Archive | School Choice

Orlando Sentinel unfairly targets school serving low-income, Hispanic students

Note: See a detailed response to the Orlando Sentinel from Step Up For Students here and a quick summary here. Step Up helps administer Florida’s Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship programs, and publishes this blog.

One of the schools singled out by the Orlando Sentinel’s investigation of private school scholarship programs was founded by a couple who grew frustrated when their son, burdened with severe medical issues since birth, continued to struggle in public school.

Five years later, its standardized test scores show students tested in each of the last two years are, on average, making double-digit academic gains.

The Sentinel didn’t mention this in its description of TDR Learning Academy, a K-12 school in Orlando that enrolls about 90 students who use tax credit scholarships for low-income students, McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Instead, in both its story and accompanying video, it portrayed the predominantly Hispanic school as a poster child for a regulatory accountability system it suggests is far too lax.

“These schools operate without state rules when it comes to teacher credentials, academics and facilities,” says the narrator in the Sentinel’s video. “TRD Academy in Orlando is one of them.”

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Quick summary: Responding to the Orlando Sentinel’s school choice investigation

For the full response, please see here.

  • The Orlando Sentinel identified some legitimate issues that deserve fixes but also distorted the overall effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and participating schools by omitting crucial information and context. The full body of evidence does not support the newspaper’s characterization of the system as broken – in fact, just the opposite.
  • The scholarship gives low-income parents significant power to determine which school is best for their child. Studies of academic outcomes suggest the vast majority are choosing schools that lead to better results, including far higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
  • The Sentinel highlighted an Orlando school, TDR Academy, as an example of a poor choice made by scholarship parents. This subjective judgment was made from two visits totaling less than two hours and based partly on the school’s modest facilities. In fact, the school is producing strong learning gains for its low-income and special needs students. Read more here.
  • No education sector has a perfect compliance record or found means to exclude every bad actor, and scholarship supporters are committed to continuous improvement. But over the past five years, state regulators have removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denied participation to 18 applicants, and sanctioned scores of others, while school districts have shut down few if any schools for performance-related issues.
  • Financial fraud associated with scholarship programs is rare and amounts to less than .01 percent of total funding. Step Up For Students led a recent effort to strengthen financial reporting for participating schools, and a change in state law this year gives regulators more discretion to sanction schools that CPAs flag as problematic. The Sentinel does not mention that reported financial fraud in Florida public schools exceeds the amount in scholarship programs.
  • The Sentinel believes the scholarship is problematic because participating private schools are not required to employ state-certified teachers. In fact, many private schools do anyway. Further, the Sentinel omits the fact that teacher absenteeism is chronic in high-poverty public schools – and that many districts do not require substitutes to have college degrees.
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Florida schools roundup: Scholarship oversight, tests, charter ban and more

Scholarship oversight: Florida’s school scholarship programs serve about 140,000 students and redirect almost $1 billion a year to private schools, but state regulation of those schools is so weak that many employ teachers who aren’t college graduates, falsify safety records but continue to stay in business, and fail to educate students without suffering the consequences public schools face, according to a newspaper’s investigation. The number of students using tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarships has more than tripled in the past decade. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner scholarship programs. Orlando Sentinel.

Testing the tests: The Florida Department of Education hires a company to evaluate whether the SAT and ACT tests can replace the state’s 10th-grade language arts Florida Standards Assessments and algebra I end-of-course exams. The Legislature required the review as part of the new education law, H.B. 7069. The assessment is expected to be finished in time for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to make a recommendation on the substitution by Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Stewart says the department won’t decide on whether to delay the spring assessments testing window until after the hurricane season is over. Gradebook.

Charters schools: For the first time, the 50 or so charter schools in Palm Beach County were banned from this year’s “Showcase of Schools,” an event to show parents some of the most popular programs offered in county schools. School Superintendent Robert Avossa says the charter movement is “about spurring competition. So if that’s the case, why would you invite the competition to your event?” The incident is the latest in the escalating fight between district officials and charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The Florida Commission on Ethics rules that charter schools are not public agencies, but instead are more similar to business entities. Politico Florida.

