Education Week: Florida’s graduation rate still low but improving fast

Florida’s high school graduation rate remains one of the lowest in the country, but continues to be among the fastest rising, according to the latest graduation rate report from Education Week.

Florida’s graduation rate was 75 percent in 2012, ranking it at No. 43 with Alabama, shows the report released Thursday afternoon. The national average was 81 percent.

Between 2007 and 2012, Florida’s rate jumped 10 percentage points. That puts it in a tie with five other states for the fourth-fastest rate increase. New Mexico led the pack with a 15 point increase, followed by South Carolina (+13), California (+11) and Louisiana (+11). The national rate improved 7 points over that span.

Previous Education Week reports showed a higher ranking for Florida, and a smaller gap between the Florida and national averages. (Last year’s report put Florida at No. 34 with a 72.9 percent graduation rate in 2010, just below the national average of 74.7). Education Week normally crunches federal data using its own graduation rate formula, but could not this year because, “Unfortunately, the release of that federal database has been significantly delayed.”

Invisible no more: New book profiles school choice success stories

9781442226098_fcIn 2006, thousands of people jammed the courtyard next to the Florida Capitol not long after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s first school voucher program. I was a reporter covering the state education beat, and in the second sentence of my story I noted the obvious: The majority of rally goers were black.

Somehow, almost every other print reporter missed that, leaving readers with an incomplete picture of an extraordinary event. The omission baffled me then, but I’ve since learned to expect it. It doesn’t take a sophisticated media analysis to see that the parents and children who are clamoring for and benefiting from expanded learning options are too often left out of the story.

Against that backdrop, a new book by former Wall Street Journal editor and writer Naomi Schaefer Riley fills in the gaps. To give visibility to those at the heart of the school choice debate, and to dispel the abstractions that cloud it, Riley follows a simple formula.

She tells us about the kids.

There’s a lot of pluck and love in the 10 profiles in “Opportunity and Hope.” And a lot of shattered stereotypes about low-income parents and faith-based schools. And a hammered-home fact that is again obvious but overlooked: a different school can put a child on a remarkably different trajectory in life.



Aleysha Taveras’s mother, a teacher’s aide at a public school in the Bronx, saw too much violence and too little learning. So she enrolled her daughter in a Catholic school with, as Aleysha puts it, “teachers who would always be on top of me.” Now Aleysha is on the verge of graduating from Manhattan College and embarking on a career as a teacher.

Carlos Battle was raised by a single mom in a tough Washington D.C. neighborhood. He had ADHD. But after a stint in a private school, Carlos got a full ride to Northeastern University in Boston, where he’s now majoring in psychology and social service. He envisions starting a nonprofit that will rescue kids from being stuck in neighborhoods like his. “I just want to break that cycle of stuckness,” he says.

Most of the black and Latino students profiled by Riley received scholarships through the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the pioneering, privately funded choice program started in 1998 by Ted Forstmann and John Walton. Danielle Stone is one of the exceptions, with her scholarship coming from Step Up For Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Riley lets the students and parents do most of the talking. She asks the basics. Who are these kids? What were their lives like before the scholarship? What are they like now? What made the difference? Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Special needs, testing, school boards and more

Special needs. A Polk County private school for children with autism faces financial woes. Lakeland Ledger.

Testing. A Seminole County mother’s decision to pull her children from public school over a testing complaint leads to a post that viral. Sentinel School ZoneGradebook. A testing glitch invalidates Advanced Placement  scores for hundreds of students at a Polk County charter school. Ledger. FCAT scores are up in Holmes County. Holmes County Times-Advertiser. New end of course exam requirements could spell the end of a student-run tech support desk. StateImpact.

florida-roundup-logoAlternative schools. An alternative school for girls celebrates graduation. Bradenton Herald.

School boards. The Palm Beach County school board’s inspector general faces a whistleblower complaint. Palm Beach Post.

Summer reading. Osceola County schools distribute thousands of books to students. Orlando Sentinel.

Teachers. A veteran educator’s departure could spell the end of a technology program he’s run for decades. Tampa Bay Times.

Disasters. Relocation due to flooding leads to some Panhandle youngsters getting an early taste of high school. Northwest Florida Daily News.

School’s out. But that means crunch time for administrators. Ocala Star-Banner.

Administration. Ousted Manatee County school administrators prepare to face a judge. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Past complaints bar a new principal’s hiring in Duval County. Florida Times-Union.

Student conduct. Officials investigate reports of students having sex in a school restroom while others took pictures. Tampa Tribune.

Ed reformers, it’s time to fully embrace private school vouchers

the time is nowEditor’s note: Parental choice supporters released this collaborative statement today, calling on ed reformers to fully embrace vouchers, tax credit scholarships and other publicly funded private options as part of a three-sector approach to providing more high-quality learning options for low-income children. A number of prominent names in ed reform and parental choice circles have already signed on (see the list of original signers here). To add your name in support, go here.

For 50 years, America has struggled to provide low-income students, especially those in inner cities, with high-quality schools. The consequence has been devastating: Generational poverty, disenfranchised neighborhoods, and millions of boys and girls robbed of the American Dream.

But we have not been asleep at the switch. Over this half-century, some of our sharpest minds, strongest backs, and deepest pockets have attempted to solve the problem. Decades of effort have been poured into improving district-run schools. Two decades ago work on a parallel track was launched through the passage of a tax supported voucher program in Wisconsin and the option to create charter schools in Minnesota. The voucher program provided limited access for low-income parents to send their children to private schools, and the charter school legislation provided for the possibility of the development of new public schools with increased autonomy and accountability.

In spite of all of our best efforts, gains in district schools have been modest. Although chartering has produced many outstanding schools, numerous barriers have impeded the creation of a sufficient number of high-quality charter seats. Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results. So despite the expenditure of enormous personal and financial resources, it is still sadly true today that far too few needy boys and girls have access to great schools.

Those interested in improving the fortunes of these students should share a mindset: We must double down on our efforts to grow the number of high-quality schools available to low-income children. When so many obstacles stand between our young people and a lifetime of success, we simply cannot and must not support only one of the approaches that are available to us.

We strongly support a “three-sector” approach to reform and improvement.

We must push for transformational changes within traditional districts while working to strengthen the other two options.

There is controversy and opposition to each of the strategies, but, those involving the private sector create the most angst; particularly those that involved publicly supported programs like vouchers and tax credits. Unfortunately, some of this resistance has come from within our own ranks—those supporting other efforts to improve the educational opportunities available to disadvantaged students.

We believe it is time for members of the reform community to reconsider their opposition to these programs and fully embrace the three-sector approach. Many things have changed since Milwaukee’s voucher program initiated this movement 20 years ago—when many people took hardened positions on this issue. Continue Reading →

Realizing his potential thanks to a school choice scholarship



Mario Tobar was in his freshman year of high school when his mother, Kenia Palacios, confronted him about his choices and path in life.

Mario had started hanging out with the wrong crowd, Kenia said. And he wasn’t making good grades at his neighborhood school, and he refused to do his classwork. Then came the arguments with his teachers. Back at home, the family was going through a turbulent period, too. Kenia had divorced Mario’s father and began working two jobs.

Then the family faced another difficult situation. In March 2012, someone broke into their home in Winter Garden and stole Mario’s videogame system.  Another break-in followed that same week, and this time, the intruders took several of the family’s belongings, including TVs, laptops, computers and all of Mario’s video games. Kenia and Mario suspect the culprits were people he knew.

“I took it as a big blow,” Mario said. “I kind of screwed up.”

Kenia, the mother of three, said she told Mario she didn’t want him to become like some of the people he was hanging out with.

“I don’t want you to be like that,” she remembers telling Mario. “I want you to be someone good.”

Kenia knew she had to do something to change Mario’s life. She quit one of her jobs so she could be home more to make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd, she said.

She turned to the Step Up For Students school choice scholarship and applied for Mario. In 10th grade, he enrolled at Bishop Moore Catholic High School, a private school in Orlando, with the help of a scholarship for the 2012-13 school year. Mario has loved playing football since he was in middle school and his mother told him he would have the opportunity to play at his new school.

Still, his career at Bishop Moore started out rough. He had been a B-C student in his neighborhood school and was placed on academic probation after enrolling in Bishop Moore.

“Mario came to Bishop Moore with little understanding of how intelligent and capable he truly is,” Mario’s guidance counselor, Eric Hennes, wrote in an e-mail. “His lack of motivation and minimal appreciation for a good education contributed to a high degree of apathy.”

Mario’s academic-watch contract required him to have meetings with his guidance counselor throughout the year. They talked about everything from grades to family life and goals.  His behavior began to improve. Mario’s teachers and guidance counselor were then able to see his potential and push him academically, Hennes said. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, private schools, teachers and more

Charter schools. Palm Beach County charter schools say it would be an “injustice” for the school district not to share revenue from a tax levy that helps fund art and music programs. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. An Okaloosa charter school is starting a new program for fourth and fifth graders who struggle in a traditional environment. Northwest Florida Daily News.

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools. Palm Beach County officials agree to help a high-priced private school sell tax-free bonds. Palm Beach Post.

Teacher quality. A study finds higher rates of absenteeism among Duval and Orange County teachers. StateImpactFlorida Times-Union. WJCT.

Politics. Gov. Rick Scott and challenger Charlie Crist both twist facts in education-related political attacks. Associated Press. WFTV.

Digital learning. Less than two in five Florida school districts meet state goals for high-speed and wireless Internet access. StateImpact.

Reading instruction. A bill signed this week by Gov. Rick Scott would add extra reading hours in more struggling schools. EdWeek.

Graduation. A Pinellas senior is honored for an academic turnaround. Tampa Tribune. The Pasco school board considers doing away with valedictorians and other traditional honors. Tampa Bay Times. A Duval graduate had to overcome abuse. Florida Times-Union.

Superintendents. Alachua County hires its first black superintendent. Gainesville Sun. The Lee County school approves a contract extension. Naples Daily News. The Flagler school board sets a lower salary for its new hire. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

School boards. Voters could add more members to the Lee County board. Fort Myers News-Press.

Substitutes. The Hillsborough school district plans to outsource substitute teacher assignments. Tampa Tribune.

Contracts. A second Leon County Schools administrator becomes a whistle-blower in an unfolding procurement scandal. Tallahassee Democrat.

Student conduct. A senior prank leads to four arrests in Pinellas. Tampa Bay Times.

Employee conduct. Testimony winds down in a legal fight over an administrator’s firing. Bradenton Herald.

PolitiFact misreads Wisconsin voucher research

Speaking before the Milwaukee Rotary Club on May 6th, Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke claimed the state’s school voucher program “has no research that shows that it’s going to improve student learning.” PolitiFact Wisconsin examined some school choice research and noted Burke’s claim was an “overstatement,” but then rated it “Mostly True.”

PolitiFact must be grading on a curve.

There is no nuance about the word “no”; in this instance, it means “none” or “zero.” So why does PolitiFact cite three research papers that find academic gains attributable to vouchers and then give the “no research” claim a “Mostly True” rating?

To achieve such a conclusion, PolitiFact researchers had to misread the evidence they evaluated, overvalue academic caution (ironically while rating a politician’s hyperbole) and exclude other supportive research. Let me explain by offering more detail about the research PolitiFact cited, and the other research it inexplicably overlooked.

Public Policy Forum’s  report found public school students scored higher on state assessments than private school voucher students. However, the report failed to control for income differences or provide test scores of voucher students prior to using the voucher. It is possible voucher students are poorer, on average, or that they tended to score worse on state assessments even before receiving a voucher (as is the case here in Florida). Because of these faults, the report cannot make any claims about the impact of vouchers on students. PolitiFact overlooked the PPF study’s methodological weaknesses and gave the report greater weight than all other studies mentioned.

PolitiFact also cited a multi-year study by researchers at the University of Arkansas, which revealed statistically significant achievement growth in reading, but not math, in the final year. Academic researchers tend to be cautious in their conclusions. The researchers in this case mentioned the achievement gains coincided with implementation of high-stakes testing and noted this could be an alternative explanation for the observed gains. But PolitiFact overstates the nuance so much it functionally ignores the positive finding.

PolitiFact does accurately cite two reports about vouchers in Milwaukee: One from 2003, by Caroline Hoxby, found public school students saw test score gains when public schools faced competition from vouchers; and one from 2008, by  researchers at the Federal Reserve, found improved public school performance once the voucher program expanded the supply of private schools and the amount of the scholarship in 1998. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Budgets, charter schools, graduation and more

Charter schools. Pepin Academies, which cater to students with learning disabilities, plan an expansion in Pasco. Tampa Tribune. A charter school on Polk State College’s campus celebrates its first graduating class. Lakeland Ledger.

Budgets. Gov. Rick Scott signs a budget that boosts funding for public schools and sets aside money for digital learning and personal scholarship accounts for students with disabilities. He vetoes funding for single-gender classrooms and a Bradenton charter school. News Service of Florida. redefinEDTampa Bay TimesBradenton Herald.

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools. A high-priced private school hopes to sell bonds to finance an expansion. Palm Beach Post.

Graduation. Pinellas schools move more of their ceremonies indoors. Tampa Bay Times. A Manatee County charter school celebrates its family-like environment. Bradenton Herald. A 90-year-old WWII veteran receives his high school diploma more than 70 years after leaving to fight overseas. Florida Times-Union.

Financial literacyOrlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab takes lawmakers to task for not requiring “the money course” for high school students.

School boards. A Miami-Dade incumbent draws a rare challenger. Miami Herald.

Courts. A self-described “sovereign citizen” is ordered to enroll his daughter in school. Ocala Star-Banner.

Contracts. The Volusia school district hears complaints after outsourcing custodial services. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Schedules. Lake County schools consider doing away with block scheduling. Orlando Sentinel.

Classrooms. Expecting classroom decorations to have instructional value may be overrated, a study finds. Gradebook.

Superintendents. Manatee County’s superintendent gets poor marks from a school board member known as the “watchdog.” Bradenton Herald.