What school choice bills passed this year in the Florida Legislature

thumbs up thumbs downWe followed a number of school choice issues during the course of Florida’s 60-day legislative session, and most of them were resolved during the last few days. Here’s a look at which choice-related bills and ideas are making their way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, and which are not.


Personal learning accounts:  Florida could soon become the second state in the nation (after Arizona) to offer students an account-based school choice option. The state budget sets aside $18.4 million for scholarship accounts, which would be aimed at special needs students and administered by scholarship funding organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. The accounts could be used to reimburse parents for therapies or other educational needs for their children.

Tax credit scholarships: The same piece of legislation that would create personal learning accounts, SB 850, would expand eligibility for tax credit scholarships by creating new partial scholarships for students with household incomes up to about $62,000 for a family of four. It would also create new accountability requirements for scholarship funding organizations.

Collegiate high schools: SB 850 would also expand collegiate high schools, which allow students to complete up to a year’s worth of college credits though dual enrollment. Community colleges would be required to offer a collegiate high school program through each school district in their service area.

Career education: The same legislation would also do away with the $60 million statewide cap on bonuses for schools where students earn industry certifications, increasing the financial incentive for school districts to expand career academies. It also expands industry-certification opportunities for students in elementary and middle school.

Digital learning: This year’s education funding legislation would overhaul the way the state plans and pays for school technology. It would require school districts and the state to come up with five-year technology plans, which will be tied to student performance and used to guide their spending of a new $40 million “digital classrooms allocation” – an amount that could increase in future years.

Single-gender schools: Lawmakers approved legislation creating requirements for single-gender school programs, and provided some seed money to help them train teachers and prepare for an expansion around the state.

Did not pass

Charter schools: This wasn’t the year for a bill aimed at requiring standard charter-school contracts and bolstering efforts to attract new charter operators from outside the state. It passed the House but not the Senate. The bill foundered in part because some lawmakers in the Senate wanted to give the state more time to implement last year’s charter school bill.

Dual enrollment: Last year’s push to overhaul the way the state funds dual enrollment courses created a financial dilemma for private schools. Efforts to address that issue by exempting private schools from payment requirements did not make their way into law.

Virtual school: A proposed overhaul of Florida Virtual School’s funding model did not make its way into law, and no bill passed this session would address the funding of virtual courses taken by students with McKay scholarships. Virtual schools are expected to receive a slight funding increase in next year’s budget.

Extracurricular activities: A House bill opening more school district extracurricular activities to home-school, private school and virtual school students did not pass the Senate.

Early learning: Legislation creating tighter regulations for early learning providers died in the waning hours of the session after volleying between the House and Senate, despite passing both chambers unanimously at different points. Voluntary prekindergarten – the state’s largest private school choice program – did receive a slight funding increase, its first in nearly six years.

‘I am going to ignore the politics of this’

Editor’s note: Legislation to expand and strengthen the Florida tax credit scholarship program, and to create education savings accounts for special-needs students, cleared the Senate Friday on a 29-11 vote and is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott. Three Senate Democrats voted yes for parental choice, despite tremendous pressure this year to tow the party line: Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate; Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami; and Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee. In his remarks on the Senate floor, Ring noted the pressure but said he was proud and thrilled to support the bill. Here are his remarks in full. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

Sen. Rg

Sen. Ring

So I’m going to take this a little bit out of Republican versus Democrat discussion, and talk a little bit about generational issues. Some of us in this room are at that age where we have young children. And we’re seeing an epidemic that I think hasn’t been addressed on the cure and why, that some of us older probably couldn’t imagine what our world can be like today. Some of you have grandkids and you can understand it from that standpoint. But as parents today, young children, their life is very different. Fifteen, 20 years ago, autism in this country was 1 in 15,000. For whatever reason, and this is not part of the debate, today it’s down to 1 in 50 on the spectrum. That doesn’t include kids with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy … ADHD, and any other development disorder that has become prevalent and epidemic in our society.

We’re at a point where things change. And the word voucher is such an ugly word but it doesn’t need to be. Because it’s not about that. It really isn’t. It’s about where we are in our world today, or what we as parents of young children have to face every single day. You know, to me, progressive means we change with the times. And changing with the times is being realistic of what we as parents have to face daily with our kids and these sorts of challenges.

I can’t, no matter what the political ramifications may be, the thought of going home and voting against a bill that puts these children on a path for equalization, for normalization, to get a degree – no matter what the political ramification is, to me this is where policy outstrips politics every single time. You know, my first year here I voted against a corporate income tax (scholarship program). And I got home, and I was invited by a number of the schools to come visit. Come see. Not spend a lot of time like you do in the public schools, but come visit our school.

And I went to visit a lot of schools. And I saw a lot of these kids. Many of them had, you know, profound developmental disabilities. Many of them came from, weren’t developmentally disabled, but they came from terribly impoverished backgrounds. And all of these kids were at one point in the public school system. And as far as I could see, every kid I saw was thriving.

I came back after that, and vowed I’d never vote against the corporate income tax (scholarship program) again. And I haven’t. And I’ve had a couple elections since then. It’s not been an issue. Hasn’t been an issue one bit for me. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, legislation, testing and more

Tax credit scholarships. Florida lawmakers close out their 2014 session by approving legislation that would expand eligibility for the scholarship program and increase regulation of non-profits that administer it, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. Times/Herald. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. WFSU. Florida Current. St. Augustine Record. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano pans the program in another column. Paul Cottle argues he program’s lack of testing in science furthers the erosion of Florida’s science standards. Bridge to Tomorrow.

florida-roundup-logoEducation savings accounts. The bill would create a personal learning scholarship account program for special-needs students, the second of its kind in the county. RedefinED. More from Jay P. Greene’s blog.

Legislature. It was a good session for Florida’s schools. Times/Herald. The final budget would boost education funding. Scripps/Tribune.

Charter schools. Fox News highlights Charter Schools USA’s efforts to start a charter school on MacDill Air Force Base.

Open enrollment. Marion County schools consider universal choice. Ocala Star-Banner.

Testing. Some students pass their time during FCAT season by watching movies or playing games. Miami Herald. Florida prepares for the FCAT’s replacement. Gainesville Sun. Storm-battered Panhandle schools get extra testing days. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Teacher quality. The Tampa Tribune tracks down Hillsborough’s “highly effective” teachers.

Special needs. Special needs students in Flagler County perform better in math than in reading. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Graduation requirements. One bill passed this session would clear up confusion over high school graduation requirements. StateImpact.

Budgets. Brevard school closure plans are not yet contained in public records. Florida Today. Manatee Schools officials need to come up with $9.3 million to shore up their reserves. Bradenton Herald. Hernando schools officials plan a sales tax referendum to fund facilities. Tampa Bay Times.

Year-round school. An idea worth considering, Palm Beach County school board members say. Palm Beach Post.

Gardens. Students at a Manatee County high school growth their own salad. Bradenton Herald.

Transportation. A district consultant says Hillsborough’s school bus system is at a “breaking point.” Tampa Bay Times.

redefinED roundup: FL becomes second state with ESAs, MO considers private options, charter school funding studied


Arizona: The Tucson Diocese School Board says parents can be trusted to decide on the education for their own children (Arizona Daily Star). Gov. Jan Brewer signs a bill to expedite the approval process for parents seeking Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (Associated Press). The state superintendent of public instruction will increase scholarship amounts to 90 percent of the funding for charter schools after the state legislature declines to clarify the voucher funding limits (Capitol Media Service). The Jewish Tuition Organization raises $2.9 million to fund scholarships for seven Jewish day schools in the state (Jewish News).

Colorado: The Coloradan chronicles the six charter schools of Fort Collins.

Connecticut: Charter schools in the state receive about $3,000 less per pupil (New Haven Register). Education leaders in Bridgeport and Stamford consider taking legal action to stop more charter schools from opening in the cities (Connecticut PostAssociated Press). Education reform groups representing many different interests, including charter schools and school choice, work to shape education policy in the state (Middletown Press News).

Florida:  A bill to expand the tax-credit scholarship program and create an education savings accounts program stalls on Thursday (Associated PressPolitifix) but passes out of the Senate and House the next day (Associated PressredefinEDTampa Bay Times, WFSU, Florida Current, News Service of Florida, South Florida CBS 6Miami HeraldJaypgreene.com). State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, an opponent of the scholarship expansion, accuses Step Up For Students of bribery but refuses to offer proof and apologizes for his comments (Palm Beach PostOrlando Sentinel). (Step Up administers the program and co-hosts this blog.) Opponents rallied to try and defeat the bill (Orlando Sentinel).

A lot of back-and-forth on whether tax credit scholarships are good for English language learners (VoxxiTampa Bay Times). Kate Wallace with the Foundation for Florida’s Future says school choice helps students and is only a threat to adults worried about keeping their jobs (Context Florida). Educators in both public and private schools say school choice is beneficial to students (redefinED). Valerie Strauss argues “accountability” means everyone should follow the exact same rules, regulations, curriculum and take the same exact tests (Washington Post). John Romano, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, calls lawmakers hypocrites for not requiring private schools to follow the same accountability rules as public schools.

The state legislature cuts charter school capital funding support from $91 million to $75 million (Tampa Bay Tribune, redefinED). Charter schools receive less money than traditional district schools (State Impact). The Florida League of Women Voters discuss its study on charter schools on WJCT radio. A school district explores allowing students access to other public schools through open enrollment (Ocala Star Banner). Continue Reading →

Florida school choice legislation headed to Gov. Rick Scott

The Florida Legislature gave a boost to school choice programs Friday, with proposals to expand tax credit scholarships and create education savings accounts now on their way to Gov. Rick Scott.

Several times, legislation expanding eligibility for the scholarship program and creating new education savings accounts for special needs students appeared poised for defeat in a session riven with conflicts over how to measure the performance of students who receive scholarships.

But the Senate revived the measure early in the session’s final day by combining it with a broader education bill. The House approved the package Friday evening on a 70-44 vote that fell largely along party lines.

The final bill would allow students with household incomes up to $62,000 a year to qualify for partial scholarships. It would increase auditing requirements for scholarship funding organizations, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

It would require schools to report their students’ scores to the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, which would compare their performance with public school students. (A similar, state-mandated analysis is currently done by Northwestern University researcher David Figlio.)

The bill would also expand collegiate high schools, eliminate a $60 million cap on bonuses for schools whose students earn industry certifications and create new personal learning accounts for students with special needs.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, was among the Democrats who objected to the new provisions when the bill came up in the House. She said were “weighing down what is an otherwise decent bill.” Without holding scholarship students to the same standards as those in public schools, she said, the program’s benefits were based on “wishful thinking.”

Education savings accounts are considered the cutting edge of school choice. If Gov. Scott approves the legislation, the new Florida program would be the second of its kind in the nation. It would allow parents to use funds the state would have spent on their education to pay for therapy and educational needs for children with conditions like autism and spina bifida.

In a statement, Patricia Levesque, director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said the program would “give families of students with certain disabilities flexibility and freedom to create education plans custom-made for their children.”

“Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts will allow parents to pick the best place to educate their child and the combination of therapies or services that best meets their children’s unique needs,” she said. “They may also prioritize their education dollars where they think they’ll be best used.”

Florida Senate breathes new life into school choice legislation

An expansion of parental choice programs in Florida received new life in the state Senate Friday, and now heads to a receptive House on the last day of the legislative session.

The Florida Senate received bipartisan support to add legislation opening the tax credit scholarship program to more families and creating new personal learning accounts for special-needs students to a broader school-choice bill.

The bill, SB 850, would also expand career-education programs championed by Senate President Don Gaetz, as well as collegiate high school programs offered by colleges.

The amendment adding the House’s school choice legislation was added on a voice vote. The full bill passed 29-11, with the support of a united Republican caucus and three Democrats: Sens. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, and Darren Soto, D-Orlando.

The most contentious provisions dealt with the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told members the bill would bring the program under tighter oversight.

“If you really want accountability in this program, if you really want transparency in this program, then support this bill,” he said.

Ring, one of the Democrats who supported the bill, focused his arguments on provisions aimed at helping students with disabilities.

It would create individual accounts that parents could use to meet the educational needs of their special-needs children if their children do not attend public school. It would also do away with special diplomas, pushing more of them to leave high school with a standard diploma.

