Author Archive | James Herzog

School choice scholarships help Florida families

Editor’s post: This piece by James Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference and occasional contributor to redefinED, ran over the weekend in the Palm Beach Post. The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

James Herzog

James Herzog

The low-income mom from Boynton Beach felt the school was hamstrung from providing the well-rounded academic and social environment her fifth-grade daughter needed to succeed. So last year, she did what many low-income parents could once only dream about: She transferred her child to another school.

With help from a Florida tax credit scholarship, she enrolled her daughter, now 11, into St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic School in Delray Beach. The scholarship, valued at $4,880 this year, didn’t cover the full cost of tuition. But the mom was willing to make the sacrifice to pay the additional $1,520. She was thrilled to have a choice.

Now her daughter is thriving.

Student by student, the scholarship program is making a profound difference this year for 9,448 K-12 students in Florida Catholic schools. Now serving nearly 60,000 students statewide, it also helps families who seek education opportunities offered by other faith-based or independent schools. By offering more options for the students who are often the lowest performers in public schools, it helps the state as a whole, too.

During the current legislative session, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has made House Bill 7167 regarding educational choice a top priority. Sponsored by House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the bill deserves support from all of us who believe in expanding opportunity for families who need it the most.

One key provision would empower parents of children in grades six through 12 to have the same type of school choice as that enjoyed by parents of children in kindergarten to fifth grade. This would be accomplished by removing the requirement that students in grades six through 12 attend public schools before they’re eligible for the scholarships.

We know more options are needed. Over the past 15 years, no state has made bigger gains for its low-income students than Florida. In 1998, Florida’s low-income fourth-graders ranked No. 35 among states in reading. Now they rank No. 1. And yet, being No. 1 still means only 27 percent of them are reading at a level considered proficient. Continue Reading →

To better protect children, private schools in Florida should get safety alerts, too

Florda lawmakers have considered but not yet passed legislation that would require response agencies to notify private schools about emergency situations just as they do public schools.

Florda lawmakers have considered but not yet passed legislation that would require response agencies to notify private schools about emergency situations just as they do public schools.

Sadly, if we hear even once about a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last week in Newtown, Conn., it is once too much. We all want answers to ensure parents can take their children to school each day and remain confident that learning will occur in a safe environment.

Yet our beloved Sunshine State – and every state in the nation – is not immune from seeing a similar tragedy in one of our own schools, though God forbid such a day happens again anywhere. As recently as March, we learned about a dedicated Episcopal high school administrator in Jacksonville, Fla. who was shot and killed by a disgruntled former teacher. The massacre at Columbine High School in Denver back in 1999 led to intense national scrutiny, followed by efforts like “Rachel’s Challenge” to promote a more civil society. (It was named in honor of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the slain students). These events show student safety is a top priority for public and nonpublic schools alike.

Against this backdrop, many news articles have suggested actions that should be considered by the Florida Legislature during the upcoming 2013 session. One idea which could be a “no brainer” for lawmakers is to secure final passage of a long-awaited “student safety/ notification” bill. It’s a non-controversial and bipartisan measure that has been under consideration for the past two sessions – and even passed unanimously from the Florida House floor – but fell short of final passage in the Senate.

During the 2012 session, Senate Bill 494 and House Bill 273 regarding student safety were based upon a key proposal reintroduced from the 2011 session. The proposal would require response agencies that already notify public school districts about local emergencies – such as bomb threats, natural disasters and fires – to also notify nonpublic schools. The bills provided an “opt-in” method for nonpublic schools to determine whether to receive such alerts. Continue Reading →

Seeking a paradigm shift for private schools with public purpose

Editor’s note: This guest column comes from James Herzog, the associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference.

More than 80 private school organization leaders met at the Education Department’s headquarters for the Seventh Annual Private School Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss ways to cross the public-private divide and thus better serve the interests of all schoolchildren.

“We need to create some means for public and private schools to support each other and leverage those resources that are in private schools,” said Jacqueline Smethurst, co-founder of a 501(c)(3) called Wingspan Partnerships and one of four panelists for the discussion. Smethurst said this was a lesson she and her husband learned in witnessing first-hand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Smethurst had lived in New Orleans for more than a decade and was amazed by the level of support she and her husband received when they evacuated to Dallas. Her husband, David Drinkwater, was head of an independent K-12 school that was able to reopen within three months of the hurricane due to community assistance for space, technical support, telephone donations, etc. She was discouraged, however, to learn that public schools in the New Orleans area were declared closed for the year.

“We saw that was the end of the line,” Smethurst said. Since the couple wanted to do something about the disparities created by the public-private divide, they co-founded the nonprofit in Napa, Calif..

Another panelist gave moving examples about how his private school reached out to other public and private schools in his community during times of need. Roger Weaver, former headmaster of the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., spoke about efforts ranging from restoring arts programming in a public school to securing the very existence of a storied Catholic school.

Weaver recalled the impact of “Proposition 13,” which was a property-tax-reduction measure in 1978 that maintained core curriculum but reduced “everything else” in the public classroom. He visited a nearby public school some time after the passage of Proposition 13 and reached out to the school by offering services of a choral instructor for a few periods per day. This type of outreach continued and evolved to a point in 1984 in which the nonprofit “Crossroads Community Outreach Foundation” was established. Since then the Foundation has helped to restore arts and science programs for thousands of public school students.

Weaver also spoke about his experience in visiting St. Anne School in Santa Monica in the mid-2000s. He learned from Michael Browning, principal at St. Anne School, that the school faced a $60,000 funding deficit and was struggling to keep its doors open. Weaver offered encouragement to the school to overcome this challenge since it served such a vital mission. In particular, St. Anne’s was founded in 1908 and serves many Title I low-income students. The St. Anne School Support Council was formed in 2006 and has to date raised more than $700,000. The Council members includes stakeholders from the school itself along with representatives from private schools in West Los Angeles and local businesses.

The moderator for the discussion was Debora Southwell, management and program analyst from the Office of Non-Public Education. The two other panelists included Al Adams, former headmaster of Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, and Jim Scott, president of Punahou School in Honolulu. (Incidentally, Punahou School is the alma mater for President Barack Obama; he attended the school from grades 5-12.)

The panel also featured a dialogue with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who continued to offer support for public and private partnerships but also continued to disparage the support that might come from school voucher-type programs.