Archive | Common Ground

The new voice speaking against ZIP-codes-as-destiny in education

teachers union ZIP code

Part of the National Education Association’s new digital ad campaign (screenshot from Politico.com).

Students’ ZIP codes shouldn’t be their destiny.

Variations on that line have long been a rhetorical staple of school choice advocates, from parents prosecuted for daring to send their children to schools outside their assigned zone to outfits like the Center for Education Reform, whose statement of beliefs holds that “the quality of a student’s education should not be dictated by their zip code.”

Recently it’s become an adopted slogan of a different advocacy group: The National Education Association. The country’s largest teachers union has recently made the denunciation of ZIP code-based inequality a mainstay of its social media accounts and in its publicity surrounding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The idea was suggested in an internal communications memo that became public earlier this year, which appears to have informed the union’s ongoing campaign for a federal “opportunity dashboard” that would track a variety of indicators on public schools, from class sizes to teacher qualifications.

In fairness, the NEA has taken aim at ZIP codes before. It says it wants equity  meaning, among other things, schools should be funded based on their students’ needs, not the wealth of their tax base. That’s a worthwhile goal, especially in states that don’t even out funding among school districts they way Florida does. There are unconscionable gaps in a lot of places, and students should have access to quality schools, regardless of where they live or what their families can afford. Continue Reading →

Florida students could have more public school choices

Taylor Richardson Duval County

Taylor Richardson appears before the Duval County School Board in October.

Wearing a flight suit from her summer trip to Space Camp, fifth-grader Taylor Richardson stood in front of the Duval County School Board and told them how glad she was to be at Chet’s Creek Elementary.

“Chet’s has changed my life for the better, and I am proud to be a product of the public education system,” she said.

She almost had to leave the school she loved after third grade, when her family moved across town. But her mother, Toni Richardson, pleaded with district administrators for a special assignment. For the past two years, she has driven her daughter nearly 23 miles each way, allowing her to finish fourth and fifth grade at the school where teachers helped her grow from a struggling reader to an advocate for literacy and a success story in science.

Taylor is among the hundreds of thousands of Florida students attending traditional public schools outside their assigned zone. Close to one in ten public school students participate in district open enrollment programs, which are among the state’s most widely used forms of school choice.

That option is not available everywhere, which means for many families, public school choice looks a lot like it does for the Richardsons — special assignments agreed to by administrators, and long drives across town.

Bills now under consideration in the state Legislature are aimed at opening up more options, by giving all students the right to transfer to any public school that has room, and giving them more freedom to cross district lines. The proposals bring two issues into focus: The increasing competition and differentiation among public schools, and the importance of ensuring families can overcome barriers to school choice. Continue Reading →

Charters, disadvantaged students, and arguments about education

Jack Schneider is an education historian who studies the arguments people make about schools, and host of an Education Week blog on that topic. Recently, he contended charter schools were harming the most disadvantaged students, and I took issue with that claim.

To his credit, he let me state the case, and I think the resulting exchange was fair.

He’s right that charter schools, by their nature, are going to draw students who have certain advantages (namely, parents who care enough about their education to actively seek other options). And the evidence he cites on “peer effects” raises a real issue for the school system as a whole. But I also think so-called cream-skimming isn’t inevitable:

There is a stereotype that low-income or disadvantaged families are less likely to be engaged in their children’s education, and therefore less likely to participate in school choice. Participation data from the Florida tax credit scholarship program (Disclosure: My employer helps administer this program)—which is open only to low-income families—suggest it’s not true. We’re seeing the opposite. Students who actually use the scholarships to attend private schools tend to be from families with even lower incomes than the overall pool of low-income families who qualify, and annual program evaluations show that tendency is getting stronger over time. Their test scores also tend to be lower than their peers. Yet their parents are engaged enough to actively choose to send them to other schools.

This is a means-tested private school choice program, so the experience of those parents might be different from those who enroll in charters. But there’s also evidence to suggest that school choice is fungible for at least some families. That is to say, some families who accept private school scholarships might just as well opt for charters, career academies, or other district-operated schools of choice when those are accessible to them.

It’s a long post, so check out the whole thing.

Schneider, meanwhile, takes issue with horse-race comparisons between public schools and charter schools, especially those that rely on narrow measures like test scores.

Continue Reading →

Florida lawmakers pursue charter-like autonomy for traditional public schools

The advent of charter schools has presented traditional public schools with new competition that is often subject to less regulation.

Rather than stifle that competition, why not level the playing field, by giving district schools more flexibility?

Over the years, Florida lawmakers have pursued arrangements along those lines. An early attempt, as the Gradebook notes, ultimately faded without yielding much lasting change. A more recent effort, allowing districts to set up “Innovation Schools of Technology,” has yet to get serious traction.

This year, state legislators have proposed a new approach that would allow school districts to offer select principals a charter-like exchange. School leaders could receive greater control over their budgets and hiring, as well exemptions from certain state and local rules. In return, they would have to meet academic performance goals.

One thing may bode well for this latest effort. It’s already starting to get backing from district leaders.

Superintendent Robert Runcie

Superintendent Robert Runcie

Last week, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told the House K-12 Subcommittee that he sees two potential applications for the proposed “principal autonomy” program.

He said it would allow top-performing schools that already “have high-quality instruction going on” to serve as proofs of concept, from which other schools in the district could learn.

The promise of greater operational freedom could also bolster one of his planned initiatives, aimed at bringing top administrators into low-performing schools. He said he wants ambitious administrators to present ideas for turning those schools around, in a “‘Shark Tank’ type of interview process.” Those with the most compelling plans could receive up to $25,000 a year in financial incentives to put them into action.

