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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Shifting politics of school choice

Two events of national import on the school choice front in Florida deserve more celebration. Both of them – the 10,000-strong school choice rally with Martin Luther King III, and the signing of the bill expanding Florida’s education savings account program – suggest the choice debate continues to move to a less political place, or at least a more bipartisan one. Who doesn’t say hooray to that?

If expanding educational options for students with special needs is worthy of a collective cheer, is there good reason not to do the same for students disadvantaged by poverty? (Photo courtesy of Silver Media)

If expanding educational options for students with special needs is worthy of a collective cheer, is there good reason not to do the same for students disadvantaged by poverty? (Photo courtesy of Silver Media)

The Jan. 19 rally generated a flood of headlines in large part because of King. Many in the school choice realm know choice has roots on the left, but that’s not common knowledge among choice critics or reporters. So when the son of Dr. King joined thousands of low-income parents chanting “Drop The Suit!” (referring to the lawsuit the teachers union filed to kill the state’s tax credit scholarship program), fresh ink flowed by the barrel over stale narratives about right-wing plots.

The choice rally was also upbeat and nearly apolitical, unlike a teacher union rally the week prior. The choice crowd sang “We Are Family”; the union rally played “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Nobody at the former talked about kicking politicians out of office. King expressed faith in the courts: “Ultimately, if the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice,” he told the crowd. “Because this is about justice. This is about righteousness. This is about truth. This is about freedom – the freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”

The bill signing two days later didn’t get as much publicity, but it was just as meaningful. Gov. Rick Scott okayed expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship after the bill sailed through the Legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan support. Formerly called the Personal Learning Scholarship Account, the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs is now the nation’s biggest education savings account program. It’s a sign of where things are headed as school choice becomes educational choice, and as the forces for customizing education rise to the fore.

It’s also a sign of political progress. For those familiar with Florida’s long-running “voucher wars,” seeing Democrats and Republicans alike go all in for the scholarship was incredible. The union savaged the PLSA before it became law in 2014, and even tried to kill the bill that created it. Less than two years later, every Democratic lawmaker is on board?! The support is even more stunning given how partisan school choice remains in virtually every state. What quietly happened in Florida with the Gardiner Scholarship is a sign of how things can and should be everywhere, and, slowly but surely, will be. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Pledge notices, test troubles, school threats and more

florida-roundup-logoPledge of Allegiance: A Florida House committee approves a bill that would give school districts options on how and where to post notice of a student’s right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school. Objections to prominent disclaimer notices in classrooms in Santa Rosa County schools prompted the bill. Miami Herald. Politico Florida.

Testing troubles: About 15 percent of Florida students say they had computer problems during the Florida Standards Assessments testing last spring, according to the Department of Education. Orlando Sentinel.

School threats: Experts talk about the uptick in school threats across the United States, how real the threats are, how they’re being made and how schools might respond. Mother Jones.

Teacher evaluations: Of the 54,000 teacher evaluations done in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties from 2010-2015, only 18 were rated as unsatisfactory, according to the Department of Education. Sun-Sentinel. In Orange County, the number of teachers rated highly effective drops from 81.2 percent to 2.4 percent. Across the state, 98 percent of teachers are rated either effective or highly effective. Orlando Sentinel.

Loan forgiveness: A study by the Center for Analysis and Longitudinal Data in Education Research finds that teachers who get loan forgiveness in return for working in high-need areas stay on the job longer than other teachers. GoodCall News.

No-tobacco zones: Brevard County schools are eliminating the use of all forms of tobacco on all school properties, officials announce. WKMG. Continue Reading →

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When home schoolers go charter

Teachers who come to work for Belmont Academy in Lake City, Fla. often see one of the school’s recruitment fliers, illustrated with five words scratched onto a green chalk face: “I just want to teach!”

Charter school recruitment flyer

Prospective teachers at Belmont Academy have often seen this flier.

Michael Cady, the charter school’s principal, said that slogan tends to resonate with teachers who have no interest in working as babysitters or disciplinarians. His school, one of North Florida’s few rural charters, has little need for those.

“I’m going to find teachers who really want to teach,” he said. “I feel like we have loaded this school with teachers like this.”

It’s safe to say the culture is a bit different at Columbia County’s only remaining charter school, thanks in part to its unique origins. The school was started three years ago by a group of home school parents, and administrators say more than half of its roughly 435 students were previously taught at home.

“The advantage of home schooling is, these children learn from adult role models,” Cady said. “When you put them into a classroom, you learn something that soceity learns — that your actions can affect others.”

Before the school’s 2013 founding, home school families banded together, and saw a need for options outside the traditional school system Many of them also felt their children would benefit from the structure of a school where they would have to hew to a schedule and work with larger groups of peers.

“It was a group of parents who saw a need, and saw this will fit the need well,” said Ron Barker, an assistant principal and the school’s music department head. His four children were previously taught at home, but now they go to Belmont. Continue Reading →

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More union leaders, parents debate Florida tax credit scholarships

The fallout from a 10,000-person rally in Tallahassee continued this weekend, with another set of dueling newspaper columns on the lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarships.

In Florida Today, Brevard County teachers union leader Richard Smith argued private school choice programs actually harm students.

