Historic growth for Florida scholarship programs

Florida's tax credit scholarship program has grown by more than 13,000 students this school year. *Figures are preliminary and do not include a second scholarship organization.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program has grown by more than 13,000 students this school year. *Figures are preliminary and do not include a second scholarship organization.

In the new school year, the nation’s largest private school choice program is seeing the largest growth of its 15-year history.

This fall, there are more than 92,000 low-income and working-class children enrolled in private schools with the help of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. That’s up nearly 17 percent from the end of last school year, when the program served 78,664 students.

Meanwhile, the number of children enrolled through in the Florida’s newest private educational choice program — Gardiner Scholarships for students with special needs — has already increased by more than 900 from the 2015-16 school year. Since applications that program are still open, it could continue to grow.

*Figures are preliminary and do not include students served by a second scholarship funding organization.

*Figures are preliminary and do not include students served by a second scholarship funding organization.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary, helps administer both the Gardiner and tax credit scholarship programs in Florida. Another nonprofit organization, the AAA Scholarship Foundation, also offers scholarships under both programs, but has not yet released its enrollment numbers for the 2016-17 school year. Last year, it provided 451 tax credit scholarships and 256 Gardiner scholarships.

Meanwhile, the McKay scholarship program, which provides vouchers to students with special needs, served more than 30,000 students last year. Numbers for the current year are not yet available, but if recent trends hold, it’s likely the total number of children participating in Florida’s three K-12 private school choice programs will climb north of 125,000. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Zika rules, retention venue, punishment and more

florida-roundup-logoZika rules: Broward County school officials are considering changing district policy to fight the spread of the Zika virus. Under the emergency rules, students would be permitted to bring certain insect repellent wipes and lotions to school. The school board will vote on the measure Sept. 7. Sun-Sentinel.

Retention venue: The state and six school districts being sued over the state’s third-grade retention policies have until 3 p.m. today to file arguments to the First District Court of Appeal for a change of venue. The defendants want the case to be decided locally, not in Leon County. Leon Judge Karen Gievers has presided over two hearings, and is expected to rule soon. The parents who brought the suit are arguing that whether a student passes or takes the state test should not be the primary criteria for promotion to the fourth grade. Gradebook.

Corporal punishment: More than 109,000 U.S. students were physically punished at school in 2013-14, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data. Twenty-one states, including Florida, still allow corporal punishment. About 2 percent of Florida’s students attend a school that uses physical punishment. Education WeekWTSP and the Associated Press.

Pledge form: Florida Department of Education officials say the Leon County School District went “above and beyond” the legal requirements to notify students that they can opt out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school. Tallahassee Democrat.

Closed captioning: The Florida Department of Education will begin offering closed captioning on the Florida Standards Assessments language arts tests for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. starting with the make-up exams in October. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

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The surprising partisan divide on private school choice

Republicans are often the strongest backers of school vouchers in Congress and state legislatures, but among rank-and-file partisans, private school choice may actually enjoy greater backing from Democrats.

That’s one of the more surprising findings from the latest wide-ranging public opinion survey by the school reform journal Education Next.

The poll finds support for private school vouchers may be slipping, but support for tax credit scholarships and charter schools holds steady despite recent controversies. The annual survey’s large sample means subtle trend lines and relatively small gaps can still be meaningful. This year’s version has a margin of error of roughly 1.5 percent.

Tax credit scholarships remain the most popular form of private school choice. They garner the support of 57 percent of Democrats surveyed, as well as a 49-percent plurality of Republicans.

Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Pledge waiver, testing, school reforms poll and more

florida-roundup-logoPledge problems: After some parents protested when their children brought home a waiver to opt out of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school, the Leon County School District is removing the form from the student handbook. The district apologized for the confusion, and now will simply ask parents to sign a form confirming they have read the handbook, which describes the process to opt out of saying the Pledge. WTXL. WTVT. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU. WCTV.