“I would love for them to have this kind of autonomy and flexibility over their schools and their budgets, so they can do whatever it takes to ensure that those schools that have been chronically under-performing have the best opportunity to be successful,” Runcie said, while testifying in favor of a revised version of HB 357.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican and former public school administrator. It would create a pilot program, allowing six school districts to present autonomy plans for up to three schools to the state Board of Education. If the program succeeds after three years, he said he would like it to expand. Continue Reading →

Could online course access help Florida make way for the ‘money course?’

A bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers is back again with a proposal that has some influential supporters. They want every student who graduates high school to complete a course in financial literacy.

money course art

Via taxrebate.org.uk under a Creative Commons license.

A similar measure failed to pass last legislative session. To fare better this year it needs to overcome a key objection: Students may have a hard time finding room in their schedules for another graduation requirement.

Right now, Florida is in the process of implementing a two-year-old digital learning law that might offer some novel ways to overcome that obstacle, like a new course access system.

Supporters of a mandatory “money course” have marshaled research showing students would benefit from learning how to manage their finances, as well as testimonials from teachers who say it’s difficult to fit personal-finance units into semester-long economics courses, as state law currently requires.

Newspapers around the state have endorsed the standalone course, as have business leaders and prominent elected officials like Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

All of them make good points. This week, however, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel shed some light on the other side of the story:

Kathi Gundlach, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers association, said financial literacy classes should not be required.

“More and more classes are being mandated, and they’re usually unfunded,” she said. “We don’t have any money for books or to do it. Financial literacy is already included in the course work.”

The number of mandated courses is a valid concern. Students generally need 24 credits to finish high school, and for many of them, the state’s core course requirements leave room for only eight electives. Each of those slots is precious if they want to take band or drama, learn computer programming, pursue the arts, learn a foreign language, pick up college credits through Advanced Placement, or earn industry certifications.

Ambitious students already find ways to take classes beyond the traditional six credits a year for four years of high school  online, over the summer, while they’re in middle school. They’re about to have more options at their disposal.

Continue Reading →

Three Florida districts chosen for charter school collaboration grants

Florida’s two largest school districts could soon be searching for charter schools looking to serve their most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The state Department of Education has chosen three school districts, including Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, to receive grants intended to entice more national charter school networks to open in Florida’s academically struggling urban areas and stoke new collaborations between districts and charters.

Duval County, the third district chosen from four that applied, already has a high-profile charter school collaborator in KIPP Jacksonville.

The two South Florida districts indicated in their grant applications that they intend to recruit similar “high-impact” charter schools from around the country. They described plans to seek proposals from charter networks looking to open schools in high-needs areas and work with the districts on improving results for children in poverty.

First, their school boards need to sign off. John Schuster, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade County school district, said in an email that a school board committee would likely vet the charter school collaboration grant this week, which would allow the full board to decide how to proceed at its Feb. 11 meeting.

A spokeswoman for the state education department said it has so far committed about $665,000 in grant funding to each district — a three-way split of $2 million in Race to the Top funding, which is expected to start flowing to districts once their final plans are approved.

Continue Reading →

Florida lawmakers look to set new tone on charter schools

Florida’s past few legislative sessions have seen some contentious battles between school districts and charter schools over issues like applications and capital funding, especially in the House.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs a key education panel, is trying to set a more collaborative tone this year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

This week, he introduced legislation that would allow districts to seek charter-like flexibility in exchange for more regulatory freedom. On Wednesday, he brought in a group of district and charter representatives to talk charter school authorizing.

The two sides have for the past few years been trying to reach agreements on issues like promoting quality charters and screening out schools that aren’t qualified.

Lawmakers have heard or floated proposals on both fronts in the run-up to the legislative session that begins in March, but this year’s key charter school bills have yet to emerge.

Diaz said that while charter school issues have brought “fireworks” to the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee in the past, “You see some common ground. Everyone involved in this wants the best for the kids and wants quality charter schools.”

While lawmakers want to “provide the environment for quality charter schools to exist,” he said, “there’s no one here that wants to allow fly-by-nights, or folks who are in it for the wrong reasons to be in this industry.”

Tim Kitts, the leader of a small Northwest Florida charter school network, has become a vocal advocate for stopping unqualified charters. He told the committee that around the state, he’s seen “bad actors” on both sides – charter schools that aren’t prepared to educate students, and districts that throw roadblocks in the way of charter operators with proven track records.

Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Testing, ELLs, school grades and more

florida-roundup-logo English language learners. The U.S. Department of Education ends a standoff over school accountability, giving Florida flexibility over how it measures performance for students who are still learning English. Miami HeraldOrlando SentinelAssociated Press. Tampa Tribune. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. The Florida Department of Education plans to convene a panel to investigate testing, standards, and related issues. Tampa Bay TimesOrlando SentinelLakeland LedgerFort Myers News-Press.

Charter schools. Students at a Lake Wales charter school post above-average scores on college entrance exams. Winter Haven News Chief. The school’s students run a recycling program. News Chief.

Title I. The Pensacola News-Journal looks at federal grant programs in local schools.

Growth. Orange County school officials explore a potential location for a new high school to relieve crowding. Orlando Sentinel.

Libraries. A Brevard library plans to add a new technology lab with 3-d printing and other digital tools aimed at young people. Florida Today.

Reading. South Florida teachers write a children’s book about surfing. Palm Beach Post.

Debate. Broward schools offer debate in all high schools and are expanding debate programs in middle schools, citing benefits for students. Sun-Sentinel.

School grades. Volusia administrators look to boost performance at “C” schools. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Programming note: This is our last Florida Schools Roundup of 2014. We’ll resume daily news roundups on Jan. 5. Until then, have a happy holiday break and enjoy our ongoing series of school choice wishes.