Constitutional change made New Orleans educational transformation possible

New Orleans. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recovery and improvement of public education in New Orleans is now a well-known story.

In late November of 2005, the state-created Recovery School District took over most of the city’s storm-ravaged schools and created a nearly all-charter system that has achieved eye-popping results and set off debates that still simmer 10 years later.

The transformation might never have happened if it weren’t for an earlier change that seems all but forgotten, at least among national observers. Two years before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, a bipartisan coalition championed an amendment to the state constitution, winning support from voters and laying the groundwork for the creation of a new kind of school district.

Does that crucial step — largely missing in discussions whether other places can follow New Orleans’ lead — hold lessons for other places?

In 2003, Louisiana voters approved Amendment 4, with 60 percent in favor and 40 percent against, giving the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) the ability to take over struggling public schools, mostly in the Orleans Parish School District.

Education reform critics often argue the takeover of Orleans Parish schools after the storm was undemocratic and driven by profit motive. While there are legitimate debates to be had about community decision-making, that narrative tends to ignore the level of support the takeover law received from voters and the state Legislature. It also trivializes the profound dysfunction of Orleans Parish public schools, which helped galvanize public support for the change.

When supporters began pushing to amend the constitution, the Orleans Parish School District was a known as a basket case. In 2003, The Advocate‘s editorial board described the district as “a managerial and educational nightmare.” Continue Reading →


Bills could resolve conflict over ‘high-performing’ Florida charter schools

Florida charter schools would be certain to lose “high-performing” status when their letter grades fall below B’s under legislation proposed in both the state House and Senate.

The legislation would clarify an issue at the center of a legal dispute between the state and a Central Florida charter school, decided earlier this month by an appellate court.

Charters with strong academic ratings can receive a high-performing label, which gives them certain privileges. They can expand and replicate more easily. They pay lower administrative fees to school districts. They can enter 15-year charter contracts instead of the usual five.

A 2013 law change required the state education commissioner to review the state’s high-performing charters each year to make sure they still met all the criteria, which include earning at least two A’s and no grades below a B in the three most recent school years.

Right now, 167 of Florida’s more than 650 charter schools are classified as high-performing. The number has risen, even as dozens of charters lost the label due to falling grades.

Last year, Imagine Schools at South Lake was one of 10 schools stripped of high-performing status after their state-issued grades slipped to a C. The non-profit overseeing the school, Educational Charter Foundation of Florida, took the state Department of Education to court.

Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Funding, charters, poverty and more

IMG_0001.JPGSchool spending: Even if Gov. Rick Scott’s K-12 education spending plans are approved, Florida will continue to lag behind more than 40 states in per-pupil spending. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Consultants and charters: A Tampa couple’s consulting firm is being paid $35,000 by the Hillsborough County School District, and the company’s owner is also in line to oversee seven charter schools. The events demonstrate a change in the relationship between the district and charter schools. Tampa Bay Times.

Poverty and performance: A study of Escambia schools by the Studer Community Institute and the University of West Florida finds that 10 of the 11 elementary schools with free- and reduced-price lunch rates above 85 percent were given D or F school grades. Pensacola News Journal.

Foreign languages: A study of Collier County students shows that a majority now speak a language other than English at home. Naples Daily News.

System audit: A state legislator is requesting a follow-up audit of the way the Leon County School District has handled past construction projects. Tallahassee Democrat.

Charter school moving: The Nap Ford Community School, one of Orange County’s oldest charters, is moving from the Parramore neighborhood at the end of the school year. Orlando Sentinel.

School properties: The Renaissance Charter School at Cooper City has been sold for $15.5 million. The Real Deal. Property owned by the Miami-Dade School District in the Design District neighborhood is appraised at $54 million. The school board votes this week on putting it out for bid. Miami Herald.

New school’s model: The new Plantation Key School will be modeled after Boynton Beach’s Galaxy Elementary School, which was ranked in 2014 by one group as the best school in the state. Florida Keys Keynoter.

Autism center: Parents of autistic children are cautiously optimistic about plans to build a public school center for those students in Duval County. Florida Times-Union.

