Voucher program’s accountability cloudy

August 2, 2015 by


BY: Rich Christie

Palm Beach Post| August 2, 2015


By most measures, one would consider Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program a success.

After about 14 years, some 70,000 mostly low-income and minority students annually take advantage of vouchers that allow them the opportunity to attend any private school of their choice. And according to several studies, the program

— which provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities — also saves the state millions of dollars every year in per-pupil funding for public education.

In the face of unsuccessful lawsuits from statewide education groups like the Florida Education Association, state lawmakers have continued to expand the popular program. This school year, an expansion of the program will allow a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year to be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit.

Proponents argue that it is a natural expansion of offering parents a choice of where they want their kids to attend school, and that helping poor kids will remain the top priority. But critics argue this expansion also raises an important issue: accountability.

The Post Editorial Board recently put these questions to Jon East and Ron Matus, vice president and director of Policy and Public Affairs, respectively, for Step Up for Students (SUFS), the state’s primary administrator of the voucher program.


POST: How do you answer people when they charge that vouchers are siphoning money from public schools?

EAST: This year, there was roughly $330 million in contributions to the program, serving 70,000 students at about 1,500 schools around the state. About 97 percent of the money is used directly for scholarships, and the rest for administrative costs.

Yes, the money does follow the child. But there’ve been about seven different studies since the program began, and all show that the SUFS actually saves taxpayer money.

The amount of the scholarship is so much less than what would normally be paid to educate that student in public school. So while the student is leaving and the money is leaving, it’s costing taxpayers less to fund that student in a private school. We estimate about 60 cents on the public school dollar for per-pupil funding.

POST: Are you comfortable with the change to 260 percent of poverty to qualify for a voucher this academic year?

MATUS: There are several caveats to that. First, these wouldn’t be full scholarships. They will be partial scholarships, and will be graduated until you get to that 260 percent. Second, none of those higher income families will get a scholarship unless all of the qualifying lower-income families get one first.

The demand continues to be huge. We just had to cut off applications in May because the demand is so high for a limited number of scholarships.

POST: Is there any accountability for the quality of the private school the scholarship student attends?

EAST: Accountability in the purest sense, no. Transparency, absolutely. Every year, since 2006, every student has been required under law to take a nationally known reference test that’s approved by the state. Most of them take the Stanford Achievement Test Series, which is pretty much the gold standard.

The state reports the results of those tests every year. And beginning in 2010, they began doing something that I think was even smarter: they began to report the test results per school.

That’s very important for a program like this. It’s indirect, but it is public money. You can’t have a program like this unless you have a way to demonstrate it has value.

POST: If you have a school whose students are consistently under-performing, you keep giving them vouchers anyway?

EAST: That certainly could be the case. Under current law, there is no provision that a school could be removed from the program based on test scores.

POST: Is there anything at all that can cause a school to be removed from the program?

EAST: There’s a variety of things, but they’re not academic. There are compliance issues, i.e. health and safety, fire inspections, etc.

There have been schools that have been removed from the program for compliance types of issues; unsafe buildings, etc. But not academic.

But what you’re getting at is something that will be a debate. This program is still fledgling — after about 14 years — still growing and evolving. And as the data comes in, we will see schools that are repeated low-performers, and then there’s going to be a really interesting debate about what to do.

POST: But should taxpayers be concerned their money is being used to take kid from a well-functioning public school, and put them into a failing private school?

EAST: Here is what we know. Can a school be kicked off the program for poor results under current law? No.

We know from the data gathered every year since 2006 that consistently the students that are choosing to enter the program from a public school are in fact achieving at the lowest academic levels in the school they are leaving behind. And they are coming from the schools that are disproportionately low-performing.

That kid’s behind and just needs another environment, like a small school.

Second thing we know is that every year that they’ve been tested, the kids achieved, statistically (.1 or .2), the same gains in reading and math as all students who take the test. Which is to say, a national sample of all income levels .

POST: Are these kids getting standardized tests on things other than reading and math?

EAST: They are not. They are getting history and science, yes. But not being tested.

POST: Are they being taught evolution versus creationism at the religious schools? Is that being asked by SUFS? Are there standards based on their curriculum?

EAST: There are not. The teachers do not have to be certified. The schools do not have to be accredited.

POST: Is that a gap or hole in the program that needs to be filled? What about accountability?

EAST: Accountability isn’t just regulation. Accountability also comes with choice. When a parent can decide whether or not he or she wants to leave a school because their kid may or may not be learning, there’s accountability there too.

We don’t yet know how to regulate this. And it may be that we don’t regulate all schools in the same way necessarily because they are different.

Fortunately, so far, they fall into sort of the same bell curve as the public schools fall into. A bunch in the middle, some towards the end. But we haven’t seen a school where the test scores are horrendous.

POST: So how do you help parents shop?

EAST: Not well enough. But that industry is going to spring up. We don’t do that, but at some point, folks will come along to fill that vacuum to help parents look across all spectrums and get what they want: “I will help you shop for a school.”

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Lawmakers in Tallahassee continue to get richer

August 2, 2015 by



Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

August 1, 2015

In the wake of the Great Recession, which left the average Florida family struggling to make ends meet, at least one group of people continues to get richer: It pays to be elected to the state House or Senate.

Of the 160 lawmakers elected to the state Legislature, 114 have increased their own personal wealth while in office, a Herald/Times analysis of officials’ financial statements found.

On average, lawmakers’ net worth has more than doubled from the year of their first campaign through 2014. Their incomes have generally risen, too, by 63 percent on average. For some legislators, years spent in elected office have accompanied multi-million-dollar increases to their net worth.

It’s a stark contrast to the reality most Floridians face.

The average worker’s pay is higher now than in 2010, but it still falls short of the paychecks Floridians brought home before the 2007 downturn, when adjusted for inflation. Many who saw their home values plummet and 401(k)s shredded have never recovered.

“For a lot of people, it seems like they’re running in place just to stay where they are,” said Scott Brown, chief economist for St. Petersburg-based Raymond James. “A lot of that is the nature of the recession … This wasn’t going to be a quick bounce-back.”

An economic rift between many elected officials and their constituents isn’t necessarily new, says Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, a state government watchdog. Even through the recession, the vast majority of lawmakers accumulated wealth.

“It’s still a picture of a relatively wealthy group of individuals,” Wilcox said. “And in very few cases does it appear that public service is hurting their ability to earn money.”


When Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was first elected to the Legislature in 2000, he earned $50,000 a year for his work at the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce. By 2007, he was preparing for a Senate run and earning twice as much between his House salary and his ongoing work at the chamber.

Then came an even bigger bump. Last year, Gardiner reported earning $297,282, mostly from Orlando Health, where he is now vice president of external affairs and community relations.

“I certainly don’t think that my role in the Legislature had anything to do with that,” he said. “My hope is that when my time is done in a year, or less than a year, that I’ll still be there.”

Still, after 14 years as a lawmaker, including through the recession, his net worth has quadrupled and he’s earning almost six times more per year.

He’s not alone.

All told, 13 lawmakers became millionaires after being elected to the House or Senate. The wealthiest member of the Legislature, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, saw his net worth rise from $24 million to nearly $27 million during his eight years in office.

House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa became a millionaire while serving in the House, mostly due to a joint investment valued at almost $3 million.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the Democratic leader from Tampa, wasn’t a millionaire when she was elected to the House in 2000, but she is now. Joyner hasn’t spent a day out of elected office in that time.

Neither Young nor Joyner responded to requests for comment.

It’s nearly impossible to tell whether these financial successes are directly tied to lawmakers’ role in the Legislature, but Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, says he’s seen some questionable new jobs.

“Individuals end up getting some interesting promotions or what they consider lateral moves in their careers to the tune of significant bumps in salary,” said Bullard, a schoolteacher who earned $54,900 in 2013 and has not yet filed his 2014 financial disclosure. “It should cause people to question. It should make you wonder where those dollars are coming from.”

In South Florida especially, the wealth of sitting legislators has soared. On average, members of the Legislature from Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties have seen their wealth nearly triple and incomes almost double in the time since they were first elected.

Much of this comes from big gains by some of the state’s richest public officials. Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, crack the top five with personal wealth valued around $14 million each.


Lawmakers earning considerable amounts of money from outside jobs and investments is largely a side effect of having a part-time legislature.

Most years, House and Senate members are expected to be in Tallahassee for just three or four months. They earn nearly $30,000 for the job, which most supplement with other work.

The goal is to ensure that the people writing the laws have experience in the areas they affect, allowing teachers and school administrators to weigh in on education policy and doctors to have a say in health care regulations.

“We want people from diverse backgrounds in the Legislature, whether they have an agricultural background or are a lawyer or a doctor,” Gardiner said.

But Wilcox from Integrity Florida worries some perspectives are shut out because low- and middle-income people cannot afford to run for office, let alone leave their jobs for months.

“You would hope that there would be more schoolteachers and regular working people that would be able to run for office and bring that perspective to public policy discussions,” he said. “But I think we may be self-selecting the type of people that can actually afford to serve.”

This, Wilcox says, could help explain why so many of the people who run for and win seats in the Legislature are wealthy from the get-go.

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‘Charter school district’ proposed – Superintendent wants greater flexibility to improve education

July 31, 2015 by


By Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

July 30, 2015|

Palm Beach County’s schools chief wants permission from state lawmakers to convert the county’s public school system into a “charter school district,” a designation that could let him end-run state rules and drastically reorganize schools’ schedules, class sizes and instruction time.

Superintendent Robert Avossa’s proposal would require approval from state lawmakers and the support of the county’s School Board. If granted, he said the extra freedom would allow the county’s traditional public schools to better compete with charter schools, which have more flexibility under state law and are attracting thousands of new students each year.

“If we’re going to compete with charter schools, then I think as a district we need to be given the same level of autonomy,” he told School Board members Wednesday.

Avossa unveiled his proposal at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, drawing on his experience in Georgia where he oversaw Fulton County’s conversion into a charter school district.

Despite its shorthand name, the proposal does not entail converting traditional schools into charter schools. Instead, Avossa’s proposal would free district-run schools from some of the regulations that he said make it difficult for them to tailor their educational offerings to students’ particular needs.

Avossa called Florida’s reams of public school regulations well-intended but said they are “creating a maze of barriers” that impede the schools’ ability “to be nimble and react to what the public demands.”

“A one-size-fits-all approach does not work,” he said.

It’s not clear that state lawmakers will take up Avossa’s proposal. For years, Florida had a more narrow provision in place to let county school systems, including Palm Beach County’s, obtain “charter school district” status and avoid certain state regulations. But the program eventually was allowed to expire.

A key state lawmaker expressed skepticism about Avossa’s plan Thursday, saying that state law already permits school systems to get around many regulations by declaring certain schools “schools of innovation.”

“What’s in the existing statute that doesn’t allow you to do those things already?” asked state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, chairman of the Senate’s education committee and a charter school operator. “When superintendents ask those questions and we probe a little bit, they’re often not asking for what they pretend to be asking for.”

Avossa said one of the greatest benefits of converting to charter school status would be freedom from state rules that require students to spend a minimum number of hours taking certain classes , even if they already have mastered the subject.

Getting around those requirements could let students spend less time on subjects they already know and more time on ones they need more help with, he said.

“We’re essentially (doing) what? Holding back the most advanced kids,” he said.

In Fulton County, Avossa used charter school district status to set up individual boards of directors at each district-run school.

Those boards, composed of parents, teachers and business leaders, had broad authority to decide things like the schools’ schedules and course offerings. Some chose to extend the school year, while others kept the school day running longer into the afternoon.

School Board members said they liked the idea of asking the Legislature for greater flexibility, saying it would help them create more attractive schooling options.

Board members have worried for years about the steady exodus of students to charter schools. Nearly one in nine of the school system’s 186,000 students is expected to attend a charter school next year.

“Just tell them we want a level playing field,” School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri said. “They love charter schools in Tallahassee, so tell them we want to be charter schools.”

Board member Mike Murgio, a former charter school principal, said traditional schools “should operate under the same rules as any charter school can.”

“You get the money and you do what you know is best for your children and meet their needs,” he said.

Board member Karen Brill said she was generally supportive but expressed caution, saying that she needed more information about the proposal before endorsing it.

“There’s a lot of questions out there that people have,” she said.

School district officials say they would bring back a more detailed plan to board members before they finalize their legislative agenda next month.

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$10K Best & Brightest – caters to TFA/new hires, not veterans

July 30, 2015 by

ERIK FRESEN STAR TOOTH  Rep. Erik Fresen, FL House


Florida symbolizes the unbearable ridiculousness of school reform.  The “Best & Brightest” is a $10,000 bonus that new hires can earn immediately if their high school SAT or ACT scores were above the 80th percentile.  Veteran teachers can’t get the cash until they earn a “highly effective” rating based on student test scores AND prove they ranked in the top 20% with their own ACT or SAT scores.  All this must happen before the October 1st deadline.

From the start, the $44 million dollar Best and Brightest Incentive bill by Rep. Erik Fresen was an oddity. It died on its second committee reading in the House and was DOA in the Senate. Normally, that would have been fatal but Florida legislators are famous for damning procedure to pass whatever they want. So the Best & Brightest was tucked into Florida’s 2015-16 budget and became law.

Aside from Fresen, there was little love for this bill. Seasoned Republican Senator Nancy Detert called the Best and the Brightest, “the worst bill of the year.”  She added that, “the bill went through absolutely no process, never got a hearing in the Senate. We refused to hear it because it’s stupid.”

What drove key legislators to pass a dead idea? Since new teachers get a huge payday just for producing SAT/ACT scores above the 80th percentile, Teach for America is an obvious benefactor. The extra $10,000 will bring these largely non-union teachers, who take the job for 2 years, closer to a $55K salary.  Teach for America shares a chummy relationship with Florida’s reform-minded legislators who allocated the group $5 million dollars in Florida’s 2014 budget and similar amounts in previous years.

Fresen, who insists that the Best & Brightest will attract smart new teachers, is blind to the fact that ACT/SAT scores are not a predictor of professional success. ACT executive, Wayne Camera, told the Tampa Bay Times, “In our view, there would seem to be other measures of academic performance, more recent than ACT scores, which would better reflect teachers’ skills and competency.”

Back in the day, before Ed Reform took root, Florida paid around $10,000 to teachers who passed the rigorous National Board Certification. The state’s pro-education reform politicians stopped funding that incentive when education policy lobbyists, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, decided Board certification was too costly and does not impact student success.

Even more important, Universities such as prestigious Georgetown are no longer requiring ACT or SAT scores for admission.  A growing list of 180 universities has made these tests optional.  They believe a student’s academic record is a much more reliable indicator of success than a single test such as ACT or SAT.  Can’t the same be said about teachers? So, is the Best & Brightest meant to bolster the politically connected College Board and the flagging credibility of  its SAT test?

It’s hard to say which is more ridiculous – The notion that teachers should be paid rather large sums for their teenage test scores, that new teachers should have a better chance at the money than career professionals or the lore about how Fresen “got the idea” for the Best & Brightest.

Apparently, after reading “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley, Fresen felt Florida should mimic other countries and erect barriers to becoming a teacher, a bar exam of sorts. That Fresen sees his SAT/ACT score hurdle as an effective “carrot” and not a bad policy is alarming.

The real problem is that pulling a notion out of a pop culture book to justify an unfair policy that favors   Teach for America buddies and inexperience over professional educators just isn’t very impressive. It’s lazy and lacks imagination.  Like Sen. Detert said, it’s “stupid.”  The Best & Brightest, like so many education reforms, is one heck of a $44 million dollar piece of ridiculousness.

Reprinted from The Edvocate Blog


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Florida Senate admits map it drew is unconstitutional

July 29, 2015 by



Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

July 28, 2015 | TALLAHASSEE

After spending nearly three years and millions of dollars defending its redistricting map, the Florida Senate gave up the fight Tuesday as it conceded for the first time that the courts were going to find it violated the state constitution.

Lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have argued the Republican-controlled Senate violated the so-called Fair Districts provision of the state constitution that prohibits drawing lines to favor a political party or any incumbents.

As a result of Tuesday’s settlement, the Legislature will now be called into its third special session of the year to redraw at least 28 of its 40 districts statewide.

That special session is scheduled from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, two months after the Legislature holds a special session in August to fix Congressional districts that the Florida Supreme Court ruled earlier this month had violated the state constitution.

“This is remarkable,” said David King, an attorney for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. “The Florida Senate has admitted that they drew an unconstitutional map and as a consequence of that, they now have agreed to fix the problem.”

But state Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, disputed that interpretation. He said the Senate did not concede it violated the law, only that it was apparent that the courts were going to find it had, based on the Congressional district ruling handed down earlier in the month.

Beyond altering some lines on a map, the redrawing could have a wide-ranging impact on who will lead the Florida Senate and the state’s overall political agenda. If Republicans retain control of the Senate in 2016, the redrawn districts could make politically safe districts for many incumbents more competitive. That in turn could shake up an already tight contest between State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to determine who will lead the chamber.

If districts are redrawn as anti-gerrymandering groups have demanded, the new districts will not be based on keeping incumbents in power. That could result in more moderate districts, rather than ones in which party primaries essentially decide the winners. It also means more moderate candidates that have to appeal to both parties would have a greater likelihood of being elected to the Senate for the final two years of Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure in office.

Already the Republican-dominated Legislature has been paralyzed at times as the often more conservative House has fought with a more moderate Senate over issues like Medicaid expansion and state spending. In April, the Legislature ended its annual spring session without passing a budget after a dispute over hospital funding programs and Medicaid overran the agenda. That forced the House and Senate to hold a three-week special session in June to finish their work.

While the Senate and Congressional map is being redone, the 120 districts drawn by the Florida House in 2012 remain intact and are unlikely to change. Democrats hold just 39 of the 120 seats in the House. Even if the Senate sees new faces and more moderates elected, the House will remain mostly unchanged because those maps are not involved in any ongoing litigation.

In court documents filed Tuesday, the House and Senate specifically absolve the House of any blame for the Senate map. In a joint statement sent to the media by Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, the chambers declare the House “had no knowledge of any constitutional infirmities relating to the Senate Plan.” Still, while the Senate worked out the deal with the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the House had to agree not to object to it.

Similar to the procedures the Senate set up over the Congressional redistricting for August, lawmakers said Tuesday that professional staff and legal counsel will be charged with developing a new map without members participating or political influence. Then when the map is presented, it will be given to everyone simultaneously and be amended only in public view.

Those procedures are aimed at preventing a repeat of the Congressional redistricting problems identified by the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month. In its landmark ruling, the court invalidated the state’s Congressional map detailing how political operatives “infiltrated” the process, used fake email accounts to submit maps as nonpartisan private citizens and created districts that found their way into the final map approved by lawmakers.

Because it is the third time that Republicans in the Senate have had to draw the lines to comply with the 2012 voter-approved amendment aimed at stopping overt gerrymandering, King said he is “pretty skeptical” that they will get it right.

Nevertheless, there is insurance in that the agreement reached Tuesday allows the court to retain jurisdiction and serve in an oversight capacity as the new map is drawn.

The settlement also allows the court to decide whether taxpayers will be responsible for paying for the attorneys fees for the plaintiffs. The Legislature has already spent more than $8.1 million in defending the maps. How much additional attorney fees would be has not been decided.

“The legislature defended the indefensible,” King said. “They spent millions of dollars in defense and it comes to naught today.”

A major issue left undecided in Tuesday’s court ruling is how many state senators could face re-election in 2016.

If the Senate alters all of the 40 Senate districts in at least a minor way, it could force every district up for re-election in 2016, even though 20 seats are not supposed to be up until 2018. Galvano said he’s not convinced all 40 seats will have to go up for re-election. He said there is nothing in Tuesday’s court stipulation that will mandate that.

The Senate’s concessions were the product of negotiations between the Senate and lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, who were planning for a Sept. 25 trial challenging the maps as unconstitutional gerrymandering.

The Senate’s decision to hold the special session negates the need for the trial.

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Seven members of Florida House attending conservative ALEC conference in San Diego

July 28, 2015 by


Tampa Bay Times| July 21, 2015

By: Michael Auslen

Conservative legislators from around the country are flocking to San Diego this week for an annual gathering focused on states’ rights, shrinking government and free-market policies.

