Archive | Tax credit scholarships

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 →


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 →


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: 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 →


Florida schools roundup: Education and school safety bills, Parkland and more

Education bills: Both legislative chambers approve a sweeping K-12 education bill. If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the bill would create the Hope Scholarship for students who are bullied or the victims of violence, give money to 3rd-graders to pay for tutors to help them pass the state reading test, require every school to prominently display the state motto “In God We Trust,” decertify teachers unions when membership falls below 50 percent of eligible employees, place restrictions on local school districts’ ability to close charter schools, and use sales taxes from commercial properties to expand the Gardiner and tax credit scholarship programs, among other things. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the Gardiner and tax credit scholarship programs. Associated PressNews Service of Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando SentinelredefinED. Gainesville Sun. Politico Florida. GateHouse. Here’s a breakdown of what’s in the nearly 200-page education bill. redefinED. Both chambers also pass the higher education bill, which permanently boosts the amounts students can receive if they qualify for Bright Futures scholarships, among other provisions. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. GateHouse. Other school choice issues are up for votes this week. redefinED.

School safety bill: The Florida Senate narrowly passes the school safety bill, but only after senators strip the provision to arm teachers. Instead, districts that choose to participate in the $67 million marshals program can have other personnel – such as custodians or principals – trained and armed. Another $97 million would be set aside for more school resource officers. Overall, the bill provides $400 million for school safety, including $69 million for mental health assistance.into mental health and school safety programs, $18.3 million for mobile crisis teams working with the Department of Children and Families and the schools and $500,000 for mental health first aid training. The bill also bans the sale of bump stocks, raises the legal age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21, and imposes a three-day waiting period on the purchase of all rifles and shotguns. Miami HeraldPalm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. GateHouse. Tallahassee Democrat. Associated Press. WLRN. House leaders express disappointment over the Senate’s decision to not arm teachers. Politico Florida. Sheriffs say the amount set aside for arming school personnel is too much, and the amount for more school officers is too little. Tampa Bay Times. The Broward County School Board is expected to approve an agreement today to add school resource officers at four more schools. Sun-Sentinel. Monday is the first day for every Manatee school to have a resource officer. Bradenton Herald. Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt says everything the Legislature is talking about is for next year. “I’m worried about today,” he says. “I have called the governor’s office several times and suggested they put the National Guard out in front of schools that don’t have armed security, since they’re already being paid.” Panama City News Herald. Continue Reading →


What all is in that massive Florida education bill?

Today, the Florida Senate is expected to vote on the biggest education bill of this year’s legislative session.

A contentious teachers union certification proposal might overshadow the rest of HB 7055.

But the bill also contains a wide range of provisions related to charter schools and educational choice. Here’s a rundown of what the Senate’s proposed rewrite would do.

Charter schools

High-performing charter schools would be able to replicate — meaning, open a similar school in a new location — twice a year, rather than just once. Last year, HB 7069 allowed high-performing charters to replicate more than once if they opened new schools in the vicinity of a persistently struggling public school.

In addition, the bill would place new legal standards on school boards that want to close charters. They would only be able to shut down charters for “material” violations of state law, rather than any law violations. School districts could still to shutter charters for financial problems, or for failing to meet academic goals. But they would have to appear before the state Division of Administrative Hearings before closing a charter school. This issue was the subject of some debate on the Senate floor.

District freedoms

Florida’s principal autonomy pilot program would be a pilot no more. It would be open to any school district in the state.

And principals granted autonomy through the program could manage entire networks of schools, known as “innovation zones.” The networks would operate within their districts and be exempt from many state education regulations. These schools would not be overseen by independent boards beyond the reach of their school district, as previous versions of the legislation contemplated.

School facilities Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Carvalho stays, arming teachers, Hope schools and more

Carvalho staying: Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho accepted an offer to be New York City’s chancellor of schools on Thursday. Then, after meeting with the school board and hearing from students and members of the community who pleaded with him to stay, Carvalho changed his mind. “I just don’t know how to break a promise to a child, how to break a promise to a community,” Carvalho said in explaining his decision. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had already announced the appointment, said his first response was just “profound surprise.” His press secretary, Eric Phillips, tweeted: “He was a Yes for a week+, until he was a No 15 minutes ago. Bullet dodged. Who would ever hire this guy again? Who would ever vote for him?” Miami Herald. Politico Florida. New York Times. Associated Press. According to a timeline of events, Carvalho appeared to mislead people in both Miami and New York City. Politico Florida. Chalkbeat.

Armed teachers: Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor warns legislators that their proposed school marshal program would turn black students into nothing more than “target practice” for “trigger happy teachers.” Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna called Proctor’s rhetoric an embarrassment to the community. Later on Thursday, Proctor was joined by the Legislature’s 28-member black caucus, which said arming teachers would only expose African-American students to more gun-related danger. “This is a recipe for disaster,” says Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. Tallahassee Democrat. Miami Herald. Tallahassee Democrat. Gov. Rick Scott opposes arming teachers, but he and the family of one of the victims urge the Legislature not to let differences bog down the effort to act. Miami Herald. Politico Florida. GateHouse. News Service of Florida. The National Association for School Resource Officers does not support arming teachers. But if it happens, the organization is offering tips on what to do and not do. Gradebook. School board chairpersons around Florida get an email blast from the Pinellas County School Board, asking them to join Pinellas in supporting a ban on assault weapons. Gradebook. The Brevard County teachers union and most teachers in Lee County come out against the proposal to arm select school employees. Florida Today. Fort Myers News-Press. The subject of arming teachers draws strong comments at a community meeting in Martin County. TCPalm.

Schools of Hope: The Senate-House conference committee negotiating the final form of the education bill agree to spend $140 million to continue the Schools of Hope program. The program offers money for extra services at struggling public schools, and for recruiting highly regarded charter companies to open schools in areas with persistently low-performing schools. redefinED. The Senate and House are close to an agreement on funding for higher education, but are still trying to reconcile how to pay for mental health services, more armed school resource officers and teacher supply grants for K-12 schools. Politico Florida.

Continue Reading →