School testing: Scores on the most recent ACT tests show that many graduating seniors are unprepared for college-level classes. The average test score dipped from 21.0 to 20.8, and only 38 percent of students achieved the benchmark in at least three of the four core subjects tested – reading, English, math and science. In Florida, 81 percent of graduating students took the ACT, and the average score was 19.9. Associated Press. The Lee County School Board reluctantly passes a testing schedule for the school year. “Is it what we want? Probably not. Is it the best that staff said it could come up with, where it would be approved by the state? Yes, at this time,” said board member Jeanne Dozier. Fort Myers News-Press.

Defining participant: The act of participating in the Florida Standards Assessments testing is defined by the state as answering a single question, deputy education commissioner Juan Copa said this week in a court hearing over the state’s third-grade retention policies. Answering one question allows a school to count that student in the participation rate, which is important because schools must have a rate of 95 percent or lose money from the state. Copa also said the definition of participating may change from year to year. Gradebook. Both sides are awaiting a ruling by a Leon County judge on the retention case that is narrow in focus but could have a huge impact on the state’s accountability system. Orlando Sentinel.

Education poll: Support for charter schools, school testing and merit pay for teachers is rising among Americans, but declining for Common Core standards, school vouchers and teacher tenure, according to an annual survey by the journal Education Next. Orlando Sentinel. Politico. Continue Reading →

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China redefines public education

The country is moving away from a rigid “Soviet-style education system.” Educators are breaking free of government regulations, giving parents more options and learning to experiment with new approaches to instruction. They’re learning to become entrepreneurs, leading networks of innovative schools.

That’s what’s starting to happen in China, according to an NPR story from earlier this month (which we missed initially; hat tip Eduwonk). Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Retention hearing, Zika, sales tax vote and more

florida-roundup-logoRetention hearing: Parents from around the state testify in a hearing to determine if the state’s retention policy for third-graders is legal. The law calls for the retention of third-graders who don’t pass the state reading test or refuse to take it. The 14 parents suing the state and six school districts say retention should be based on a child’s readiness for fourth grade and teacher recommendations, not on the results of a test. Rocco Testani, an attorney for the Florida Department of Education, says “this is a potential undermining of the entire assessment and accountability system.” Leon County Judge Karen Gievers did not rule on a request to allow about a dozen students to be promoted immediately. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida. WFSU.

Day 1 and Zika: The first day of school in Miami-Dade County included a new ritual – bug spray to guard against the Zika virus. Miami Herald. Broward and Palm Beach students are not in the Zika zone, like Miami-Dade, but they are receiving insect repellent and tips on preventing the spread of the Zika virus. Sun-Sentinel. Opening day is smooth for Broward and Sarasota county schools. Sun-Sentinel. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

District loses lawsuit: A judge has ruled that while the Polk County School Board can decide whether to ask voters to renew an extra half-cent in the sales tax for capital projects, the county has the power to decide when the election will be held. The board does not want the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, which the county was planning on doing, and meets today to consider its options. Lakeland Ledger.

Teacher bonuses: Florida school districts are cautious when determining eligibility for the state’s Best and Brightest teacher bonuses, even after a recent ruling in Sarasota County that a noninstructional speech pathologist should be eligible for the bonus. Sumter County recently asked the Florida Department of Education for guidance, and was told the bonuses were “only for classroom teachers.” Gradebook. Continue Reading →

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John Oliver’s Florida charter school anecdotes may be outdated

John OliverLast night, HBO’s John Oliver aired a segment skewering charter school scandals. It’s mainly a comedic rehash of talking points and headlines from the past few years. Online reactions from both sides of the charter school debate have been fairly predictable.

But Oliver spends a good deal of time on a subject we’ve covered quite a bit on this blog: Charter school oversight in Florida, and specifically, the importance of stopping unqualified charter schools that wind up shutting down in the middle of the school year, leaving parents and students in the lurch. The points he raises here deserve attention.

