This week in school choice: Thinking different

Later this month, researchers are expected to release findings that will shed new light on Louisiana’s private school voucher program — building on earlier work that shows it may harm student achievement, and that regulations may be stopping large numbers of schools from participating.

Will the school choice movement respond by retreating into predictable free-market and anti-voucher camps?

This week, Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education urged people to think differently.

The left persists, refusing to give up on the belief that vouchers inevitably lead to discrimination, re-segregation, and propagation of divisive ideas. This, despite strong evidence that good private schools are effective with poor and minority students and that their graduates are more likely to vote, join civil society institutions, and endorse principles of tolerance and free speech.

But the right indulges in its own fantasy—that vouchers will inevitably call forth a new supply of schools. It’s okay, some voucher advocates claim, to offer vouchers even when existing options are bad, because good ones will emerge. That reflects the triumph of belief over evidence. Even in localities where the average voucher effects have been positive, most new schools created from scratch to take vouchers drag down the average. And, existing private schools will fill their available seats but are unlikely to build new facilities or replicate.

To date, most voucher programs have provided too little money and have been too politically unreliable to generate a strong supply response.

He’s right. Private school choice programs can give students access to learning opportunities that might not be possible in the public-school system, from Catholic and other religious schools to microschools that might be too far outside-the-box to apply for a charter.

But the debate swirling around Louisiana’s program reveals a ton of unanswered questions about what will it take to make these options work, equitably and at scale.

The voucher ecosystem may be missing another crucial ingredient: Strong “mediating institutions.”

[M]ediating institutions can also be the numerous entities that have emerged to fill gaps in the charter school sector such as facilities, talent, enrollment, community engagement, and advocacy. These are gaps that a) the government does not fill and b) no one individual can fill alone. Today, dozens if not hundreds of these civil society organizations support the function and growth of high-quality options for kids.

To name just a few familiar examples: New Schools for New Orleans, Building HopeFriends of Choice in Urban Schools, Charter Board Partners, The Mind Trust, Families Empowered, Civic Builders, Building Excellent Schools, A+ DenverEducate78, and Choose to Succeed.

These organizations demonstrate that school choice is not just about empowering individuals to make decisions. Nor is school choice just about breaking down a sclerotic government monopoly. School choice is also an important social endeavor that creates a space in which groups of individuals can collectively and freely apply their talents to address different aspects of a societal issue.

There are nascent efforts to develop stronger mediating institutions among private schools and scholarship organizations. In states like Florida, private school choice is maturing, but it still has some growing up to do.

Meanwhile… Continue Reading →

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These Florida public schools beat the odds in the latest school grades

Schools that received A’s in Florida’s latest round of school grades while serving large proportions of disadvantaged students tend to share at least one of two features in common: Either they’re charter schools, or they’re located in Miami-Dade County.

The state Department of Education released letter grades this morning based on public schools’ achievement in the 2014-15 school year.

Because this is the first round of scores based on new state assessments, and there isn’t enough data to calculate learning gains, the A-F ratings released this morning are considered a baseline for future years.

Some schools that serve large numbers of low-income students saw their grades fall. Those schools tend to earn higher marks for learning gains, which measure student progress from one year to the next, than they do for student proficiency. Continue Reading →

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Fla. Senate proposal would bar ‘private enrichment’ from charter school funding

Florida’s charter schools would have financial incentives to serve low-income and special needs students, and be barred from using state facilities funding for “private enrichment,” under a proposal approved this week by a state Senate panel.

The Senate’s plan, which won praise on both sides of the aisle, was unveiled Thursday after the state House of Representatives spent days debating school construction and charter school funding.

Sen. Don Gaetz

Sen. Don Gaetz

The proposal (starting on page 196) wouldn’t necessarily steer more money to charter schools, or change the rules deciding which schools qualify for facilities funding. But it would change the formula for parceling out the money, and place new restrictions on charters that lease private land.

Right now, charter school capital outlay funding is distributed based on factors like when schools opened and whether they qualified for funding in the past.

The Senate has proposed scrapping that formula. Under its plan, all schools that qualify for capital outlay (right now, that’s about 535 of the state’s more than 650 charters) would receive a base amount of facilities funding.

They would receive extra funding if more than 75 percent of their students qualified for free and reduced-priced lunches, or if more than 25 percent of their students qualified for special education services. Those that met both standards would receive double weight. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Budgets, recess, charters, choice and more

florida-roundup-logoEducation budget: A Senate subcommittee approves a bill that would require the state to pay at least half of the proposed increase in K-12 spending. Gov. Rick Scott’s budget calls for a spending increase of $507 million in K-12 spending, but with $427 million coming through local property taxes. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Palm Beach Post. News Service of Florida.

Recess bill dies: The Senate will not take up the issue of mandatory daily recess in elementary schools. The Senate Education Committee chairman, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, says the idea should be handled on the local level. Gradebook.

Charter construction: Charter schools that serve low-income or disabled students would get a higher priority for capital funding under a bill passed by a Senate subcommittee. The House version of the bill provides capital money to charter schools with no such stipulations. Politico Florida. Miami Herald. Residents of Golden Gates Estates in Naples want more say about charter school locations. Naples Daily News.

