Students lift voices to celebrate School Choice Week

This fall, after wowing millions of TV viewers, falling just short of the final round on NBC’s The Voice and gaining national exposure that she hopes will launch a lifelong music career, Shalyah Fearing tried something new. She started learning in a traditional classroom at a local public high school.

Now 16 and a junior, she takes three classes at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Fla. while managing the rest of her course load online.

Her family has experienced just about every flavor of school choice — public, private, virtual, home education. So it was fitting that they lent their voices to one of the first events of National School Choice Week, which runs Sunday through Jan. 28, and includes more than 20,000 events across the country.

National School Choice Week group

Students join Shalyah Fearing on stage during a celebration of educational options in Pasco County, Fla.

The events steer clear of politics and encompass multiple educational options.

Among others, Saturday’s celebration in Shady Hills featured local Catholic schools, the Pasco County school district’s career academies and the statewide virtual school that allowed Shalyah to take classes while she chased her musical dreams in California.

For most of Shalyah’s life, she and her six school-age brothers and sisters were homeschooled. As her mother puts it, they enrolled at Fearing Academy.

When she traveled to Los Angeles to compete on reality television, she took classes through Florida Virtual School. She tackled assignments as her schedule allowed, and kept up with teachers and classmates online and by phone.

“All I had to do was carry my laptop everywhere I went,” she said. “My teachers were always available.” Continue Reading →


‘We no longer have to worry.’ Parents react to lawsuit’s dismissal

A decision by the state Supreme Court not to take up a lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program means the educational choices of 98,000 low-income and working class children are no longer under legal threat.

Upon hearing the news, many parents expressed relief and gratitude, and called for cooperation on behalf of children.

Alyson Hochstedler, of Tallahassee, is a mother of two students with tax credit scholarships who intervened in the lawsuit to defend the program. She has had other children graduate from public schools.

This is a step in the right in the right direction. Now how do we work together to get kids the help they need?

Another parent who intervened in the lawsuit, Keyla Pineda of Fort Lauderdale, is a mother of a child attending Sha’Arei Bina Torah Academy for Girls in Miami with the help of a tax credit scholarship. Her family fled Venezuela when Hugo Chavez came to power, and were initially in shock when they heard someone was suing to take away their daughter’s scholarship.

Cheryl Joseph's three daughters.

Cheryl Joseph’s three school-age daughters.

“We no longer have to worry about the lawsuit,” she said. “We can focus on high school, on graduation, and college.”

“The scholarship has been a blessing for my daughter,” she added. “I hope we can serve more children with this scholarship.”

Cheryl Joseph uses scholarships to send three of her daughters to Tampa’s Academy Prep Center. Joseph, who also intervened in the case, said she was “ecstatic, not only for my children but for thousands of students all over the state.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Financial literacy, religion, start times and more

florida-roundup-logoFinancial literacy: Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, files a bill that would require students to take a half-credit course of financial literacy in order to graduate from Florida high schools. She’s been trying to get this bill passed since 2014. Hukill is the new chairwoman of the Senate Education policy committee. Gradebook.

Religion in schools: State Rep. Kim Daniels, D-Jacksonville, files a bill that would prohibit school districts “from discriminating against students, parents, and school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression,” would require a school district to “treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner that the school district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint” and would allow students to wear clothing, jewelry or accessories with a religious message. Florida Politics.

DeVos protest: Teachers in several areas of Florida join a national protest against Betsy DeVos, the nominee to become U.S. secretary of education, and for public schools. Similar rallies were held in at least 25 states. Protesters worry that DeVos will emphasize school choice, and especially charter schools, at the expense of public schools. WKMG. Miami Herald. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

School start times: Start high school later in the day, says a majority of the 30,000 people in Orange County who took a district survey. Students, their parents, employees and others were asked to choose from three options: keep start times the same, start 20 minutes later than the current times that range from 7:10 to 7:30 a.m., and start no earlier than 8 a.m. School board members, who caution that changing schedules is complicated, will discuss the survey Thursday. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →


A win for Florida charter school appeals, but the saga continues

Yesterday, a Florida appeals court handed a charter school group a partial victory.

Some legal complications remain for the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, but it prevailed on the key constitutional question — whether the state has the authority to overturn local school board decisions on charter school applications.

The 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision upholding charter school appeals is a big deal. National business and education reform organizations had gotten involved in the case. A statement issued this morning by the National Alliance for Public Charter schools explains what was at stake.

There are many reasons a charter school can be denied their application at the local level – reasons ranging from legitimate concerns to political interests that benefit adults, not students. We are pleased that Florida has upheld the constitutionality of the pathway which allows charter schools that have been denied their application to appeal to the State Board of Education. It is imperative that Florida’s students, and all students, have access to high-quality public school options – and that political interests don’t prevent these options. The State Board of Education will provide an expert and supervisory eye to such appeals processes, and ensure decisions are truly being made with the best interests of students in mind.

Continue Reading →


An ultimatum for a struggling school district with few options

A school district in rural North Florida is in dire straits, prompting state education officials to grapple with unprecedented questions. What happens when a school district can no longer operate its own schools?

That possibility came into view Tuesday, when the state Board of Education, for the third time, rejected a plan by the Jefferson County school district to turn around a persistently struggling school.