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Florida schools roundup: H.B. 7069 lawsuit, amendments, safety and more

H.B. 7069 suit filed: The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new state education law, H.B. 7069, has been filed in a Leon County circuit court. Thirteen school districts are suing over the law, which requires districts to share local property tax money with charter schools but limits the authority local boards have over those schools. School boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Clay, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties voted to join the suit. Palm Beach County also is suing over the law, but in a separate caseOrlando Sentinel. Naples Herald. WBBH. WLRN.

Constitution and education: Dozens of education proposals are among the 700 changes suggested during meetings of the state’s Constitution Revision Commission, which convenes every 20 years to take a look at and potentially amend the constitution. Some of the proposals deal with every angle of an issue. For example, there are proposals to make all school superintendents elected, to make them appointed, or to do away with them altogether. There are amendments about charters, class sizes, funding and mandates, proposed both by commissioners and the public. Proposals must be approved by a majority of the commission by Dec. 14 to get onto the November 2018 ballot. Then, 60 percent of voters must approve the amendments for them to be added to the constitution. Tampa Bay Times.

Jewish school safety: Gov. Rick Scott says he will propose $1 million in the state budget to improve security at Jewish schools. There has been a wave of threats against Jewish schools and community centers in the past year, and the Legislature put $654,000 into a pool earlier this year for those schools for bulletproof glass, fencing and video cameras. “I know many Floridians have been horrified by the threats against our Jewish schools and communities,” says Scott. “We have absolutely zero tolerance for these hateful and anti-Semitic acts.” The proposal has other religious groups wondering why they aren’t being offered funds. Miami HeraldSun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. WQAM. Sunshine State News. Tallahassee Democrat. WPEC.

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Florida schools roundup: Waiting for aid, blaming the abused, displaced and more

Still waiting for aid: Thirteen years after Hurricane Ivan hit Florida, the Escambia County School District is still waiting to hear about claims it filed with FEMA. The district’s not alone. A review of claims shows that dozens are still pending from Ivan, Katrina and other storms that have affected the state and its schools since 1999. The majority are from 2004 and 2005, when eight hurricanes hit the state from multiple directions. Associated Press.

Blaming the abused: A review of abuse cases filed against the Palm Beach County School Board in the past few years has a common denominator: In its defense, the school district has always fully or partly blamed the abuse victims. In one case the victim was 6 years old. In another, 7. In three others, the children were 9. The strategy of assigning the person who brought the suit at least part of the blame has been used by Conroy Simberg, a Hollywood law firm that represents the district to try to reduce the damages the district has to pay, not to assign blame to the victims, says Dale Friedman, an attorney with Conroy Simberg. Several board members say the tactic is outrageous and want to ban it. The board will vote this week on a proposed settlement of more than $3.5 million for four abuse victims. Sun-Sentinel.

Displaced students: Florida school districts are asking both the federal and state governments for aid to accommodate the thousands of students displaced by hurricanes and expected to enroll in state K-12 schools. But they are pessimistic. Orange County Public Schools spokesman Scott Howat says the odds of getting additional state money are zero unless the Legislature intervenes. The state says districts must see an enrollment influx of at least 5 percent to qualify, and individual schools must see a 25 percent growth. Nearly 30,000 people have arrived just from Puerto Rico, according to a spokesperson in Gov. Rick Scott’s office. The 74. Education Week. NPR. Associated Press. Orlando Sentinel.

Free meals extended: Lee, Collier and Monroe counties will continue to offer free meals at schools through Nov. 30. The free meals began after Hurricane Irma swept through the state. The three districts have 191 schools and 138,000 students. Fort Myers News-Press.

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Florida schools roundup: Hope Scholarship, enrollment counts and more

‘Hope Scholarship’: Bullied and abused public school students could be eligible next year for a new school choice program being proposed by Florida House Republicans. Under the program, dubbed the “Hope Scholarship,” those students could apply for a transfer to a different public school or for a state scholarship to attend a private school. Nearly 47,000 incidents of bullying, hazing or abuse are reported each year in Florida schools, and most involve violence. The legislation has not yet been written, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says the scholarship could be set up like the tax credit scholarship program, which provides scholarships for more than 100,000 low-income students to attend private schools. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer that program. Miami Herald. Orlando SentinelredefinED. News Service of FloridaGradebook. Politico Florida. Sunshine State News. WUSF.