Why are vouchers bad for Florida’s students?

Note that I didn’t say public-school students. All students. Recently, representatives of private schools (I believe to be well-intentioned but misled) asked the Florida Education Association to drop its lawsuit against the most recent attempt to get around separation of church and state. FEA has not and will not drop this lawsuit because FEA is committed to the education of all students.

Voucher schools are largely unregulated, don’t follow the state’s academic standards, don’t have to hire qualified teachers and don’t have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely.

Read the whole piece here.

This year, 78,000 private school students use Florida’s tax credit scholarships, comprising the largest private school choice program in the nation. The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog.

Olivia Huron-Schaeffer, a parent with children on scholarship who is helping defend the program in court, responded to Smith on Sunday: Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Education budgets, bonuses, free agency and more

florida-roundup-logoK-12 budgets: The Florida House budget bill would provide twice as much construction funding for charter schools as it would for traditional public schools. The Florida Senate’s bill provides no construction money for charter schools. It’s still early in the process, though, lawmakers from both chambers say. Gradebook. Palm Beach Post. Politico Florida. Senate leaders are looking at ways to roll the property tax hike that Gov. Rick Scott is calling for in his education budget into the $1 billion tax cuts Scott also proposes. Tampa Bay Times. WFSU. What are some of the differences between the budgets? Gradebook. School district administrators are concerned about a possible shift in construction money to charter schools. Gradebook.

Teacher bonuses: Teacher bonuses based partly on ACT or SAT scores remain in the Florida House bill with funding of $45 million, which closely aligns with Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal. But the Florida Senate bill has recommended no money for the program. Orlando Sentinel.

High school free agency: If the Legislature passes a bill allowing students and athletes to choose any school, Florida would have the most lenient standards for athletics transfers. Advocates of the bill say it’s merely an expansion of the school choice, while critics say it would create a recruiting free-for-all among high schools. Associated Press.

Class sizes: Two South Florida school districts are on track to avoid fines for class-size violations, according to officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Sun-Sentinel.

District reorganization: Brevard School Superintendent Desmond Blackburn is proposing a reorganization of administration titles, job responsibilities and the chain of command. The school board will have to approve. Florida Today. Continue Reading →

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This week in school choice: The week that was

Last week, as thousands of schools celebrated the proliferation of educational options, some supporters of the school choice movement paused to reflect.

When we dispense with residence-based school assignments and the omnipotence of the district’s central office, a laundry list of questions emerges: Who should own the public school facilities? How should enrollment work? What becomes of schools that families flee? How can very different schools be held similarly accountable? How can the public at large shape its system of schools in the absence of a central board? Will a choice-based system disadvantage certain families?

These issues are daunting, for sure. But we have to grapple with them. Retreating to the old system is not an option. Over the last twenty-five years, families have been offered school choice, and their response has been unmistakable: three million kids in charters, two million kids taking online courses, and nearly thirty states with private school choice programs.

Indeed, right now, some of the most fascinating developments and compelling discussions in K–12 involve the implementation of school choice. I’ve argued previously that this area demands sustained attention. There are proposals for new approaches to public governance, research findings on the efficacy of decentralized systems, comparisons of cities that are expanding choice, ideas for accountability and school supply, and disagreements about who should have ultimate authority.

Mike Petrilli sketched the contours of these intramural debates, and got a little pushback.

But while the school choice conversation shifts from whether to how, some opponents are still trying to re-litigate the former, with increasingly strident rhetoric that ignores the ways expanding options and improving public education can work hand-in-hand.

Charter school wonk Alex Medler saw the party poopers coming. Some school choice advocates tried to push back with research. A better approach: Elevate parents’ voices. Let them talk about empowerment. Gerard Robinson seems to agree. Continue Reading →

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Why Florida cheers loudest during National School Choice Week

national school choice weekToday is the final day of National School Choice Week, and once again, no state was more active than Florida. Organizers say school districts, private and charter schools, virtual education providers and home school cooperatives here planned 2,057 events marking the occasion — more than any other state.

This is partially a function of population. Florida has more schools than all but three states, and more students than all but two.

But a host of numbers, including some new ones released this week, suggest that choice in all its forms runs deeper and broader here than almost anywhere else. National data isn’t detailed enough to produce a timely “changing landscape” document for the entire country, but here’s what we do know.

  • Only one state (California) has more magnet schools than Florida. And only one state (Michigan) has a higher percentage of public schools that are magnets, according to the most recent elementary and secondary yearbook from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • According to the same federal data, nearly 15 percent of Florida’s public schools were charters in the 2013-14 school year, and more than 26 percent are either magnets or charters. Only in one other state (Arizona) are those percentages higher.
  • Florida is home to roughly a third of all students in the country using tax credit scholarships to attend private schools, and its McKay scholarships account for about a fifth of all students using vouchers, according to new reports from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
  • At the cutting edge of educational choice, Gardiner Scholarships for special needs students have surpassed Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to become the largest education savings account program in the nation, according to Friedman’s ABCs of School Choice.
  • With its pioneering statewide virtual school and new course access program, Florida consistently gets high marks from digital learning advocates.

Continue Reading →

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