Jefferson County Elementary School is currently rated a D under the state grading system, and hasn’t earned a C since 2009. Citing that grim track record, lingering staff vacancies and an ongoing financial emergency, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said, “I am truly of the opinion that the district lacks the ability” to turn around the situation on its own.

Hershel Lyons

Florida K-12 Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons explains Jefferson County’s struggles to the state Board of Education.

She asked the district to choose a new plan from among three options: Recruit a charter school operator to take over the elementary school, bring in an outside company to operate it, or close the school and send students elsewhere.

“I think when we do one of those three things, our students in Jefferson County will be the beneficiaries, and that is the ultimate goal, and what we are charged with doing,” Stewart said.

The district only has one elementary school, so any of those options would take it out of the business of running elementary schools altogether.

The future of Jefferson’s combined middle-high school is also in question. The state board previously approved its turnaround plan, but Stewart said she had doubts the district was following through, and that it hadn’t hired a principal with bona fide turnaround experience. As a result, she said, the board might consider similar options for Jefferson’s secondary students at a future meeting.

Jefferson County is an outlier in many ways. It has the lowest student achievement in the state. Hershel Lyons, the state’s chancellor for K-12 schools, said more than half of its high school students had been forced to repeat more than two grades. Jefferson has one of the state’s highest poverty rates. Its student population has shrunk by an unparalleled 30 percent in five years. It is now Florida’s smallest school district. It has the highest rate of private school enrollment in the state, and other parents have moved their kids to neighboring districts.

Despite having the state’s second-highest rate of per-pupil spending, it’s pulling itself back from the brink of financial crisis. Its finances are under the supervision of a volunteer emergency board. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Choice lawsuit dismissed, charter law upheld and more

florida-roundup-logoChoice lawsuit dismissed: The Florida Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by several groups that were challenging the constitutionality of the state’s tax credit scholarship program. The vote was 4-1. The decision upholds an appeals court ruling that the plaintiffs, including the Florida Education Association and the Florida NAACP, did not have standing to file the suit. About 98,000 low-income children are attending private schools with the help of the scholarships, which are funded by a law that permits corporations to donate money to the program and get a tax credit. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the scholarships. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. Tallahassee DemocratGradebook. Associated Press. News Service of FloridaPolitico FloridaredefinED. Florida Politics. Sunshine State News. Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, wonders who can challenge the Legislature on the tax credit scholarship program. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, doesn’t answer that question,” she said in a statement. “We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.” Florida Politics.

Charter law upheld: An appeals court upholds a Florida law that allows the Board of Education to overturn a local district’s denial of a charter school application. The Palm Beach County School claimed in its suit that the law was unconstitutional because it infringed on local boards’ power to approve or deny charter schools. The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the Florida Constitution creates a hierarchy that gives boards local control, but gives the state board supervisory authority. The court also ordered the state’s appeal commission to re-examine the case and send its justification for denial to the state Board of Education for another review. News Service of Florida. Palm Beach Post.

The Trump effect: The Brevard County School District is trying to prepare for the effect President-elect Donald Trump may have on local schools, but say it’s hard to know exactly what it will be. “I’m just very unsure, very, very unsure what the presidential election means to the educational lives of next year’s kindergartners,” says Superintendent Desmond Blackburn. Some of Trump’s stated goals are similar to what the district already does or is moving toward, but few details of how Trump’s plan will be enacted have been released. Florida Today. Teachers unions in Florida and around the country are demonstrating in protests today against the Trump education agenda and the nominated education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Politico Florida.

Metric measurements: Florida high schools will become the first in the United States to use metric measurements for throwing and jumping events in track meets. Metrics have been used for all state high school running events since 1990. The change begins next month, and will be mandatory in 2018, according to the Florida High School Athletic Association. New York Times. Continue Reading →


Where talking points fall short on federal school choice policies

Have you heard? School choice is a bit of a hot topic in Washington lately.

But whether — much less how — the federal government should help expand parental choice can be a thorny question.

Indiana Rep. Luke Messer is one of the biggest school choice advocates in Congress. He’s also a federalist who wants to keep education policy decisions at the state level. But he’s said repeatedly that there are still things federal lawmakers can do to expand educational options.

During an event hosted by the Hoover Institution, he said a school choice “cavalry” has arrived in the nation’s capital, led by Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.

“Frankly, this is a sea change in this movement,” he said, echoing comments made Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the panel vetting DeVos. “Her ideas are in the mainstream.”

When the federal government and private school choice intersect, pundits often get confused. Two commonly distorted issues, federal mandates and  school accountability, were batted around at the Hoover event.

Avoiding state mandates

Andy Smarick, a Maryland state Board of Education member and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said all the talk of federal school choice policy brings flashbacks of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, teacher evaluations — areas where states enacted reforms, then the federal government got involved, and wound up jeopardizing the policies by raising the political stakes. Continue Reading →


Court upholds Florida charter school appeal law

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

In a dispute stemming from a proposal to add a charter school in Palm Beach County, an appeals court Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of a law that allows the State Board of Education to overturn local denials of charter-school applications.

The 4th District Court of Appeal turned down arguments by the Palm Beach County School Board that the law infringes on the power of local school boards to decide on the creation of charter schools, which are public schools typically run by private entities.

“The Florida Constitution … creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole,” said the eight-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Alan Forst and joined by judges Carole Taylor and Mark Klingensmith. “This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board’s local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated — and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision — by the Florida Constitution.” Continue Reading →