A closer look at Orlando Sentinel story on Florida school choice programs

Quick summary:

  • The Orlando Sentinel identified some legitimate issues that deserve fixes but also distorted the overall effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and participating schools by omitting crucial information and context. The full body of evidence does not support the newspaper’s characterization of the system as broken – in fact, just the opposite.
  • The scholarship gives low-income parents significant power to determine which school is best for their child. Studies of academic outcomes suggest the vast majority are choosing schools that lead to better results, including far higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
  • The Sentinel highlighted an Orlando school, TDR Academy, as an example of a poor choice made by scholarship parents. This subjective judgment was made from two visits totaling less than two hours and based partly on the school’s modest facilities. In fact, the school is producing strong learning gains for its low-income and special needs students. Read more here.
  • No education sector has a perfect compliance record or found means to exclude every bad actor, and scholarship supporters are committed to continuous improvement. But over the past five years, state regulators have removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denied participation to 18 applicants, and sanctioned scores of others, while school districts have shut down few if any schools for performance-related issues.
  • Financial fraud associated with scholarship programs is rare and amounts to less than .01 percent of total funding. Step Up For Students led a recent effort to strengthen financial reporting for participating schools, and a change in state law this year gives regulators more discretion to sanction schools that CPAs flag as problematic. The Sentinel does not mention that reported financial fraud in Florida public schools exceeds the amount in scholarship programs.
  • The Sentinel believes the scholarship is problematic because participating private schools are not required to employ state-certified teachers. In fact, many private schools do anyway. Further, the Sentinel omits the fact that teacher absenteeism is chronic in high-poverty public schools – and that many districts do not require substitutes to have college degrees.

By Jon East and Ron Matus

In the city where President Trump visited a Catholic school to declare Florida’s scholarship program for disadvantaged children to be a national model, the Orlando Sentinel offered its response this week. But its own bombastic claim – that the state operates the “most loosely regulated school choice program in the country” – is sensationalized nonsense.

In three lengthy stories, the newspaper spotlighted a handful of problem private schools, and underscored a few legitimate issues that deserve thoughtful remedies. But its work product, described as six months of investigative work and presented by a respected metropolitan newspaper, reads like journalistic guesswork with a grudge. “Schools Without Rules” is every bit as hyperbolic as its headline.

The two leading examples in the Sentinel’s “Schools Without Rules” were both revoked for violating rules. The first was removed from scholarship programs over the summer, while the other, which the state revoked on Tuesday, had a total of 19 students, all on scholarship (11 from Step Up For Students *). That’s 19 out of 140,000 scholarship students statewide. One of the newspaper’s four key investigative findings is the state’s web site directory allows schools to describe themselves to prospective parents, which is certainly less than ideal but also tagged with a bold “DISCLAIMER” note at the top of the web page. Is that truly a scandal?

The reporting lacks precision and calibration.

The state’s oversight, the Sentinel writes, is “limited.” A curriculum called “Accelerated Christian Education” is delivered at “some” schools. The state Department of Education (DOE) gives unwarranted second chances to schools “often.” One Orlando school has “some” teachers without degrees. The state allows “many” schools to enroll scholarship students when they first open. “Many” private schools lack amenities at public schools. The list of regulatory requirements is “short,” the barrier to entry is “low.” Continue Reading →

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Stop paying teachers like ‘widgets,’ lawmakers say

FORT LAUDERDALE – Too many schools pay all their teachers the same way. And that might be keeping talented people out of the profession, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, told a gathering of charter school leaders.

Florida schools need to find a better way to reward top teachers, he said.

Most districts rely on “step-and-lane” salary schedules that pay teachers based on their level of graduate degree, and increase pay with each year of experience. Florida’s foray into merit pay added teacher evaluations to the mix. That had limited effects.

Diaz, who chairs the House’s education budget committee, said the system doesn’t offer enough to young teachers with outstanding classroom skills or unique qualifications in demanding fields. Too often, he said, teachers are treated like one is as good as the next.

“You’re not making widgets,” he said. “They’re treated in a fashion as if they were labor workers in a technical industry. They’re not. They’re professionals.”

