No choice? Scholarships offer 1,425 more options for low-income kids in FL

Editor’s note: This post initially appeared as an op-ed over the weekend in the Pensacola News Journal. The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Low-income parents are clamoring for more school choice options for their kids, and the results to date are encouraging. Why would anyone interested in the public good want to block them?

Low-income parents are clamoring for more school choice options for their kids, and the results to date are encouraging. Why would anyone interested in the public good want to block them?

Thanks to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, nearly 60,000 low-income students in grades K-12 attend 1,425 participating private schools, including 19 in Escambia County. That’s 1,425 options those students would not have had otherwise. That’s 1,425 options that are embracing the students who struggle the most.

So how jarring, then, to read a Florida teachers union leader saying “vouchers do not give parents real educational choice.”

The piece by Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, (Viewpoint, “Vouchers don’t offer a real choice in a child’s education,” March 23) took plenty of liberties with facts about the program and a bill that would strengthen and expand it. But more concerning were the notions that anchored it:

• That expanding choice for low-income students comes at the expense of district schools.

• That low-income parents don’t know whether their schools are high quality.

Let’s start with the indisputable: taxpayers pay about half as much per tax credit scholarship ($4,880 this year) as they do per pupil for public schools. Five independent groups looked into concerns of scholarship money being “siphoned” from public schools and all reached the same conclusion: not true. Rather than hurting public schools, the program saves money that can be invested in them.

McCall would also have readers believe the program exists in a regulatory Wild West. This is also not true. Scholarship students are required, by law, to take state-approved tests. The results are analyzed by a researcher whose work is highly regarded by all sides in the choice debate. The average gains or losses for schools with more than 30 tested students are posted publicly.

The evidence shows scholarship students were the lowest-performing students in the public schools they left behind – a finding at odds with McCall’s suggestion that private schools are cherry picking. Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: school choice suits in NC and GA, bishops mad in NY and more news

MondayRoundUpAlabama: A bill to eliminate the $7,500 cap limit on individual tax-credit scholarship donations advances in the state legislature (Decatur Daily).

Alaska: Tony Knowles, the former governor of Alaska, says vouchers have never  improved student achievement or graduation rates, so the state should spend more money on public schools (Alaska Dispatch).

Arizona: The Arizona Education Association opposes the education savings account expansion, calling them “vouchers in disguise” and claiming vouchers do not improve student achievement (Arizona Republic). Matthew Ladner, the “inventor” of education savings accounts, says school choice allows students to match their needs with the strengths of the appropriate school (Arizona Republic). State and national groups write legislation at home and abroad, including the state’s education savings account bill (Arizona Republic).

Arkansas: The Blytheville School District votes to opt out of the Public School Choice Act again (Courier News).

Colorado: Parents in Jefferson County pack a school board meeting to show their support for increasing charter school funding (9 News).

Connecticut: The state Department of Education approves four new charter schools for Bridgeport and Stamford (Connecticut Post, Fox CT).

D.C.: District officials release the lottery results; 85 percent of students were accepted to a school in their top three choices (Washington Post).

Delaware: The Delaware Charter School Network says charter schools offer students choices (The News Journal).

Georgia: A group of parents sue the state over the tax-credit scholarship program (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Charter schools, school choice, Tony Bennett and more

Charter schools. Palm Beach County school district officials worry about the impact of expanding charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The Miami Herald flags charter schools among its examples of industries with issues in play in the legislative session that contribute to campaigns. Neighborhood groups are concerned about the traffic impact of a planned charter school for as many as 1,800 students. Herald. Miami TV stations follow a $25 million sex abuse and bullying lawsuit against a Miami charter school.  CBS Miami. NBC Miami.


Virtual schools. A virtual charter school that met resistance from school district officials says it expects enrollment numbers to rise. Tampa Bay Times.

School choice. Palm Beach County parents should be finding out whether their children were admitted to choice programs. Extra Credit.

Tony Bennett. Florida’s former education commissioner tells Chalkbeat Indiana that education reformers have lost the last several rounds of policy battles in a lengthy Q&A.

Advanced Placement. Florida’s high school graduates outpace the nation in English and social-science courses. Not so in science or Calculus. Bridge to Tomorrow.

Teacher evaluations. The Department of Education watches as a handful of Pinellas County schools experiment with alternatives to VAM scores. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →

The facts behind claims of school choice Armageddon

sky is falling 2Editor’s note: This post first appeared as an op-ed in today’s Tallahassee Democrat.

Florida is looking to let 5,700 more underprivileged children attend a private school on scholarship next year, and yet some of the opponents are making it sound like a form of educational Armageddon.

