Why school voucher opponents should reconsider

In a blog entry last week, “I’m rethinking my opposition to school vouchers. Convince me,” Nicole Stockdale, the assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, said she is grappling with whether to support school vouchers.

What stimulated Nicole’s dilemma is a bill in the Texas Legislature to allow low-income families to use tax credit scholarships (often referred to as school vouchers) to pay private school tuition and fees. She deserves a serious reply to her challenge, and, given I am president of a Florida nonprofit that administers the country’s largest tax credit scholarship program for low-income children, I thought I’d try.

Nicole identified three traditional anti- school vouchers arguments she wanted help refuting:

By allowing low-income students to have the same schooling options as more affluent students aren’t we delaying the process of improving ineffective district schools?

This is not an either-or proposition. All schools should be engaged in continual improvement, but this is not a rationale for denying low-income families access to additional schooling options.

Researchers studying Florida’s tax credit scholarship program found urban district schools improved when our program was first introduced. They hypothesized that the possibility of losing students caused these district schools to focus more attention on meeting the needs of low-income students. This same study also found the district schools most impacted by the loss of scholarship students – Florida now has about 51,000 high-poverty students on scholarship – had proportionally higher test score gains among their own low-income students.

So in Florida we’ve found that both the low-income students on scholarship and the low-income students who remain in district schools are improving at the same time. This finding confirms that different students are successful in different environments, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for helping students learn. The relationship between the school and the child is the key. That’s why allowing all parents – including low-income parents – to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs is so necessary.

What about students who don’t choose to attend magnet, charter or private schools? Will we end up with non-magnet district schools comprised only of students from apathetic families? 

Researchers have found Florida’s tax credit scholarships attract some of the state’s highest poverty and lowest-performing students. In essence, our program does the opposite of creaming. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: parent trigger, virtual school funding, diploma tracks & more

Parent trigger. The Senate Education Committee will take up parent trigger Monday. Gradebook.

florida roundup logoVirtual school funding. The News Service of Florida writes up a potentially big funding hit to Florida Virtual School.

Charter school funding. The House Choice & Innovation Committee considers legislation to give charters a recurring stream of general revenue for construction and maintenance. The Buzz.

Diplomas. After some tension, the Senate Appropriations Committee agrees to changes in graduation requirements that some say will lower standards and others say will create needed alternative routes tied to career education. Coverage from Gradebook, Florida Times Union, The Florida Current.

School recognition money. It’s wrong that a lot of hard-working schools don’t get any. Florida Voices.

School dress codes. Saggy pants lead the Polk County School Board to revisit its dress code. Lakeland Ledger. Continue Reading →

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Former Democratic lawmaker joins Step Up For Students board

Al-Lawson--for-webAl Lawson, an iconic Democratic lawmaker who served in the Florida Legislature for nearly three decades, has joined a nonprofit board that oversees state-supported scholarships for low-income schoolchildren.

Lawson was selected last week to serve on the corporate board of Step Up For Students, which is a state-approved “scholarship funding organization” that provides Tax Credit Scholarships this year to 51,000 students whose household income meets the threshold for free or reduced-price lunch. (Step Up For Students also oversees this blog.) The program is fueled by $229 million in corporate contributions that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit from the state.

“Throughout my legislative career, I was always concerned about students, especially minority students, who had no option when the regular school wasn’t working for them,” Lawson said. “The most important thing is to give these kids an opportunity to succeed, and this scholarship is one of those opportunities.”

Lawson was praised by Step Up board chairman John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman who helped persuade lawmakers to adopt the law in 2001. “Senator Lawson has been a smart, compassionate leader in Florida for years,” Kirtley said. “We’re thrilled Step Up and our families will benefit from his judgment and experience.”

Two-thirds of the students on the scholarship are black or Hispanic, the majority live in homes with only one parent, and their average household income is only 6 percent above poverty. State research shows they are the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left behind and, on their latest standardized test scores, they achieved the same gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally.

Lawson, who initially voted against the creation of the scholarship in 2001, told a newspaper reporter in 2007 that he could no longer oppose a learning option aimed at economically disadvantaged students with desperate needs: “When you have a lot of poor kids in your area that need help, and you have people saying, ‘We’re willing to work with these kids,’ … it’s hard to say no.” By 2010, he was co-sponsor of a bill that expanded the program and made the closing argument on the Senate floor. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: virtual school funding, gun-toting teachers, Florida model & more

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Virtual school. Florida Virtual School supporters fear a tweak in how per-course funding is calculated will result in big cuts. The Buzz and Tallahassee Democrat.

Charter schools. A Palm Beach County charter school is appealing the school board’s decision to close it, saying the district didn’t do enough to help it, writes the Palm Beach Post. Converting a Lake County Montessori school into a charter would be a good thing, writes Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie.

School security. Gradebook: “A bill that would require Florida schools to have an armed officer on campus unless a principal designates an employee with a concealed carry permit to have a weapon has passed its first hurdle in the state House.” More from The Buzz Miami Herald Sarasota Herald Tribune, Associated Press.

The Florida model. South Carolina should pay attention to what Florida is doing; the Palmetto State spends more per student and yet its average performance for all students is below the average for low-income students in Florida. Charleston City Paper.

Diploma options. The House Education Committee likes the idea. StateImpact Florida. Continue Reading →

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Bert Gall: Indiana school voucher ruling further marginalizes Florida court decision

Editor’s note: This post was written by Bert Gall, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice and the institute’s lead attorney in the Indiana voucher case.

