A win for Florida charter school appeals, but the saga continues

Yesterday, a Florida appeals court handed a charter school group a partial victory.

Some legal complications remain for the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, but it prevailed on the key constitutional question — whether the state has the authority to overturn local school board decisions on charter school applications.

The 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision upholding charter school appeals is a big deal. National business and education reform organizations had gotten involved in the case. A statement issued this morning by the National Alliance for Public Charter schools explains what was at stake.

There are many reasons a charter school can be denied their application at the local level – reasons ranging from legitimate concerns to political interests that benefit adults, not students. We are pleased that Florida has upheld the constitutionality of the pathway which allows charter schools that have been denied their application to appeal to the State Board of Education. It is imperative that Florida’s students, and all students, have access to high-quality public school options – and that political interests don’t prevent these options. The State Board of Education will provide an expert and supervisory eye to such appeals processes, and ensure decisions are truly being made with the best interests of students in mind.

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An ultimatum for a struggling school district with few options

A school district in rural North Florida is in dire straits, prompting state education officials to grapple with unprecedented questions. What happens when a school district can no longer operate its own schools?

That possibility came into view Tuesday, when the state Board of Education, for the third time, rejected a plan by the Jefferson County school district to turn around a persistently struggling school.

Jefferson County Elementary School is currently rated a D under the state grading system, and hasn’t earned a C since 2009. Citing that grim track record, lingering staff vacancies and an ongoing financial emergency, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said, “I am truly of the opinion that the district lacks the ability” to turn around the situation on its own.

Hershel Lyons

Florida K-12 Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons explains Jefferson County’s struggles to the state Board of Education.

She asked the district to choose a new plan from among three options: Recruit a charter school operator to take over the elementary school, bring in an outside company to operate it, or close the school and send students elsewhere.

“I think when we do one of those three things, our students in Jefferson County will be the beneficiaries, and that is the ultimate goal, and what we are charged with doing,” Stewart said.

The district only has one elementary school, so any of those options would take it out of the business of running elementary schools altogether.

The future of Jefferson’s combined middle-high school is also in question. The state board previously approved its turnaround plan, but Stewart said she had doubts the district was following through, and that it hadn’t hired a principal with bona fide turnaround experience. As a result, she said, the board might consider similar options for Jefferson’s secondary students at a future meeting.

Jefferson County is an outlier in many ways. It has the lowest student achievement in the state. Hershel Lyons, the state’s chancellor for K-12 schools, said more than half of its high school students had been forced to repeat more than two grades. Jefferson has one of the state’s highest poverty rates. Its student population has shrunk by an unparalleled 30 percent in five years. It is now Florida’s smallest school district. It has the highest rate of private school enrollment in the state, and other parents have moved their kids to neighboring districts.

Despite having the state’s second-highest rate of per-pupil spending, it’s pulling itself back from the brink of financial crisis. Its finances are under the supervision of a volunteer emergency board. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Choice lawsuit dismissed, charter law upheld and more

florida-roundup-logoChoice lawsuit dismissed: The Florida Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by several groups that were challenging the constitutionality of the state’s tax credit scholarship program. The vote was 4-1. The decision upholds an appeals court ruling that the plaintiffs, including the Florida Education Association and the Florida NAACP, did not have standing to file the suit. About 98,000 low-income children are attending private schools with the help of the scholarships, which are funded by a law that permits corporations to donate money to the program and get a tax credit. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the scholarships. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. Tallahassee DemocratGradebook. Associated Press. News Service of FloridaPolitico FloridaredefinED. Florida Politics. Sunshine State News. Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, wonders who can challenge the Legislature on the tax credit scholarship program. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, doesn’t answer that question,” she said in a statement. “We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.” Florida Politics.

Charter law upheld: An appeals court upholds a Florida law that allows the Board of Education to overturn a local district’s denial of a charter school application. The Palm Beach County School claimed in its suit that the law was unconstitutional because it infringed on local boards’ power to approve or deny charter schools. The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the Florida Constitution creates a hierarchy that gives boards local control, but gives the state board supervisory authority. The court also ordered the state’s appeal commission to re-examine the case and send its justification for denial to the state Board of Education for another review. News Service of Florida. Palm Beach Post.

The Trump effect: The Brevard County School District is trying to prepare for the effect President-elect Donald Trump may have on local schools, but say it’s hard to know exactly what it will be. “I’m just very unsure, very, very unsure what the presidential election means to the educational lives of next year’s kindergartners,” says Superintendent Desmond Blackburn. Some of Trump’s stated goals are similar to what the district already does or is moving toward, but few details of how Trump’s plan will be enacted have been released. Florida Today. Teachers unions in Florida and around the country are demonstrating in protests today against the Trump education agenda and the nominated education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Politico Florida.

Metric measurements: Florida high schools will become the first in the United States to use metric measurements for throwing and jumping events in track meets. Metrics have been used for all state high school running events since 1990. The change begins next month, and will be mandatory in 2018, according to the Florida High School Athletic Association. New York Times. Continue Reading →

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Where talking points fall short on federal school choice policies

Have you heard? School choice is a bit of a hot topic in Washington lately.

But whether — much less how — the federal government should help expand parental choice can be a thorny question.

Indiana Rep. Luke Messer is one of the biggest school choice advocates in Congress. He’s also a federalist who wants to keep education policy decisions at the state level. But he’s said repeatedly that there are still things federal lawmakers can do to expand educational options.

During an event hosted by the Hoover Institution, he said a school choice “cavalry” has arrived in the nation’s capital, led by Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.

“Frankly, this is a sea change in this movement,” he said, echoing comments made Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the panel vetting DeVos. “Her ideas are in the mainstream.”

When the federal government and private school choice intersect, pundits often get confused. Two commonly distorted issues, federal mandates and  school accountability, were batted around at the Hoover event.

Avoiding state mandates

Andy Smarick, a Maryland state Board of Education member and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said all the talk of federal school choice policy brings flashbacks of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, teacher evaluations — areas where states enacted reforms, then the federal government got involved, and wound up jeopardizing the policies by raising the political stakes. Continue Reading →

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Court upholds Florida charter school appeal law

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

In a dispute stemming from a proposal to add a charter school in Palm Beach County, an appeals court Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of a law that allows the State Board of Education to overturn local denials of charter-school applications.

The 4th District Court of Appeal turned down arguments by the Palm Beach County School Board that the law infringes on the power of local school boards to decide on the creation of charter schools, which are public schools typically run by private entities.

“The Florida Constitution … creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole,” said the eight-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Alan Forst and joined by judges Carole Taylor and Mark Klingensmith. “This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board’s local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated — and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision — by the Florida Constitution.” Continue Reading →

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Florida school choice lawsuit dismissed

Power of Choice signThe legal battle over the nation’s largest private school choice program is over.

The lawsuit challenging Florida’s tax credit scholarship program ended this morning, when a five-judge panel on the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

The 4-1 decision leaves in place an August ruling by the First District Court of Appeal, which found the statewide teachers union and other groups behind the suit did not have standing to bring the case.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program, which helps nearly 98,000 low-income and working-class children pay private-school tuition.

“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president, said in a statement. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

After McCall v. Scott was first filed in 2014, supporters of the program — including parents and clergy members — waged a full-court press supporting the program. Almost exactly a year ago, they staged a massive rally in Tallahassee.

“On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law,” Rev. R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low income children in our state.” Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Suspensions, district choice, DeVos, testing and more

florida-roundup-logoSchool suspensions: Florida Education Secretary Pam Stewart is talking with school superintendents about ways to cut down on out-of-school suspensions and on the disparity of suspensions by race. Almost 165,000 students received out-of-school suspensions in the 2014-2015 school year, and about 43 percent of them were black. Black students make up about 23 percent of the state’s student population. “That’s one of the areas that I think will make a huge impact and make a difference and actually improve education in Florida,” Stewart said. Politico Florida.

District’s last choice: The Florida Department of Education rejects a turnaround plan for Jefferson County schools for a third time. The district now has until Feb. 16 to choose from three offered options: It can close the schools, hire an external operator or let a charter company run the district. Jefferson County has just two schools and 700 students. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU.

DeVos hearing: In her confirmation hearing to become U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos says she will be “a strong advocate for great public schools,” but “if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.” Associated Press.

Clay suspends testing: New Clay County School Superintendent Addison Davis suspends all district-level assessment testing, effective immediately. He says he wants to give teachers more time with students in the classroom. “This is nothing that is going to hinder their learning,” Davis told WJAX. “It’s just going to provide more time for our teachers to problem-solve, to have small group instruction and to work with our students one-on-one.” Gradebook. Continue Reading →

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Appeal brings more wrangling over high-performing Florida charter schools

A Florida school district today lost one round in a multi-faceted legal showdown with a major charter school operator, but it’s safe to say the fight is just beginning.

The Florida Board of Education ruled the Polk Charter Academy should be allowed to open a new school.

The Polk County School Board had rejected the charter application last fall, arguing, among other things, that it would not “substantially replicate” Winthrop Charter Academy, a high-performing charter school in neighboring Hillsborough County.

A 2011 law allows charter schools to gain “high-performing” status if they maintain clean financial records and earn top marks in the state’s A-F grading system. A 2013 law makes it easier for those schools to expand. If a school board rejects one of their applications to “replicate” in a new location, they can bypass the state charter school appeals commission and take their case directly to the state board. That’s what happened with Polk Charter Academy.

The Polk school district contends the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit governing board that applied to open Polk Charter Academy, could not possibly replicate Winthrop Charter Academy because that school is overseen by a separate entity known as the Bay Area Charter Foundation.

If the Polk charter does not replicate a high-performing charter, it would have to go before the state appeals commission, and would face a longer legal slog to overturn the school board’s rejection.

When the state board heard the appeal today, Wes Bridges, an attorney for the Polk school district, said “we wouldn’t be here” if the Bay Area charter group had been the one to submit the charter application. Continue Reading →

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