Diaz, a former public school teacher and administrator, said when top-performing young teachers prepare to start a family, they often realize there’s only one sure path to a big salary increase. They angle for administration jobs. Every time that happens, he said, “you’re taking the best person out of the classroom.” Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Graduation options, suit, schools of hope and more

Graduation path options: A Florida legislator files a bill that would offer alternative paths to a high school degree for those students who earn enough credits to graduate but don’t pass the state algebra 1 and language arts tests. State Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Beverly Hills, wants those students to be able to use an industry-recognized certification or a portfolio of school work to earn a standard diploma. Gradebook.

H.B. 7069 lawsuit: When 13 state school districts filed suit against the state’s new education law, H.B. 7069, the largest district in the state was conspicuous by its absence. Miami-Dade County school officials have strongly criticized the law, but decided not to join the suit. Instead, school board members will lobby legislators to amend the law to address their concerns. “We made a very clear determination that ongoing dialogue, ongoing collaboration — until it was determined that it has been exhausted — is prudent,” says board member Steve Gallon. If the options are exhausted, Gallon says, the board will take another look at joining the lawsuit. WLRN.

Schools of hope: Two Bay County schools that were named “schools of hope” by the state Board of Education this week have different plans for the extra money they will receive. Springfield Elementary will spend its $903,424 grant on mental health services and counseling, and classroom support for teachers. Lucille Moore Elementary officials plan to use their $1,022,048 grant to boost parental involvement and engagement in students’ education, among other things. Eleven schools of hope were designated by the state. Each receives an extra $2,000 per student to provide provide such additional services as tutoring, counseling, more teacher coaches and salary supplements for teachers to run student clubs. Panama City News Herald. WJHG.

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Florida schools roundup: ‘Schools of hope,’ waivers, scholarships and more

‘Schools of hope’: Just 11 struggling Florida schools are designated “schools of hope” by the Florida Board of Education. More than 50 schools applied, and the state’s new education law set aside about $52 million to provide extra funding to as many as 25 schools. Each of the 11 schools will get $2,000 extra per student to provide such additional services as tutoring, counseling, more teacher coaches and salary supplements for teachers to run student clubs. The “schools of hope” are Lucille Moore and Springfield elementaries in Bay County; Homestead Middle, Lorah Park Elementary, Miami Carol City Senior High, West Homestead K-8 and Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary in Miami-Dade; Gove Elementary, West Riviera Elementary and Palm Beach Lakes High in Palm Beach; and Idyllwilde Elementary in Seminole County. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says she will allow the schools that didn’t get chosen to amend and resubmit their applications. She said the next round will add no more than 14 schools to the program. News Service of Florida. Palm Beach PostGradebook. Politico Florida. WLRN. Florida Times-Union. State Board of Education member Gary Chartrand says the state needs to quickly complete its rules for implementing charter school legislation. The charter companies the state hopes to recruit are starting to make decisions now about where to open new schools, and need to know the rules before expanding into Florida. redefinED.

Waivers requested: The Central Florida School Boards Coalition, which represents 13 school districts, is asking the state to grant waivers for class size violations penalties because of the influx of students from the islands who were displaced by hurricanes. The coalition is also asking for more time to count students, more money to educate the displaced students and for “flexibility” on the state’s school accountability rules. School districts in the coalition are Brevard, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lake, Manatee, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Polk, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties. Orlando Sentinel.

‘Schools without rules’: An Orange County private school with a troubled past took in $5.6 million in state scholarship money in five years even as it falsified fire safety inspections, hired people with criminal records and didn’t pay some of its teachers. Last summer, the state finally banned Agape Christian Academy from the scholarship programs for 10 years. Orlando Sentinel. A private school operator in Brevard County continued to benefit from the state scholarships even after one of his three schools was closed when he was charged with felony lewd or lascivious molestation. Orlando Sentinel. Here’s a list of private schools in Florida that have students who get scholarships from the state though the tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarship programs. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner programs. Orlando Sentinel.

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‘Time is of the essence’ for Florida charter school recruitment

Chartrand

Florida needs to hurry up and hash out its landmark charter school legislation, a key member of the state Board of Education said today.

Gary Chartrand is a longtime backer of KIPP Jacksonville. For years, he’s called for the state to recruit more charter school organizations with similar missions, and similar national profiles, to high-poverty, academically struggling areas.

