Florida schools roundup: Book ban, bathroom fights, expulsions and more

florida-roundup-logoBook banned: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming of age novel by Stephen Chbosky, is being removed from the curriculum at Pasco Middle School. A school-based committee made up of parents, teachers and administrators decided the book was too sexually graphic. A district committee agrees, and recommends it be banned from all district schools. That decision will be made by School Superintendent Kurt Browning. Tampa Bay Times.

Bathroom fight: A vote on a proposed change in the Duval County School District’s bathroom policy is tabled after a city attorney cautioned members about making public comments. John Phillips, general counsel for the city, says any comments could be used against the board in a lawsuit brought by a mother of four district students. That mother says the current policy, which bans discrimination due to gender identity, race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, deprives her children of the “right to bodily privacy.” Florida Times-Union. Gov. Rick Scott tells an Orlando TV station: “If this federal mandate means that a man could walk into the bathroom of a young lady or the locker room of a young lady, that is clearly concerning.” It was Scott’s first public reaction to the Obama administration directive to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity or face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid. WESH.

Expulsions, suspensions: A community group made up law enforcement officials, attorneys, judges, school officials and academics is trying to create a program to cut back the Sarasota County School District’s use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions. The group hopes to land a $4 million grant to create a Juvenile Court Intervention Team at some high schools. Those teams work with students to minimize time spent out of school. The district expelled the second-highest number of students in the state from 2010 to 2014. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Continue Reading →

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School choice, transportation and Florida’s new open-enrollment law

A new article in Education Week puts Florida’s new open-enrollment law in a national context, noting nearly half of U.S. states allow students to attend public schools across district lines.

Compared to most other states, the article notes, Florida’s school districts tend to be geographically larger. Transportation, both within and between districts, could pose a challenge for families who don’t have the time or resources to drive their children to school each day.

“If there’s no public transportation, then only the most-advantaged students are going to move,” said Lesley Lavery, an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in Minnesota, who has researched open-enrollment policies.

Those factors especially could hinder parents in Florida, which has large districts that span the size of each county. Five of Florida’s districts are among the top 25 biggest nationwide. The Miami-Dade County school system alone stretches over about 2,000 square miles, and has 392 schools.

The new law does not require schools to provide transportation outside their districts, but schools can do so if they wish.

“Transportation is an enormous issue even under very normal circumstances,” said Ruth Melton, the director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

Continue Reading →

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Does school choice harm public schools? Claims fall apart under scrutiny

One of the most emotionally potent arguments against educational choice – that it cripples public schools financially – is slowly unraveling in a Florida court of law. Teacher union attorneys, who seek to abolish tax credit scholarships for 78,000 low-income children, are stumbling to make the case.

This is no small matter. The claim that scholarships and vouchers and charter schools financially undercut public education has been repeated so often for so long that it tends to get treated as though it were fact. The money is commonly described as being “diverted” or “siphoned” from public schools, pitting choice schools against neighborhood schools and creating understandable anguish for parents who want only for their children to have the best education possible.

The Florida case, McCall v. Scott, is shining an unforgiving light on that assertion. The backdrop is the issue of standing – the typically arcane calculation of whether someone is connected to and harmed by a legal matter the court can resolve. Because the union is challenging a scholarship that involves no direct appropriation of tax dollars, the attorneys are being asked to prove their clients suffer “special injury.”

They are quite conspicuously failing.

In the original complaint, filed Aug. 28, 2014, the Florida Education Association (FEA) attorneys said their clients “have been and will continue to be injured by the scholarship program’s diversion of resources from the public schools.” They bolstered the case with two arguments: 1) The tax-credited contributions that are made to private nonprofits to pay for scholarships reduce state taxes that would otherwise fund public schools; and 2) School districts lose funding for each student who leaves a public school to attend a scholarship school.

