‘Reverse Robin Hood’ and educational choice

There are plenty of issues worth debating about private school choice programs. But in a recent article on Nevada’s education savings account program, The Guardian’s  U.S. edition highlighted one that seldom stands up to scrutiny, especially in fast-growing Sun Belt states: The idea that they hurt public school finances.

“It’s a drain of public education funds,” said Sylvia Lazos of Educate Nevada Now, an organization coordinating ESA opposition. “I call it a reverse Robin Hood. We would be using public dollars to encourage our more affluent and mobile parents to move to private schools. This will sharpen the [class] divide and make it even more difficult for those schools that are struggling.”

The trouble with the first part of her critique is that, rather than hurting public education in Nevada, the ESA program could help their bottom lines.

Nevada is adding students faster than it can build new schools to house them. By 2018, its largest school district, Clark County, plans to build a dozen new elementary schools in the area around Las Vegas, as part of a 10-year, $4 billion capital program. By encouraging families to teach their children at home, or enroll them in private schools, ESAs could help absorb this growth and spare taxpayers greater expense. They would also save public schools operating costs, since students would receive less than $6,000 each, a fraction of what the state would spend annually to educate the same students in public schools.

But the second part of Lazos’ critique raises a real issue. The near-universal program may wind up drawing relatively well-to-do families into private schools and home education programs with a little more than $5,100 in financial assistance. If Nevada’s program survives a pending legal challenge, and winds up mostly benefiting students who are already better off, it would raise a question first broached by social justice-oriented school choice advocates like Howard Fuller, and later explored more deeply here. Yes, it would save taxpayers money. No, it wouldn’t hurt public schools. But can it help the students who need help the most?

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Teachers unions evolved on magnet schools. Can they evolve on charters?

At a National Education Association convention in 1987, I was the floor manager for a new business item endorsing newly expanding magnet schools.  Despite the strong support of then NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell, the item lost because opponents successfully argued that magnet schools drained money and top students from neighborhood schools, creating a public school system of haves and have-nots.

Over time, however, the conversation started to change as thousands of magnet school teachers joined the NEA as magnets grew throughout the 80s. By 1989, the NEA had reversed course and started supporting these schools.

Thirty years later, magnet schools still often attract money and top students from neighborhood schools. In some communities, they may even have contributed to a divide between haves and have-nots in public schools. But teacher unions today don’t talk about these effects, and remain supportive of magnets.

Now, as teachers unions battle charter school supporters over language in the Democratic Party platform, and union organizing drives in public charter schools continue to get attention around the country, the question arises: Will the politics of charters follow the same course as magnet schools? Will teacher unions change from opposing to supporting charter schools if enough charter school teachers start paying union dues? If teacher unions become charter school enthusiasts, the Democratic Party will likely follow suit.

Evidence of how dues-paying teachers can impact a union’s charter school policies is emerging in California, where a growing number of charter school teachers are union members.  Earlier this month, the Los Angeles teachers union filed a grievance against the LA school district on behalf of charter school teachers who are union members, demanding that the district pay these teachers’ retirement benefits.

The reasons for the union’s advocacy on behalf of charter school teachers are complex. But it’s worth noting that the union’s advocacy comes just weeks after the LA union released a paper arguing that charter schools are draining students and money from LA district schools. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Budgets, financial literacy, turnarounds and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool budgeting: The Miami-Dade County School Board approves a tentative budget of more than $5 billion. While the tax millage is lower, district officials project the average homeowner will pay an extra $27 in taxes, due to increasing property values. Miami Herald. The Palm Beach County School Board approves a tentative $2.4 billion budget. It calls for a less than 2 percent raise for employees, but Superintendent Robert Avossa says the district will try to find room in the budget for more. Sun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Buried in the $498 million Leon County School District budget is a resolution cutting $1 million for textbook and other classroom materials. But district officials say budgeting is a “complicated and fluid process,” and that changes have already been made since it was tentatively approved Tuesday. Tallahassee Democrat. The Flagler County School District ranks sixth in the state for its required local effort property tax rate, but 64th in the amount it receives from the state in per-pupil spending. The school board is looking for an explanation. The discrepancy was discovered during budget sessions, at which the board approved a tentative $173 million budget. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Financial literacy: All Florida high schools must include financial literacy education this coming school year as part of the requirements for graduation. The Palm Beach County School District got ahead of the law and started them in 2014. Palm Beach Post.

School turnarounds: Five struggling Polk County middle schools could be closed for the 2017-2018 school year unless the district comes up with a turnaround plan that the Florida Board of Education approves. The board rejected the district’s original proposal, and gave it until Aug. 15 to revise it. Lakeland Ledger.

Advanced classes: The Volusia County School District creates a minority achievement specialist position to find ways to increase minority students’ participation in advanced classes. Only 12 percent of the 12,760 students taking advanced courses last year were black. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Fast-tracking denied: The groups that lost their case against the state’s public education system will not get their wish to have the appeal sent directly to the Florida Supreme Court. An appeals court denied the request from Citizens for a Strong Florida and other groups, which alleged the state has failed to provide an adequate public education system. News Service of Florida. Continue Reading →


Talking school choice, not politics, at the DNC

Raushaun WIlliams addresses school choice advocates during a reception at the Democratic National Convention.

Raushaun Williams addresses school choice advocates during a reception at the Democratic National Convention.

School choice advocates, gathered this week at the Democratic National Convention, said they wanted to keep their movement from getting sucked into partisan politics.

“The politics of education has had a toxic stranglehold on the American psyche,” Kevin Chavous, executive counsel of the American Federation for Children, said during a reception Tuesday evening in Philadelphia. A former Democratic member of the Washington D.C. city council, Chavous said supporters should elevate their cause “above the politics of today.”

Rather than get bogged down in battles over the particulars of the party platform, he said, they should share the stories of students like scholarship alum Raushaun Williams.

Williams told the gathering that by the time he got to middle school, he was moving from one public school to another in Philadelphia, with languishing grades and discipline issues. He felt like he didn’t quite fit in. His trajectory changed when he and his mother found out about they Children’s Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia. He received a scholarship through a lottery, allowing him to enroll in a Catholic school — something he said his single mother never could have afforded otherwise.

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Florida schools roundup: Budgets, new programs, virtual school ads and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool budgeting: The Pinellas County School Board approves a preliminary budget of $1.5 billion that includes a slightly lower tax millage rate. But higher property values will raise tax revenues by more than $4 million. Tampa Bay Times. The Lee County School Board approves a $1.4 billion budget. It set a lower tax millage rate, which are more than offset by higher property values. The district expects 92,000 students. Fort Myers News-Press. The Polk County School Board approves a $1.2 billion budget that keeps the reserve fund at 5 percent. Lakeland Ledger. The Manatee County School Board approves a $608 million tentative budget. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Collier County School Board tentatively approves a $972 million budget, an increase of $85 million from last year. Naples Daily News. The Leon County School Board approves a $498 million budget, which school officials are calling tight. Tallahassee Democrat.

New school programs: Fourteen Duval County schools are getting new programs for the upcoming school year, the district announces. The goal, says Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, is to give neighborhood children a reason for choosing their local schools instead of going to private schools. Florida Times-Union.

Virtual school ads: Florida Virtual School nearly doubles its advertising budget in an effort to bring in more students. The system is adding $1 million to its advertising budget for TV and radio spots and billboards. About 5,600 students are now enrolled. Orlando Sentinel.

Strong sales tax: St. Johns County School Superintendent Joe Joyner says the extra half-cent sales tax is on track to bring in $17 million this year – almost $4 million more than originally forecast. The tax helps the district with construction, technology upgrades and security improvements. St. Augustine Record. Continue Reading →


When charter schools go traditional

University Preparatory Academy is rapidly being rechristened as Midtown Academy, a district-run public school.

University Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla. is quickly being rechristened as Midtown Academy, a district-run public school.

Four Florida charter schools face closure after receiving multiple F’s under the state’s grading system, but at least two will likely re-open under new management: Their local school districts.

The Tampa Bay Times has detailed the closure of University Preparatory Academy, a charter school that opened three years ago in an academically struggling neighborhood of South St. Petersburg, Fla. Its charter contract is no more, and in its place, its authorizing school district is working to open Midtown Academy, a traditional public school.

The move may not be entirely unprecedented. Pinellas County School district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the district has taken over charter schools in the past. But it’s a rare occurrence for a school facing automatic termination under the state’s accountability law, which says charter schools that receive consecutive F’s must close immediately, unless they can show their students’ academic progress exceeds that in surrounding traditional public schools — a standard University Prep was not able to meet.

Meanwhile, in nearby Manatee County, the school board tonight is set to decide whether to convert Just for Girls Academy, a single-gender charter school that catered to disadvantaged elementary school students, into a district-sponsored alternative education program.

The Bradenton Herald reports: Continue Reading →


When unions and conservatives align on education, it’s about power

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairs hearings on a rewrite of No Child Left Behind.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairs hearings on a rewrite of No Child Left Behind.

It’s common for interest groups to play on both sides of the political aisle, even if they tend to lean in one direction. But when it comes to recognizing its champions in public life, the nation’s largest teachers union has a long history of favoring Democrats.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that, this month, the National Education Association bestowed its highest honor, the “Friend of Education Award,” on  Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

For the NEA, this was a break from the recent past. Education Week reported Alexander is the first Republican to receive the award in more than 30 years. The last was Robert T. Stafford, a Vermont Senator whose policy preferences were notably to the left of today’s GOP. Past honorees have included Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and both Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as writers Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol.

Alexander, a former U.S. Education Secretary and a longtime supporter of educational choice, shared this year’s award with Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA. (who also received the honor in 2013), for their role in crafting and passing the largest overhaul of federal school accountability policy since No Child Left Behind.

The new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has gotten attention for shifting power over education policy away from the federal government and back to the state and local level. It was backed by an alliance between conservatives like Alexander, who favor local control, and traditional public education players like the NEA and the National School Boards Association.

Why were left-leaning labor groups able to align with both their own management and congressional conservatives to back the new law? The reasons boil down to who has power over public education. Congressman  Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who visited an NEA reception at last week’s Republican National Convention, offered a concise explanation. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Budgets, legal fees, firings, start times and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool budgeting: The Lake County School District’s tentative budget for the next year is set at $549 million. The district’s tax millage rate will fall slightly, but a 7 percent increase in property values will largely offset the decline. Orlando Sentinel. Daily Commercial. The Clay County School District sets a tentative budget of $376 million that calls for a slightly lower tax millage rate that will be offset by higher property values. The budget is an increase of almost 8 percent over last year’s. Florida Times-Union. The Collier County School Board will consider a tentative budget of $972 million. While the budget calls for a lower tax millage rate, increased property values would drive up a typical homeowner’s taxes for schools by about 6 percent. Naples Daily News. The Volusia County School Board approves an $847 million operating budget. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Legal fees fight: The state is requesting almost $379,000 in legal fees from the groups that are suing the state over the adequacy of the public educational system. The group, Citizens for a Strong Florida and others, lost the case and are appealing. They object to the state’s request. News Service of Florida. WJXT.

Teacher firings: The Florida Board of Education and teachers unions are at odds over the ability of districts to fire low-performing teachers at failing schools. The board says exceptions to the usual firing process should be made for schools that underachieve year after year. Unions say no teacher should be fired based solely on the performance of their students on state testing. Politico Florida.

Earlier school starts: After the Legislature passed a law allowing schools to open as early as Aug. 10, 40 of the state’s 67 districts took advantage. In central Florida, Lake, Seminole and Osceola start Aug. 10 while Orange and Volusia open Aug. 15. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →