Florida schools roundup: ESSA plan, generosity, image, boycott and more

Accountability plan: Florida is now the only state whose plan to meet the federal Every Student Succeeds Act standards has yet to be approved by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Last week DeVos gave the okay to California’s and Utah’s plans, but Florida’s second attempt to comply is still pending. The last action came June 5, when the U.S. DOE said Florida “has not submitted a revised consolidated state plan that meets all the requirements of the ESSA and the McKinney-Vento Act.” Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said the U.S. can’t force the state to change its accountability system, and that many of ESSA’s guidelines do not match Florida’s philosophy. The state is resisting provisions to test students in languages other than English, and the demand for better detailing of demographic subgroup performances. Gradebook.

Acts of unexpected generosity: Passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Jacksonville who overhear a 1st-grade teacher talking about the low-income students at her Illinois charter school donate $530 to help the students. Teacher Kimberly Bermudez, 27, says she was shocked by the generosity of the passengers — and that they were carrying that much cash. Washington Post.

Image-sprucing move: The Broward County School District, hit with a barrage of bad news since the Parkland school shooting Feb. 14 that killed 17 people, is looking for a public relations boost by advertising for a chief public information officer who can “champion a favorable public image and brand for the district.” The job will pay between $104,836 and $174,870 a year. Sun-Sentinel.

School boycott urged: The secretary of education under President Obama again urges parents across the United States to boycott schools until they’re safe. Arne Duncan tells parents in Parkland Tuesday that a boycott would force Congress to take action on gun reform. Sun-Sentinel. Continue Reading →


By criticizing school choice, Democrats may well alienate Democrats

About 10,000 people, most of them black and Hispanic, rallied in Tallahassee in 2016 against the lawsuit that sought to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Do Democrats running for governor understand who they are really criticizing when they reject school choice?

If you asked parents of students victimized by bullying (like this one, this one and this one) to describe the school choice scholarships that helped their kids find some educational peace, they’d probably offer words like “life-saving” and “miraculous.”

To Gwen Graham, though, the word that comes to mind is “diabolical.”

“Diabolical” is how Graham, a Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, described Florida’s new Hope Scholarship, which lawmakers engineered to give options to all bullying victims. “It is another move by the Legislature to decrease the funding in Tallahassee and increase the funding for their private and charter schools,” she told the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board. “It is diabolical. It truly is.”

That Democratic candidates might feel obliged to condemn school choice is no surprise, given the fact that teachers unions, whose members work almost exclusively in district-operated schools, contribute heavily to the Democratic Party. That’s even true in Florida, arguably the most choice-friendly state in America. But unlike many other states, where school choice is still an abstraction, candidates who denounce choice in Florida are also explicitly denouncing the hundreds of thousands of parents who choose. Here, growing numbers of parents in core Democratic constituencies freely choose charter schools and private school scholarships, and surveys show they like what they have found.

I’m no political analyst. But the basic math would seem to be a caution flag for Democrats. Since the last gubernatorial election in 2014, the number of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the largest private school choice program in America, has climbed more than 50 percent, to 107,000. The number of charter students has increased by about 20 percent, to nearly 300,000.

Judging by the demographics, their parents lean heavily Democratic. The average family income of a tax credit scholarship student is $25,360 a year, and 68 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. In Florida charter schools, 62 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Florida has also created a major new choice program since the last election – the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. It now serves more than 10,000 students. I couldn’t hazard a guess about their parents’ politics, but I know they’re signing up so quickly the scholarship now has a waiting list, and they are the kind of parents who aren’t likely to be amused by politicians who want to take away education tools that are helping their children.

Remember, too, that Florida’s past two gubernatorial elections were squeakers. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Lowest performers, tax hike, security and more

Lowest performers: Sixty-four Florida elementary schools are placed on the “persistently low-performing” list, and with 13, Hillsborough County has more than twice as many as any other state school district. Last year the district had 20 schools on the list. State law defines “persistently low performing” schools as those that receive a school grade lower than C from the state for three straight years. The designation opens the way for charter school companies to apply for money from the state to open schools in the communities surrounding the low-performing schools under the “Schools of Hope” provision of the 2017 education law, H.B. 7069Gradebook.

Polling prompts tax hike vote: Palm Beach school officials decided to ask voters for a property tax hike after private polling showed strong support. Almost 60 percent of those polled support paying higher taxes to provide about $150 million a year extra for schools. Thirty-two percent oppose, and 9 percent are undecided. The measure is on the ballot Nov. 6. Palm Beach Post.

Parents’ school fears: More than a third of U.S. parents fear for their child’s safety at school, according to a poll commissioned by PDK International. Only 27 percent are confident that their school can deter a gunman. Education Week. Continue Reading →


Faith helps Florida Catholic schools draw students

Students listen intently in Sally Gibson’s literature class at Cardinal Newman High School. Administrators find their Catholic identity the best way to draw students to their schools.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Like many Catholic schools, Cardinal Newman High School has worked to reinvent itself over the years to draw students.

In 2005, it became the first Catholic school in Florida to offer an International Baccalaureate program. It’s added college prep courses and is preparing to add more science, technology, engineering and math initiatives.

The new programs may help the school respond to an increasingly competitive school choice landscape. The surrounding Palm Beach County school district has added magnet, IB and career academies. Charter schools have proliferated, and now enroll more than one out of 10 students. But they face competition too, and charter enrollment actually fell this year.

In this environment, faith-based private schools don’t only have to attract families but convince them to pay tuition.  Schools like Cardinal Newman have found that faith may be their biggest competitive edge.

“The difficulty for a school of Newman’s nature is it is a tuition-driven school,” said Rev. David Carr, the president of Cardinal Newman High School. “When these programs are offered in the public school, somebody says, ‘I can go to Suncoast Community High School, and it is free. They are not coming because Newman has an IB program. They want to be at Cardinal Newman.”

A major reason they want to be at Cardinal Newman, Carr said, is the Catholic faith.

“It is our mission to educate the whole child: mind, body and spirit,” he said. “You don’t teach faith because you can’t. What you have to do is bring out the faith that is within. That is what it is all about.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Teacher of the year, school security issues and more

Teacher of the year: Joy Prescott, a 4th-grade math teacher at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Glades County, is named Florida teacher of the year. She wins $20,000 and will be the state’s Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education for the next year. The other finalists were Kyle Dencker, a computer science teacher at Timber Creek High School in Orange County; Samantha Neff, a math coach at Idyllwilde Elementary School in Seminole County; Patrick Farley, a 3rd- and 4th-grade gifted teacher at Crystal Lake Elementary School in Martin County; and Molly Winters Diallo, a social science teacher at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in Miami-Dade County. Each wins $15,000. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Department of Education.

School security: Only 35 of the 140 applicants for armed guardians jobs in Broward County schools pass the first screening test. The district says it needs to hire at least 80. Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman says based on his experience with his city’s police department, only about five of those 35 candidates will survive further screenings. He says most candidates fail the psychological tests. Sun-Sentinel. Only 24 of the eventual 107 school safety assistants will be in Duval County classrooms when students return to schools Aug. 13 because of hiring and training delays, say district officials. Florida Times-Union. WJXT. Insuring each security guard the Brevard County School District will cost only $150 a year, says Mark Langdorf, director of risk management for the district. District officials say they need 28 guards, so the insurance premium will be $4,200. Florida Today. The Leon County School District’s patchwork of protection for schools will test the state law demand that every school have an armed officer every day. Tallahassee Democrat. Lawrence Leon, the former chief of the Palm Beach County School District’s police department, will keep his $137,732 salary even though his job now is patrolling Jupiter Farms Elementary School. Palm Beach Post. The city of North Miami Beach is partnering with the Miami-Dade County School District to place a resource officer in all schools located in the city. The agreement adds officers at the two elementary schools; the middle and high schools were already covered. WTVJ. Several of the 13 Manatee County charter schools still do not have a plan for school security. Bradenton Herald. Continue Reading →


Moving on

Today is my last day editing this blog. After 23 years as a Floridian, six years chronicling the politics and policy of the public education system that educated me, and four and half years writing in this space, I’m moving on to start a new chapter alongside my fiancee, who teaches high school English in New Orleans.

