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 →

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Florida schools roundup: Charter district, incentives, recess and more

Charter district: The Florida Board of Education approves a charter schools company taking over a public school district’s operations. Jefferson County, which had been struggling financially and with enrollment, will combine the elementary and middle/high schools on a single campus. The district hopes to have applications from charter schools companies by the first week in March. It’s the first time a Florida school district has ever ceded operations to a charter school company. redefinED. Tallahassee Democrat. Associated Press. WFSU. The Polk County School Board is considering closing struggling McLaughin Middle School and reopening it under the Bok Academy, an A-rated charter school. Lakeland Ledger.

Charter recruitment: Representatives from four national charter schools companies tell a Florida House committee that they’d like to expand into Florida. BASIS, IDEA, Achievement First and the SEED Foundation all express interest, if the state can set up equitable funding to public districts. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has suggested such changes are being considered. redefinED.

Teacher incentives: Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the Senate’s pre-K-12 education budget chairman, wants the Legislature to consider bumping the amount of money available for teacher incentives to at least $200 million. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended $58 million for teacher incentives. “I’m not concerned that we’re talking about $200-250 million,” said Simmons. “It’s an investment; it’s not an expenditure, and I think we can find it in an $83 billion budget.” Miami Herald. The statewide teachers union, the Florida Education Association, says the incentive programs are gimmicks, and that it wants better pay for all teachers. Miami Herald.

Recess doubts: Two members of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee want lawmakers to consider the whole picture of education and the financial implications before approving a bill that would require 20 minutes of recess every day in Florida elementary schools. “This is an important issue, recess, but I think we need to look at it in a more holistic way,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Gradebook. Continue Reading →

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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 →

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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 →

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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 →

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Improving public education, by choice: Darryl Rouson, podcastED

Rouson

Florida State Sen. Darryl Rouson went to Catholic schools from first grade through college. He wants low-income families from his district to have the same opportunity. He’s sent his own children to public schools, so he wants Florida’s public school system to be as strong as possible.

During a podcast interview with Denisha Merriweather, a Florida school choice alum now studying to become a social worker, Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, explains how his life experience has informed his view that supporting school choice and supporting public education are not in conflict.

“I want a high-quality, fully funded public education, but at the same time, I do not believe that one size fits all,” he says.

Rouson joined the Senate after a narrow win in a hard-fought Democratic primary. Education issues figured prominently in the race. His district encompasses the segregated neighborhoods of South St. Petersburg, an area whose academic struggles were chronicled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Testing, charters, student ID cards and more

Testing reform: Three legislators say they will file a bill today that would cut back on state-required assessment testing. The “Fewer, Better Tests” bill’s goals are to cut down on and improve state tests, move the exams to later in the school year, get the test results to teachers sooner, and provide better student score reports. Filing the bill are Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. Sunshine State NewsGradebook. The Manatee County School Board tables a discussion on a proposal to limit district-required testing. Bradenton Herald.

Charter school takeovers: Members of the House education committee who are discussing district methods of turning around underperforming schools say districts should consider allowing charter school companies to take over operations at those schools. This week, the Florida Board of Education will consider a plan to make the Jefferson County School District a charter district. Politico Florida.

Student ID cards: The Duval County School District will issue new student IDs that are linked to data such as grades, academic progress, attendance and discipline. Students would have to swipe the cards when they get on and off school buses and when they go to classes. The setup cost is $1.1 million, with a $123,500 annual fee. Florida Times-Union.

School recess: The 2016 bill that would have required daily recess at all Florida elementary schools also would have prohibited teachers from withholding recess for misbehaving students. This year that provision has been stripped out of the recess bills, at the insistence of two powerful legislators who say they don’t want to take away teachers’ flexibility. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →

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Bill would boost Florida special needs scholarships

Simmons

The nation’s largest education savings account program would triple in size under a bill filed yesterday by the Florida Senate’s lead education budget writer.

SB 902 by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would boost funding for Gardiner Scholarships from $71.2 million to $200 million.

It would also expand the list of conditions that allow students to qualify for the scholarships, which are available to children with specific special needs. The bill would make scholarships available to hearing and visually impaired students, those with traumatic brain injuries and those who are hospital or homebound.

The scholarships are designed to be worth approximately 90 percent of the amount the state would spend to educate a child in public schools. Parents can use the money to pay for private school tuition, homeschool curriculum, therapies, public-school courses, college savings and other approved education-related expenses. Continue Reading →

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