Rallying around school: A neighborhood group has formed Friends of North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, trying to convince people living around the school to send their children there instead of choosing a private or magnet school. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher, administrator pay: Average salaries for Marion County teachers, principals and assistant principals continue to lag near the bottom third of the state’s largest school districts. Ocala Star-Banner.

Teacher shortage: Lee County schools are temporarily using 20 exceptional student education teachers to help fill teacher shortages. Fort Myers News-Press.

Teacher academy: The Chain of Lakes Collegiate charter high school in Winter Haven is starting a pilot program for a teacher academy in the spring semester. Lakeland Ledger.

Superintendent search: The Osceola County School Board has a list of nine semifinalists to replace superintendent Melba Luciano, who is retiring July 31. Four of the candidates are from Florida. Osceola News-Gazette.

Transgender reading: The Florida-based nonprofit Liberty Counsel, a religious activist group, threatens to sue a Wisconsin school district that had a story about a transgender girl on its reading list. The district removed it after the threat. New York Daily News.

Sexting penalties: The state’s new sexting law gives law enforcement more options for penalties. Officials say sexting is a problem in high schools and middle schools, and the new rules allow for “teachable moments.” Tampa Bay Times.

Testing cut scores: The State Board of Education is weighing the arguments for settling on a grading scale – also commonly called cut scores – for the Florida Standards Assessment. The board will vote in January. Palm Beach Post.

School zoning: A series of proposed Broward County school boundary changes – and two in particular – have some parents angry. Sun-Sentinel.

School sidewalks: The Lake County Commission is moving ahead with 10 sidewalk projects in Eustis, Mount Dora and Leesburg. Parents of school children have complained about the lack of sidewalks around schools. Daily Commercial.

Opinions on schools: It’s time to consider smaller school districts. Orlando Sentinel. The State Board of Education should set the Florida Standard Assessment test cut scores at levels that will eliminate the gap with NAEP proficiency levels, writes Dominic M. Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. TCPalm. A referendum for Palm Beach County schools will be a hard sell. Sun-Sentinel. High school students need a broad base of math and science to keep their college and career options open. Bridge to Tomorrow. The Duval County School Board and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti need to work out their differences. Florida Times-Union. School achievement is more than a test score. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Collier County students’ required economics with financial literacy course reflects the new financial literacy standards for high school. Naples Daily News.

School, teacher settle: The Collier County school district will pay $32,500 as part of a settlement to a former teacher who claimed retaliation after she alleged the system was misusing federal grant money. Naples Daily News.

Teacher loses in court: The Florida Supreme Court rules that the statute of limitations does not apply in the case of a former Bay County school teacher accused of “misconduct in office by a public officer or employee.” He was originally charged in 2012 with several counts of sexual misconduct with minors between 2001 and 2006, but the charges were changed to the more general misconduct in office, which has a longer statute of limitations. Panama City News Herald.

Teachers in trouble: A teacher at Centennial High School in Port St. Lucie has been arrested and accused of sexual battery on a student. WPBF.

Student enrichment: Florida International University and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science are collaborating to set up a science education program in Miami-Dade preschools. FIU News. Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa is one of 335 U.S. high schools selected as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Tampa Tribune. Orange County schools receives a “silver level district” award from the Florida Green School Network for promoting environmental sustainability. Orlando Sentinel. Jackson Middle School in Titusville gets a grant for a mentoring program. Florida Today. Students in Volusia and Flagler counties are changing their lives and the lives of others through giving. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Eight Braden River Elementary School students are chosen for the All-State Elementary Chorus. Bradenton Herald.


Pausing to give thanks

Thanksgiving greetings

Our blog will be off through Monday morning for Thanksgiving. We hope you have a chance to relax and spend time with friends and family.


Recapping our guest series on testing and educational choice

testing and choiceOver the past two weeks, we’ve aired six perspectives on testing and school choice.

We can’t claim to have found all the answers, but we hope our contributors have raised some important issues in ways that go beyond the usual talking points.

