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Florida schools roundup: Charter district, incentives, recess and more

Charter district: The Florida Board of Education approves a charter schools company taking over a public school district’s operations. Jefferson County, which had been struggling financially and with enrollment, will combine the elementary and middle/high schools on a single campus. The district hopes to have applications from charter schools companies by the first week in March. It’s the first time a Florida school district has ever ceded operations to a charter school company. redefinED. Tallahassee Democrat. Associated Press. WFSU. The Polk County School Board is considering closing struggling McLaughin Middle School and reopening it under the Bok Academy, an A-rated charter school. Lakeland Ledger.

Charter recruitment: Representatives from four national charter schools companies tell a Florida House committee that they’d like to expand into Florida. BASIS, IDEA, Achievement First and the SEED Foundation all express interest, if the state can set up equitable funding to public districts. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has suggested such changes are being considered. redefinED.

Teacher incentives: Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the Senate’s pre-K-12 education budget chairman, wants the Legislature to consider bumping the amount of money available for teacher incentives to at least $200 million. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended $58 million for teacher incentives. “I’m not concerned that we’re talking about $200-250 million,” said Simmons. “It’s an investment; it’s not an expenditure, and I think we can find it in an $83 billion budget.” Miami Herald. The statewide teachers union, the Florida Education Association, says the incentive programs are gimmicks, and that it wants better pay for all teachers. Miami Herald.

Recess doubts: Two members of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee want lawmakers to consider the whole picture of education and the financial implications before approving a bill that would require 20 minutes of recess every day in Florida elementary schools. “This is an important issue, recess, but I think we need to look at it in a more holistic way,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. Gradebook. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Merit pay, education funding, club policy and more

Merit pay study: A study nationally and in Orange County concludes that tying teacher pay to students’ performance on standardized testing has not produced the results expected. The study, shared with the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition, indicates there has been no “significant or stable improvements” in student achievement since Florida adopted a merit pay law in 2006. Orange County School Board members say they will share the study with Florida legislators. Orlando Sentinel.

Education funding: Two influential Democratic state representatives say they are encouraged by House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s weekend pledge to boost education spending for the 2017-2018 school year. State Reps. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, and Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said in a statement: “Now that the speaker has made this commitment, we are hopeful that our committees will move away from looking at ways to cut education funding and instead begin to focus on giving our hardworking teachers a raise, and increasing per-pupil funding to actually historic levels that take into account inflation.” Sunshine State News. Florida Politics.

Club policy: The Lake County School Board will consider a proposed policy change that would allow a Gay-Straight Alliance at Carver Middle School in Leesburg. The district proposed the change after a federal appeals court ruled that denying the group’s application for the club was a violation of the Equal Access Act. Several school board members say they support the change, as long as students get parental consent. Daily Commercial. Continue Reading →

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Betsy DeVos, Jimmy Carter and Democratic retreats on school choice

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

Jimmy Carter once touted school vouchers, telling readers of Today’s Catholic Teacher in 1976: “While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The confirmation fight over new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has at least temporarily pulled Congressional Democrats from the growing bipartisan consensus on school choice. But this political showdown, and the extent to which it was animated by the teacher unions, is not new.

We can probably trace its beginnings to Jimmy Carter. It was during Carter’s presidency that intraparty politics began to pry the Democratic Party from its embrace of school choice. A couple of letters from Carter to Catholic educators, four years apart, captures the shift.

In September 1976, then-candidate Carter wrote to Today’s Catholic Teacher. (Go to page 11 here.) He praised Catholic schools; referred to the “right” of low- and middle-income Americans “to choose a religious education for their children;” and argued for school choice in terms of opportunity and diversity, as pro-choice progressives had long done. He said he was committed to finding “constitutionally acceptable” ways to provide financial assistance to parents whose children attend private schools. And, as a kicker, he gave a thumbs up to vouchers:

“While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.”

Carter’s pro-choice, pro-voucher position is fascinating for all kinds of reasons. Today’s left has no clue about its own past support for school choice. And as the Carter letter shows, choice wasn’t some fringe phenomenon on that end of the spectrum.

It’s also fascinating because Carter changed his tune at the end of his term, a turnabout that generally marked the beginning of the left’s resistance to choice (at least the white left) and a shrinking of that common ground we’re seeing again, post-Trump. As Doug Tuthill has written, that late ‘70s flip-flop has everything to do with the rise of the teachers union as a force within the Democratic Party, and little to do with progressive values.

The key point on the timeline is 1976, when the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. That would be Carter.

Four years later, his administration scrambled to write a follow-up to Today’s Catholic Teacher. Republican nominee Ronald Reagan had written a first-person letter to the magazine, and the magazine let Carter’s people know their initial response – a statement from the administration – paled in comparison. “HURRY HURRY HURRY,” one of Carter’s media liaisons urged the PR team in a memo: “This message conceivably could be in every Catholic publication in every Catholic school.”