It’s a transition from one hotbed of education reform to another. And it’s got me thinking.

A couple months after I first joined Step Up For Students, I wrote a recap of the 2014 Florida legislative session. It was a bruising one for school choice advocates. My thesis was that all the sturm and drang over how to measure academic outcomes of students who used scholarships to attend private schools, or how to manage the charter school application process, signaled a new era in the politics and policy of public education in our state. We were done fighting over whether charter schools or voucher programs ought to exist. They existed, and it was clear they weren’t going anywhere. We’d moved on to thornier questions about how to govern them.

Looking back, more than four years later, that may have been wishful thinking. In Florida and around the country, advocates and academics burn staggering amounts of intellectual jet fuel litigating whether charter schools are good or bad for public education and whether private school choice is a win-win solution or an affront to American ideals.

In this space, we’ve tried to push the debate in more productive directions. How can the state stop the bad charter school operators, while encouraging new, better ones to open and expand? How can politicians who support public education draw lessons from charter schools and apply them in districts? How can schools of all types foster innovations that will help them meet the educational needs of all their students? Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Amendment 8 suit, charter schools, unions and more

Amendment 8 lawsuit: Amendment 8 is misleading and should be removed from the ballot, the League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center argue in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Leon County. The lawsuit focuses on the part of the proposed amendment that would allow allow entities other than school boards to “operate, control, and supervise” public schools. “Voters will not recognize that the real purpose of the amendment is to allow unaccountable political appointees to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” says LWV president Patricia Brigham. The amendment would also limit school board members to eight years in office and require the teaching of civics in public schools. redefinED. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. GateHouse. News Service of FloridaFlorida Politics. Politico Florida.

Charter school appeals: The Florida Charter Schools Appeal Commission is recommending that the state Board of Education override the Palm Beach County School Board’s decision to deny two charter school applications. And Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is recommending the board go along with the appeal commission’s advice when it meets next week. Charters that don’t fill a specific niche have been getting turned down by the Palm Beach board for the past five years. But as Stewart points out in her memo to the state board, “The school board’s determination must be based on good cause.” Gradebook.

Union membership: Teachers unions in Orange, Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties say membership is on the upswing since the state passed a law requiring unions to have at least 50 percent membership of eligible workers or risk being decertified. Union officials in all four counties say the recent swell has pushed each past the 50 percent threshhold. Teachers unions in 13 districts have membership below 50 percent but most have been adding members, according to Joanne McCall, president of the statewide Florida Education Association. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →


Groups challenge Fla. charter school ballot proposal

The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center are challenging the wording of a Florida ballot measure that could, among other things, overhaul charter school authorizing in the state.

The proposed Amendment 8 would do three things if voters approve it this fall. It would impose term limits on elected school board members, elevate the importance of civic literacy and allow entities other than school boards to “operate, control, and supervise” public schools.

That third part has drawn the most attention from critics. And it’s the focus of the lawsuit, filed this morning in Leon County court.

Florida is somewhat unique compared to other states. Its constitution creates 67 countywide school boards. Courts have held that, with certain, narrow exceptions, those countywide school boards have the exclusive power over public schools. That means statewide charter school authorizing boards, like the one that exists in Massachusetts, are unconstitutional.

The proposed amendment, drafted by the Constitution Revision Commission, would change that by adding the underlined words to the state constitution.

(b) The school board shall operate, control, and supervise all free public schools established by the district school board within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein. Two or more school districts may operate and finance joint educational programs.

A proposed ballot summary, intended to explain the change to voters when they go to the polls in November, describes the change this way: Continue Reading →