Enrollment uncertainty: Legislators say the effects of the hurricane season are causing uncertainty in estimating K-12 enrollment for the next school year. Officials were working off an estimate of an additional 26,764 students for the 2018-2019 school year, but that was before several hurricanes swept through the islands and displaced thousands. “If you have more students (than the estimate), you spread it thinner,” says Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, talking about the school funding formula. “If you have less students, you don’t get the money.” So far, 12 districts and 19 charter schools are asking the state to delay the usual timetable for counting school enrollment, which is typically this week. If the requests are approved, the counts would have to be done no later than the week of Dec. 11-15. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Almost 150 Puerto Rican students displaced by Hurricane Maria already have registered to attend schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Manatee and Polk counties. About 440 have signed up in Orange and Osceola counties. Hundreds, if not thousands more, are expected. WMNF.

Local education agencies: Two charter school companies in Florida are applying to the state to be designated as local education agencies, which would allow them to directly receive federal funding for teacher training, supporting low-income students or helping children with special needs, and gives also them greater control over how they use the money. Somerset Academy, which recently took over the Jefferson County School District, and the United Cerebral Palsy schools, which serve special needs students in central Florida, want to join two other state charter school networks in getting the designation. redefinED.

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Fla. House announces new school choice push for violence victims

Byron Donalds presser

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, announces a new school choice proposal during a press conference at the state Capitol.

Victims of bullying, abuse or violence would get access to a new school choice program announced today by Florida House leaders.

Flanked by Republicans who chair the House’s education committees, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said they plan to provide funding for children who want to transfer to public or private schools after reporting incidents of violence.

The “Hope Scholarship” legislation hasn’t emerged yet. But the lawmakers spelled out some details at today’s press conference.

The scholarships would be funded outside the main public-school budget. K-12 students could qualify 15 days after filing a complaint. While Corcoran didn’t list all the specifics, he said students report nearly 47,000 qualifying incidents of bullying, hazing or abuse each year. The majority involve violence.

Donalds said the goal is to help students escape trauma. He said they shouldn’t have to hide from tormentors while they’re trying to focus on class.

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Florida schools roundup: Displaced students, budgets, charters and more

Displaced students: Almost 300 students from Puerto Rico already have enrolled in Orange County schools, and officials anticipate hundreds – if not thousands – more will follow. The district also has hired some bilingual Puerto Rican teachers and plans to hire more. Orlando Sentinel. The 74. The chairman of the Osceola County School Board thinks as many as 2,000 students from Puerto Rico and other islands displaced by Hurricane Maria will enroll in the county’s schools. The county has already added 130 students affected by hurricanes. WMFE. The Florida PTA joins educators and lawmakers in urging the state to relax the rules in order to make more money available for all school districts that take in displaced students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Gradebook.

District budget problems: An audit of the Duval County School District’s finances shows officials overspent last year’s $1.7 billion budget by about $17.8 million. That’s about $3 million less than originally thought. The auditor stressed there was no misappropriation of funds. The district spent $8.8 million more than budgeted on personnel, $8 million more in contracted services, and the state also cut funding to the district by $1.39 million. The overspending was taken from a reserve fund, which still exceeds the minimum required by the state. Florida Times-Union.

Charter school conversion: Jefferson County school officials are cautiously optimistic that their conversion to a charter school district – the first of its kind in Florida – is going well. Christian Steen, a student testifying before the Florida House Education Committee, says students are more focused and fewer of them are skipping school under the new Somerset Academy charter management organization. Committee chair Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, says he’s “encouraged” by the news from Jefferson County and wants to organize a field trip for a closer look. “This is a long-term effort,” he says. redefinED.

Charter application rejected: A charter school company’s application to build a 745-student school in Marion County is rejected by the Marion County School Board. Superintendent Heidi Maier told the board that while she favors “giving parents school choice,” the school proposed by the for-profit Charters Schools USA offers nothing new or innovative. The company can appeal the decision to the Florida Department of Education. Ocala Star-Banner.

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