The team shifted into high gear. But the resulting letter surely didn’t fire up undecided Catholics.

It gave Catholic schools credit for playing a “significant role” in educating “millions of low and middle income Americans.” But instead of a continuing commitment to find constitutionally acceptable ways to provide aid to private school parents – which Carter promised in 1976 – the president would only commit to supporting constitutionally appropriate steps to get Catholic schools “their equitable share of funds provided under our federal education programs.” Clearly, a far lesser goal.

Documents in the Carter Presidential Library show what was scrubbed during editing. David Rubenstein, then one of Carter’s domestic policy advisers, nixed language that said Carter reported the administration’s efforts to help private schools to the Democratic Party platform committee. He also scratched out Carter’s support for platform language that backed tax aid for private school education. “Definitely NO,” he wrote next to the strike-through. “I don’t see any advantage to getting into the Platform,” he commented in another memo.

Also removed was a description of parochial schools that said “in many areas, they provide the best education available.” And wording that said without such schools, millions of Americans “would have been denied the opportunity for a solid education.”

Caught between the Reagan Revolution and teachers unions, Democratic support for school choice faded for a decade. It began to pulse again in the 1990s, with the advent of charter schools. Then it slowly branched into other choice realms, nudged by advocacy groups that worked tirelessly to build bipartisan and nonpartisan bridges, and welcomed by Democratic constituencies who liked having options.

That middle ground has been steadily growing, and Florida is a prime example. A few months ago, the Sunshine State elected two pro-school choice Democrats to Congress. A year ago, the state Legislature expanded America’s biggest education savings account program with universal bipartisan support. For the past two and a half years, a remarkably diverse coalition battled legal efforts to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which now serves nearly 100,000 kids. Three weeks ago, it won.

Masses of energized parents, most of them black and Hispanic, helped fuel that legal victory. That force wasn’t in place when Jimmy Carter followed the path of least resistance. But it’s here now, and Democrats can only ignore it for so long.

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Florida schools roundup: Charter district plan, testing, recess and more

Charter district: The Jefferson County School District could become the state’s first all-charter schools district, if the Florida Board of Education agrees Thursday with the district’s school board vote to make the change. Jefferson has just two schools – elementary and middle/high school – with about 700 students. It’s struggled academically and financially in recent years, and the state board recently ordered it to either close the schools or turn them over to private operators. “(The school board) didn’t feel any other options would be approved by the state board, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of going to the state board and walking away with it turned down. That just wasn’t what I thought was in our best interest,” says Jefferson Superintendent Marianne Arbulu. redefinEDWFSU.

School testing: State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, files a bill requiring the state education commissioner to review the ACT and SAT national college entrance tests to see if they cover the content taught in Florida high school language arts and math classes. If the answer is yes, it could lead to the scrapping of the Florida Standards Assessments testing in favor of the national tests. Orlando Sentinel. Manatee County School Board members will vote Tuesday on a proposal to put a moratorium on all testing in county schools that is not required by the state. If it’s approved, Manatee would join Clay and Marion counties in eliminating or severely reducing the amount of district-administered tests. Bradenton Herald.

Recess fight: A mom’s group named Recess for All Florida Students is ratcheting up its lobbying for legislation that requires daily recess for all Florida elementary students. The proposals (S.B. 78 and H.B. 67) have wide support, but a key House member isn’t sure a statewide mandate is the proper way to get it done. Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the education policy chairman, says he’s reluctant to puts limits on teachers’ flexibility in the classroom. Miami Herald. The moms behind the drive have had success with a couple of districts, but continue to push for the statewide rule. “Of course, we started this because of our kids, but is it fair for those moms who have worked alongside us all these years, and their kids still don’t have recess?” asks Angela Browning of Orlando, whose district has adopted a daily recess policy. Miami Herald.
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Florida schools roundup: Bright Futures, capital funding, testing and more

Bright Futures: The proposed expansion of Bright Futures scholarships is moving in two directions within the Florida Senate. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, wants to expand the scholarships for high-achieving students to cover full tuition and fees, and to allow them to use the money for summer classes. S.B. 2, which incorporates those proposals and more, was passed Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal would allow all students with Bright Futures scholarships to use the money for summer classes. It’s been endorsed by former Senate president Tom Lee, R-Brandon. News Service of FloridaPolitico Florida. Florida Politics.

Capital funding: Public school superintendents and charter schools leaders share ideas with legislators on how to improve the way the state hands out capital funding. Both say more money is needed for infrastructure and repairs. Superintendents also are asking for more flexibility on how they use the available money, while charter leaders are lobbying for a more equitable and consistent share from the state. Politico Florida. redefinED.

Testing participation: The definition of testing participation could play a role in an appeal court’s decision on a lawsuit challenging the state’s retention policy for third-graders. The law on what constitutes student participation is not clearly spelled out, and those suing the state say that ambiguity is leading districts to formulate their own rules, resulting in unequal treatment of students across districts. Gradebook.

Testing questions: Members of the Florida House committee on school policy question whether the downside of frequent, standardized testing and giving schools grades outweigh the benefits of the testing. State Department of Education officials say stability in the testing and assessing school grades are crucial to accountability. “We can’t assess ourselves into greatness,” State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said. “But we also won’t be great if we don’t know how our students are performing.” Sun-Sentinel. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Retention suit, DeVos, weapons, adoptions and more

Retention appeal: At least two judges on the three-member First District Court of Appeal seem skeptical of a Leon County judge’s decision against the state and several school districts over retention and promotion policies for third-graders, and of the actions of parents whose children opt out of testing. That judge, Karen Gievers, ruled that students could not be retained solely on the basis of standardized test scores and should have options for earning promotion, The state and districts appealed. Tampa Bay Times. News Service of FloridaPolitico Florida.

DeVos confirmation: School choice advocate Betsy DeVos is confirmed as U.S. education secretary on a 51-50 vote. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says DeVos will transfer power from the federal government and teachers unions and give it to states and parents. redefinED. Tampa Bay TimesPolitico Florida. Sunshine State News.

Weapons at schools: The Duval County School District is setting up a dedicated hotline to report weapons or violence at schools. Officials will also increase random searches at schools, and talk more to students about guns and violence. There have been 10 incidents of weapons found at the district’s public and charter schools this school year. Florida Times-Union.

Adoption help: A bill is being drafted that would extend state adoption benefits to charter school employees. Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is working on a bill that would amend the law and give the benefit – up to $10,000 for special needs children or those from a racially mixed family – to charter and virtual schools workers. Lakeland Ledger.

Marijuana meeting: South Florida law enforcement and school officials meet to discuss what kind of medical marijuana rules are needed to protect students and still give people the access they need to the drug. Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wants no medical marijuana dispensaries within 2,500 feet of schools, and said packaging must not look like candy or soda. WTVJ.
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Florida schools roundup: Transfers, Saturday school, hacking and more

Open enrollment rules: The state’s new open enrollment law was intended to give any student a chance at any open seat at any public school in the state. But in practice, the law could reduce a student’s chances of enrolling in an out-of-district school. The law gives in-county transferring students priority over out-of-county students for open seats, so many students who now attend an out-of-county school go to the end of the application line in the future. Tampa Bay Times.

Saturday school: More than two dozen Pinellas County schools are offering voluntary classes on Saturdays to give students a chance to keep up with their work. Most of the schools offering instruction are low performing. Funding comes from programs for extended learning and low-income students. Tampa Bay Times.

District hacked: The names, addresses, wages and Social Security numbers of more than 7,700 Manatee County School District employees are in the hands of hackers after a Friday night cyberattack on the district. District officials say a school employee turned over the information in response to a fraudulent email that appeared to have been sent by Superintendent Diana Greene. Bradenton Herald. WFLA. WTSP.

Dismissal recommended: A federal magistrate is recommending the dismissal of a suit against the Florida High School Athletic Association for its refusal to let a Christian school broadcast a pregame prayer over the stadium’s public-address system at a 2015 high school football championship game. Cambridge Christian School of Tampa filed the suit, saying the refusal violated its rights. “Nowhere in the verified amended complaint (filed by Cambridge) is there a single allegation that Cambridge Christian or any of its members were deprived of their right to pray at the championship game,” magistrate judge Amanda Arnold Sansone concluded. News Service of Florida. Continue Reading →

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Florida schools roundup: Retention suit, school bells, demographics and more

Retention challenge: Parents who challenged the state’s third-grade retention policy – and won – are back in court this week. A circuit court judge ruled in August that the state and some districts were not offering a portfolio option for promotion of students who didn’t take the state assessment tests or didn’t pass them. The state appealed, and the case moves to the First District Court of Appeal Tuesday. Gradebook.

No bell tolls for them: Seminole High School in Pinellas County has ended the tradition of ringing a bell to change classes. School officials say it’s an effort to put more responsibility on students to manage their schedules. “It’s changed the tenor of the school because kids like being treated like adults,” said principal Tom Brittain. “How many colleges ring a bell?” Tampa Bay Times.

District demographics: There are now more Hispanic students in Palm Beach County public schools than whites or blacks. Of the 190,240 students in the district, 33 percent are Hispanic, 32 percent are white and 28 percent are black. The demographic shift has Superintendent Robert Avossa proposing to expand dual language programs, where subjects are taught in both English and Spanish. Sun-Sentinel.

Charter schools: More than 3 million American students are now enrolled in 6,900 charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That’s up almost threefold in 10 years, but is still just 5 percent of total U.S. school enrollment. Education Week. Pembroke Pines’ charter school system, which opened in 1998, now has eight schools, 6,000 students and requires no subsidy from the city. It was the model by which the Cape Coral Municipal School Authority was started in 2004. Fort Myers Beach Observer. Continue Reading →

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