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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 →

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.

Fla. school choice grads take their education to the next level

School choice advocates are sometimes accused of making their case with anecdotes. On this blog, we stand guilty as charged. We’ve profiled dozens of individual students who have taken advantage of the nation’s largest private school choice program. Many of them struggled in their former schools and went on to attend college.

These anecdotes, by themselves, aren’t enough to show the program is working. But the Urban Institute shed some light on the bigger picture last week. It released a major new study of more than 10,000 students who have used Florida tax credit scholarships. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program.)

The study found students who use the nation’s largest private school choice program are more likely to enroll in college and more likely to earn associate degrees.

These students’ stories help bring those research findings to life.

Mendez

Valentin Mendez graduated from La Progresiva in Miami and attends Miami-Dade College.

Jasmine Harrington graduated as valedictorian at School of the Immaculata and attends St. Petersburg College.

Jordan Massie graduated from The Foundation Academy and attends Florida State College in Jacksonville. 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 →

Pausing to honor a colleague

We pause today for a funeral and introspection. Sherri Ackerman, formerly the associate editor of this blog, died suddenly on Friday at age 52. She was a journalist who wrote for two major daily newspapers, the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times, before she found a home at the nonprofit, Step Up For Students, that publishes this blog. Sherri believed in the possibilities education holds for every child. Her gift was to tell stories that breathed life into our often-sterile debate. We reflect on Sherri today through a powerful account, written two years ago, about a school in her back yard of Tampa. Academy Prep Center was and remains, to use her words, “electric with opportunity.”

A school where ‘realization of possibility’ is routine

Jorge Perez graduated in 2008 from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, he's a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. Photo provided by family.

Jorge Perez graduated from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City.
Photo provided by family.

By Sherri Ackerman

Jorge Perez remembers the first time he stepped behind the black iron gates surrounding Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Fla. The private school for students in grades 5-8 is wedged beside a Cuban bakery and the interstate in a faded neighborhood with sagging bungalows. Yet, something made it electric with opportunity.

“It was very different from other middle schools I had seen and the atmosphere was buzzing,’’ recalls Perez, then a rising sixth-grader. “It felt like a place where I could grow.’’

And grow he did. Perez graduated from Academy Prep, earned a full ride to the legendary Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school in New Hampshire, and now attends Columbia University in New York City.

The story is all the more remarkable because, for Academy Prep, it’s not all that surprising. Since 2003, when the school was founded, many of its students – all of them low-income and almost all of them black or Hispanic – have moved on to top public and private high schools, and then to highly regarded public and private colleges.

No one at the school expects anything less.

*** Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: STEM majors, school spending, testing & more

The Commish. Pam Stewart is up for a performance evaluation before the Board of Education next week. Gradebook. StateImpact Florida.

florida-roundup-logoTesting. Three-person panel meets today to begin selecting independent reviewer of state tests. Gradebook. Political Fix Florida.

STEM. Black students in Florida are being steered away from the most lucrative college majors, which tend to be in STEM fields. Bridge to Tomorrow. Some Okaloosa students hear from experts whose jobs hinge on STEM. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Middle schools. The Hernando schoool board backs a plan to create a new center for struggling middle school students. Tampa Bay Times.

Turnaround students. Pasco honors them. Tampa Bay Times.

Principals. One in Broward is Florida’s Principal of the Year. South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Employee conduct. A former Orange County principal is reprimanded for not immediately reporting a case of possible child abuse to authorities. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: charter schools, testing glitches, STEM & more

Charter schools. The abrupt closing of Acclaim Academy charter schools in Duval and Orange shows again that charter school reform is long overdue, writes the Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm.

florida-roundup-logoSchool choice. Tampa Bay Times takes a shot at charter schools and private schools in an editorial panning Gov. Scott’s proposal for profit-sharing among hospitals.

Standardized testing. Glitches, again. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa TribuneMiami Herald. Orlando SentinelGradebook. SchoolZone. The Citrus school board weighs in. Gradebook.

STEM. Black students continue to earn a smaller and smaller percentage of science and engineering degrees in Florida universities. Bridge to Tomorrow.

Rick Scott. Study hard to get out of poverty, he tells students at a Volusia high school. Daytona Beach News Journal.

Superintendents. Exit interview with Manatee’s outgoing super. Bradenton Herald. A look at Manatee’s interim. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald Tribune.

School spending. Pinellas explores options for self insurance. Gradebook. The Miami-Dade school board considers what to do with 10 acres of prime real estate. Miami Herald. The Leon school district’s legal tab in several matters is approaching $400,000. Tallahassee Democrat.

School fighting. City officials in Cutler Bay are concerned about 188 reports of fighting at a local middle school, the highest in the state. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →