School choice scholarships don’t hurt public education

Editor’s note: This op-ed by Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill was written in response to a March 10 column by Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino. The Post published it online last night.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. A student who chooses an International Baccalaureate program is not hurting a student who picks a career academy. A student in a magnet school is not undermining students in her neighborhood school. We need to offer children different options because they learn in different ways.

Sixty-thousand of Florida’s poorest schoolchildren chose a private school this year with the help of a scholarship, and this 12-year-old program strengthens public education by expanding opportunity.

The program, called the Tax Credit Scholarship, is one learning option for low-income students who face the toughest obstacles, and is part of an expanding universe of educational choices that last year served 1.5 million — or 42 of every 100 — Florida students in PreK-12. Those who suggest scholarships for low-income children harm public education are wrong. These scholarships and the opportunities they provide strengthen public education.

The state’s covenant is to children, not institutions, and these low-income students are being given options their families could not otherwise afford. That their chosen schools are not run by school districts makes them no different than charter schools or McKay Scholarship schools or university lab schools or online courses or dual college enrollment. That the state supports these scholarships is no different than the state paying for these same students to attend a district school. These scholarships are publicly funded, publicly regulated, public education.

Why, then, would a Palm Beach Post columnist suggest that scholarships for low-income children come “at the expense of public education”?

Independent groups and state agencies have repeatedly concluded that these scholarships, worth $4,880 this year, actually save the state money. The most recent projection came from the Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, which placed the savings last year at $57.9 million. While it is regrettably true that district, charter and virtual schools have suffered financial cutbacks in recent years, they were not caused by these scholarships. In fact, this scholarship program was impacted by those same cuts.

The bill the Legislature is considering this year helps reduce the waiting list for this scholarship, so it is important to know who it serves. On average, the scholarship students live only 9 percent above poverty, more than two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and more than half come from single-parent homes. State research also shows they were also the lowest performers in the public schools they left behind.

These students are required to take a nationally norm-referenced test yearly, and the encouraging news is that they have been achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally.

The new world of customized public education is not a zero-sum game. Continue Reading →

Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Unions unite for school choice, public school choice gains ground in FL

MrGibbonsReportCardNew York Unions

Unions uniting for school choice? You might think you woke up in an alternate dimension but no, this news comes from New York.

Earlier this week, leaders from several unions, including the New York City police and fire unions, called for the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass a school choice program which will help fund $150 million worth of private education for students of need.

The proposed bill isn’t devoted exclusively to private school choice, and perhaps that sweetened the pot.  It will allow tax credits to be issued for teacher reimbursements; classroom projects; art, music and sports instruction; as well as scholarships for private schools. Half of the $300 million in available credits will be reserved for public schools, leaving $150 million for private school scholarships.

The teacher unions still oppose school choice, and the bill. But this represents a monumental shift in thinking among union members on education policy.

Grade: Satisfactory


Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools

Nikolai Vitti wants to win students back to Duval County public schools. His plan would allow parents open enrollment access to any public school in the district. According to the Florida Times-Union, this would be the “first blanket, open enrollment policy of its kind” of any major urban district in Florida.

Vitti told the newspaper: “For me the conversation begins with empowering parents. I believe the parents are best situated to make the right decisions for their child. They’re likely to invest more in their child’s education and to own the process more if they have a choice.”

That all sounds good to me, but we will still need to read the fine print when it emerges later. How long will the open enrollment window last? How long before transportation is provided to choice schools? Will parents get to change their mind during the middle of the school year? District open enrollment policies are often fairly limited. At the same time, more choice is better than no choice.

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →

Florida Roundup: School choice, tax credit scholarships, Common Core and more

Public-school choice. A plan to create public-school choice throughout Duval County divides the school board, the Florida Times-Union reports. Some board members warn of “unintended consequences.” WJXT. More from First Coast News and WJCT.

florida-roundup-logoTax credit scholarships. The St. Augustine Record editorial board comes out against legislation that would expand the program.

School choice. A Sun-Sentinel op-ed tees off on the a range of choice options, arguing they run counter to the state constitutional provision requiring a “uniform” education system,.while a separate guest column argues choice programs open opportunities to minority students, and opposition is being fueled by unions.

Magnet schools. A student in the jazz band at an Osceola County arts magnet program advanced to a national competition. Orlando Sentinel.

Common Core. Gov. Rick Scott stands by the standards as opponents see a lack of action in the Legislature. Miami Herald. 

Textbooks. Bill to put adoption decisions totally in district hands appears to be getting support in both chambers of the Legislature. Gradebook. Palm Beach County officials oppose it. Extra Credit.

Funding. The state’s revenue picture got even better this week, and the Florida House wants to increase spending on public schools. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Current.

School boards. The Hernando school board approves a re-organization plan. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher pay. A mediator’s decision could pave the way for raises in Orange County. Orlando Sentinel.

Poverty. Blessings in a Backpack helps fight hunger among students in Seminole County. Sentinel.

Florida gets better marks for digital learning

A digital learning advocacy group says Florida is one of 22 states that improved their policies over the past year.

Digital Learning mapFlorida ranks second out of 50 states in Digital Learning Now’s latest annual report card, trailing only Utah. That’s where it stood last year, too, but several pieces of legislation passed in 2013 helped the state raise its score from a B-plus to an A-minus.

Overall, states passed 132 new digital-learning laws last year, according to the report. Florida accounted for seven of them.

They included SB 1514, a controversial overhaul of the funding formula for virtual courses that could eventually allow more online-course providers to receive state funding, and HB 7029, which among other things requires the Department of Education to create an online course catalog and lays the groundwork for more “course choice.”

“In Florida, we are trying to expand access for students, while helping to demystify digital learning for the public so that they are more comfortable with these new models of learning,” Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is quoted as saying in the report.

The digital-learning group is backed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is led by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

While Florida’s polices get good marks in most areas, its score suffers in the categories that measure access to Internet-connected devices for teachers and students, and the availability of high-speed broadband connections for schools.

Some lawmakers say they plan to address those issues this session by requiring school districts to draft long-term technology plans and setting aside more funding for technology needs.

School choice, accountability & the problem with sameness

penaltyAccountability in education has been a contentious issue for decades. Unfortunately, the word accountability is too often used to mean “sameness” rather than “to be held responsible for results.” The misuse of the term complicates school choice debates as both choice supporters and critics tend to forget the political and historical context surrounding education “accountability.”

Take Wisconsin’s voucher program. Republican lawmakers proposed an “accountability” bill in late 2013 that would have required private schools accepting voucher students to a) use the same state standards b) use the same state test to measure student achievement c) be graded on performance in the same manner as public schools and d) face sanctions for low-performance.

Democrats and the teacher union in Wisconsin wanted even more “accountability,” arguing the need for state certified teachers in participating private schools as well.

Only “sanctions for low-performance” meet the definition of “accountability.” Sanctions, such as closing or restructuring schools, are a means of holding schools responsible for results. The rest are either inputs – believed by some to be necessary for desired results – or are a means of measuring results.

How, for example, does requiring all private school teachers to be state certified hold schools responsible for results? A state certified teacher is an input, not a result. This is clearly an example of someone using the word “accountability” to mean “sameness,” not “holding responsible for results.”

The misuse of the term appears to be rooted in a belief that it might be unfair, or even hypocritical, to operate school choice programs without subjecting private schools to the same rules as traditional district schools. A little history is in order. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Public school choice, digital learning, school grades & more

Public-school choice. Duval County’s superintendent wants to allow parents to enroll their children in any district-run school they choose, creating the first “open enrollment” policy among Florida’s major urban districts, the Florida Times-Union reports. More from First Coast News, WOKV.

florida-roundup-logoMilitary charter schools. It’s not clear what effect a bill provision, soon to become law, will have on efforts at MacDill Air Force Base, Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia tells the Tampa Bay Times.

Digital learning. How much will it cost for school districts to reach the state’s technology goals? WFSU asks.

School grades. House and Senate panels advance legislation to overhaul school grades, and avoid holding school districts to consequences during the first year of new standards. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida CurrentWCTV.

School boards. Candidates for the Palm Beach County School Board are already raking in the dough. Extra Credit. State officials consider the Manatee County School Board’s request for an investigation. Bradenton Herald.

School safety. A House bill that would allow at least one designated school employee to carry a gun on campus clears the House education committee. Orlando Sentinel. Associated Press. Miami-Dade officials oppose the plan. Miami Herald.

Testing. Does it matter if teachers don’t know yet what will replace the FCAT? StateImpact Florida.

Special-needs students. A Washington Post blogger continues the drumbeat against the state’s testing policy for students with disabilities, relaying a video by the Florida Education Association.

School lunch. Grants expand push for organic food, breakfast and dinner in Orange County Schools. Orlando Sentinel.

Next week: Chat with Rep. Diaz about FL school choice scholarship bill

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

A proposal to strengthen and expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the nation, has drawn a big spotlight during this year’s annual legislative session. State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is in the middle of the action.

On behalf of Speaker Will Weatherford, Diaz is shepherding the school choice bill through the House. And he’ll be our guest Monday for a live chat to answer questions about it, both from us and from you. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

The chat is kind of like a town hall meeting, but in writing. The floor will be open to anyone with a fair question. To participate, just come back to the blog on Monday, and click in to the live chat program that you’ll find here. We’ll start promptly at 1 p.m.

In the meantime, you can send questions in advance. You can leave them here in the comment section, send them to, tweet them to @redefinEDonline and/or post them on our facebook page. See you Monday!

With parental school choice, what are we Democrats afraid of?

Education’s parental choice is down to the heart of the matter in Florida. Will it remain a program at the margins? Or will the growing reality of empowering parents actually transform education over the coming years into a system that respond to the needs and desires of society and its families? Into a true public education system?

These scholarship students  joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

These scholarship students joined faith leaders in the Florida Capitol last week to support a bill that would strengthen and expand the program. (Photo by Silver Digital Media)

In such a structure, the traditional public schools exist as one delivery method among several – charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, virtual schools, and possibly others to be created. But they are no longer the “public education system” that must be preserved at all costs and to the detriment of the others. Unfortunately, some Democratic lawmakers must still be persuaded.

Look no further than last week’s debate in the House Finance & Taxation Subcommittee, where representatives voted 11-7 along party lines in favor of a bill to strengthen and expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog with the American Center for School Choice.)

This program will continue to save the state money even after its expansion. It has a multi-year record of academic improvement, documented by an independent analysis. Yet it was bombarded with arguments rooted in doubts and fears rather than rationality or concern for children. Can those of us who are Democrats look at a cost-saving program that is successfully serving tens of thousands of low-income families, with tens of thousands more asking for a chance to participate, and really say, “You are asking for too much too soon”?

One of the most often heard views is no further funding should go to tax credit scholarships until “public education is fully funded.” First, this unicorn chase is a beautiful, yet mythical fairy tale. Nothing is “fully funded,” not our police force, our electric grid, our sewer system, our public transportation system, or our national defense. This is an excuse, if accepted, for doing nothing except plowing money endlessly into the status quo. Second, it is akin to telling your younger child, “No more Christmas presents until your big brother’s wish list is completely fulfilled.” Continue Reading →