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Charter school, public-school choice measures advance in Fla. Legislature

By Brandon Larrabee

The News Service of Florida

A constitutional amendment that would set up a statewide entity with the power to approve charter schools anywhere in Florida — bypassing local school districts — is headed to the House floor, along with a bill that would allow parents to send their children to any unfilled schools in the state.

Both measures gained approval Tuesday from the House Education Committee on party-line or nearly party-line votes.

The constitutional amendment (HJR 759) was approved on a party-line 9-6 vote after some committee members had left the room when the meeting ran late. The “open enrollment” bill (HB 669) passed, 13-5, with Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joining committee Republicans in voting for it.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment say it would give potential charter schools an option to launch if hesitant local districts unfairly lock them out. School boards are supposed to approve any charters that meet state requirements, backers of the legislation say, but often take other factors — perhaps even a fear of competition — into account. Continue Reading →

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Fla. lawmakers back measures allowing cities, state to sponsor charter schools

By Brandon Larrabee

News Service of Florida

Lawmakers in the House and Senate pushed ahead Tuesday with legislation that would chip away at school boards’ control over whether to allow charter schools by giving the same authority to a statewide entity or city governments.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 9-3, along party lines, to move forward with a constitutional amendment (HJR 759) setting up a statewide body with the power to sponsor charter schools. Meanwhile, the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee, with an 8-1 vote, approved a measure (SB 808) allowing city governments to have the same authority.

Running low on time, the Senate committee put off a vote on the upper chamber’s version of the constitutional amendment on the statewide approval process.

The bills raised concerns even among lawmakers who said they supported charter schools, which are public schools that are allowed to disregard certain state regulations. Critics said the proposals would strip local control away from school boards, which are currently allowed to sponsor charter schools.

Supporters of the legislation said school districts are abusing their authority, which should simply be to approve any charter school that meets the requirements of state law.

“Some school boards have taken it upon themselves to interpret that statute to mean that they can just arbitrarily deny a charter, including those who are high-performing replications and including those that are clearly meeting statute,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the House constitutional amendment.

Shawn Frost, a school board member from Indian River County who helped found the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, said local control could still go awry — pointing to a bill the House committee had just approved to require recess at public schools.

“Sometimes, we school board members don’t make the right move and you have to act,” Frost said.

But Bill Graham, with the Florida School Boards Association, said the proposal for a statewide authorizing body was a big-government solution.

“I see an opportunity here to create more government,” Graham said. “And I think all of us starting from the governor on down are attempting to reduce the quantity and size and number of people involved in government.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the Senate measure dealing with city governments, said municipalities could handle the work of approving a charter school. The authority to allow those schools is a way for local officials to affect the lives of their constituents, he said.

“We think that the best government is the one closest to the people,” said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

But Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the measure could blur the lines of accountability for voters who have an issue with local schools.

“They’re not going to go to the city commission,” said Montford, who said he was voting for the bill with some hesitation. “They’re not going to go to another municipality governing board. They’re going to the local school board and saying, you are elected to represent us and public schools, and charter schools are public schools.”

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Fla. lawmakers poised to pass Gardiner’s ‘unique abilities’ priorities

By Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

As Senate President Andy Gardiner enters his final legislative session, the House and Senate are poised to quickly pass bills aimed at boosting educational and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities — Gardiner’s signature passion as a lawmaker.

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

The bills would expand scholarships for students with disabilities — whether in pre-kindergarten, K-12 or postsecondary programs — and offer financial-literacy training. Also, the proposals would encourage businesses and state agencies to hire people with disabilities and create a clearinghouse of information for families.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican whose son has Down syndrome, describes people with developmental disabilities as having “unique abilities,” and has made a priority of seeking changes to help them, especially children.

“So much of what we’ve worked on has come from other parents and families that say, ‘Boy, I’d really love my child to be in a regular classroom, or to get a high-school diploma, a regular diploma,'” Gardiner said. “Or — what we hope to pass the first week and actually send to the governor — a bill that has postsecondary options for children with unique abilities.” Continue Reading →

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School choice expands opportunity for Hispanic children

This op-ed, by prominent Florida pastor Nino Gonzalez, originally appeared in Spanish in the latest edition of La Prensa. Here is the English translation.

Pastor Gonzales

Pastor Gonzales

A lot of people misread our poor communities. They think because people are financially poor, they must be intellectually poor. But we know all of our children have the ability to learn at the highest levels, and to live up to their God-given potential. We also know a key to making that happen is matching them to the learning environments that are best for them.

This is why I support school choice. And this is why I am so disappointed with the lawsuit that seeks to kill the Florida tax credit scholarship program.

