Urban Leagues explore school choice

Florida’s Urban Leagues and education advocates are teaming up for a series of town halls later this month that will include discussions on the growing number of learning options available to minorities.

The attention to education is nothing new and has always been a cornerstone of the Urban League’s mission to help minorities achieve social and economic equality. But the turn toward school choice is.

Allie Braswell

Allie Braswell

“We’re just looking at other ways, new options and new solutions for students to be successful in school,’’ said Allie Braswell, president of the Central Florida Urban League that serves a seven-county region. “And as you look at school choice, it’s just become an option to explore.’’

The Florida Consortium of Urban Leagues Affiliates is hosting the town hall meetings in partnership with Black Floridians C.A.R.E., Democrats for Education Reform, Derrick Brooks Charities, StudentsFirst and Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. (And co-hosts this blog.)

One key part of the effort will be looking at charter schools and tax credit scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. Florida Department of Education figures show that about 43 percent of the state’s 3.4 million students in PreK-12 attend a school of their choosing. And that is what’s driving this conversation.

“It’s the simple market, the proliferation of charter schools and private schools,’’ said Germaine Smith-Baugh, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Broward County. “Choice has become a market-driven issue.’’ Continue Reading →


The private schools that are signing up for Common Core

Carol ThomasCarol Thomas is a career educator and former high-level urban district administrator who is now working with private schools that participate in Florida’s tax credit scholarship, and she tells a remarkable on-the-ground story about Common Core State Standards today in Education Week.

Thomas, who is vice president for student learning at Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, is working with about 140 private schools in a pilot project focused on a learning compact for low-income scholarship students. The intent is to build meaningful engagement between parents and teachers and, to guide the relationship, she offers an online tool to help both parties mutually track the academic progress of each student. That tool relies on the standards enumerated in Common Core, which is where this plot thickens. These are private schools for whom educational independence is in their DNA, after all. But what she is finding is that these schools are all in for Common Core.

“Our target for the state pilot was to find 100 scholarship schools that would volunteer to participate,” she wrote. “We already have more than 140, and my phone is still ringing. These principals aren’t calling to lecture me on state sovereignty or intrusive regulation. They are calling because they think the common standards will help them guide the learning plans in their schools.”

Thomas relates the impressions of Suzette Dean, principal at Bible Truth Ministries Academy, a small mission-driven school in Tampa that serves mostly African-American students. Dean told her: “Finally, we are all on the same page (with the standards), our teachers know what to teach, and the parents know what their children should be doing in school. Sure, it is a change, but it is real change that is needed if we are going to prepare our students for college and a successful future.”

The project has caused Thomas to reflect on the national debate of late, and to suggest that those who see the standards as a federal government plot might want to ask these private-school principals why they would volunteer for Common Core. The answer, apparently, is that these educators think the standards might help students. Go figure.


Florida Virtual School cuts 177 jobs

Hits to Florida Virtual School continue this week with the nation’s largest provider of online classes cutting 177 full-time positions.

flvsThe cuts to instructional and support staff came Monday, and follow last month’s elimination of 625 part-time teaching positions. The move was necessary, program officials said, after an internal review showed pre-enrollment had dropped 32 percent compared to last summer.

“For the first time in 16 years, we have had to make the painful decision to reduce staff,” Florida Virtual School spokeswoman Tania Clow said late Tuesday in a prepared statement.

Florida Virtual School has 1,725 staff positions remaining. The program served more than 149,000 students in 2011-12.

So why is this happening? Florida Virtual School officials point to a new state funding formula that went into effect last month. Before the change, when students took six courses in their district school and one through Florida Virtual School, the district received its full per-student allotment for that student. Florida Virtual School got another one-sixth of the funding.

Now, the district receives six-sevenths of its allotment and Florida Virtual School receives one-seventh. The more courses a student takes online, the less money the district and Florida Virtual School receive. That has resulted in some school districts preventing students from signing up for Florida Virtual School.

