Bills would expand access to college courses in Florida

Florida has long been a leader in offering Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, and other programs that allow students to pursue college credits while they’re still in high school.

But some state lawmakers say access to those options remains limited and uneven. Three bills advanced this week would expand access to college courses.

Collegiate high school overhaul

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

On Tuesday, the Senate Education PreK-12 committee backed a bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz that would stop school districts from limiting participation in acceleration programs offered by local community colleges.

In 2014, Legg authored a bill that required school districts and community colleges to give students in every Florida county access to a public collegiate high school program, which allowed students to complete up to two year’s worth of college courses before graduation. But Legg said some districts have limited participation.

“Some of the school districts and state colleges have an enrollment cap of 25-30 kids,” he told the committee, which he chairs. “What we wanted to do was make sure there was not an artificially low [limit on participation].”

He acknowledged the college programs can be costly for districts to operate, so SB 1076 would create a bonus system that would offer districts an extra half-student’s worth of state per-pupil funding for every student who completes 30 college credit hours in the revamped acceleration programs. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Principal power, a reading plan, charters and more

florida-roundup-logoPrincipal power: Principals in seven Florida counties would get more authority and money to turn around underperforming schools under a bill passed by a House committee on Thursday. Broward, Duval, Jefferson, Madison, Palm Beach, Pinellas and Seminole counties could apply for $100,000 under the program and $10,000 for each participating principal. Politico Florida.

Reading program: University of Florida researchers are asking the state for money to start an intensive reading program for underachieving students. The program teaches students decoding, a process that includes seeing words, breaking them into individual sounds and then articulating the sounds. A test in October at two failing St. Petersburg elementary schools showed significant improvement by students, according to a reportPolitico Florida.

Charter school funding: Charter schools should get state money for construction and building maintenance because they don’t qualify for local money, according to House Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Corcoran. The House budget would give charter schools $90 million and public schools $50 million, The Senate bill has no such money for charters. Politico Florida.

Recess mom Q&A: Angela Browning, a paralegal with three children in Orange County schools, helped start a movement by moms to have recess restored to elementary schools. In this Q&A, she discusses why she got involved and why it’s important. Education Week. Continue Reading →

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Thanks to school choice, ‘the cycle of poverty is ending in my family’

Denisha Merriweather testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee during a hearing on school choice.

Denisha Merriweather testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee during a hearing on school choice.

Denisha Merriweather has told the story of school choice changing the trajectory of her life countless times. On Wednesday, for the first time, she brought that story to Congress.

She told the House Education and Workforce Committee that she moved from school to school constantly as a child, struggled to read and master multiplication, was picked on and got into fights, and seemed on a path to follow the path of her biological mother and other relatives who dropped out of school. That all changed when she moved in with her godmother, who found her a private school that would push her to become the first in her family to graduate from college — and a scholarship that placed the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville, Fla. within reach.

“The cycle of poverty is ending in my family because of the Florida tax credit scholarship,” she said. “I received a quality education, and because of my example, my siblings are now seeing how to take advantage of educational opportunities that come their way.”

School choice (particularly charter schools) got a boost in the sweeping rewrite of federal education law approved late last year, and could be on Congress’ radar again this year, as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program comes up for renewal. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Bonuses, budget, sales tax, schedules and more

florida-roundup-logoTeacher bonuses: State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, says the reason the Senate has allocated no money for teacher bonuses is that the program has not yet been fully vetted. Miami Herald.

Budget dissent: Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, adds his name to the list of legislators who oppose Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to boost education spending largely through local property taxes. Scott’s $507 million increase in K-12 spending is reached mostly by collecting $427.3 million more from Floridians through property taxes. Tampa Bay Times.

Sales tax hike: A majority of Palm Beach County School Board members want to join the county to ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax hike. A decision is expected Feb. 17. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel.

School scheduling: Martin County school officials are considering switching middle schools to a block schedule of three 85-minute periods and one of 45 minutes. The plan would save an estimated $800,000 by eliminating 15 teaching positions, officials say. TCPalm.

Safety and uniforms: If Alachua County wants a $180,000 grant from the state for school security cameras, it will have to conform to state rules and require solid-color collared shirts as part of school uniforms. Gainesville Sun.

Testing the disabled: A woman whose 15-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy tells the Sarasota County School Board that she has concerns over state and local testing requirements for disabled children. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Continue Reading →

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School choice and black history

BAEO report coverIf you want to know why black support is so strong for school choice, talk to black parents and listen to Howard Fuller. In the meantime, read “The State of Education in Black America,” a new report from the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

As we’ve written before, the struggle for educational freedom runs deep in African-American history. But nobody knows and speaks to that better than BAEO, a leader in the  fight for 15 years. Its report, released last week, highlights the outrageous academic statistics that backdrop the legions of African-American parents who seek educational options for their children. It also offers plenty of historical nuggets, including a primer beginning on page 31, for anyone who somehow thinks this search is new, or alien, or some kind of ploy:

Black parental choice in America did not begin with the creation of charter schools or publicly funded voucher and tax-credit programs in the 1990s. Black parents’ demand for a quality public education in a non-segregated school did not begin with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Black adults’ aspirations for higher education did not wait for congressional enactment of the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, nor did Black parents wait for systemic school reform with the creation of the federal Department of Education in 1867.

I wish choice critics would consider this history. Would they be so quick to condemn “vouchers” if their frame of reference included Southern slave codes, which made it a crime to teach slaves how to read and write? Would they still insist black choice supporters are being conned if they knew about the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles or the Piney Woods boarding school in Mississippi? Would they still see nefarious ties between schools and faith if they knew black churches have always been central to establishing quality schools for African Americans?

The BAEO report includes data on black student performance in charter schools, and in private schools accessed through vouchers and tax credit scholarships. It notes recent stories and research about the rise in black homeschoolers. And it offers advice for those who want to educate others about the need for options for black students: share the report with as many people as possible.

For those with an open mind, it’s there. For everybody else, we’ll press on.

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Fla. Senate panel votes to expand eligibility for special needs scholarships

Sen. Stargel

Sen. Stargel

Parents would no longer need to enroll special needs children in public schools before applying for private-school scholarships under a bill that received bipartisan backing from a Florida Senate panel.

SB 1062 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, cleared the Education Pre-K-12 Committee on a 9-1 vote on Tuesday. It would make it easier for students to receive John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, a popular voucher program.

Right now, with few exceptions, students with special needs are required to have enrolled in public schools or received specialized services under the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program before they can apply for the scholarships, which serve more than 30,000 students this school year.

The lone committee member voting against the plan was Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who noted parents can apply for Gardiner Scholarships, the state’s newer education savings account program for special needs students, without first attending public schools. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the Gardiner program.)

Bullard said the requirement that students attend public schools before qualifying for McKay Scholarships was intended, in part, to ensure parents “understood the width and breadth of the programs at the public-school level that were available.”
Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Construction spending, tests, commissioner and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool construction spending: The Florida Association of District School Superintendents fires off a letter to legislators to refute the allegations that school officials have misspent millions in construction dollars. The association claims some legislators are misrepresenting the data in order to shift construction money to charter schools. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel.

School testing: The U.S. Department of Education is offering states suggestions on how to cut back on the time students spend on standardized testing. Associated Press. Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day falls on April 18, but that’s a Florida Standards Assessment testing day. So Palm Beach County is moving its observation to March 18. Palm Beach Post.

Education commissioner: A bill that would ask voters to make the education commissioner position an elected one and give it Cabinet status is probably dead, according to its House sponsor, Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach. The bill was approved by the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Tuesday, but no hearings are scheduled in the House. TCPalmGradebook.

Recess bills: Self-described “recess moms” of Florida are lobbying state senators to take action on a bill that would require 20 minutes of recess a day in elementary schools. The bill is moving through the House, but has yet to get a Senate hearing. Gradebook. Politico Florida. Continue Reading →

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Cities, school turnarounds and charter school oversight debated in Florida

Sen. Brandes

Sen. Brandes

If a city’s schools are struggling, what power should it have to turn them around?

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told his colleagues that right now, municipalities lack direct power to improve schools in their communities, which are run — or, in the case of charter schools, authorized — exclusively by countrywide school districts. He’s sponsoring a bill that would change that, allowing cities to sponsor their own charter schools.

He cited a series of investigative reports by the Tampa Bay Times, which won national acclaim for documenting years of academic strife in five South St. Petersburg elementary schools. The paper reported this week that the situation could rekindle a lawsuit by community groups arguing the schools have short-changed black students.

“I can just imagine being the mayor of that city, and wanting to effect real change in my community, but being unable to,” Brandes said while debating SB 808. “By this bill, that mayor could have a real impact. He can effect change, day one, if he gets in there and says, ‘No, we’re going to get a KIPP academy.'”

St. Petersburg lies in Pinellas County, which is home to one of lowest concentrations of charter schools among Florida’s urban districts. It is also the only large school district in Florida that was eligible for two rounds of state grants aimed at drawing KIPP-like charters to struggling urban areas, but never applied. Continue Reading →

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