Choice support: The Pinellas County School District ranks seventh in the United States in offering school choice, according to rankings by the Brookings Institution. Other Florida districts in the top 100 are Broward (15th), Lee and Seminole (tied for 16th), Dade and Duval (tied for 18th), Pasco (28th), Orange and Brevard (tied for 32nd), Osceola (43rd), Palm Beach (49th), Hillsborough (51st), and Polk and Volusia (tied for 54th). Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →

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School choice valentines for Florida’s teachers union

Students supporting "Operation Have a Heart" stand outside the Florida Education Association's headquarters.

Students supporting “Operation Have a Heart” gather outside the Florida Education Association’s headquarters. Photo courtesy of Hispanic CREO.

A Hispanic school choice advocacy group is asking Florida’s teachers union to “have a heart.”

Supporters of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options delivered thousands of Valentines Day greetings to the Florida Education Association’s headquarters in Tallahassee, including candy hearts emblazoned with the rallying cry for the state’s tax credit scholarship program: #DropTheSuit.

The statewide teachers union filed a lawsuit challenging the program in 2014. It has since been dismissed by a Tallahasssee judge, and is now being argued on appeal. Right now, nearly 80,000 low-income children use the scholarships to attend private schools.

“I don’t understand why teachers would want to take this away from my children,” Deborah Gomes, a mother of four children on scholarship, said in a statement. “It makes no sense to me.”

In an interview, Gomes, who traveled from Orlando, said she first enrolled her daughter at IEC Christian Academy to get away from bullying. “At this school she was much happier. She was able to perform better. She had a lot more support from the teachers,” she said. “I do believe that each person learns differently, but one thing that every person needs is support.” Continue Reading →

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Top lawmaker on Florida charter school facilities: ‘The system needs reform’

Florida needs to overhaul the way it funds school facilities, and make the system fairer for charter schools, the incoming Speaker of the House said Wednesday.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House.

During questions on the state budget, the chamber plunged into a perennial debate over state funding for public school buildings. Democrats like Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, seized on a recent Associated Press investigation that found charter schools had received tens of millions of dollars in construction funding, but later shut down.

If the state was going to set aside $90 million for charter schools, Dudley asked, would there be any “clawback” provisions or “anything to assure taxpayers” that money for school facilities “will be protected and secure” if charters eventually close?

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who chairs the Appropriations Committee and is set to become Speaker after this fall’s elections, tried to put the issue in perspective. School districts, he said, raise nearly $2.2 billion a year in local property tax revenue, plus hundreds of millions more in local sales taxes and impact fees. Charter schools, for the most part, do not share in that money, so they rely on funding in the state budget that has eroded over time. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Referendum change, budgets, evaluations and more

florida-roundup-logoReferendum change: A House committee has approved a bill that would require school districts to win 60 percent approval from voters on any local tax increase requests. The bill now moves to the House floor. Its Senate companion has yet to get a committee hearing. Gradebook.

Education budgets: Democrats and Republicans spar over budget details in both the House and Senate. In the House, the focus is on giving money to charter schools for construction costs and upkeep. In the Senate, the debate centers on a plan to open after-school programs to more organizations. Politico Florida.

Teacher evaluations: Many Orange County teachers are angry that the state’s teacher evaluation report shows fewer top-notch teachers than in other large Florida districts. Only 2.4 percent of Orange teachers were judged to be highly effective in the 2014-2015 school year, compared with 80 percent the year before. The state average is 37.5 percent. Orlando Sentinel.

School grades: Palm Beach school officials are expecting fewer county schools to receive an A grade and more to receive an F. The projections were discussed at Wednesday’s school board meeting. Grades should be released soon by the Department of Education. Sun-Sentinel.

Chamber on education: A report by the Florida Chamber Foundation praises the state’s educational progress over the past 20 years. But “Florida’s education system is not yet good enough to meet the challenges of global competition and doesn’t yet provide the level of talent needed by job creators and future employers,” according to the report. Florida Chamber Foundation. Continue Reading →

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Another legal win for tax credit scholarships — this time in Georgia

Another court has rejected a lawsuit challenging tax credit scholarships after finding opponents of the program lacked standing to sue.

The latest ruling (flagged by Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute) comes from Georgia, where on Friday, a Fulton County Superior Court judge issued a double whammy to school choice opponents when she tossed out the lawsuit after concluding the plaintiffs lacked legal standing and rejecting constitutional claims against the program.

In a ruling that echoes recent court decisions in other states, Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams held the plaintiffs lacked standing for two reasons — that taxpayer standing does not apply to privately funded programs, and that plaintiffs failed to show the program would harm them.

“Courts that have already considered whether a tax credit is an expenditure of public revenue have answered this question in the negative,” the judge wrote in her 19-page decision, referring to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Winn.

Adams also rejected the argument that plaintiffs, who include a parent and a grandparent of public-school students, would have had to shoulder a greater tax burden to pay for public education if the scholarship program were allowed to continue. “When these children leave public schools with a scholarship, the state no longer has to bear this expense,” she wrote. Continue Reading →

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