Where school choice legislation stands in Florida

just a billWhen it comes to school choice legislation, lawmakers will have some differences to resolve when they return from their week-long break for Easter and Passover.

Here’s a look at where things stand on some of the issues we highlighted going into the legislative session, plus a few new ones that have emerged.

Charter schools: The House and Senate remain divided on what has become a contentious piece of legislation intended to make contract negotiations easier for charter schools. Democrats have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to add provisions restricting the growth of charter schools. The Senate has stripped the controversial provisions from its charter school bill, and its measure would simply ensure military commanders can have a role in establishing charter schools on their bases. Gov. Rick Scott has already signed separate legislation that endorses the creation of charter schools aimed at military families.

Dual enrollment:  Changes to the way the state funds dual enrollment courses created a dilemma for some private schools. They could either limit student participation or be required to reimburse colleges for their tuition. The House’s education funding bill could address that issue by clarifying that private schools do not have to reimburse colleges for dual enrollment costs.

Collegiate high schools: The Senate last week approved legislation by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, that would require community colleges to make collegiate high schools available in every school district in the state. The House has drawn up a companion measure which has passed three committees but not yet come to the floor.

Tax credit scholarships: The House last week passed a bill allowing families whose incomes are too high to qualify for the current program to receive partial scholarships. Other provisions that could have sped up the growth of the program have been removed. Whether, when and in what form the Senate will hear the bill all remain unclear, but testing for scholarship students remains a point of contention. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Education savings accounts: The House and Senate have moved further apart on their plans to create personalized accounts for students with disabilities. But the bills are making progress. The House has passed a plan, combined with its tax credit scholarship legislation, that would be managed by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up for Students, while the Senate has proposed creating a program run by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, public school choice, testing and more

Charter schools. Democratic lawmakers refer to state captial funds for charter schools as a “theft” from public education. Tampa Bay Times. Creative Loafing. Times columnist John Romano tees off on the subject.

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. Most parents in Lee County get their first choice in the district’s choice lottery. Naples Daily News.

Testing. The main round FCAT English and math tests is being administered for the last time. Sentinel School Zone. Panama City News-Herald. StateImpact looks at what’s next. Schools are moving to computerized testing. Pensacola News Journal. A Southwest Florida mother starts “opting out” of assessments. Fort Myers News-Press.

Teacher quality. WJCT begins an in-depth look at Duval schools’ efforts to recruit teachers where they are most needed, which continues here.

Technical Centers. Palm Beach County’s auto shop is closed after student injuries. Palm Beach Post.

Math instruction. Students who struggle with Algebra I can put time in over the summer. Tampa Tribune.

Disasters. An audit finds issues with Palm Beach County Schools’ emergency plan. Palm Beach Post.

Transportation. Employee concerns mount over the state of the system in Hillsborough. Tampa Tribune. Gradebook.

Teacher conduct. Charges are sought against a Manatee County teacher accused of inappropriately touching a student. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Florida’s school funding lawsuit veers into school choice

A lawsuit filed four and a half years ago to seek more funding for Florida public schools is spreading its reach into the state’s school choice programs.

Groups of parents and students sued the state in the fall of 2009, arguing Florida schools were under-funded and under-performing, in violation of the state constitution.

The original lawsuit never mentioned charter schools or private school choice programs. And it’s not clear yet what legal arguments plaintiffs intend to make about such programs.

But as they prepare the case before a Leon County judge next year, the plaintiffs and their attorneys have indicated in court documents and public statements that they plan “attacking” school choice programs in their legal broadside against the state’s education policies.

The plaintiffs have sought depositions of state education officials about the state’s tax credit scholarship program, and have issued subpoenas to half a dozen organizations involved in Florida charter schools. (The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

The central claim of inadequate funding is only part of the case, which aims to put multiple aspects of Florida’s education system on trial. As plaintiff’s attorney and former Democratic House Speaker Jon Mills put it during a recent event at the University of Florida, the case argues that “this is not a high-quality system.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs spent years tangling with lawyers for the state over whether a court could rule on those issues. After the state Supreme Court declined in 2012 to hear the state’s arguments for dismissing the case, the plaintiffs began rebuilding it.

One of the plaintiffs’ lead attorneys, Neil Chonin of Southern Legal Counsel, said a lot has changed since the lawsuit was originally filed. In a brief phone interview, he declined to discuss details of the case or the underlying legal theories, but said the plaintiffs are “just beginning” to amass the facts they will use to reformulate their arguments.

Last fall, he offered a preview of his fact-finding approach when he appeared with Mills at UF’s law school. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, testing, textbooks and more

Tax credit scholarships. The House passes legislation expanding access to the program to students with higher incomes. Associated PressNews Service of Florida. It’s among  a host of issues lawmakers expect to tackle after a week-long holiday break. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Daytona Beach News-Journal scrutinizes the program in an article that states, incorrectly, that a failed 2012 state constitutional amendment would have “cleared the way” for private school vouchers. A second article also deals with religious schools. The program is administered by Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog.


Testing. Parents complain that FCAT conflicts with Passover. Tampa Bay Times. Students prepare to tackle the test one last time in English and math. StateImpactLakeland LedgerDaytona Beach News-Journal. Tampa Tribune. Palm Beach Post. The stakes are high at an F-rated Miami-Dade middle school. Miami Herald. Collier schools are in a race against time to create new end of course exams. Naples Daily News. Lawmakers should get an earful from constituents on testing, including for students on tax-credit scholarships, Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell writes.

Virtual schools. A new blended learning model debuts in West Boynton Beach. Sun-Sentinel.

Magnet schools. A Montessori magnet in Fort Lauderdale marks a milestone. Sun-Sentinel. What was once a last-chance home for struggling students is now a career-education magnet program. Gainesville Sun.

Textbooks. A bill aimed at paring back the state’s role in adopting instructional materials survives a narrow vote in the Senate. Associated PressNews Service of Florida. Gainesville Sun. Gradebook. Scripps/Tribune.

Student Privacy. A bill banning the collection of biometric data and other sensitive information is headed to Gov. Rick Scott. Scripps/Tribune. Ocala Star-Banner. Associated Press.

Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: vouchers in TN, ESAs and scholarships in FL, tax credit critics in KS & more

MondayRoundUp_magentaAlabama: Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, says the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows students in failing districts to transfer to private schools, is a failed experiment (Anniston Star). A lower court dismisses a suit filed by students to stop the state’s school choice program (Associated Press).

Alaska: A private school tax credit bill passes through the House (Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch).

Arizona: School districts are worried about education savings accounts expanding (Ahwatukee Foothill News). Applications for state voucher programs doubled over last year (Associated Press).

California: More students in southern California are switching to virtual schools (Daily Press). Two charter schools in LA are given permission to enter into negotiations with the school district to take over vacant school buildings (LA Times).

Connecticut: A group called Connecticut Voices for Children reports that school choice programs segregate special needs and English Language Learners (New Haven Register, Connecticut Mirror). However, that same report shows charter schools are far more likely to serve minority students.

D.C.: The district releases the full data on parental school choice lottery preferences (Washington Post). Mayor Vincent Gray outlines a new school boundary proposal that includes lottery-based open enrollment (Washington Post).

Delaware: Stacie Beck and Eleanor Craig, associate professors of economics at the University of Delaware, make the case for tax-credit scholarships (The News Journal).

Florida: A bill to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and create education savings accounts for special-needs students  advances out of the House on a mostly party-line vote (Capital SoupOrlando SentinelWFSUSun SentinelFlorida CurrentredefinED). (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Earlier in the week, a House committee voted to strip the tax credit proposal of additional funding but the bill will still increase the income eligibility (Orlando SentinelPalm Beach PostTampa Bay TimesAssociated Press, News-JournalredefinED). Continue Reading →

Florida House approves school choice legislation

After a contentious debate, the Florida House approved school choice legislation that would create education savings accounts for special needs students and allow students with higher incomes to participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

Rep. Gaetz

Rep. Gaetz

Friday’s 73-43 vote fell on party lines. Many of the Democrats who opposed the bill focused their arguments on testing and accountability. So did one notable supporter: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Gaetz said he believes in school choice. But he also said he agreed with Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, who on Wednesday proposed an amendment that would require students receiving scholarships to take standardized tests that allow for more direct comparisons with public school students.