Gall

Gall

Yesterday, in Meredith v. Pence, the Indiana Supreme Court held that Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program (CSP) does not violate the state constitution. By unanimously rejecting the legal claims brought by national and state teachers unions, the court ensured that the school voucher program – which provides publicly funded scholarships that low-and middle-income families can use to send their children to private schools or out-of-district public schools – will survive. Indeed, because about 62 percent of Indiana families are eligible to receive the school vouchers, the legal path is now clear for the CPS to become the largest school-choice program in the country.

That’s great news, not just for Indiana parents, but for all parents in every state who are clamoring for school choice so they can provide their children with a quality education. This is because the unions’ legal claims focused on two types of constitutional provisions that are common in most other state constitutions: 1) provisions requiring that states provide a “general and uniform” system of public education; and 2) provisions forbidding state support of religion.

The unions principally rely upon these two types of provisions when they challenge school choice programs. But unfortunately for them, state courts – particularly those that have yet to apply their provisions to school-choice programs – will now look to the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision for guidance when evaluating claims brought under those provisions. Fortunately for advocates of school choice, that guidance is both persuasive and intellectually sound.

First, the court showed that the duty to provide a “general and uniform” system of public schools is not violated when a state provides educational options above and beyond that system. Significantly, the court refused to adopt the Florida Supreme Court’s terribly flawed decision in Bush v. Holmes, a 2006 case which held that Florida’s analogous provision only allows educational funds to be spent on public schools. Just as they did in Indiana, teachers unions are attempting to export the holding of that decision (in which the Florida Supreme Court ignored both the plain language of its provision and misapplied basic canons of statutory construction) to other states with similar provisions. That task just got a lot harder: Holmes was already considered a flawed decision and a legal outlier, but today’s decision further marginalizes it. Continue Reading →

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Brookings report: Big variations in school district performance deserve scrutiny

It shouldn’t be a secret that some Florida school districts perform better than others, despite more challenging demographics. Yet for years, it’s been a fact hidden in plain sight. Now, though, a leading think tank is giving the Legislature and the Florida Board of Education a compelling reason to take a closer look.

Brookings reportA new study from the Brookings Institution, released this morning, relays what FCAT data has been trying to tell us. Some Florida districts are chugging ahead despite a heavier load of high-poverty kids, while some with lighter loads lag. Some are making sustained gains relative to the pack, while others progress in fits and starts. The differences are puzzling, fascinating and, if you happen to live in an underperforming district, maddening. Yet they’ve been given scant attention by researchers, reporters, policy makers and advocacy groups.

Stepping into the vacuum, Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy analyzed a decade’s worth of test data for fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida and North Carolina. It controlled for race, income and other variables. And it came away with two findings: 1) School districts account for only a small percentage of the total variation in student achievement – 1 to 2 percent. (Teachers account for about 7 percent). But 2) the differences between districts are still so great that by the end of the school year, a kid in a higher-performing district can be nine weeks ahead – a quarter of a school year ahead – of a like student in a lower-performing district. Over time, the accumulated deficits would obviously be staggering.

“We suggest that a variable that can potentially increase productivity by 25% is important,” the researchers wrote. “These are differences that are large enough to warrant policy attention.”

It’s not just Florida and North Carolina that should be crunching more numbers. As the report notes, there are roughly 14,000 school districts nationwide. In this age of accountability and choice, parents routinely compare schools, and all kinds of think tanks compare states. But districts? Not so much.

The Brookings researchers pointed to districts that showed distinctive patterns relative to other districts – they were either consistently high performing, consistently low performing, dramatically rising or dramatically tanking. In Florida, the districts that fit that bill were Broward, Duval, Orange and Collier, respectively. These districts weren’t necessarily the ones that made the most pronounced pattern in each category. And the researchers offered a number of cautionary caveats, including, again, that they only looked at data for two grades, and that comparisons were made “relative to their demographic odds” – not to a set standard like FCAT pass rates.

But still, the trend lines punctuate the point: District performance deserves a spotlight. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: parent trigger, school security, Common Core & more

Parent trigger. Supporters of parent trigger, including Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, hold a press conference in an attempt to debunk myths. Sunshine State News, The Buzz, Gradebook, StateImpact Florida, Pensacola News Journal, Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Charter schools. Lawmakers appear lukewarm to Gov. Rick Scott’s call to let charter schools expand at will, reports the Palm Beach Post. Pinellas school board members oppose the parent trigger bill and legislation that could turn unused district buildings over to charters, reports the Tampa Tribune. Parents at a middle magnet in Lake Wales worry their kids might not be able to attend the city’s charter high school, reports the Winter Haven News Chief.

florida roundup logoSchool closings. The Brevard school board should accept help from the Canaveral Port Authority to rescue three schools slated for closing, writes Florida Today’s Matt Reed. Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning backs off plans to shutter an aging school in the wake of opposition, but the building has serious problems, reports Gradebook.

School security. A consultant recommends armed officers at every Hillsborough elementary school. Tampa Bay Times. More from the Tampa Tribune. The Sarasota County sheriff tells district officials he’s going to remove deputies from Sarasota city schools, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

School spending. New Manatee Superintendent Rick Mills is proposing to eliminate 188 positions. Bradenton Herald. Continue Reading →

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School vouchers ruled constitutional by Indiana Supreme Court

From the Indianapolis Star:

Public tax dollars may be used to fund private school tuition under Indiana’s school voucher program, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled today.

“We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the choice scholarship program, is within the legislature’s power under Article 8, Section 1, and that the enacted program does not violate either Section 4 or Section 6 of Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution,” the justices wrote in the 5-0 decision.

The ruling, on a teachers union-supported lawsuit from 2011, ends the legal challenge to the school voucher program at the state level. The case could be made again in federal court. But in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar program in Ohio, making any further appeal a long shot.

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