  • As Jacqueline Cooper explains, testing can yield vital data on school performance, and help ensure schools meet the needs of students they have historically short-changed. And, as Mike Petrilli notes, it’s crucial for even light-touch regulators to root out the worst schools, which can be especially harmful for low-income families.
  • But, as Jason Bedrick outlines, regulators need to have humility when it comes to judging school quality using tests alone, or imposing mandates that could drive some high-quality schools away from choice programs. An over-reliance on testing can be burdensome for schools, as Jane Watt describes, drawing on her experience as a charter school founder.
  • Tony Bennett proposes a sort of middle ground: giving schools and districts a choice of a few, relatively lightweight tests that measure students’ progress toward college- and career-ready standards. That, he writes, could give educators more flexibility.
  • As Tom Vander Ark shows, it’s time to start thinking about a new approach to testing and accountability that can change the current debate. Lightweight assessments and real-time data on can be useful to teachers, and may eventually usher in the “end of the big test,” but those ideas are still a ways from becoming reality.

Continue Reading →


A ‘really special’ school, plus some extra help

Note: This student spotlight originally appeared on Step Up For Students’ “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship” blog.  Step Up For Students is also host of redefinED.

Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy wants to do what other kids do at school like walk down the hall with friends, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.

He gets all of that and more at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that serves students with special needs.

“He loves it!’’ said Liam’s mom, Stacey Thomas, a licensed speech therapist who discovered the school while interning as a graduate student.Stacey and Liam family photo

Because of his disability, Liam qualified for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The state-funded program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the additional dollars – on average, about $10,000 a year per child – from approved options.

Liam’s scholarship covers Morning Star’s annual $9,850 tuition and another $855 in dues and fees for books, technology, speech evaluations and more. Money left over can go toward future expenses, including college. Families are eligible based on their children’s need, not household income. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Duval investigation, achievement and more

IMG_0001.JPGDuval schools investigated: Do black and Hispanic students in Duval County have equal access to a quality education? That’s what the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating, according to a letter the department sent to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. Florida Times-Union. The local NAACP office is offering alternatives to the school changes School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has proposed. Florida Times-Union.

Achievement by gender: A study of a million Florida children born between 1992 and 2002 who attended public schools shows that boys overwhelmingly fall behind girls in learning at an early age and never catch up, and the gap widens significantly when race and socioeconomic status are considered. Washington Post.

Testing costs: Hillsborough County’s school district spent about $2.2 million on testing expenses in 2014-2015, according to a recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the district’s $2.2 billion annual budget. Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook.

Stadium deal: David Beckham’s proposed deal with the Miami-Dade School Board to build a $200 million Major League Soccer stadium in Little Havana is on hold. Team officials say owners of some of the properties where the stadium would be built are asking too much for their land. Most of the land, next to Marlins Park baseball stadium, is owned by the city, which agreed to transfer ownership to the school board to shelter the team from property taxes. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →


Don’t let testing undermine choice

Note: This is the sixth installment in our series on testing and educational choice. See previous installments here

Tests are an important and perhaps necessary part of schooling. When used properly, they help teachers assess student progress, show students where they need to improve, and provide parents with crucial information when deciding where to enroll their children. What frustrates parents and teachers is when achievement on standardized tests becomes the primary purpose of schooling, rather than an aid to learning.

testing and choiceMandating that private schools participating in school choice programs administer the state test can also stifle innovation and diversity and drive schools away, thereby limiting the choices available to families. Fortunately, the private sector can provide less rigid and more comprehensive forms of accountability that will empower families to make informed choices.

The Benefits and Limitations of Testing

Tests can provide valuable information, but the misuse of testing can have significant unintended consequences, particularly when the tests are transformed from diagnostic tools into cudgels. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote recently, the “data from tests are some of the most valuable intelligence we can access in the struggle to improve our education system.”

However, he cautions, misusing that data can distort the system:

[T]he moment you set out to trigger corrective actions and interventions using tests (which are, after all, designed merely to measure student performance), you are fundamentally shifting their function from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools over the last decade or more. When parents complain about over-testing, what they are responding to is not the tests themselves—which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time—but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally altered the experience of schooling for our children.

Continue Reading →