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School choice in flyover country

School choice can’t work in rural areas? Tell that to Judy Welborn (above right) and Michele Winningham, co-founders of a private school in Williston, Fla., that is thriving thanks to school choice scholarships. Students at Williston Central Christian Academy also take online classes through Florida Virtual School and dual enrollment classes at a community college satellite campus.

Levy County is a sprawl of pine and swamp on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 20 miles from Gainesville and 100 from Orlando. It’s bigger than Rhode Island. If it were a state, it and its 40,000 residents would rank No. 40 in population density, tied with Utah.

Visitors are likely to see more logging trucks than Subaru Foresters, and more swallow-tailed kites than stray cats. If they want local flavor, there’s the watermelon festival in Chiefland (pop. 2,245). If they like clams with their linguine, they can thank Cedar Key (pop. 702).

And if they want to find out if there’s a place for school choice way out in the country, they can chat with Ms. Judy and Ms. Michele in Williston (Levy County’s largest city; pop. 2,768).

In 2010, Judith Welborn and Michele Winningham left long careers in public schools to start Williston Central Christian Academy. They were tired of state mandates. They wanted a faith-based atmosphere for learning. Florida’s school choice programs gave them the power to do their own thing – and parents the power to choose it or not.

Williston Central began with 39 students in grades K-6. It now has 85 in K-11. Thirty-one use tax credit scholarships for low-income students. Seventeen use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“There’s a need for school choice in every community,” said Welborn, who taught in public schools for 39 years, 13 as a principal. “The parents wanted this.”

The little school in the yellow-brick church rebuts a burgeoning narrative – that rural America won’t benefit from, and could even be hurt by, an expansion of private school choice. The two Republican senators who voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – represent rural states. Their opposition propelled skeptical stories like this, this and this; columns like this; and reports like this. One headline warned: “For rural America, school choice could spell doom.”

A common thread is the notion that school choice can’t succeed in flyover country because there aren’t enough options. But there are thousands of private schools in rural America – and they may offer more promise in expanding choice than other options. A new study from the Brookings Institution finds 92 percent of American families live within 10 miles of a private elementary school, including 69 percent of families in rural areas. That’s more potential options for those families, the report found, than they’d get from expanded access to existing district and charter schools.

In Florida, 30 rural counties (by this definition) host 119 private schools, including 80 that enroll students with tax credit scholarships. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) There are scores of others in remote corners of Florida counties that are considered urban, but have huge swaths of hinterland. First Baptist Christian School in the tomato town of Ruskin, for example, is closer to the phosphate pits of Fort Lonesome than the skyscrapers of Tampa. But all of it’s in Hillsborough County (pop. 1.2 million).

The no-options argument also ignores what’s increasingly possible in a choice-rich state like Florida: choice programs leading to more options.

Before they went solo, Welborn and Winningham put fliers in churches, spread the word on Facebook and met with parents. They wanted to know if parental demand was really there – and it was.

But “one of their top questions was, ‘Are you going to have a scholarship?’ “ Welborn said. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Teacher tests, minorities in AP classes and more

Teacher tests: The Florida Department of Education says a historically high percentage of people who want to be teachers are failing the Florida Teacher Certification Exam, which was recently toughened by the state. And now fewer people are taking the test, as many as 10 percent fewer for some subject areas. “We have a real crisis,” said Dr. Gloria Pelaez, St. Thomas University dean of the school of arts. “This is turning people, good intelligent people away,” said Wendy Mungillo of the Manatee County School District. Melissa Smith, for example. She’s taken and failed the test seven times, and has decided to leave the state and get a master’s degree. Department of Education officials defend the tougher exams, saying they’re in line with more rigorous tests students now take. WFTS.

Minorities and AP classes: A Palm Beach County School District analysis shows an “implicit bias” is in part responsible for lower minority participation in Advanced Placement classes. Minority students with comparable scores to white students are excluded from AP classes at a much higher rate than whites. That so-called “opportunity gap” also favors girls over boys, according to the analysis. “Students who have potential, why are they not in the courses?” Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said. “There’s a significant gap there that we want to start to close.” Palm Beach Post.

Days lost to testing: Orange County teacher Peggy Dominguez tells a Senate committee meeting this week that she loses 37 days of her 180-day school year to preparing her students for the Florida Standards Assessments tests. Dominguez teaches English at Timber Creek High School. She and others testified about the downsides of the testing process. The Senate is considering a bill that would, among other things, push all testing to the final three weeks of the school year and authorize a study to see if the ACT or SAT tests can be used as a replacement for the FSA. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Teacher pay, true costs, safe schools and more

Teacher pay: Prospects for a statewide $200 million raise in pay for teachers have dimmed after proponent Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, says he is no longer pursuing the hike. Instead, Simmons says, he is backing an expansion of the teacher bonuses program, known as the Best and Bright Teacher Scholarship. Both the Senate and House are considering bills that would increase the money for bonuses and widen eligibility. Naples Daily News.