A year ago, the teachers union filed suit to end the program, which is the biggest private school choice program in America. Never mind that it has been in existence for 14 years and serves 77,000 low-income children, including about 30,000 Hispanic children. And never mind that a judge ruled in May that the union did not have standing to sue, and that its claims of harm to public school students were “speculative.” The union decided to appeal, and its president promised to fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

This is wrong. Freedom and choice are core American values, so why is education an exception? Why does the union want to block poor parents from schools that work for their children? There are no good answers.

The suit is even more wrong when you consider how many Hispanic students struggle. In 2014, only 50 percent of Hispanic 10th graders in Florida passed the reading test they must pass to graduate. The numbers were even worse in Central Florida. In Orange County, 46 percent passed. In Osceola, 41 percent. In Polk, 36 percent.

I don’t bring this up to disparage public schools. Many of them are working tirelessly. But other schools can help our children succeed too. Continue Reading →

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Miami-Dade schools face legal tab in charter school retaliation case

From the News Service of Florida

An administrative law judge said Tuesday the Miami-Dade County School Board should pay $233,000 in attorneys’ fees in a case filed by employees who said they faced retaliation for trying to open a charter school.

The legal-fees recommendation by Judge Edward T. Bauer, which now goes to the state Department of Education, stems from an underlying case in which school employees Alberto T. Fernandez, Henny Cristobal and Patricia E. Ramirez alleged they suffered retaliation after seeking to convert Neva King Cooper Educational Center to a charter school.

Bauer’s recommended order said the Miami-Dade County school system “quickly squelched the conversion efforts and, beginning in late April of 2012, reassigned all three petitioners to undesirable work locations.” Continue Reading →

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Parent: Education savings account gives us freedom, flexibility, hope

We thought redefinED readers would enjoy the following essay about Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Account by Tampa, Fla. parent Mary Kurnik. It originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of The Old Schoolhouse magazine, and is re-published with the magazine’s permission.

The PLSA is an education savings account (ESA) administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. The essay notes only Florida and Arizona have ESAs, which was true when Kurnik submitted the piece last spring. Since then, three more states have adopted ESAs, including Nevada, which created a program that is available to more than 90 percent of its students.

The Kurnik family from left to right: John Stephen, John, Krystyn and Mary.

The Kurnik family from left to right: John Stephen, John, Krystyn and Mary.

By Mary Kurnik

“. . . weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Dealing with special needs is a family journey, not limited to the child with the diagnosis. My son has unique abilities and learns differently. He happens to have autism.

For years prior to the diagnosis, we were perplexed by John’s speech patterns, motor skills, inflexibility with daily life, and adverse reactions to bright lights, loud noises, and large crowds. During those years, John had testing and therapies, but those were done on a careful schedule and budget. Often late at night, after our children were asleep, my husband and I shed tears over how we would manage to meet John’s short- and long-term needs as prescribed by his doctors. Continue Reading →

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Florida House panel approves public school choice bill

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

A bill that would allow parents more freedom to choose where their children go to school was overwhelmingly approved Tuesday by a House panel, even as some critics and educators worried the legislation is moving too quickly.

The measure (HB 1145) – sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor – was approved by the House K-12 Subcommittee in an 11-2 vote, with two Democrats joining the panel’s nine Republicans in voting for the bill.

It would allow parents to transfer their students to any school in the state that had not reached 90 percent of its capacity, regardless of county lines. It would also require districts to set up a process for parents to request that their children be removed from teachers’ classes.

Supporters have touted the legislation as the logical extension of the state’s school-choice reform movement, while opponents have raised questions about whether the process could be orderly.

Even speakers who were not overtly opposed to the bill raised questions about whether the legislation is too ambitious. Vern Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for Palm Beach County schools, said the July 1 effective date of the legislation could force school districts to adjust quickly to the new landscape.

“To try to have this implemented this next school year is something resembling organized chaos,” he said. Continue Reading →

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Sweeping school choice, parental rights bill passes Florida Senate panel

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

A sweeping education bill that would allow parents to send their children to schools in other counties and demand their children get new teachers in some situations was approved on a party-line vote Wednesday by a key Senate panel.

The 62-page measure (SB 1552) would, among other provisions, give parents the right to have their children attend any school in the state that hasn’t reached capacity. And if a student is being taught by a teacher that is out of his or her field, a parent could demand that the student be moved to another classroom. The bill also would make a slew of changes to charter school laws.

Over the objections of Democrats, the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee voted 7-4 to approve the bill. Supporters say the legislation would help parents whose children might otherwise be trapped in classrooms or schools that don’t work for them. Continue Reading →

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