Florida’s system of standardized testing and school grades, Gaetz said, helps explain why Florida’s graduation rates have risen and its achievement gaps have shrunk. Republicans, he said, have been “the party of accountability.”

“We should be the ones that seize this mantle of accountability, because it’s worked,” Gaetz said. “That’s why we’re doing so well in our public schools.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Gaetz’s father, Senate President Don Gaetz, has also called for more comparable standardized tests to be given to scholarship students. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Democrats also seized on a provision that would expand program eligibility to families whose incomes are currently too high to qualify. The bill would allow partial scholarships, on a sliding scale, to families earning up to 260 percent of the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a household income of $62,010 would be eligible for half the scholarship amount. The scholarship is currently worth $4,880 a year.

Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said the scholarships were “designed for the truly needy.” But the new eligibility standards would “get close to the middle class.”

“I believe in public money for public schools,” he said. “I was willing to make an exception here. I’d like it to stay the way it is.”

In his closing arguments on the bill, its sponsor, Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said wealthy parents have always had the ability to enroll their children in private schools, and the existing programs help people with lower incomes. He said the changes would expand options for the “largest class” – people with middle incomes.

Supporters of school choice, he said, are on “the right side of history.”

“It’s coming. It’s happening. It’s a feature of education that is going to happen. Look around. All the fights are between institutions and groups that are somehow embedded in a system,” he said. “Forget about the system. Let’s talk about the kids.”

Why are the FEA, PTA blocking school choice for low-income parents?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Why would the Florida Education Association fight school choice options aimed at helping the students who struggle the most in public schools?

Editor’s note: This post recently appeared as an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun. It was published before the House proposal was changed to include no increase in the program cap. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

In a state that gives parents an expanding array of options on where to send their children to school, the Legislature is looking this year to improve a choice it gives to the least among us. That some education groups are fighting it is disappointing.

The bill provides for a modest expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship, which this year serves 59,765 low-income students in 1,425 private schools. The average household income for these students is only 9 percent above poverty. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half live with a single parent.

Research shows us they were struggling academically in the public school they left behind, and standardized tests show us they are now achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Why would worthy organizations, such as the Florida Education Association and the Florida PTA, fight so hard to deny this opportunity?

Many of the opponents are turning to distortion and deception, as well. One of them wrote in The Sun recently that the bill represented “the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history” and would “divert $2.3 billion… between now and 2016.”

For the record, the bill would add $30 million to the cap for each of the next five years, which amounts to an 8.3 percent increase next year and 3.5 percent increase in the fifth year. Those increases add up to $90 million by 2016, not $2.3 billion. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Teacher quality, charter schools, vouchers and more

Teacher quality. The Duval County school district announces a incentive program to bring more teachers into high-needs areas. Florida Times-UnionWJCT. WJXT. First Coast News.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A Broward charter once on the verge of closing can stay open after finding a permanent home. Sun-Sentinel. A former astronaut addresses students at three Lake Wales charter schools. Lakeland Ledger.

Vouchers. A poll commissioned by Sunshine State News finds voters do not support using “taxpayer funds” for scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools.

Magnet schools. A Hernando County magnet program uses field trips to teach kids about environmental science. Tampa Bay Times.

Career education. Pinellas schools name a new director. Gradebook. Clay County grows its career academies. WJXT.

Facilities: Business groups back a half-cent sales tax for school construction and technology in Volusia. Daytona Beach News-Journal. After a $55 million renovation, a Miami high school is being rededicated as a “palace of learning.” Miami Herald.

Early learning. A change of providers in Duval County means Head Start teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. Florida Times-Union.

Continue Reading →