Public education spending: The true cost of educating one public school student in Florida for a year is $10,308, according to a report from Florida TaxWatch. The Florida Education Finance Program funding formula expenditure was $7,178 per student for the 2015-2016 school year. But TaxWatch says other tax dollars spent by districts take the total spending per student to more than $10,000. redefinED.

Protecting undocumented: The Miami-Dade County School Board declares its district a safe zone for undocumented immigrant students, and will review what else it can do to protect those students from U.S. immigration officials. The intent, says board member Lubby Navarro, is “to ensure that our schools are safe havens for all students and that this message resonates throughout entire communities, our neighborhoods, our barrios, so that everyone knows that our schools are safe for our children and our families.” Miami Herald.

Teacher program: The Palm Beach County School District and Nova Southeastern University will partner to create a teacher-training program that promises students jobs in the district after graduation. Students will be paid substitute teachers during their senior year at Nova, and will be offered fulltime teaching positions when they graduate as long as they meet certification and other requirements. Nova is hoping to enter into similar partnerships with Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Sun-Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: School funding and testing, drug tests and more

School funding: State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, files a bill that would require a study of the “district cost differential” portion of the state’s school funding formula. S.B. 1394 would require a study by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which would then make recommendations on possible changes. Some districts think the formula is unfair. News Service of Florida. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, files a bill that would create a website showing the total federal, state and local dollars spent on students’ education. Bradley proposes allocating $500,000 for S.B. 1414. WFSU.

Drug test challenge: A retiree who wants to be a substitute teacher, classroom aide or tutor is suing the Palm Beach School District over its requirement that applicants for those jobs pass a drug test. Joan Friedenberg objects to the “suspicionless drug test.” Palm Beach Post.

School testing: The Manatee County School Board rejects a proposal to end district-mandated testing. School officials’ arguments that the tests have led to higher Florida Standards Assessments, SAT and ACT scores and a higher graduation rate persuaded Charlie Kennedy, who proposed the cutbacks. “I am kind of in a different place now than I was coming into it … having a better understanding of the data we are using to guide (and) the benchmarks as a way to improve FSA scores,” Kennedy said. Bradenton Herald.

Legislative preview: Education issues affecting students from kindergarten through college are being considered in the legislative session that begins Tuesday. Here are previews of some of the issues being debated. Miami Herald. News Service of Florida. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Recess, charters, alternative schools and more

Recess bill advances: A bill requiring mandatory daily recess of at least 20 minutes for all Florida K-5 students passes the state Senate Education Committee. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said the bill showed “the power of advocacy, of parents” who pushed legislators to act when local school boards would not. The bill now goes to the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee for consideration. Miami HeraldAssociated PressFlorida Politics.

Charter facilities funding: The Senate Education Committee approves a bill that would send a proportional share of a district’s property tax revenue to charter schools based on enrollment, with more money attached for those schools that have large low-income or special needs populations. But a second bill that would have increase districts’ local tax authority is delayed. Supporters say the measures need to move forward together to allow districts to catch up on construction that’s been backlogged since the recession. redefinED. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida.

Hidden dropouts: Alternative schools increasingly are being used by public schools as places to hide struggling, problem students who might otherwise drag down a school’s graduation rate, test scores and grade, according to an investigation by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism website. The Orange County School District is one of 83 U.S. school districts that bumped its graduate rate by at least a percentage point between 2010 and 2014 by sending an increasing number of students into alternative schools. ProPublica.

Florida 4th in AP: Florida ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of students taking and passing at least one Advanced Placement course, according to the College Board, the organization that runs the AP program. In Florida’s class of 2016, 29.5 percent passed at least one AP exam. That’s over the national average of 21.9 percent and 11 percentage points better than 10 years ago. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Evaluations, recess, discipline, LGBT sign and more

Teacher evaluations: About 98 percent of the teachers evaluated in Florida during the 2015-2016 school year were rated either “highly effective” or “effective,” according to the Department of Education. Less than 1 percent of the state’s teachers got an “unsatisfactory” rating, and only 1.2 percent were rated “needs improvement.” The numbers have shown little change over the past few years. Evaluations are used by districts for raises and contract renewals, and by the state for determining eligibility for teacher bonuses. Okaloosa County was tops in the state with 97.6 percent of its teachers graded as highly effective, while Putnam County was lowest with just 1 percent. Gradebook.