In her Wednesday My View, Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza, whose group plays an important role in pushing for genuine investment in public education, used the Tax Credit Scholarship expansion bill as a rhetorical punching bag. It is “an unprecedented, shameless raid on our most sacrosanct revenue stream — the Florida sales and use tax” or “the largest expansion of private religious-school vouchers in state history” or “sticking taxpayers with the $2 billion tab.” The scholarship program has “zero accountability” and “offers no proof the children are learning.”

These would be heady accusations if they were true. None is.

For the record, the bill that is headed to the House floor will increase the tax credit cap next year, $358 million, by 8.3 percent and by 3.5 percent in the fifth year. For each of the next five years, the cap increase possible under current law would be bumped up by $30 million. Add those all together and you get $150 million, not $2 billion. This bill certainly will help families that have been shut out under the current cap, but it by no means makes history.

The “shameless raid” on sales taxes speaks to a provision that added a sixth tax source against which corporations could claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits. The pool of potential sales tax credits is certainly larger than any of the existing five, but that’s immaterial because the sources are collectively governed by one tax credit cap. Here’s the kicker, though: The sales tax credit has been removed. No bill currently under consideration contains it.

The assertion that there is “no proof the children are learning” ignores the six annual testing reports issued to date by the state Department of Education. Students on the scholarship are required to take nationally norm-referenced tests, and the reports have consistently issued two findings: (1) The students who choose the scholarship are the lowest academic performers from the public schools they leave behind, and (2) scholarship students are achieving the same gains in reading and math annually as students of all income levels. Senate President Don Gaetz has raised a legitimate question about whether scholarship students should take a state, rather than national, test; but the state has plenty of proof about academic performance. Continue Reading →

Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: One size fits most, bipartisan support for charters and athletic admins oppose competition

MrGibbonsReportCardRepublican Naysayers

The lower house in Mississippi voted down an education savings account bill this week that would have eventually created education savings accounts for up to 700 of the state’s 65,000 special needs students. Among the no votes: 11 Republicans, more than enough to cause the bill to fail 63-57.

According to the Clarion Ledger, Rep. Tom Weathersby, one of the Republicans voting no, stated, “I want to do everything I can to help students with special needs, but I feel like in our school districts we are capable of handling most of those needs.”

 Most of those needs? Most, but not all?

An education savings accounts program – which empowers new educational possibilities – would have better allowed the state to serve ALL needs. Isn’t that the goal?

Grade: Needs Improvement


Rep. George Miller

Rep. George Miller (D) and Rep. John Kline (R)

Rep. George Miller (D – California) and Rep. John Kline (R – Minnesota) came together this week to announce a federal bill that will provide startup funds for charter schools.

The bipartisan bill consolidates two federal programs for charter schools, and bumps funding from $250 million to $300 million a year. The new program will provide incentives for states to help develop charter schools and allow charter schools with proven track records of success to access grants in order to expand operations.

Rep. John Kline

The National Education Association opposes the bill on the grounds that the federal law won’t require charters to hold open meetings or disclose private donors – two things the teacher union, coincidentally, doesn’t do either.

The bill’s bipartisan support right out of the gate is a good indication of future success.

Grade: Satisfactory


Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association

There are covert ways to limit school choice and then there are overt ways.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) has proposed one of the more obvious ways to limit choice short of banning it all together. It would outlaw charter schools from offering competitive sports if the local public school already offers that sport.

The only reason to propose such a bill is to keep athletes from transferring to charter schools.

The irony, of course, is that while the PIAA promotes healthy, safe and friendly rivalry between public school students, it wants to protect itself (and allies) from a little friendly competition.

Grade: Needs Improvement

‘Once again, Catholic school kids get kicked to the curb’

Cardinal Dolan

Cardinal Dolan

Editor’s note: Don’t be misled by the politics of the moment in Florida. School choice – yes, including vouchers and tax credit scholarships – is increasingly bipartisan. Check out blue-state New York.

In a fascinating counter to the Florida debate, a proposal for tax credit scholarships in New York this spring won widespread backing from Democratic lawmakers and even labor unions (not counting the teacher unions), only to be dashed, apparently, in budget negotiations last weekend. In response, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, penned this op-ed in the New York Post.

Dolan noted the value that faith-based schools bring to all of us – academically, financially, socially – then lit into state leaders with this kicker: “Sadly, once again, they’ve divided our kids into winners and losers.” Here’s a taste of Dolan’s op-ed:

The public-school teachers unions weren’t alone in causing the bill to fail, and there is, I am sure, plenty of blame to go around. Certainly, when the bishops of New York State visited Albany recently to meet with our elected ­officials, we received plenty of assurances that the tax credit was a “no-brainer,” that it had plenty of support and that, for the first time, Catholic-school students wouldn’t be left by the wayside.

Sadly, those assurances turned out to be empty, and, once again, Catholic-school kids get kicked to the curb, along with children attending other faith-sponsored schools and even the other private and public schools that would have benefited.

This mistreatment of Catholic-school students can’t be due to any question about the quality of our schools. Across New York, our students consistently outperform their public-school counterparts, particularly in the inner cities.

And it can’t be because our political leaders don’t otherwise recognize the value that our schools and other private and parochial schools offer. Tuition-paying families pay about $3.8 billion in tuition each year — on top of the taxes they pay for public schools. Their sacrifice saves New Yorkers $9 billion a year. Just imagine for a moment that all Catholic schools across the state closed their doors, and the public schools had to absorb all our students. The burden on our towns, counties and cities would be enormous. Read the full post here.

Florida roundup: Charter schools, tax credit scholarships, accountability and more

Charter schools. Legislation intended to ease contract negotiations heads to the House floor. RedefinED. Extra Credit. Florida Current. Three Pasco charter schools are on thin ice with their school district. Tampa Bay Times. A black charter school in Palm Beach County faces potential closure. South Florida Times. Another school gets a green light to grow. Palm Beach Post. WLRN in Miami produces a Q&A with Charter Schools USA CEO Jon Hage.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual school. The Walton Sun reports on one family’s experience with Florida Virtual School.

Tax credit scholarships. One of Florida’s oldest companies contributes $2 million to the scholarship program for low-income students. Pensacola News-JournalStep Up for Students Vice President Jon East responds to a column criticizing the program in the Tallahassee Democrat. The organization helps administer the program and co-hosts this blog.

Common Core. Law enforcement groups support the standards. StateImpact. Republicans shouldn’t dismiss a Jeb Bush presidential run based on his support for the standards, a Washington Post columnist writes.

Prayer. An Orlando Sentinel columnist throws cold water on the story of a 5-year-old who was reportedly prevented from praying at school.

Reading instruction. Florida educators discuss the impact of an extra hour of reading in struggling schools. Education Week. Boys often struggle more with reading. Tampa Bay Times.

Budgets. Spending plans pass the Legislature amid debate over charter school capital funds. Times/Herald. With money tight, Hernando schools implement a hiring freeze. Tampa Bay Times. State class-size rules crimp budgets in Marion County. Ocala Star-Banner.

Continue Reading →

House charter school bill remains controversial as it heads to the floor

A rewrite of Florida’s charter school laws is ready for a vote on the House floor, but it remains contentious despite changes intended to address some of school districts’ concerns.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

The heart of the bill is intended to speed up contract negotiations between school districts and charter schools by requiring the two sides to resolve most of their differences on key issues during the charter application process.

Supporters of the legislation included Charles Gibson, a board attorney for several Florida charter schools.

He told the House Education Committee that charter schools sometimes have their applications approved, but lose the chance to open the next fall if districts challenge provisions of their contracts.

“The contract negotiations period is where the charter school needs the most help,” he said. “We need to streamline this process.”

Under amendments approved by the panel on Thursday, large charter networks that operate in multiple counties would be able to serve as “local education agencies” under federal rules, and members of charter school boards would be able to attend meetings by video conference.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, also made a series of changes intended to address issues raised by school districts.

Charter school networks from out of state could receive “high-performing” designation from the state that would make it easier for them to expand in Florida, but only if they locate in high-needs areas.

If students withdraw from a charter school and return to the public school system, the school district would be entitled to a share of the per-student funding associated with them. If school districts allow charter schools to operate in their under-used buildings, they would be able to charge rent.

Connie Milito, a longtime lobbyist for the Hillsborough County school district, said the changes helped resolve a few of school districts’ concerns. But she opposed the bill because they felt it would take away their flexibility to negotiate terms of their contracts with charter schools.

“We need to find a middle ground where districts have to do the right thing, and there’s some intervention when they do hold up these schools from opening, who have spent a lot on advertising and who are a part of our public school choice,” she said. “We need to fix that. We just don’t believe this is the way.”

Democrats on the panel also proposed requiring charter schools to post bonds with the school district in case they failed to open, a proposal that was supported by school district representatives. The panel rejected the change after Diaz said it might be unworkable, but the issue could resurface as the bill heads to the floor.

The committee approved the measure on a party-line vote. It could face another obstacle in the Senate, which watered down its version of the charter school bill last week.