange County, the 10th biggest school district in the nation. Only 26 schools in Florida can boast that 80 percent of their eighth graders passed the state science test last year (the test is given in fifth and eighth grades). At least two thirds were magnets or charters. Orlando Science School was one of them.

The kids are “constantly challenged, which is what you want,” said parent Kathi Martin. One of Martin’s daughters is in ninth grade; the other is in seventh. Mom wasn’t excited about the neighborhood school; the science magnets were too far away; the private schools didn’t feel like home. During a visit to Orlando Science School, she said, something clicked.

It’s “a school where it’s cool to be a nerd,” she said.

In 2006, the Orange County School Board denied the charter’s application. The state approved it on appeal.

Last year, 1,500 kids were on the waiting list. Last month, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer paid a visit.

“This is about word of mouth,” said Tamara Cox, the mother of eighth-grader Akylah Cox. “The parents recognize the value of what’s going on at OSS. That’s why there is such a need and such a calling for it.”

For every bad story about charter schools in Florida, several good ones go untold. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: charter schools, virtual schools, diploma paths & more

Virtual schools. In an Orlando Sentinel op-ed, U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, politely suggests to the Florida Legislature that cutting funding for Florida Virtual School is a bad idea.

florida roundup logoCharter schools. Many charter schools struggle under the state’s funding system to spend enough in the classroom, reports the Daytona Beach News Journal. Parents of struggling Bradenton Charter School plea with Manatee board members to keep the school open, reports the Bradenton Herald.

Magnet schools. The possibility of new ones is under consideration in Pinellas as the district looks at potential remedies for 11 struggling schools. Tampa Bay Times.

Parent trigger. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett suggested changing the bill to give school boards final say reports StateImpact Florida. The bill is a “simplistic sham,” writes the Palm Beach Post.

Diplomas. The House unanimously passes a bill to provide alternative pathways to graduation, including more emphasis on career education, and sends it to Gov. Rick Scott. Coverage from Tampa Bay Times, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Associated Press, Tallahassee Democrat.

Board of Education. The Tampa Bay Times documents the downfall of former board member Akshay Desai’s health care business.

Educator conduct. Four Orange County staffers are disciplined after making disparaging comments on facebook about students with disabilities. SchoolZone.

Testing. FCAT time again, notes the Daytona Beach News Journal. Preparing for the FCAT and other tests online has been a challenge, writes the Tampa Bay Times. Testing time is eating into computer use, reports the Palm Beach Post. A prime example of testing going too far, writes Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell. Continue Reading →