During the arguments in trial court, Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds was openly skeptical. “You could do away with this program tomorrow morning,” he said at one point, “and the budget for the school system might change not one iota.” He then dismissed the case on May 18, 2015, ruling: “Whether any diminution of public school resources resulting from the Tax Credit Program will actually take place is speculative, as is any claim that any such diminution would result in reduced per-pupil spending or in any adverse impact on the quality of education.” Continue Reading →

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This week in school choice: Upheld

This week, a judge ruled Nevada’s education savings accounts, one of the newest and most far-reaching educational choice programs in the country, are constitutional.

A Las Vegas judge on Wednesday ruled Nevada’s controversial new school choice bill does not violate a constitutional ban against the use of taxpayer money for religious purposes.

In an order dismissing a lawsuit challenging the legislation, District Judge Eric Johnson upheld the constitutionality of Senate Bill 302 as a program “neutral with respect to religion” because parents — not state actors — decide whether they will use an education savings account, or ESA, to pay for tuition at private and religiously affiliated schools.

Johnson also ruled a provision in the Nevada Constitution that charges state lawmakers with encouraging education “by all suitable means” permits the ESA program in addition to the public school system.

Yes, constitutional provisions forbidding public funds from being used to religious purposes can create a legal barrier to educational choice, but this latest victory proves they aren’t always a fatal one. Nor is a certain legal precedent set in Florida.

The legal battles in the Silver State aren’t over, though, and for now the program remains in limbo.

Meanwhile…

An interesting alliance between conservative federalists and teachers unions pushes back against federal funding equity regulations. What does this have to do with the new definition of public education? It’s about structuring education funding around students and their needs, rather than the system and its needs: Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Enrollment growth, expulsions, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoEnrollment growth: Florida’s school population is expected to grow from 2.77 million this year to 2.9 million in the next five years, a rate that is straining the resources of many school districts. St. Johns County is growing the fastest, with a 20 percent increase expected by 2020-2021. Other districts, such as Hillsborough and Pasco, anticipate an 8 percent increase in the number of students in that time. Tampa Bay Times.

School expulsions: The Sarasota County School District expelled the second-highest number of students in Florida between 2010 and 2014. More than 350 were kicked out of school – more than Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Pinellas, Lee, Volusia, Charlotte, Manatee, Collier, Hernando, Indian River, Santa Rosa and St. Johns counties combined. And generally, punishment disproportionately fell on students of color. Polk County was the only school district to expel more, with 446 over five years. Sarasota-Herald-Tribune. The Miami-Dade County School District has drastically cut out-of-school suspensions with an alternative program called the Youth Engagement Program. It’s an intensive counseling program for misbehaving students, with an emphasis on participation in civic activities. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Polk County School District has cut down on the number of expulsions, from a state-high of 155 students in 2012-13 to 89 last year and only 30 so far this year. But out-of-school suspensions have gone up. Lakeland Ledger.

Smooth testing: The state’s standardized testing, which ended Friday, went smoothly this year, according to the Florida Department of Education. More than 3 million computer-based exams and  650,000 written exams were taken. Orlando SentinelGradebook. As far as state officials can determine, the percentage of third-graders who opted out of state testing declined slightly, from 0.11 percent in 2015 to 0.10 percent this year. Palm Beach Post. Continue Reading →

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The Sisters of St. Joseph

St. Benedict The Moor School, St. Augustine, Fla.

St. Benedict The Moor School, St. Augustine, Fla. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A century ago, three Catholic sisters in St. Augustine, Fla. were arrested for something the state Legislature had recently made a crime: Teaching black children at what, in the parlance of the time, was known as a “negro school.”

The ensuing trial propelled a 266-year-old French Catholic order and America’s youngest Catholic Bishop into the middle one of the wildest and most racially charged gubernatorial campaigns in Florida history. A hundred years ago today, the white sisters won their legal battle, vindicating the rights of private institutions like the Saint  Benedict the Moor School that fought to create educational opportunities for black children in the era of Jim Crow segregation.

Black parents’ demand for quality education didn’t begin with Brown v. Board, but hundreds of years before, in chains and in secret. But near the turn of the twentieth century, as Jim Crow laws reversed the progress made under post-Civil War reconstruction, public institutions intended to uplift freed blacks became increasingly inadequate and unequal. Black parents often turned to their own churches or to missionary aid societies, like the Sisters of St. Joseph, to educate their children.

The story of the three white Catholic sisters has been examined over the years by multiple scholars, whose work informs this post. And while details in the historical record are at times murky and ambiguous, the episode sheds light on the countless struggles across the South to educate black children who were pushed to the margins by oppressive public institutions.

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Founded in 1650 in Le Puy-en-Velay, a rural mountain town in southern France, the Sisters of St. Joseph took up a mission to serve, educate and care for the poor and disadvantaged. For the next 200 years, the sisters pursued their mission throughout France until they were invited to Florida by Bishop Augustin Verot after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

Verot, a native of Le Puy, recruited eight sisters for a new mission: To educate newly freed slaves and their children.

The sisters established Florida’s first Catholic school for black students in 1867 along St. George Street in St. Augustine. They would go on to establish schools in Key West and in Ybor City. With the financial backing of a wealthy heiress, Saint Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened St. Benedict the Moor School in 1898.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, along with other religious groups like the Protestant American Missionary Association, educated black students in private and public schools in Florida for several decades. But then the legislature lashed out against their efforts. “An Act Prohibiting White Persons from Teaching Negroes in Negro Schools” unanimously passed through both chambers without debate, and was signed into law on June 7, 1913. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Reading scores, bathrooms, using force and more

florida-roundup-logoReading scores up: Reading scores on the Florida Standards Assessments were up slightly for Florida’s third-graders, according to the Florida Department of Education. Fifty-four percent of third graders tested at a satisfactory level, up from 53 percent last year. Satisfactory is considered a level 3 score on the five-level exam. Those who score below level 1 face retention. Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Palm Beach Post. Pensacola News Journal. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Politico Florida. Sun-Sentinel. Florida Times-Union. Tallahassee Democrat. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Bathroom fight: The Florida ACLU sends a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart urging them to protect the rights of transgender students to use the bathrooms conforming to their gender identity. Florida Politics. Politico Florida. Scott and Bondi still have had little to say about the Obama administration directive. Orlando Weekly. The Marion County School District could lose $53 million in federal funding over the school board’s decision to restrict transgender students’ bathroom choices. Ocala Star Banner. The St. Johns County School District will continue to provide gender-neutral restroom facilities, says Superintendent Joseph Joyner. WJAX.

Teachers and force: The Pasco teachers union is reminding district administrators that state law allows teachers to use reasonable force when necessary to break up fights between students. After a recent fight at Ridgewood High School, a district spokesperson told a TV station that teachers shouldn’t intervene in student fights. Gradebook.

Test retake: One hundred and fourteen Lake Nona High School students have to retake the Advanced Placement psychology exam today because of a “seating irregularity” when they took the test a few weeks ago. The rules call for the desks in the testing room to be 5 feet apart, and they were just 4 feet apart. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

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State board to hear three South Florida charter school appeals

The Florida Board of Education tomorrow will decide appeals from three prospective South Florida charter schools.

In different ways, the cases spotlight a key tension in the Sunshine State, between removing roadblocks to new charter schools, which must be approved by their local school boards, and stopping schools that are unqualified, unlikely to serve students well, or at risk of shutting down soon after they open.

In Broward County, the school district has come under scrutiny for a large number of sudden, unexpected charter school closures, prompting a suggestion that it should screen charter applicants more closely.

In the case set to come before the state board tomorrow, it denied the Phoenix Academy of Excellence’s application after finding what a school board attorney described as “a number of areas of weaknesses or concern.” When the case reached the state Charter School Appeals Commission, the district prevailed. Continue Reading →

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