Author Archive | Travis Pillow

The number of charter schools may be leveling off, but why?

A recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools raised a question: Has charter school growth stalled?

The alliance’s data shows 329 charter schools opened this fall around the country, while 211 closed. That means the number of charter schools increased by just 118. California and Texas accounted for more than half the national increase.

Just a few years ago, the compounding growth of charter schools was so great, it was possible to imagine an all-charter public school system. But political and economic forces may be conspiring to slow that trend. The number of students enrolled in charter schools continues to rise, and has now surpassed 3 million nationally. But if fewer new charter schools are opening, those numbers, too, could soon level off.

Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education unpacks some of the factors that may drive the numbers. Authorizers may be getting more stringent, giving fewer charters the green light to open. Highly qualified teachers may be harder to come by, and so may school buildings — or funding to pay for them.

A closer look at Florida may shed some light on the national trend.

Since 2014, the number of charter schools in the state has been stuck just above 650. That’s despite the fact that dozens of new schools open each year.

This fall, 26 new charter schools opened. But they largely replaced 23 charters that closed during the 2015-16 school year. The previous year, 38 new charter schools opened, replacing 37 that had closed. (The national alliance count has a slightly different count, but its numbers tell the same story.)

And yet, this graph, which Adam Miller of the Florida Department of Education recently presented to the House K-12 Innovation Subcommittee, shows the number of students enrolled in charter schools continues to rise.

charter school growth graph

The number of charter schools in Florida has leveled, though enrollment continues to grow. Source.

Continue Reading →


Florida House bill would match Senate on special needs scholarships

Sullivan portrait


The Florida House and Senate may be aligned on a measure that would triple the size of the nation’s largest education savings account program.

A bill filed today by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, would boost funding for Gardiner Scholarships* to $200 million, matching a proposal from a key committee chairman in the Senate.

The scholarships provide funding that parents of children with special needs can use for private school tuition, public school courses, homeschool curricula, tutoring, therapy and other education-related expenses.

Like the Senate plan, Sullivan’s bill would make the scholarships available to more groups of students, including children with rare diseases, those who are vision or hearing impaired, and those with traumatic brain injuries.

HB 15 would clarify that it’s illegal to use the scholarships to pay for services that are also billed to Medicaid or health insurance, which could help prevent fraud.

The bill would also make some changes to the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which helps low-income and special needs students pay private school tuition.*

It would increase the amount of scholarship funding students can receive, offering larger increases for students in high school, where tuition tends to be more expensive. It would also strengthen the Department of Education’s legal authority to kick schools out of the scholarship program if they repeatedly fail to submit clean financial audits.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary, helps administer both scholarship programs.


NOLA-style charter transformation coming to rural North Florida

GAINESVILLE – Last week, the Florida Board of Education approved a plan that would consolidate the two public schools in Jefferson County, Fla. and convert them to a charter school.

As the board voted, Bill Brumfield, the newly elected school board chairman, breathed a sigh of relief.

Bill Brumfield, a school board member and former superintendent in Jefferson County, addresses the Florida Board of Education.

“Thank God,” he said.

Thursday’s vote ended months-long saga to win approval for a plan to turn around the struggling North Florida district.

And it sent one of the state’s most impoverished and persistently struggling rural school systems down an uncharted course.

State board members remarked that Jefferson is preparing to launch a miniature version of the great experiment in New Orleans, in which the school district handed the operation of nearly all its public schools over to charter school providers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans “is a model, potentially, that can offer some hope” about what can happen when charter schools work with a district to raise student achievement, board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said, “especially where there’s high levels of poverty.”

Right now, four charter school operators may be candidates for the job. They include a network associated with one of Florida’s largest management companies, the organization that revitalized public schools in a small Central Florida town, and a mom-and-pop Palm Beach County charter school founded by a Jefferson County native.

Over the next two weeks, the district will court these organizations, and try to find one that’s up to the task.

“We’re turning over to a charter school to save the district, for the children’s sake,” Brumfield told the state board, which rejected three earlier, state-mandated turnaround plans, deciding the district couldn’t get the job done on its own.

Brumfield said parents, many of whom he’d taught over four decades as an educator, were ready for a big change.

“They all want this. They want something new,” he said. “They see Governor’s Charter [Academy] over in Tallahassee, and they want something like that, but in their community.”

Decades of struggle

Jefferson County’s school system is an outlier in many ways. Continue Reading →


Fla. Senate panel approves charter school facilities plan, but …

A Florida Senate panel this morning approved a bill that, for the first time, would distribute local tax revenue evenly to charter and traditional public schools.

But it also stalled a measure that would increase districts’ local taxing authority. And school districts argue that measure must be connected to the charter funding proposal.

The ensuing debate raised new questions over how Florida lawmakers plan to overhaul school facilities funding for both charter and traditional public schools.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, sponsor of both bills and chair of the education budget subcommittee, said school districts had reached a desperate point. Property values haven’t fully covered from the Great Recession, and school districts have lost a quarter of their pre-recession taxing authority since 2008. But the state population is growing again, and so are districts’ construction needs.

Simmons cited the testimony of district leaders, who visited his subcommittee a few weeks ago. They described grim rituals like “bucket day,” when they rush to different campuses to catch rainwater leaking from their roofs.

