Common Core + school choice can help low-income kids

The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick was unimpressed with my explanation for why I expect a growing embrace of Common Core State Standards by parents in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and the private schools that serve them – and why I think that’s a good thing. Jason is a school choice stalwart with whom I often agree, so let me try again.

Common Core standards in math and English/language arts are widely adopted, high quality and transparent. They’re obviously not a silver bullet. But if implemented properly, they can help parents and teachers better educate the low-income children that are part of the tax credit scholarship program.

The reason? Academic stability and continuity are essential for these kids. When they apply for scholarships, they tend to be the lowest-performing students in the lowest-performing district schools. They face extraordinary personal and academic obstacles. Within the scholarship program, they tend to change private schools frequently.

And all too often, here’s what happens: They’re told by their current school that they’re excelling in Algebra, for instance, only to be told when they transfer to another school that they’re a year behind. We hear this complaint regularly from parents. We know this discontinuity is an issue for them.

My guess is, as more of them learn about these new multi-state standards, they will increasingly choose private schools that are using them. This consumer pressure, in turn, will spur more private schools to adopt the common standards, so they can successfully compete in Florida’s robust school choice market.

Private schools that adopt all or parts of these new standards will not sacrifice independence, flexibility or creativity, although assessments do guide curriculum and instruction. There are many ways to teach students how to, for instance, understand and solve polynomial expressions employing multiplication and division. Students who move from a New Age Montessori school to a fundamentalist Southern Baptist school will still be exposed to different curricula, teaching methods and school cultures, even if both schools are using the same content and performance standards in math and reading.

It’s true Florida’s private schools are being pressured to adopt these new standards. But the pressure is coming from the market, not the state or federal government. Continue Reading →


Peter Flanigan, a guiding light of the school choice movement, R.I.P.

Peter Flanigan

Peter Flanigan

Peter Flanigan, one of the giants of the education reform movement, passed away last week at age 90. The Wall Street Journal featured this tribute in its Saturday edition.

Peter unknowingly recruited me into the parental school choice movement before even meeting me. My first (and accidental) exposure to non-public education was in 1996 through a program Peter established, the Patrons Program. This program matched business people with individual Catholic schools in poor parts of New York City. I, along with my good friend John Griffin, were matched with Christ the King School in the South Bronx. We gave it money, sure – but it gave me an education.

For the first time I met poor parents who would do anything to see their children get a good education. To pay for the $3,200 tuition, these parents would work two jobs and even cut off their TV service. They did this when there was a free public school nearby. They didn’t say the public schools weren’t any good; they just weren’t right for their children. This experience prompted me to start a private scholarship program in Tampa Bay in 1998. We received 12,000 applications for our 700 scholarships. I plunged into the movement and never looked back.

I finally met Peter in 1999 when I joined the board of Children First America, a non-profit dedicated to bringing more school choice to low-income parents. He was already a board member, of course. I was amazed what he had already accomplished in life. The Journal account doesn’t mention his stint as a naval pilot in World War Two. Can you imagine a life in which that’s a throwaway item? I had the great pleasure of both working with Peter and for him; in 2001 I left my business to become president of CFA. Peter’s advice and guidance to me during this period were invaluable.

Peter remained a guiding light of the school choice movement to the end.  He remained on the boards – and was a vital, contributing member – of all the successor organizations to CFA until his passing. Other than perhaps John Walton, I can think of no other person who has done more to empower low-income parents to do what is best for their kids.

I’m sure they’re together now, comparing notes on the movement’s progress. I only hope we can live up to their examples and their expectations.


Florida schools roundup: School grades, career academies, kindergarten & more

Interim chief: Florida’s chancellor of public  schools, Pam  Stewart, will step in again as interim education commissioner after Tony Bennett’s resignation. The Buzz. Is all this hoopla a sign the top education post should be an elected position? The Buzz. And the Sun Sentinel editorialized, “Rather than a divisive leader, let’s find a crusader who can rally disparate people around a common shared value: creating a prosperous future for Florida’s children.” More from John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times.

florida roundup logoHot mess: The Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell writes that even before Tony Bennett resigned, we knew things were messed up with Florida education. Bennett’s controversy casts a pall on school grading systems. Times/Herald. More from TCPalm and Tallahassee Democrat. “If the goal of school grades is to clearly communicate quality, then Florida has consistently earned an F,” writes Mark Woods of the Florida Times-Union.

Civil  rights: The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Southern Poverty Law Center file a complaint alleging the state’s race-based education goals for minority students violate civil rights law. Sun Sentinel.

Outreach: Broward County’s South Plantation High School students start a website for socially isolated middle school students. Sun Sentinel. Miami’s Edison High offers dual-language program in English and Creole. Miami Herald. A preschool for students with autism expands into an academy for 5- and 6-year-olds with the disorder. Miami Herald.

Charter schools: An F grade for Orange County’s Renaissance Charter School at Chickasaw Trail could result in its parent chain, Charter Schools USA, losing its “high-performing” status. Orlando Sentinel. Academica is taking over the small Somerset Bay at Pinewood Acres charter in East Kendall, but hasn’t told residents how many students to expect. Miami Herald. Polk  County school district receives five new charter applications. The Ledger.

Career academies: The Miami-Dade school district hopes to start a Transportation Academy at three of its schools to meet projected growth of new jobs. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →


redefinED roundup: a Rand Paul pitch, a Tony Bennett resignation, a Milton Friedman birthday & more

MondayRoundUp_magentaArizona: David Garcia, a Democrat and candidate for the open State Superintendent of Public Instruction seat, opposes private school choice so long as public schools are not “fully funded.” Garcia says he is a supporter of public charter schools (Eastern Arizona Courier).

California: Rocketship charter schools expand and modify their blended learning model to empower teachers with more flexibility and control of their classroom (Education Next).

Florida: Step Up For Students will issue more than 60,000 scholarships to low-income students this school year, allowing many more parents to send their kids to private schools (Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald). Meanwhile, school choice champion and education commissioner Tony Bennett resigns amidst a school grading controversy in Indiana (Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald). Florida school choice supporters are disappointed to see him go ( redefinEd).

Kansas: Georgia State Rep. Alicia Morgan (D-Cobb County), a rising star in school choice and ed reform circles, visits Wichita, Kansas to discuss benefits of school choice ( A Kansas City charter school has been sued because it owes over $10.6 million to creditors, with much of the debt coming from buying, renovating and equipping the school building (Kansas City Star).

Louisiana: The state’s new “Course Choice” online program now has more than 1,000 students on the wait list (Education Week). More than 3,000 students enrolled in it (Politico). The Louisiana Department of Education has received more than 8,000 applications to participate in the state school voucher program this fall, up from about 3,000 last year (WAFB 9).

Maine: Gov. Paul LePage says Maine needs more charter schools (Main Public Broadcasting Network) but the state senate president disagrees, saying traditional public schools are underfunded ( The governor continues to defend charter schools from critics (Portland Press Herald). Continue Reading →


Michelle Malkin has Florida wrong


You’re doing it wrong!

The new piece by Michelle Malkin on Jeb Bush, Tony Bennett and education reform in the Sunshine State is a touch heavy on hasty generalizations. The most jarring may be the way Malkin lumped Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, in with the grading scandal in Indiana that embroiled the current Florida commissioner of education, Tony Bennett.

Malkin begins,

“[Bennett’s] disgraceful grade-fixing scandal is the perfect symbol of all that’s wrong with the federal education schemes peddled by Bennett and his mentor, former GOP governor Jeb Bush: phony academic standards, crony contracts, and big-government and big-business collusion masquerading as “reform.”

Tony Bennett was a strong supporter of school choice and common core. His resignation over issues related to A-F grading has now encouraged opportunists on the left and right to attack. Malkin begins her piece by lumping education policy together in one big pot and, without consideration, dismisses everything that was accomplished in Florida. Malkin didn’t take the time to separate out education policy in her hurried effort to attack Common Core.

And this is where Michelle Malkin is getting it wrong.

Malkin, in this respect, is following the approach of Diane Ravitch or Florida’s Fund Education Now organization. They tend to take advantage of any grading scandal to oppose and roll back A-F grading scales, accountability, teacher evaluations, and to besmirch the progress of any other reform attached to Bennett or Bush. Malkin is using this opportunity to attack Common Core, but her careless generalizations do more harm to the school choice and accountability movement.

Whether you agree or disagree with Common Core you simply cannot deny the strong growth in education achievement seen in Florida. Jeb Bush’s many reforms were a part of the growth. Denying that because you disagree with one unimplemented policy is irresponsible.


Enrollment hit to Florida Virtual School drawing lawmakers’ attention

Florida lawmakers are starting to key in on a recent funding change that has put a big dent in enrollment at Florida Virtual School, with one promising the issue will be revisited in coming months and another saying action against school districts may be warranted.

Rep. Carl Zimmermann

Rep. Carl Zimmermann

When legislative committees meet in Tallahassee in September, “I can guarantee you this is going to be discussed,” said Rep. Carl Zimmermann, a Pinellas Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee.

At issue is a change to the state’s education funding formula that lawmakers approved last spring. Under the old method, districts received their full per-student allocation even when that full-time student was taking one course with Florida Virtual School, which also received funding for that student. Now under that same scenario, the district receives six-sevenths of the allotment and FLVS receives one-seventh. The more courses a student takes online, the less money the district and FLVS receive.

Even before the recalculated formula went into effect last month, Florida Virtual School, the state’s leading provider of online classes and among the nation’s largest, reported dramatic declines in enrollment. They expect a $34 million loss. More troublesome, they say, is students are being turned away from a popular school choice option.

They say they’re still getting calls from students and parents, complaining that schools are making them take online classes through the district – or not letting them sign up at all. The situation prompted the Florida Department of Education to warn at least 10 districts to stop the practice, which may violate state law. And last month, after more reports surfaced, DOE’s chancellor of public schools sent another warning – this time in a memo to superintendents statewide. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: Tony Bennett, longer school days, dual enrollment & more

What they’re saying about Tony Bennett in Florida: Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush offered praise for Florida’s education commissioner. The Buzz. Sen. Dwight Bullard calls for more input on the state’s next education chief. Sun Sentinel.  Orange County schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins’ name is coming up as a possible replacement. Orlando Sentinel. Despite a national reputation in education reform, Florida hasn’t found it easy to attract — or keep — a leader since Gov. Rick Scott took office. Miami Herald. StateImpact Florida shares Bennett’s resignation letter. Florida long has allowed political donations to influence education policy, the very allegation that forced Bennett to quit, writes the Palm Beach Post. The result of Bennett’s abrupt departure is more turmoil for Florida’s education system. Tampa Bay Times. More from the Post, Florida Times-Union, News Service of Florida, Tampa Bay Times, Tallahassee Democrat and The Tampa Tribune.

florida roundup logoWhat others are saying: Two Indianapolis public schools might never have been taken over by the state if Bennett had offered the same flexibility he granted a year later to the Christel House Academy charter school. Indianapolis Star. Indiana’s state grading system now faces uncertainty. Associated Press.  Bennett’s rising star in school reform is fading. Indianapolis Star. “This is, in my view, very sad news, as Bennett is widely regarded as one of the country’s smartest, savviest, and most effective education reformers,” writes Reihan Salam for the National Review. In less than a year, Bennett has been ousted from two leading education positions, writes Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post. “Tony didn’t need the hassle.  He took on these fights because they were the right ones,” writes Neil Ruddock for the EdFly blog. More from the National Review, Hugh Hewitt, Politico, and several top education policy analysts weigh in on the Flypaper blog.

School transfers: Fewer than 300 students will be transferring out of overcrowded schools under a new Orange County transfer rule. School Zone.

Longer day: St. Lucie Elementary students will attend school for an extra hour each day to help improve their reading scores. TCPalm.

New posts: Daryl Ward will move up from assistant principal to principal at the Polk County Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. The Ledger. Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills has selected Scott Boyes to be executive director of elementary schools. Bradenton Herald.

Dual enrollment: Pasco Hernando Community College and school districts squabble over administrative fees following legislative changes that shifted program funding from colleges to the districts. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →


Tony Bennett’s resignation disappoints school choice supporters

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

In mid-June, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett visited a modest retreat on the outskirts of Tampa where a University of Notre Dame program was hosting a symposium on school choice. Fewer than 40 people were in attendance, but Bennett spoke and answered questions for an hour.

“I will never ever change my stripes on school choice,” he told them. “If giving poor kids an opportunity cost me my job,” he continued, referencing the fledgling voucher program and his electoral defeat in Indiana, that’s a “pretty good trade off.”

Even in a state that leads the nation in expanding school choice, Bennett was arguably the most pro-school-choice education commissioner Florida ever had. Choice supporters expressed shock and disappointment with Thursday’s announcement that he was abruptly resigning after a two-day barrage of negative stories about grade changes at an Indiana charter school.

“This is a sad moment for Florida education,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Miami, a member of three House education committees. Bennett was a “rock solid proponent for students, accountability and choice.”

“It’s unfortunate and I’m very saddened,” said Florida Board of Education Chair Gary Chartrand, who was attending the KIPP conference in Las Vegas Thursday. “I told him, ‘We think the world of you and we’ll weather the storm together.’ But he made the decision to leave. Obviously, the turnover is not a good situation.”

Bennett’s replacement will be the fourth education commissioner under Gov. Rick Scott, who pushed out highly regarded Eric J. Smith in favor of Gerard Robinson, who then resigned after high-profile glitches with the state’s testing and grading system. A national search to replace Robinson drew no star-power candidates until Indiana voters put Bennett on the market.

“How much can we take?” said T. Willard Fair, a former Board of Education chair who co-founded the state’s first charter school and resigned in 2011 to protest the ouster of Commissioner Smith. “We lost an outstanding commissioner in Eric Smith. We were blessed when Tony Bennett became available. To lose two great intellectuals is absolutely devastating.”

The leadership churn has put smudges on Florida’s reputation as a national leader in ed reform. It has also come as thorny questions about the growth of Florida’s school choice sectors remain unresolved, including funding for charter schools and online learning. Continue Reading →