He said the new Schools of Hope law gives him hope that can finally happen. The legislation creates a revolving loan plan, a grant program and a streamlined application process for charter school operators with proven track records that want to open within five miles of a persistently struggling school. Continue Reading →

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Orlando Sentinel unfairly targets school serving low-income, Hispanic students

Note: See a detailed response to the Orlando Sentinel from Step Up For Students here and a quick summary here. Step Up helps administer Florida’s Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship programs, and publishes this blog.

One of the schools singled out by the Orlando Sentinel’s investigation of private school scholarship programs was founded by a couple who grew frustrated when their son, burdened with severe medical issues since birth, continued to struggle in public school.

Five years later, its standardized test scores show students tested in each of the last two years are, on average, making double-digit academic gains.

The Sentinel didn’t mention this in its description of TDR Learning Academy, a K-12 school in Orlando that enrolls about 90 students who use tax credit scholarships for low-income students, McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Instead, in both its story and accompanying video, it portrayed the predominantly Hispanic school as a poster child for a regulatory accountability system it suggests is far too lax.

“These schools operate without state rules when it comes to teacher credentials, academics and facilities,” says the narrator in the Sentinel’s video. “TDR Academy in Orlando is one of them.”

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Quick summary: Responding to the Orlando Sentinel’s school choice investigation

For the full response, please see here.

  • The Orlando Sentinel identified some legitimate issues that deserve fixes but also distorted the overall effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and participating schools by omitting crucial information and context. The full body of evidence does not support the newspaper’s characterization of the system as broken – in fact, just the opposite.
  • The scholarship gives low-income parents significant power to determine which school is best for their child. Studies of academic outcomes suggest the vast majority are choosing schools that lead to better results, including far higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
  • The Sentinel highlighted an Orlando school, TDR Academy, as an example of a poor choice made by scholarship parents. This subjective judgment was made from two visits totaling less than two hours and based partly on the school’s modest facilities. In fact, the school is producing strong learning gains for its low-income and special needs students. Read more here.
  • No education sector has a perfect compliance record or found means to exclude every bad actor, and scholarship supporters are committed to continuous improvement. But over the past five years, state regulators have removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denied participation to 18 applicants, and sanctioned scores of others, while school districts have shut down few if any schools for performance-related issues.
  • Financial fraud associated with scholarship programs is rare and amounts to less than .01 percent of total funding. Step Up For Students led a recent effort to strengthen financial reporting for participating schools, and a change in state law this year gives regulators more discretion to sanction schools that CPAs flag as problematic. The Sentinel does not mention that reported financial fraud in Florida public schools exceeds the amount in scholarship programs.
  • The Sentinel believes the scholarship is problematic because participating private schools are not required to employ state-certified teachers. In fact, many private schools do anyway. Further, the Sentinel omits the fact that teacher absenteeism is chronic in high-poverty public schools – and that many districts do not require substitutes to have college degrees.
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Florida schools roundup: Scholarship oversight, tests, charter ban and more

Scholarship oversight: Florida’s school scholarship programs serve about 140,000 students and redirect almost $1 billion a year to private schools, but state regulation of those schools is so weak that many employ teachers who aren’t college graduates, falsify safety records but continue to stay in business, and fail to educate students without suffering the consequences public schools face, according to a newspaper’s investigation. The number of students using tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarships has more than tripled in the past decade. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner scholarship programs. Orlando Sentinel.

Testing the tests: The Florida Department of Education hires a company to evaluate whether the SAT and ACT tests can replace the state’s 10th-grade language arts Florida Standards Assessments and algebra I end-of-course exams. The Legislature required the review as part of the new education law, H.B. 7069. The assessment is expected to be finished in time for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to make a recommendation on the substitution by Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Stewart says the department won’t decide on whether to delay the spring assessments testing window until after the hurricane season is over. Gradebook.

Charters schools: For the first time, the 50 or so charter schools in Palm Beach County were banned from this year’s “Showcase of Schools,” an event to show parents some of the most popular programs offered in county schools. School Superintendent Robert Avossa says the charter movement is “about spurring competition. So if that’s the case, why would you invite the competition to your event?” The incident is the latest in the escalating fight between district officials and charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The Florida Commission on Ethics rules that charter schools are not public agencies, but instead are more similar to business entities. Politico Florida.

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