Archive | Private Schools

Florida’s private schools are growing at a faster rate

Florida’s private schools saw their biggest enrollment growth in 15 years.

Enrollment grew by 22,525 PreK-12 students in the 2016-17 school year. That’s a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year and the second-highest enrollment growth since 2000. According to the new report from the Florida Department of Education, private school students now make up 11.6 percent of all preK-12 students in Florida.

Enrollment ranged from 0 students in rural Liberty County to 76,022 in Miami-Dade. Continue Reading →


Moms on a mission found school in Ocala

Students at Ocala Preparatory Academy read Farenheit 451 while outside.

Even with a Gardiner Scholarship in hand, Karen Vega grew increasingly worried as she was unable to find a school for her three young boys who have high functioning autism in Ocala, Fla., a small city in North Central Florida.

Although she looked, no school provided a good fit. One even refused to enroll students with the state scholarship for students with special needs. (Step Up For Students, the publisher of this blog, helps administer that scholarship.)

“We were trying to find a school that did not exist,” said Vega.

But when she couldn’t find the right school, Vega teamed up with another mom, AnnMarie Sossong, to create one.

Vega serves as the executive director of the Outreach Autism Services Network, a nonprofit providing support services to parents and students with autism. She had long dreamed of starting a school. Sossong, a 27-year education veteran and mom of an autistic child herself, shared the same dream.

The two moms’ vision for a school aligned, and in August 2016, they founded Ocala Preparatory Academy.

“Serving studentsContinue Reading →


DeVos pushes ‘most ambitious’ school choice expansion ‘in our nation’s history’

INDIANAPOLIS – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told a friendly crowd that President Trump will release a spending plan today to support “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history.”

But a lot of questions remain about how the federal government might achieve that expansion.

Speaking Monday at the American Federation for Children’s annual policy summit, DeVos offered few details about what a national plan would look like. But she outlined a series of principles.

School choice options would have to be accountable to parents, not officials in Washington. The new administration would avoid “creating a new federal bureaucracy or … bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money” — a subtle jab at Obama-era initiatives like Race to the Top.

States would decide whether to participate in the new federal push. DeVos said declining to create new options for their residents would be a “terrible mistake,” but one for which state-level politicians would have to defend.

“The future is bleak for millions of students if we only continue to tinker around the edges of education reform,” she said. “The time has expired for ‘reform.’ We need a transformation — a transformation that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.” Continue Reading →

Fla. budget deal would fund security at Jewish day schools

House and Senate leaders released their $83 billion budget Friday.

The spending plan, which lawmakers are expected to debate during the final day of an extended legislative session, would allocate $654,491 to fund security at Jewish day schools in Florida after a rash of anti-Semitic threats throughout the country.

There have been bomb threats at 167 Jewish community centers in 38 states since the beginning of the year.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay filed HB 3653, which initially would have set aside $1.5 million to enhance security at Jewish day schools. Over the weeks of session, that amount was lowered.

The Florida House of Representatives lowered the funding for security to $254,491.

By contrast, the Senate budget allocated $500,000 for Jewish day schools, at the behest of Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

Addressing the Florida House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee in March, Fine said Jewish students are afraid to come to school, with some even dropping out because of the security threats.

There are 55 Jewish day schools in the state of Florida, which serve nearly 10,000 students, according to Fine.

Several parents previously expressed concern to the Hebrew Academy of Tampa Bay about enrolling their children in the school,  worrying they would be targeted because they are Jewish.


Bill expanding Fla. private school sports options sent to Governor

Sen. Audrey Gibson

The Florida Senate unanimously passed SB 1302/ HB 1109 Thursday, allowing students at private schools to participate in sports at a public school of their choice based on their school district’s open enrollment policy.

The bill, which would expand extracurricular options for private school students, now goes to Gov. Rick Scott.

Existing laws allow students attending private middle or high schools that are not members of the Florida High School Athletics Association, and that have fewer than 125 students, to participate in interscholastic sports at their zoned public schools.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill would particularly help students with special needs have more opportunities to play sports because they would be able to try out at a school that may have a slot open.

“It has come to my attention that sometimes at certain schools that are within a district or within the neighborhood that a child can attend and they have a really strong team, it has become a little difficult for making the team during tryouts,” Gibson said on the Senate floor.

Gibson asked that the Senate substitute Rep. Bruce Antone’s bill, HB 1109, for her bill, as the two are nearly identical.

Antone previously added an amendment that specifies a private school student can participate in sports at a school if the capacity for that school has not be reached as determined by the district school board.

Florida already has a “Tim Tebow” law that allows homeschool students — as well as students enrolled in charters or other schools of choice — to sign up for teams at their zoned public school, or other public schools they would otherwise attend. The goal of the law is to give students in educational choice programs access to extracurriculars that might not otherwise be available.

This year’s legislation is the latest in a series of efforts to adapt high school athletics and extracurricular activities to the growth of school choice programs.

One man’s quest for market-driven education

In a PBS documentary, Andrew Coulson asks why education is so different from other industries — like shipbuilding.

In a new PBS mini-series, a leading libertarian embarks on a worldwide quest in search of functioning markets in education.

Spoiler alert: He doesn’t find many.

But the late Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson does find cause for optimism in his swan song, School Inc., as he scans the globe for places where the best schools are free to grow and serve more students.

He examines America’s elite private prep schools, which “have the quality, demand, technology and time to grow into national networks. They just don’t.” Why? They’re more interested in maintaining traditions than scaling up.

He looks at top charter school networks, which are built with scale in mind. But he finds philanthropists don’t consistently back the best. “There’s a lot of scaling up in the charter sector,” he says. “But it’s indiscriminate.”

He heads to South Korea, where extracurricular hagwons turn the best teachers into big-time entrepreneurs, but notes with concern that this marketplace is fueled, in part, by the country’s high-pressure, test-driven college entrance system. He marvels at India’s flourishing low-cost private schools, but laments the rise of government regulations that have forced many of them out of business. He notes Chile’s voucher system and rising achievement scores, but worries school choice has become a target of a Marxist backlash against the legacy of right-wing strongman Augusto Pinochet. Continue Reading →

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 →

Libertarian businessman hopes to open new private schools in Central Fla.

Private school entrepreneur Bob Luddy

Bob Luddy is a longtime businessman who’s become an education entrepreneur.

A libertarian businessman known for his group of private nonprofit Pre-K-12 schools in North Carolina is considering opening two similar schools in Central Florida.

Bob Luddy is the owner of CaptiveAire, one of the nation’s leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems.

Luddy told Reason magazine he became interested in education when he learned at many of his hires at CaptiveAire did not have the basic science and math skills to succeed on the job.

He is also the founder of Thales Academy, a network of low-cost private schools.

The network has six schools but Luddy said he wants it to grow. He said he is in the early stages of discussions about a potential private school in Groveland.

“It is a growing area,” he said in an interview. “We have a manufacturing plant in Groveland in Lake County and found that to be a nice area down there.”

School district officials across Central Florida are grappling with a growing student population. Nearly half of Lake County’s schools are at capacity. Future projections do not look much better. Officials estimate 17 out of 42 schools will be over capacity by 2022. Neighboring districts are growing, too.

Luddy said he is also looking at opening a school in Orlando. Discussions on the schools are preliminary, but he said he hopes to open one of them in 2018 or 2019.

Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias said he has worked with Luddy in business relations for the past 30 years. 

“I know of his personal integrity and commitment to education,” he said.

Expanding educational opportunities

The idea for a network of nonprofit schools, known as Thales Academy, originated in 2006 when a group of parents approached Luddy asking for better educational options for their children. Continue Reading →