Archive | School Choice

Loving the Earth, lauding school choice

The students at Mangrove School routinely visit nature parks and beaches. More than half the students beyond preschool use school choice scholarships.

This is the latest in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

SARASOTA, Fla. — At a nature park bedecked by oaks and palms, a teacher at Mangrove School mimics a wolf call through cupped hands, signaling to scattered students that it’s time to breeze over. “Let’s greet the day,” the teacher says. They all join hands, then take turns facing east, south, west, and north as their teacher offers thanks. To the rising sun. The palms and coonti. The manatees and crabs. Even to the soil.

So class begins at another choice school that defies stereotypes – and conjures possibilities.

On the one hand, Mangrove School is just another one of 2,000 private schools that accept Florida school choice scholarships. On the other, its mission to “honor childhood,” “promote world peace” and “instill reverence for humanity, animal life, and the Earth” is impossible to square with a pernicious myth – on the policy landscape, the equivalent of an invasive species – that school choice is being rammed into place by forces that progressives find nefarious.

“I hear that, and I look around here, and I think it’s very strange,” said Mangrove School director Erin Melia, a former chemist with a master’s degree in education. “I would think it (the perception) would be the opposite. The people most in need of choice are the people left behind.”

Mangrove School started as a play group 18 years ago. Now it has 43 students from Kindergarten to sixth grade, including eight home-schoolers who attend part-time. Nineteen of 35 full-timers use some type of school choice scholarship, most of them the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.*

“We’re just trying to be available to as many families as possible,” Melia said.

That’s a standard view among private schools participating in Florida choice programs, including plenty of “alternative” schools. (Like this one, this one, this one and this one). Those private schools serve more than 100,000 tax credit scholarship students alone. Their average family incomes barely edge the poverty line, and three in four are children of color. Yet the narrative about conservative cabals feels as entrenched as ever.

Blame Trump and the media.

Last March, six weeks after he was inaugurated, the most polarizing man on the planet visited an Orlando Catholic school and held up Florida school choice scholarships as a national model. Just like that, they became a bullseye. In subsequent months, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Scripps, ProPublica, Education Week and Huffington Post all took aim. Every one of them prominently mentioned the connection to Trump and/or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Ditto for the Orlando Sentinel, which punctuated the year with a hyperbolic series that attempted to portray the accountability regimen for private schools as broken.

Not a single one of those stories offered a nod to the fuller, richer history behind school choice. Or to its deep roots on the left. Or to the diverse coalition that continues to support it. So, again, a reminder: Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: State budget signed, safety in schools and more

Scott signs budget bill: Gov. Rick Scott signs the $88.7 billion state budget, dismissing pleas from Florida’s school superintendents for a special legislative session to increase funding for schools. The budget includes new money for K-12 schools, mostly for school security and mental health counseling for students, and a boost in the amount Bright Futures scholars receive. Associated Press. News Service of FloridaMiami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. GateHouseCapitolist. Gradebook. Politico Florida. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, says legislative leaders are considering allowing school districts that don’t want to arm school personnel to use any money left over from the marshals program to hire resource officers. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. The new funding formula takes $56 million in state money that in the past would have gone to larger school districts and is redirecting it to smaller ones. Miami-Dade, for example, will receive $7 million less. Tampa Bay Times. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, criticizes the state’s school superintendents for complaining about the state’s K-12 spending, saying those who are “grossly mismanaging their budgets” should resign. Bradenton Herald. Scott vetoed a $1 million item for Okaloosa County schools to buy buses that would help ease traffic congestion near Hurlburt Field, headquarters for the Air Force Special Operations Command. Here’s a full list of the $64 million in projects that Scott vetoed. Northwest Florida Daily News.

School shooting developments: Mental health records show that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School officials were worried about Nikolas Cruz’s fascination with guns, and banned him from practicing his shooting with the Junior RTOC or carrying a backpack on campus 18 months before the massacre that killed 17 at the school. Sun-Sentinel. Associated Press. The Coconut Creek police officer who arrested Cruz describes his search and his shock when he found the accused school shooter. Sun-Sentinel. More than $4 million has been raised for the victims of the Parkland shooting and their families, and the Broward Education Foundation has appointed a steering committee to determine how to distribute the money and who will receive it. Sun-Sentinel. Deputies at Stoneman Douglas High are carrying AR-15 rifles at the school, but concealing them in backpacks so as not to alarm students. Sun-Sentinel. A Lighthouse Point man becomes the first person in Florida to have his firearms and ammunition seized under the state’s new law addressing gun restrictions and school safety. Sun-Sentinel. The fiancee of a teacher killed in the shootings still struggles to comprehend what happened. Palm Beach Post. A sculptor is planning a 15-foot memorial to the shooting victims at the Parkland school. Sun-Sentinel. Five Stoneman Douglas High shooting survivors appear on 60 Minutes and give Florida lawmakers a C or C-minus grade for their response to the tragedy. Sun-Sentinel. Miami Herald. Three other survivors take their message for increasing gun regulation to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press.

Continue Reading →


A wild balm of a school

Every structure at the boys’ camp site, including this tiki hut, has been built by the campers.

Editor’s note: See a profile of Gator Camp student Ross Perkins here.

Fighting, skipping, smoking pot – Jake Clayton’s freshman year in a public high school was a disaster, with explosive anger issues leading to a school record 44 disciplinary actions. Most days, the skinny kid with the mischievous smile would walk off campus and hang at a friend’s house. He failed nearly every class.

After his expulsion, his older sister discovered an off-beat private school called Gator Wilderness Camp, where troubled boys live on 250 acres with cows and beehives and learn to find paths to success. Could this work for Jake?

Jake’s adoptive mom, Virginia Clayton, was desperate enough to give it a shot. And thanks to a McKay Scholarship, a type of school choice scholarship for Florida students with disabilities, she could afford it.

Today, Jake is 17, months from graduating from his virtual high school, and planning to go to college. “The anger never comes out anymore,” he said. “I’d be in a pretty bad spot if I hadn’t gone to camp.”

Since its founding in 2009, Gator Wilderness Camp has served 139 students – nearly all of them on school choice scholarships – and become another distinctive piece in Florida’s increasingly diverse mosaic of educational options. Most of the roughly 2,000 private schools that participate in the state’s scholarship programs could be described as “mainstream,” but there are plenty of niche schools like Gator Camp. State-supported choice programs allow them to cater to the more specific needs of individual students and parents, and the more specific visions of individual educators.

Greg Kanagy, director of Gator Camp, is one of them. The mild-mannered 50-year-old grew up loving the outdoors in Pennsylvania, and earned degrees in physical education and special ed. He liked the idea of combining the two. “But I didn’t relish the thought of spending 25-30 years inside of four walls,” he said.

Camp director Greg Kanagy

In South Carolina, he worked for a similar school and found a passion for helping at-risk boys. The concept was inspired by a Texan named Campbell Loughmiller, who developed the first camp near Dallas in the 1940s and helped spread the idea around the country. After Kanagy got his master’s in education, the opportunity arose to move his family to the semi-tropical wilds of southwest Florida and start Gator Camp.

There is no sign on State Road 131 in Charlotte County when it’s time to turn off the paved road. That’s intentional. Isolation is key. A couple of miles down a dusty, white-sand road, the “school” sits, surrounded by vast tracts of farmland. The nearest visible neighbor is a sand and shell mine.

“I was a bit afraid of getting my hands dirty,” Jake said, “but I was up for giving it a try.”

The environment helped. It was hot and buggy, but also incredibly peaceful to hear nothing but animals and breezes making their way through the oaks, pines and cypresses.

The camp serves boys in three separate age groups between 10 and 15, with no more than eight campers in each. Most have special needs or disabilities. Many are deeply wounded. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Shooting video, superintendents, CRC and more

Shooting video: Security video taken around the Parkland school building where a massacre was taking place Feb. 14 shows the school resource officer drawing his gun but staying outside the building. After the shooting ended, with 17 people dead, deputy Scot Peterson said he thought the gunshots were coming from outside. But later-released radio transmissions with other officers showed that Peterson had identified the building where the shooting was taking place. Peterson resigned after being suspended. “The video speaks for itself,” the Broward Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. Sun-Sentinel. Associated PressPalm Beach Post.

Superintendent faulted: An Okaloosa County grand jury investigating the school district’s handling of a child abuse case concludes that Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson “is responsible for the safety and well-being of 30,000 students. We find that she has failed to fulfill that obligation. We further find that she has not satisfied her obligations as an elected official.” No criminal charges were recommended against Jackson, but the grand jury encouraged the State Attorney’s Office to continue investigating her. Jackson would not comment on testimony, but expressed concerns “that the testimony presented may have been incomplete.” The grand jury also recommended that Henry Kelley, the district’s director of community affairs, be charged with a non-criminal violation of the Florida Sunshine Law. Northwest Florida Daily News. WEAR.

Superintendents push: The state’s school superintendents keep up the pressure on Gov. Rick Scott to call a special session to boost K-12 school spending. The superintendents say districts will receive just 47 cents per student to pay for such things as rising fuel costs, employee pensions, insurance, and state mandates. “Let’s do more for our students,” said Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a gathering of school leaders from Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties. “Florida can do more than 47 cents for our future.” Scott has said he’s satisfied with the education budget, and legislative leaders say a special session isn’t needed. Gradebook. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida Times-Union. Continue Reading →


A private school off the beaten path was the key to a major turnaround

Kelly Perkins was in a full-blown panic when she woke up at 5:15 a.m. and her son Ross wasn’t there. For three days he wasn’t at school, which was nothing new, but he wasn’t answering his phone. She drove the streets of Cape Coral looking for him day and night.

“I come home on the third day and he was sitting on the porch,” Kelly said. “He was hiding with his friends in a golf country club bathroom.”

Kelly was at the end of her rope. Ross, 15, had gone off the rails, and his therapist suggested an out-of-home placement – Gator Wilderness Camp School, an hour north in rural Punta Gorda. That’s what spurred Ross to run away.

Kelly Perkins and her son Ross are all smiles these days.

Kelly didn’t want to send Ross away, but now Ross needed help.

Problem was, even if Ross agreed to camp, Kelly had to figure out how to pay for it.

Luckily, she learned, there was a school choice scholarship that made tuition manageable.

“Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Probably in much more trouble.”Ross was a good student when he was younger. Kelly spoiled him. He had every game system he ever wanted, always had name-brand clothes and shoes.

His hair was a playground. Kelly, a cosmetology teacher with short blond hair and kind eyes, loved to help Ross change his look – hair spikes in preschool, a mohawk in kindergarten. He got his ear pierced on his 10th birthday.

“I went with the mohawk forever,” Ross said with the same Chicago accent as his mother. “I’d wear it up or down in my eyes. I’d dye it crazy colors and shave the sides and wear skinny jeans. I had really great grades, A’s and B’s. So I could do whatever I wanted.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Death penalty, walkout, school safety, tests and more

Death penalty proposed: Broward County prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty against accused Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz. Cruz, 19, is accused of murdering 17 people at the school on Feb. 14, and wounding 17 others. Cruz’s public defender says he will not contest guilt, but will focus on his troubled past to try to convince jurors to spare his life. Miami Herald. Associated Press. Palm Beach Post. CNN. An attorney for Stoneman Douglas High student Anthony Borges, who was gravely wounded in the shooting, wants both the prosecutors and public defenders off the Cruz case because they endorsed a program in 2016 to “eliminate the school to prison pipeline.” Sun-Sentinel.

National School Walkout: Students at about 3,000 U.S. schools are expected to join the National School Walkout today to protest gun violence. The protest comes one month after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Time. Associated Press. The 74. Education Week. Vox. Students around the state plan to participate in the walkout, and schools are deciding how they will deal with it. Palm Beach PostOrlando Weekly. Tampa Bay Times. Pensacola News Journal. Florida Today. Fort Myers News-Press. WLRN. WFTV. WJAX. WFLA. The Florida ACLU is urging superintendents not to interfere with students or punish them if they participate in the walkout. Gradebook. How young is too young to participate in today’s walkout? New York Times. A Lake County School Board member apologizes for calling a Stoneman Douglas student a “crisis actor.” Daily Commercial.

School safety plans: School superintendents are lobbying members of Congress to revise the STOP School Violence Act so it won’t be extended to private schools. “We support a revision to ensure that any resources made available to non-public school settings be funneled through an ‘equitable services’ provision, already in place through the Every Student Succeeds Act,” according to a letter from the American Association of School Administrators. Politico Florida. U.S. House Democrats will hold a forum next week to review ways to prevent violence in schools. Politico Florida. Teachers can already carry guns in 14 states. USA Today. Parents of students murdered at Parkland urge the Constitution Revision Commission to let Florida voters decide on a three-day waiting period and on raising the age limit to buy guns. In Lakeland, the father of another murdered Parkland student asks the Polk County School Board to approve a plan to arm some school employees. Tampa Bay Times. GateHouse. Lakeland Ledger. Members of the public urge the Bay County School Board not to arm school employees. Panama City News Herald. A majority of the St. Johns County School Board members oppose arming school workers. St. Augustine Record. The Citrus County School Board is asking the sheriff to split the cost of adding five resource officers to schools for the rest of the school year. Citrus County Chronicle. Pinellas County School Board members vote to not arm any school workers other than law enforcement officers. Gradebook. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Shooting video release, walkout, new bills and more

School shooting video: A circuit court judge rules that video taken outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the shootings Feb. 14 that killed 17 people must be made public. Several news organizations had sued the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the school board for refusing to release the video, arguing that it was crucial in analyzing law enforcement’s response. The judge ruled that prosecutors didn’t prove how releasing the video could hamper the ongoing investigation, but delayed the release until Thursday to give the sheriff and school board a chance to appeal. Sun-Sentinel. Associated Press. Miami Herald.

Walkout Wednesday: At least 2,500 U.S. schools expect students to stage a walkout Wednesday to protest the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14 and call for stricter controls on guns. The walkouts are expected to start at 10 a.m. and, in many cases, last 17 minutes to honor each of the 17 murdered victims. Sun-Sentinel. Students around the state plan to participate in the walkout, and schools are deciding how they will deal with it. Fort Myers News-Press. Bradenton Herald. Gainesville Sun. Northwest Florida Daily News. St. Augustine Record. The 74. Six things to know about the National Student Walkout. Education Week. About 500,000 people are expected to congregate in Washington, D.C., March 24 in the March For Our Lives rally calling for school safety and stricter gun laws, and other rallies will be held in cities around the country, including Parkland. Sun-Sentinel.

New education bills: The school safety bill and the K-12 and higher education bills got most of the attention, but other education-related bills also were passed in the Legislature. Here are some of them. Gradebook. Private schools that accept state scholarship students will have some new rules to follow under the new education bill, H.B. 7055. The state will now be permitted to visit all private schools, starting in 2019, and provisions will make it harder for those schools to hide criminal convictions of owners or file phony fire inspection reports. But they’ll still be able to hire teachers without college degrees. Orlando Sentinel. H.B. 7055 also boosts school construction funding for K-12 schools and higher education institutions. News Service of Florida. The Legislature created a scholarship program to help bullied students move to private schools. It’s the first program of its kind in the United States. Will it start a national trend? TrustED. U.S. News & World Report. Here’s a recap of the biggest issues in the Legislature this year, as well as some of the bills that passed and failed. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Budget, safety, other bills, board term limits and more

State budget: The Florida Senate and House overwhelmingly approve an $88.7 billion state budget that increases per-student spending by an average of $101.50 statewide, but is lower in some of the state’s largest districts. “How can anyone justify per-student increases of $65.06 and $52.35 for Miami-Dade and Broward, respectively?” tweeted Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Earlier Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott signed the higher education bill that permanently boosts spending for Bright Futures scholarships, and the K-12 bill that includes a new scholarship program for bullied victims. News Service of FloridaTampa Bay TimesPalm Beach Post. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. Tallahassee Democrat. GateHouse. The Legislature also passed a $170 million tax cut bill that includes a three-day tax holiday on school supplies. News Service of Florida. Associated Press.

School safety bill: Gov. Scott signs the $400 million school safety bill, despite being lobbied by educators who don’t like the idea of arming school personnel and NRA officials who don’t like the new restrictions on gun sales. The NRA quickly files a suit in federal court against the law, calling it a violation of the Second Amendment. News Service of FloridaAssociated PressPolitico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. redefinED. Palm Beach Post. GateHouse. Here’s what the new school safety bill does. Palm Beach Post. Stoneman Douglas students and parents had vowed that “this time would be different.” And it was. But school students say while it’s a start, it isn’t enough. Miami Herald. Some private schools are ahead of public schools on security issues. Palm Beach Post. President Trump backs away from his earlier proposals on gun restrictions and is now calling for the creation of a federal Commission on School Safety, led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to make long-range policy suggestions. Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida. Associated Press. No one really knows how many students bring guns to schools, because schools are lax in reporting those incidents and the information detailing it is inconsistently collected and outdated. Stateline.

Reaction to safety bill: Law enforcement and school officials say there isn’t enough money in the bill to put an armed resource officer in every school. They say $360 million is needed but the bill only provides $162 million, which means arming school personnel may be the only option for full coverage. Tallahassee Democrat. Why the state’s school superintendents opposed the bill. Washington Post. Miami-Dade school officials are working on a plan to put armed officers at every school. Miami Herald. Central Florida educators say they want police officers, not teachers or other school workers, to be armed on campuses. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. Manatee County school officials join other large districts around the state in saying they’re unlikely to arm any school personnel other than resource officers under the new law. Bradenton Herald. The Citrus County School Board will be asked to place school resource officers into more schools. Several elementary schools share a deputy. Citrus County Chronicle.

School board term limits: A proposal before the Constitution Revision Commission to limit school board terms is revised. Sponsor Erika Donalds now wants to limit board members to serving eight consecutive years, starting Nov. 6, 2018. The earlier version, which had been approved by a CRC committee, would have begun with service since 2015. Gradebook. Several education issues are among the proposals CRC members will consider in its final report to the secretary of state May 10. Florida Today. Continue Reading →