He cites the specific example of Ivy Academies in Broward County, which plagiarized parts of their charter application from a successful network of South Florida schools, shuttered weeks after opening for the 2013-14 school year, and remain mired in legal trouble to this day.

“When schools close that fast, it’s shocking, because you would assume someone would rigorously screen a school before it was allowed to open, making sure it was financially and academically sound, but that is not always the case,” Oliver says.

That may have rung true a couple years ago, in some parts of Florida more than others. The question is: Does it still?

In the years since the Ivy Academies episode, both the state Department of Education and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) have invested heavily in helping school boards, which oversee all but a handful of the state’s more than 650 charter schools, improve their supervision not just of existing charters, but new ones that apply to open. State rules and laws have been updated to strengthen school boards’ scrutiny of new charter school applications.  Continue Reading →

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PAC money, school choice and Florida school board races

Earlier this year, Louise Penta seemed like a clear favorite to win an open spot on the Collier County School Board.

A retired nurse and fixture in the local nonprofit scene, she raised more than $50,000 in campaign donations — one of the highest totals ever raised in a Collier school board race — and lent her campaign another $15,000. She is a longtime Republican running in deep-red Southwest Florida, with backing from the local GOP, with a conservative platform that emphasized curbing the Common Core State Standards and reining in spending in a district whose lucrative property tax base yields some of the highest local revenues in the state. She had logged many hours mentoring local schoolchildren, which she said put her in touch with the needs of students in the school district.

This summer, however, the tenor of her race changed dramatically, as local mailboxes were flooded with messages boosting her opponent, Stephanie Lucarelli.  The Naples Daily News reported three local women had formed a political committee, backed by a $3,000 donation from the local teachers union. But over a two-month period in June and July, two donors lavished the PAC with more than $200,000, a sum unheard of in local school board races and unparalleled even by the most costly campaign in neighboring Miami-Dade County.

Stephanie Lucarelli is among the beneficiaries of a deluge of PAC spending in a Collier County, Fla. school board race.

Stephanie Lucarelli is among the beneficiaries of a deluge of PAC spending in a Collier County, Fla. school board race.

The political committee, called Preserve Our Public Schools, spent thousands of dollars on opposition research, and tens of thousands more on Alexandria, Va.-based media consultants. Then it began a $79,000 deluge of mail pieces, some of which attacked another school board candidate, Lee Dixon, after discovering incendiary social media posts from accounts under his name.

In an interview, Penta said she doesn’t have any skeletons in her closet that would make her vulnerable to attacks. But she said she fears an assault is coming ahead of the Aug. 30 election. Early voting is already underway.

The two local donors behind Preserve Our Public Schools are Sheilah Crowley and Karen Clegg. Crowley an active member of the local League of Women Voters, which has been sharply critical of school choice policies. Neither of them returned phone or email messages seeking comment on why they were pouring so much money into a local school board race.

“What is it that they want? That’s the question I ask myself every night,” Penta said. “What would motivate people to do this?”

While it’s not clear what’s driving this unparalleled infusion of cash, the dividing lines on the five-member Collier school board offer clues. And while school board politics are driven by local issues, they mirror political tensions elsewhere in the state as rival associations of school board members vie for influence, and district leaders around the state grapple with divisions over school choice, accountability, and ideology.

Two Collier school board members not up for re-election, Erika Donalds and Kelly Lichter, helped found one of the district’s five charter schools. They tend to support school choice, seek tougher scrutiny of school district spending, and stake out politically conservative positions on a range of hot-button issues that come before the school board. But they’re often out-voted by the remaining three members. If Penta and Dixon win their races, the ideological balance of the board would tip in their favor. If they don’t, in Penta’s words: “It will be a primarily Democratic school board. It’s not supposed to be partisan, but it really is.”

Lucarelli didn’t return a call seeking comment, but she did address the PAC’s role and her own partisan leanings in comments reported by the Daily News.

“When I got involved in this race I had no idea who was going to be behind me,” she told the paper. “It was entirely organic. I was not handpicked by any organization to run.”

Continue Reading →

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