“I want these children to be able to be normalized, to be equalized. What I want for them is to have a path that they can be in a workforce,” he said. “I cannot wait to go home and defend this bill.”

 New information will be added throughout the day. Please check back for updates.

Julio Fuentes: Parental choice critics overlook need, demand, results

Editor’s note: This post originally ran yesterday on VOXXI, the fourth in a series of back-and-forth op-eds between Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg and Julio Fuentes, president & CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and a member of the board of directors for Step Up For Students. Step Up administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Dr.. Feinberg actually tries to draw a parallel between private schools that accept tax credit scholarship students and cancer-causing cigarettes.

Dr.. Feinberg actually tries to draw a parallel between private schools that accept tax credit scholarship students and cancer-causing cigarettes.

When her son Valentin was in sixth grade, Janet Ruiz decided enough was enough. Because of language barriers, Valentin, who is from Nicaragua, wasn’t doing well in public school. In fact, he was failing. He was also being bullied mercilessly because he didn’t speak English well enough. At one point, Ms. Ruiz kept him home for two weeks, but no one from the school even called.

So Ms. Ruiz got a tax credit scholarship that allowed Valentin to go to a different school, a dynamic little private school called La Progresiva Presbyterian in Miami. Now he’s in ninth grade and he reads and speaks English perfectly. In a school that prides itself on tough grading, he’s making straight A’s.

La Progresiva, his mom says, “is where he began to learn.”

It’s true that tax credit scholarships for low-income children, what the critics call “vouchers,” are not a panacea and don’t work for every child. It’s true there are fair questions to ask about them. But all too often, critics of parental choice seem eager to overlook thousands of stories like this one and instead perpetuate myths and make sensational claims.

In the process, they insult parents like Ms. Ruiz who are desperately looking for help, and an army of motivated educators, like those at La Progresiva, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution.

In Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg’s latest essay in VOXXI, she rehashes many of the arguments from her first essay and then makes an absurd comparison, trying to draw a parallel between private schools and cigarettes.

The number of smokers dropped dramatically, she notes, once cigarette packs started carrying warning labels. “Consumer satisfaction is not enough. What you don’t know can hurt you,” she writes. “And there’s a lot we don’t know about the effects of Florida law on ELLs and others in vouchers schools.”

Comparing private schools to cancer-causing cigarettes? I thought I had heard it all.

There are more than 36,000 educators in Florida private schools, and the vast majority of them are like the vast majority of public school teachers. They’re working as hard as they can, often in tough circumstances, and for not enough money, to make our world a better place. As a private school principal in Broward wrote recently in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “Like public school teachers, we’re not about profits and privatization. And with them, we share a common goal: to help our students become successful in school and in life.”

Those educators deserve respect and fair consideration. So do the parents of the kids they’re educating. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, Common Core, textbooks and more

Tax credit scholarships. A vote to take up the House’s school choice bill fails, leaving the issue to the final day of Florida’s legislative session. Scripps/Tribune. Associated PressRedefinED. It’s one of five bills that could shape the sessions final hours, Gary Fineout writes.

florida-roundup-logoTextbooks. The state adoption process remains alive in re-worked legislation bound for Gov. Rick Scott. Times/Herald. Scripps/Tribune. Reuters. Associated Press. School Zone. Palm Beach Post.

Whistle-blowers. A Leon County Schools administrator becomes a whistle-blower in an ongoing saga involving district construction contracts. Tallahassee Democrat. A Palm Beach County whistle-blower faced retaliation from the school district. Palm Beach Post.

Common Core. Supporters of the new standards tout their flexibility. Tampa Tribune.

Facilities. Broward schools consider an $800 million bond issue. Miami Herald.

Teachers. A Broward County man at the forefront of desegregation decades ago returns to the classroom to teach. Sun-Sentinel. Orange County teachers prepare to vote on raises. Orlando Sentinel.

Graduation. An FAU student could graduate before receiving her high school diploma. Sun-Sentinel.

Retention. Other countries have higher stakes than Florida’s third-grade retention policy. StateImpact.

Budgets. The Pasco school district looks to rebuild support staffs after years of cutbacks. Tampa Bay Times.