Appeals court rejects education lawsuit, upholds Florida special needs vouchers

A three-judge panel on a Florida appellate court has tossed an 8-year-old lawsuit taking aim at 20 years of state education policy.

Today’s ruling upholds an earlier trial court decision hailed as a victory for education reformers who defended school choice, testing and other policies targeted by the lawsuit.

It also adds to the ledger of lawsuits around the country that hit roadblocks trying to force states to increase public school funding.

The First District Court of Appeal’s decision is noteworthy for another reason. It finds a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that found private school vouchers violate the Florida constitution does not threaten vouchers for children with special needs.

Judge Bradford Thomas writes that when the high court struck down Opportunity Scholarships for private schools in Bush v. Holmes, justices left the door open to reach different conclusions about the constitutionality of other school choice programs.

And McKay Scholarships, he writes, are different. About 30,000 students with special needs, less than 1 percent of Florida’s K-12 students, currently use the scholarships to attend private schools. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Testing extension, ESSA plan reviewed and more

Testing extension: The Florida Department of Education has agreed to extend the window for the Florida Standards Assessments testing and all state end-of-course exams. School districts had asked for a delay in the testing because of a busy hurricane season that caused many districts to miss days of school. Instead, K-12 Chancellor Herschel Lyons extended the testing time-frame by a week. The decision gives districts the option of delaying the tests, or using the full two weeks to complete them. Gradebook.

ESSA plans: A group of 45 bipartisan reviewers gives Florida’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act mixed reviews, with no one awarding the state the highest rating in any of the nine categories studied. The strengths of the plan include a clear, student-focused vision of high standards, an easy-to-understand grading system, inclusion of science and social studies assessments, and the identification of struggling schools. The highest marks came in academic progress, for measuring learning gains, and in continuous improvement for identifying struggling schools and helping them improve. The weaknesses: incorporating subgroups into the accountability system, and in marking progress toward English language proficiency. The 74.

Dangerous school zones: Miami-Dade County has the most dangerous school zones in Florida, according to an analysis of vehicle crash data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles by San Diego company 1Point21Interactive. Eight schools in the county are in the state’s top 10 most dangerous school zones. Miami Herald.

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Taking the initiative on school choice in California

California is partisan Democratic by a substantial margin. In October Berkley’s Institute of Government Studies released the results of a cross-partisan poll of 1200 registered voters probing attitudes toward K-12 schools. Substantial parts of the poll focused on the potential support for subsidized parental choice, using the term “vouchers”. Fifty-Five percent of registered Democratic responders favored vouchers for low-income parents to choose a private or religious school. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans agreed. By contrast, the prospect of vouchers to all parents regardless of income dropped approval to 43 percent of Democrats and raised Republicans approval only two points.  Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Scholarship fund, Scientology, sales tax and more

Scholarship fund empty: The state’s Gardiner scholarship, which is awarded to students with special needs, has exhausted all its available funding for the first time since it began in 2014. About 10,500 students are receiving the scholarship this year, and another 1,270 have been approved but are on a waiting list. “We have definitely exhausted every last dollar, every last penny,” says Gina Lynch, vice president of operations for Step Up For Students, which helps administer the program and hosts this blog. “There is healthy demand for the program.The program allows families to pay for a wide range of education-related expenses, from therapy and homeschool curriculum to public school courses and private school tuition, for qualifying children with special needs.” redefinED.

Schools and Scientology: Several Florida private schools participating in school choice scholarship programs use learning concepts developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, reports the Huffington Post.

Sales tax squabble: Members of the Manatee County School Board still can’t agree on a date for an election asking voters to increase property taxes for schools, how to sell the referendum or even how much to assess voters. The squabbling has led board member Dave Miner to call for the removal of Scott Hopes as board chairman. Miner says Hopes misled the board about his support for the special election when he was chosen as chairman just two weeks ago. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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Florida exhausts special needs scholarship funding

Demand for the nation’s largest education savings account program has outstripped supply.

Roughly 10,150 students are receiving Gardiner Scholarships this school year. That means the program has exhausted all the available funding for scholarships for the first time since its creation in 2014.

An additional 1,270 students have been approved for funding, but have not been able to receive it. That’s according to figures from Step Up For Students, the largest nonprofit organization that helps administer the program.

“We have definitely exhausted every last dollar, every last penny,” said Gina Lynch, Step Up’s Vice President of Operations. “There is healthy demand for the program.” Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Test waivers, students save bookstore and more

Test waivers request: Districts around the state that have seen spikes in enrollment due to this season’s hurricanes are requesting waivers from the state of the testing requirements for graduation for those students. Without the waivers, officials from the districts say, many students will be held back even though they were on track to graduate from their island schools. “I think that if they were demonstrating on-grade proficiency in Puerto Rico, if they were on track in terms of credits necessary for graduation, if they have met the prerequisites for graduation, then I think a degree of compassion ought to be extended to them and provide them safe passage to the graduation stage,” says Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. More than 8,500 students from the islands have enrolled in Florida schools, and more are expected. The 74.

Students save bookstore: Third-graders at Tomoka Elementary School in Ormond Beach are credited with saving a Barnes & Noble bookstore that was in danger of closing. Students wrote a letter to the company CEO, asking him for help, and he intervened to get the Daytona Beach store’s lease extended. “I thought it was very empowering for our students to learn that their voice can make a significant change,” says Tomoka principal Susan Tuten. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Mental health counselors: St. Johns County School Board members will consider a proposal to place a licensed mental health counselor at every school in the district. School officials say the cost would be covered through “defined member benefits” of individual insurance or government assistance plans. These counselors, also called motivational coaches, would be provided by the Motivational Coaches of America Inc. of Doral. If the board approves the plan, a pilot program will run from January to June at several middle and high schools. St. Augustine Record.

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Florida schools roundup: School property taxes, immigration and more

Education budget: In his budget proposal, Gov. Rick Scott wants local school boards to keep property taxes at their current levels so rising property values can produce extra funds for school districts. Florida Education Secretary Pam Stewart concurs, saying it’s the only way districts can get the extra funds they need. But the Florida House balked at that suggestion last year, calling it a tax hike, and is expected to resist again when the Legislature convenes next month. Stewart says the districts need the extra money to supplement what they get from the state and help pay for the influx of students from Puerto Rico and other islands that were devastated by hurricanes. “We’d find ourselves unable to do that (get to the $7,497 per-student spending called for in Scott’s budget) if we didn’t leave the RLE (required local effort) at the current level,” she told members of a Senate education panel. News Service of FloridaWFSU. Florida Politics.

Puerto Rican migration: Quality education is one of the primary motivations for Puerto Rican families moving into Florida, and particularly central Florida, according to Orlando real estate consultant Jose Hoyos. “They say, ‘I am here because these public schools are like the private schools in Puerto Rico,’ ” he says. “They don’t mind working here for $10 an hour because their children are getting a good education.” The number of Puerto Ricans in five central Florida counties (Orange, Osceola, Hillsborough, Polk and Seminole) grew by more than 115,000 between 2010 and 2016, U.S. Census reports show. Orlando Sentinel.

Reporting sexual abuse: The Miami-Dade County School Board approves a program to help students at all grade levels to spot inappropriate sexual behavior, and how to report it, and to help parents spot signs of sexual abuse in their children. The board sets a February deadline for having a completed plan on classes and communication. Miami Herald.

Finding gifted students: Educators from Washington state are looking to the Miami-Dade School District as a model for increasing and diversifying the students who are accepted into gifted programs. Miami-Dade uses a two-tier system to determine gifted eligibility: middle-class and affluent students need IQ scores of at least 130, while low-income children or English-learners can get in with scores of 117 if they demonstrate creativity and academic achievement. Plan B was approved by the Florida Legislature in 1991, though not many districts use it because of the expense. Seattle Times.

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Educators overcome racism, anti-immigrant sentiment

Students at RCMA Wimauma Academy gather in front of the garden they helped plant.

Many students at RCMA Wimauma Academy struggle through the school day in fear.

Will their parents be home when they get there? Or will they immigration authorities round them up for deportation?

This is the reality many students face at a school dedicated to serving children of migrant farmworkers. Roughly 65 half percent of Wimauma residents are migrants. Many are undocumented. Life is already uncertain for their parents, who work long hours in the fields at unstable jobs with uncertain pay.

The Trump Administration’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over six months created new uncertainty among immigrants around the country. The program helps provide a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation to young adults who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. It helps them get jobs, pursue higher education and live without fear of deportation.

Education groups across the political spectrum — including some leading figures in the charter school movement — have spoken about the need to protect DACA students. Some have criticized the president. Others have taken a more measured approach, focusing on the need for legislative action. While the president called on Congress to replace the program before it phases out, federal lawmakers have yet to act. Continue Reading →

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