The state Department of Education intervened in April, telling about 10 school districts to stop blocking student access to Florida Virtual School. Last month, it issued another warning to every superintendent in the state.

State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chair of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, told redefinED last week that he stands behind the funding changes, calling them more equitable. But he also said lawmakers likely will revisit the issue during the next legislative session to address enrollment concerns.

Meanwhile,  Florida Virtual School officials say they’ll continue serving students at the highest level.

“The entire FLVS family is saddened by the new realities we are facing,” Clow said. “As always the FLVS team will continue to keep our students at the center … helping them be successful in their learning.”


Florida schools roundup: Common Core, debit cards, Florida Virtual & more

Common Core: Protesters gather at a Broward County School Board meeting to show they don’t support the new Common Core education standards. Miami Herald. State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, organizes a panel to talk about education reform and Common Core. Florida Times-Union. Step Up For Students’ vice president of student learning talks about why private schools are signing on for the measures. Education Week.

florida-roundup-logoBennett and school grades: Former Florida Sen. Paula Dockery shares her thoughts about Tony Bennett and school grades, asking “Isn’t it time for an honest conversation on doing away with a school-grading system that is costly, divisive and unreliable?” The Ledger.

Conduct: A Rodgers Middle School assistant principal fights for his job after the Hillsborough County school district fired him following the death of a special-needs student at his school. Tampa Bay Times. More from The Tampa Tribune.

Debit cards: Leon County joins other school districts that won’t be offering teacher debit cards issued by Gov. Scott. Tallahassee Democrat.

Extended day: Broward County joins the list of districts where low-performing schools will offer students an additional hour of class time. Sun Sentinel. Palm Beach County will spend $7 million to add an hour to the school day at four low-performing schools. Palm Beach Post.

School funding: The half-cent sales tax is the only funding source the district has for capital projects, writes Shannon Nickinson for the Pensacola News Journal.

Charter schools: Pasco County gets its first virtual charter school, Florida Virtual Academy of Pasco. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →


Doug Tuthill on school choice, accountability, Common Core & more



In today’s chat, we talked with Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students in Florida.

Readers asked him about everything from Common Core and private schools, to whether the value of tax credit scholarships should be increased, to the right balance between school choice and government regs when it comes to accountability.

Step Up is the largest private school choice program in the country. It’s expected to serve 60,000 students this fall. And as recent news stories have pointed out, it continues to experience strong growth. (Step Up also co-hosts this blog with the American Center for School Choice. As we noted in the advance post, we strive not to be self-promotional but in this case thought it was appropriate to feature Doug.)

Before joining Step Up in 2008, Doug had been a college professor, a classroom teacher, the president of two teachers unions and a driving force behind the creation of Florida’s first International Baccalaureate high school.

You can replay the chat here:


Florida schools roundup: Jeb Bush, Tony Bennett, PARCC & more

Jeb Bush on Tony Bennett: “Tony will be sorely missed in Florida at a time when we need his leadership the most,” writes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Miami Herald.

florida-roundup-logoSchool grades: The fall of Tony Bennett might bring a new level of scrutiny to grading systems across the country. Education Week. There must be total transparency in any school accountability process, writes Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in U.S. News & World Report.

More fallout: Dale Chu, chief of staff to Tony Bennett, resigns. Associated Press.

PARCC: Top Florida lawmakers will continue their push to abandon the PARCC testing consortium. Tampa Bay Times.

Teen work: Lauderdale Middle School students have received more than $500,000 in grants to spruce up an overpass behind their school. Sun Sentinel.

Charter schools: Even as 11 new charters open this fall in Palm Beach County, the district has another 31 applications in the pipeline. Palm Beach Post.

Magnet schools: The Pinellas County school district looks to bolster career and technical education and help low-performing schools by offering new magnet programs at middle schools. The Tampa Tribune. Continue Reading →


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.