Daily recess: A survey by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability reveals significant differences in how school districts offer recess, how often and for how long. Only 11 districts have some recess policy, and only eight of those made daily recess a requirement. Supporters of legislation to make daily recess mandatory in all Florida elementary schools argue the results show the need for statewide legislation, instead of allowing individual districts, schools or even teachers decide. Miami Herald.

Discipline disparity: Black students are twice as likely to be expelled as other children, four times more likely to be suspended and almost three times more likely to be arrested, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. And children with disabilities, especially black students with disabilities, are more likely to be disciplined than those without disabilities. Florida is below the national average in arrests and expulsions, higher in referrals and about the same on suspensions. WTVJ.

LGBT sign stays: A Milton High School junior will be allowed to keep a “So gay I can’t even drive straight” sticker in her car window. Rachel Campbell was cited by a school police officer for the sign, calling it a violation of a school policy prohibiting “offensive or obscene” tags or stickers. Campbell said she wouldn’t remove it, and now principal Tim Short says it can stay. Northwest Florida Daily News. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Less money for school recognition, testing and more

Recognition money: The Florida Department of Education is handing out 36 percent less recognition money to schools this year. Last year, 1,673 schools received $134.58 million. This year, 1,226 schools are getting $85.7 million. State officials say the decline is due to the number of schools with A grades falling from 1,184 to 754. Officials attribute to decline to harder Florida Standards Assessments tests and higher standards for individual school grading. Florida Times-Union.

Testing cutbacks: Another bill is filed in the Florida Senate that would push most state-mandated testing to the end of the school year, but this one also calls for an end to five specific exams, state oversight of teacher evaluations and the rules that tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. It also wants a written alternative to computers and allow districts to use national tests like the ACT or SAT instead of the 10th-grade language arts section of the Florida Standards Assessments. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, would kill the ninth-grade language arts Florida Standards Assessments test and end-of-course exams in Algebra 2, civics, geometry and U.S. history. Orlando Sentinel.

House vs. feds: The Florida House Education Committee will consider a resolution Tuesday that asks Congress to “end all current, and prohibit any further, interference by the United States Department of Education with respect to public school governance.” The resolution also asks Congress to turn Title 1 funding for low-income children and IDEA Part B funding for disabled students into block grants controlled by the states. Gradebook.

Teacher evaluations: There are more than 2,800 teachers in the Manatee County School District, and only three received unsatisfactory evaluations. Two others were told they needed to improve. “Highly effective” was the evaluation 48.1 percent of the teachers received. Fifty percent were judged to be “effective” and 8 percent weren’t evaluated at all, according to Florida Department of Education statistics. Teachers with highly effective ratings in other state districts ranged from 97 percent in Okaloosa County to 6 percent in Putnam County. Teachers suggest the disparity in the numbers points to the pointlessness of the evaluation process. Bradenton Herald. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Testing reform, funding, incentives and more

Testing reforms: Under the proposed “Fewer, Better Tests” bills filed Wednesday in the Legislature, all K-12 assessment testing would take place in the final three weeks of the school year, starting in the 2017-2018. S.B. 926 and H.B. 773 would also require results be returned to teachers within a week of testing, and that an understandable report be sent to parents. It also directs the education commissioner to study the feasibility of replacing the Florida Standards Assessments with the SAT or ACT. If the changes are approved, the state would also have to renegotiate its contract with testing vendor American Institutes for Research. Bill sponsors Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, say the goal of the bills is to reduce stress and anxiety among students, parents and teachers. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. News Service of Florida.

Per-student funding: Florida’s spending per student ranks well below the U.S. average among states, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2013-2014 school year, Florida spent $8,714 per student. The U.S. average was $10,936. Miami-Dade County spent the most per student among districts, $9,106. Gradebook.

Teaching incentives: Senators on the Florida PreK-12 education budget committee react coolly to Gov. Rick Scott’s $58 million proposal for incentives to recruit and retain teachers. Specifically, senators criticized Scott’s proposal for $10 million in hiring bonuses for new teachers who score in the top 10 percent in their subject-area exam. “It concerns me that we continue to look for the best performers in college — and not the best teachers,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. Miami Herald.

Gun-free zones: Bills filed in the Legislature this week are aimed at ending gun-free zones in Florida – including at K-12 schools. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-Villages, filed S.B. 908 and H.B. 803 to eliminate all restrictions on where people with concealed-carry permits can take their guns. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →