Florida roundup: Digital learning, campaigns, special needs and more

Digital learning. Two previously defunct Pinellas schools are set to reopen as magnets focused on digital instruction. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoCampaigns. Collier County school board candidates express “general support for school choice” during a public forum that touches on charters and vouchers. Naples Daily News. An Okaloosa County School Board candidate campaigns on reversing a slide in school grades. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Special needs. Florida’s school choice legislation could spark efforts in other states to offer customized learning options to special needs students. Watchdog.org. A special needs advocate raises questions about the legislation. Gradebook. A new school aimed at exceptional students with start as a private school with hopes of becoming a charter. Winter Haven News Chief.

School climate. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on parent and teacher surveys.

Teachers unions. One candidate files suit in a protracted union leadership election. Palm Beach Post.

Finance. Vanished emails hamper an investigation into misspent bond money. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Superintendents. Alachua County’s new schools chief signs his contract. Gainesville Sun.

Nutrition. Participation grows at a Marion summer meal program. Ocala Star-Banner.

Parental choice must include faith-based schools

Editor’s note: This post originally ran as an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee. Alan Bonsteel is an associate of the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog.

faith based schoolsSchool choice is winning decisively in California. We have the highest number of charter schools – our public schools of choice – of any state, with 1,130 schools serving more than 500,000 students as of fall 2013, and with 44 charter schools just in Sacramento County. The astounding 7 percent annual growth rate of our charter school enrollment has actually accelerated in recent years.

New Orleans has just transformed itself into a model of all of their public schools being charters, with the last traditional public school there having closed its doors on May 30. This revolution came about because the charter schools so convincingly outperformed traditional public schools, with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

There is, however, an extremely important school choice option that is lagging, both in California and the nation. Literally the most faithful of our private schools are being harmed: Our K-12 religious schools.

This is because the fastest growth in school choice has been in public charter schools, which may not offer religious instruction. With their excellent quality and high test scores, charter schools have siphoned away enrollment from our religious-based private schools.

This, of course, is all the more frustrating in California, a state that has always been known for its tolerance and its diversity of spiritual paths.

When Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, she credited her Catholic school education with putting her on the path to historic achievements. When she heard that her school, Blessed Sacrament in New York City, had closed, she said she was “heartbroken.” Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: School choice, charter schools, campaigns and more

School choice. Gov. Rick Scott signs major legislation expanding eligibility for tax credit scholarships and creating the second education savings account program in the country. redefinED. Associated Press. Tampa Bay Times. EdWeek. News Service of Florida.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A big Sun-Sentinel investigation focuses on failed charter schools in South Florida. A Palm Beach tax referendum is dogged by questions about whether the district should share the proceeds with charters. Palm Beach Post. Construction is under way while an Orange County charter school’s application remains undecided. Orlando Sentinel.

Campaigns. Education issues are key in the electoral slugfest between Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott. Orlando Sentinel. Candidate qualifying wraps up in school board races. Miami Herald. Florida Today. Lakeland LedgerSarasota Heald-Tribune. Tallahassee Democrat. Jackson County Floridian. The Tampa Bay Times looks at fields in Hernado, Hillsborough and Pinellas. The Sun-Sentinel looks at Broward and Palm Beach. Hillsborough candidates get grilled by their local Tiger Bay club. Tampa Tribune.

Finance. Duval schools officials consider selling bonds to fund technology purchases. Florida Times-Union. The Palm Beach school board turns to businesses for cost-saving ideas. Palm Beach Post. The Manatee County school board will review the use of bond funds that drew scrutiny from state auditors. Bradenton Herald. The board will consider a draft $367 million budget, the Herald reports.

Teachers. South Florida teachers raise questions about the shift to performance pay. Sun-Sentinel. A residency program aims to prepare Duval teachers for challenging urban classrooms. Florida Times-Union. Teacher preparation programs receive poor marks. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Pasco schools aim to attract more qualified substitutes. Tampa Bay Times. It’s professional development season in Lee County. Fort Myers News-Press.

Security. More than half of Hillsborough students say they feel safe at school. Most of the rest say they aren’t sure. Tampa Tribune.

Start times. Legislation changing school start times could resurface as the debate continues. Orlando Sentinel.

Unions. Palm Beach teachers have yet to pick a new union leader. Extra Credit.

Nutrition. Pinellas schools look to keep students nourished over the summer. Tampa Bay Times. Hillsborough delivers meals to students in yellow buses. Tampa Tribune.

Higher ed. A new state report tracks debt and earnings for Florida graduates. StateImpact. Gradebook.

FL Gov. Rick Scott signs school choice expansion bill

Gov. Scott

Gov. Scott

Florida continues its national pace setting on parental choice under a bill signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

SB 850 allows more students to qualify for the nation’s largest publicly funded private school choice program, which is expected to serve more than 67,000 low-income students this fall. It makes Florida the second state in the nation to offer new personalized learning scholarship accounts for special needs students.

Those changes helped make the bill one of the most contentious of the state’s 2014 legislative session.

The bill mandates more state oversight of organizations that administer the scholarship program. (Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog, is the only organization doing so at the moment).

The bill also increases the financial incentives for schools to expand career academies. And a provision backed by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz will push the state’s community colleges to offer at least one “collegiate high school” program in every school district in the state, which would allow students to finish a year’s worth of college credits before graduating high school.

“Finally, every student in each of Florida’s 67 school districts is afforded the opportunity for advancement through a collegiate high school, and is more adequately prepared for their future careers,” Legg said in a statement.

The portion of the bill dealing with tax credit scholarships increases the scholarship amount; removes the requirement that in order to qualify, students in grades 6-12 must have been in public school the year prior; and, beginning in 2016, offers partial scholarships to working-class families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level.

The scholarship program is funded by corporations that get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The original legislation included a modest increase in the state-imposed spending cap, which will be $357.8 million next year. The final bill included no change.

Critics of the scholarship program, including the statewide teachers union, seized on the fact that participating students do not take the same assessments as their counterparts in public schools. They are required to take standardized tests, and schools are required to report the results to an independent researcher for analysis.

“Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates,” Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools.

The personal learning scholarship accounts will allow parents of certain special-needs students to access 90 percent of the funding a school district would have received for that student, and to direct it to a wide range of uses, including private school tuition, tutoring programs and therapy sessions. The Legislature set aside $18.4 million for the program for the 2014-15 school year.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is among the new program’s key backers. He is the father of a child with Down syndrome and is set to take over as Senate President after the November elections. He has said he intends to support policies that allow children with disabilities to graduate high school ready to enter the workforce.

In a statement, he said the accounts will allow parents to “make certain our students receive an education tailored to their unique abilities.”

Other coverage: Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Education Week. Associated Press, News Service of Florida, SaintPetersBlog, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, WFSU.

Parents talk choice & accountability

The word “accountability” can have different meanings in education policy debates. For two parents who spoke Thursday to a room full of public school administrators, it comes down to knowing what’s happening in their schools.


Photo by Glen Gilzean

That includes test scores and other data that allow them to track their students’ progress. But it also involves other forms of transparency, including communication with the people who run their schools.

“As far as transparency, I know everything that’s going on. I feel completely connected, regardless of the distance,” Theresa Seits, the parent of two magnet school students, said during a panel at the Florida Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in Tampa. “Information is always available to me as far as how my students are doing, personally, and how the schools are doing as well.”

The word “accountability,” and competing arguments about how it should be achieved, have been at the center of debates over school choice in Florida and beyond. It came up repeatedly during Thursday’s panel discussion.

Seits, who is also an administrator at a Hillsborough County elementary school, said her oldest son could always get good grades and score well on tests. But he did not flourish until she enrolled him in the STEM magnet program at Hillsborough’s Middleton High School, where other kids shared his interest in technology and robotics. In other words, test scores showed her son was making progress, but she needed to find a school that met his needs on other counts. That, she said, “leaves a lot up to parents to have to research and understand” what options work best for their children.

Parent and panelist Shannon Coates said she, too, kept close tabs on what was happening in her daughter’s schools. Her daughter attended private schools with the help of the Florida tax credit scholarship program before moving to a performing arts conservatory in California. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

But Coates said she also tracked her daughter’s progress using the results from standardized tests. That let her know her daughter was performing on grade level when she left eighth grade to focus on dance. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, politics, philanthropy and more

Tax credit scholarships. Will the program drain $3 billion from public schools? Mostly false. PolitiFact.

florida-roundup-logoPolitics. Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab chides a local school board candidate who attacked the “toxic culture of education” for over-the-top political rhetoric.

Philanthropy. Teach for America recruits appear to be helping Miami-Dade students in math but not reading, a study shows. Miami Herald. An alumna of the program from Brooksville is now an “education superstar” in DC public schools, a Tampa Bay Times columnist writes. A prep school student raises money for laptops at a nearby Title I school. Tampa Bay Times. A Gates Foundation program aims to help more Jacksonville students receive full scholarships. WJCT.

Testing. Some superintendents question falling FCAT writing scores. Tampa Bay Times.

