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.


Scott okays funding for digital learning, nixes it for single-gender schools

Florida school districts will have to come up with a detailed strategy for using technology in their classrooms under a bill Gov. Rick Scott approved today alongside the state budget.

The governor approved the $77 billion spending plan that sets aside additional funding for “digital classrooms,” as well as legislation that could set the stage for increases  in the coming years.

Requests for money to help school districts upgrade their technology infrastructure and train their teachers to use the devices has varied widely in recent years, from a request of more than $400 million last year to the $40 million the state Board of Education sought this year.

Key lawmakers, including Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said one reason for the variation is state officials often don’t have reliable information on school districts’ digital learning needs.

For that reason, Legg sponsored a bill requiring districts to set specific digital learning goals tied to improving student achievement, and allowing them to receive dedicated funding tied to those goals. That legislation made its way into a larger education funding package Scott signed today. In a statement responding to Scott’s signing of HB 5101, Legg said the governor “understands the vital need for a continued focus in digital education in the classroom.”

The first round of district digital learning plans is due to the state Department of Education in October. Those plans will then be tied to funding in the budget. The amount is $40 million in the spending plan that takes effect July 1, but it could increase in future years once the plans are in place. The legislation sets an annual funding target of about $100 million.

Scott took a light touch with line-item vetoes, approving most of the education-related projects in the budget. However, he rejected $300,000 in funding that would have gone to help train teachers at single-gender schools in Duval and Broward counties.

Will Florida school districts open ‘innovation schools?’

Starting this month, Florida school districts will be able to start their own version of charter schools, which would be bound by performance contracts and freed from a range of state regulations.

The question now is, will they?

Charter school legislation passed last year included provisions allowing districts to create Innovation Schools of Technology. Last month, the state Board of Education approved a process that allowing districts to apply to create the schools. But restrictions on the program could bar most Florida school districts from participating, at least for now.

The original proposal was advanced by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. A former superintendent, he was an early supporter of the charter school movement in Leon County. Now head of the state school superintendents association, he said during last year’s legislative session that the proposal would allow school districts “to be able to benefit from the flexibility that the charter schools have used to be innovative and creative in the other public schools.”

Though they would still be run by school districts and subject to their collective bargaining agreements, the innovation schools would, in other ways, function a lot like charter schools.  They would be exempt from most of the state laws that make up the state’s education code. and have the same flexibility charter schools enjoy under the state’s class size limits. In exchange for the greater freedom, they would have to enter performance contracts with the state Board of Education.

The legislation ultimately approved by Gov. Rick Scott was also designed to help districts experiment with blended learning. Each innovation school will have to use a system such as the “flex model” or the “flipped classroom,” in which students receive a portion of their instruction through a virtual education system, and a portion in-person from their teacher.

To participate in the new option, a district must have been rated A or B in each of the past three school years. Last year’s tumbling school grades shrank the potential pool, leaving 21 districts that meet that requirement.

Nearly half of those districts may not be eligible for other reasons. Districts looking to start innovation schools must have either 5 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools, or a fifth of their students enrolled in schools of choice.

An analysis of enrollment surveys and district grades showed 10 school districts would have qualified based on data from the 2012-13 school year. Two of those – Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – have started other experiments with blended learning in collaboration with Florida Virtual School.