“I believe very strongly … that we are in a crisis situation regarding the capital expenditures in our districts,” he said. Continue Reading →


The week in school choice: A model for the nation?

So much pre-confirmation talk about Betsy DeVos focused on her home state of Michigan.

As education secretary, she’s pointing to a different state — arguably her second home — as a model for the nation.

“Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices,” DeVos said Wednesday. She noted that 40 percent of the students in Florida go to schools that are different from the one they may be zoned for.

We break down that 40 percent number here.

As she settles into her new role, the new secretary wants to clarify her intentions.

I need to stress that I could not be more supportive of great teachers and great teaching, no matter what kind of delivery vehicle they are teaching through. We have to support great teachers. They just have to be freed-up to do what they do best. I think in many cases they are limited by the top-down, one size fits all approaches, either at the school level, the district level, the state level, or in all too many cases, the federal decree.

DeVos may have made a rhetorical misstep after her widely publicized visit to a D.C. public school. Her critics cast comments intended to suggest education bureaucracy saps teachers’ initiative as an affront to teachers themselves.

She’s preparing for school visits alongside Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. Here’s what she wishes she’d said in her confirmation hearing.

And still, the din of hyperbole grows louder.

The real action for the school choice movement is in the states

With that in mind…

Washington State charters survive (another) constitutional challenge.

Arizona is on its way to creating a completely universal educational choice program!

Virginia lawmakers have plans revamp their state’s charter school laws, which currently rank among the nation’s worst.

Florida’s education savings accounts could triple in size. Indiana lawmakers are considering a similar program, but the bill suffered a setback.

The time appears ripe for school choice expansion in Missouri.

Alabama’s tax credit program could soon have a broader revenue base.

Education Week has a roundup of other states to watch. We’ve got your weekly rundown of legislative action in Florida.


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Choice notes from Florida’s capital: Week ending Feb. 17

Note: Every week the Florida Legislature is in session, we’ll provide a rundown of school choice-related discussions and developments. Look for future installments on Saturday mornings.

Last week, the Florida Board of Education approved an unprecedented charter school takeover in a persistently struggling rural school district.

Jefferson County could soon be the first district in Florida where every public school is run by a charter organization.

As the House Education Committee learned, the move would also be a rarity in Florida school turnarounds.

Districts are required to make major changes in schools that receive F’s or consecutive D’s from the state. But of 115 schools currently required to make those changes, Jefferson’s are the only turnaround schools districts plan to convert to charters.

During the committee’s hearing, several lawmakers wondered aloud why charter conversions aren’t more common. That’s another reason Jefferson will be worth watching.

Expanding Private school choice Continue Reading →


State board approves charter school takeover in struggling rural district

Jefferson County’s newest school superintendent told the state Board of Education she wants to turn the district around, fast.

For the first time ever, a Florida school district is poised to relinquish control of all of its traditional public schools.

Under a plan approved today by the state Board of Education, Jefferson County Schools will combine its lone elementary and middle-high schools on a single campus.

It’s set to recruit a charter school operator to take over the combined institution in a matter of weeks.

“We are excited about this charter school change,” said Superintendent Marianne Arbulu, who was elected to lead the troubled district in November. “I think we have a community united behind this, because it’s just impossible for us to continue the way we’ve been over the last decade.”

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart outlined Jefferson’s state of financial and academic emergency. It enrolls slightly more than 700 students, a decline of nearly 400 from five years ago. It receives the second-highest per-pupil spending in the state, but has spent its way into a fiscal condition that requires emergency oversight. It has some of the lowest student achievement in the state, and has spent the past decade trapped in a cycle of perpetual academic turnarounds. Continue Reading →


Top charter school networks eye Florida expansions

Representatives of four high-profile charter school networks told a Florida House committee they are eyeing the state for future expansions. They also discussed the barriers that might keep them away.

When it comes to attracting top charter school operators, the Sunshine State has a lot going for it.

It’s the third-largest state. Its population is growing — so much so that some districts are rolling out the welcome mat to charters that might help exert growth. Its 20-year-old charter school law is ninth-best in the nation, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It has more than 650 charter schools and thriving school choice culture. But since charters enroll one in ten of its 2.8 million public school students, it isn’t totally saturated.

Peter Bezanson, of BASIS charter schools, testifies before the Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

And yet, the state has struggled to attract the kind operators that appeared before the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee this week — organizations that draw national headlines for targeting the most disadvantaged students and pushing them toward college.

Each of the charter groups cited potential obstacles that, in one form or another, are on lawmakers’ radar during the upcoming legislative session: Teacher certification rules, school facilities, equitable funding.

BASIS runs academically “hyper-accelerated” charter schools in Arizona, Texas and Washington. Its schools push ninth-graders to take precalculus and require their students to take at least six Advanced Placement exams.  It’s created elementary schools and extended school days to make its demanding academics accessible to low-income students.

CEO Peter Bezanson said Florida is one of the top four states where BASIS eyeing future growth.

“We wanted to be a great choice, a high-quality choice for every kid who is willing to work hard,” he said.

BASIS schools like to hire “subject-expert teachers,” Bezanson said. If teachers are well-trained in a subject like physics and have an ability to connect with students, he said, certification exams and other regulations become needlessly onerous. Continue Reading →