Administration. Administrators reprimand a Hernando County band director who rallied parents behind his program. Tampa Bay Times. The Palm Beach school baord approves hires. Palm Beach Post.

Labor. Collier County teachers say if they’re required to be on annual contracts, their principals should be, too. Naples Daily News.

STEM. A UF project aims to help students improve in algebra. StateImpact.

Facilities. Escambia County school district sells off the last of its vacant property. Pensacola News-Journal.

Summer. The City of Jacksonville runs camps for at-risk kids. Florida Times-Union. Libraries in the city aim to help students over the summer. Florida Times-Union.

Employee conduct. A Hillsborough teacher faces criminal charges after leaving the scene of a car wreck. Tampa Bay Times.

Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: MO limits school choice, Dems supporting vouchers, Reps opposing vouchers


Missouri Board of Education

The Missouri State Board of Education took steps this week to curtail public school transfers between school districts. State law currently allows students in failing public school districts (read unaccredited districts) to transfer to higher-performing districts. Receiving districts were required to accept all students, and sending districts were required to pay whatever was required.

In the first year, the Normandy School District outside St. Louis saw more than 900 students – about a quarter of all students – flee its borders to neighboring districts. That resulted in the district falling into financial insolvency before finally being taken over by the state.

travelsforchoiceNow that the state is in charge, it is trying to curtail transfers. The state will now limit payments to $7,200 per student; receiving districts may refuse transfers; and students must have attended a Normandy school for at least one semester during the 2012-13 school year. That last rule guarantees 131 students will be forced back into schools they just escaped. And that is a big problem considering some were willing to travel three hours a day to attend the school they wanted.

Worse still, the state is “resetting” the district’s accreditation status for three years to prevent any future students from leaving the district.

For students in Normandy Public Schools, school choice is limited to other public schools outside the district. School choice opponents can’t muddy the debate by claiming profit motives, or arguing that choice schools operate under a different set of rules, or lack accountability. With public school choice the issue boils down to its pure essence: finding the right school for that individual child. Any excuse to limit or eliminate that kind of choice can’t be focused on the students.

Grade: Needs Improvement


Marcus Brandon D-NC

Marcus Brandon D-NC

Rep. Marcus Brandon and Rep. Edward Hanes Jr.

Late last week, Democrats in North Carolina attempted to kill the state’s new voucher program by axing the $10 million appropriation in a budget amendment. Republicans mounted a defense, but according to Ann Doss Helms, a journalist at the Charlotte Observer, the most vigorous support for vouchers came from two Democrats.

Rep. Marcus Brandon argued public schools in his district weren’t enough to meet student needs. He didn’t blame public school teachers or principals, but a “bad system.” Brandon was troubled by his party’s unwillingness to support learning options for low-income students. “There is nothing unconstitutional about giving poor and minority children the same opportunity as other children,” he argued.

Rep. Edward Hanes Jr., meanwhile, called out members of his caucus. He noted several of his party’s members send their own kids to private schools, but want to deny the same options for low-income parents who need help paying tuition.

The amendment to kill the program failed 43-71.

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Migrant students, whistleblowers, campaigns and more

Tax credit scholarships. A Miami Herald guest column attacks the program for not being subject to the same regulations as the public school system. Students in the program should be assessed in science, FSU professor Paul Cottle writes in the Tallahassee Democrat.

florida-roundup-logoMigrant students. The Miami-Dade school board plans to seek more federal funding to accommodate an influx of migrant children fleeing from Central America. Miami Herald.

Whistleblowers. The Palm Beach school board tosses a retaliation complaint against its inspector general. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. More here. More school district employees become whistleblowers in a Leon County contracting scandal. Tallahassee Democrat.

Campaigns. An Orange County teacher whose speech blasting school reform spread around the Internet is now running for school board. Orlando Sentinel. Fields are set in many Southwest Florida school board races. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Charter schools. How does Florida’s sector stack up? Perhaps not so well. Flypaper.

Employee conduct. One Manatee school administrator is acquitted, and another convicted, in a high-profile sex abuse case. Sarasota Hearld-TribuneBradenton Herald.

Teachers. Most days, there are hundreds of substitutes teaching in Pinellas County classrooms. Tampa Bay Times. A report on a teacher prep paints an unflattering picture of Florida colleges. Extra Credit.

Summer. Pasco schools expand their summer course offerings. Tampa Bay Times. Parents don’t always make reading a priority after the school year ends, a survey shows. Orlando Sentinel.

 Attendance.  Hillsborough students are honored for 13 years of perfect attendance. Tampa Tribune.