Among the attendees at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly called ALEC, are seven members of the Florida House.

Republican Reps. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Colleen Burton of Lakeland, Neil Combee of Polk County, Mike Hill of Pensacola,Larry Metz of Yalaha, Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena and John Wood of Winter Haven are all attending the conference, according to Wood’s office. Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, was also authorized by the House to attend but is not in California for the event.

No members of the Senate are confirmed to be attending the conference, including Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who serves as ALEC’s state co-chair in Florida alongside Wood.

Representatives attending the conference have been given permission by the Speaker’s office to use their taxpayer-funded member accounts for travel expenses. However, it’s not clear whether any of them will choose to do so.

Wood said he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll pay for his travels with taxpayer dollars or leftover campaign funds. In past years, he’s used campaign contributions.

“It’s just a great policy exchange on a number of different issues that state legislators are facing across our nation,” said Wood. “There’s no real particular agenda other than the mission of ALEC is limited government, free markets and federalism. Those are my principles, and those are principles that we hope to apply to good public policy decisions.”

The ALEC conference has been criticized, though, as a chance for corporate interest groups to influence state legislators behind closed doors. The national group’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council includes representatives from AT&T, State Farm and Exxon Mobil, among other groups.

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In Tampa Bay, this is what child poverty looks like

July 27, 2015 by


Tampa Bay Times| July 25, 2015

by: Caitlin Johnston| Photo: Douglas R. Clifford/Times

Nearly 1 million Florida children were living in poverty in 2013.

Ashley Corbett is a single mother raising one of those kids, Jayden, 3. Soon she will have two. The 29-year-old is seven months pregnant with her second child.

When things get tight, she reaches out to social services. They helped her find two part-time jobs, one at McDonald’s, the other at a day care center.

There, she got 50 percent off. It still wasn’t enough.

The day care worker could not afford day care.

“I would take him to my mom’s because it was so expensive to take him in with me,” Corbett said. “Trying to make ends meet, it’s a struggle.”

The story of her children is the story of Florida children mired in poverty, growing up with the odds already stacked against them.

The latest study of how hard life is for the state’s children and families comes from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which last week released the most recent statistics available.

But that’s just data. Tampa Bay’s parents, social workers and educators fill in the rest of the picture.

They talk about children who go hungry when they can’t eat at school, who don’t visit the doctor for routine checkups, who are less likely to attend preschool or even graduate high school.

“These children, their physical needs aren’t being met, nutritional, emotional and otherwise,” said Erika Remsberg, a social worker who works with homeless students in Pasco County. “We’re dealing with parents who are really just trying to survive.”

In Florida, one in four kids lived in poverty in 2013. That year, the poverty line for a family of four was $23,550.

The 2013 data was the last year the Casey study could examine. Florida was ranked 37th in the country in overall “child well-being,” which measured indicators such as education, economics and health. The state’s ranking reflects high instances of children falling behind in school and living in single-parent families without secure employment.

The report also showed that nearly 250,000 more Florida children were living in poverty in 2013 than in 2008. That year, amid the Great Recession, 721,000 kids were impoverished in Florida.

Those numbers do not surprise social service providers working in Tampa Bay.

“We knew that the recovery wasn’t for everyone,” said Kelley Parris, executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. “There is a segment of the population that’s not recovering nearly as quickly or as prosperously as others.”

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Charter school growth means fewer public school teaching jobs in Miami-Dade

July 25, 2015 by


MIAMI HERALD | by Christina Veiga

July 24, 2015

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho likes to say the county doesn’t lay off teachers to balance its budget. But that doesn’t mean the teaching ranks haven’t thinned in Miami-Dade’s public schools. The district estimates it will hire 425 less instructional staff next year, according to its latest budget projections.

Where have all the teachers gone?


Charter schools, mostly. Union officials also expect a higher-than average wave of retirees this year, though the district disputes that.

“Where my kids go, we’ve lost some teachers, definitely,” said Miami-Dade PTA President Joe Gebara.

Charter school enrollment in Miami-Dade has gobbled up a larger share of students every year for the last decade. In the upcoming school year, enrollment is expected to top 60,000 students — a 7 percent increase over last year. But the explosive growth is actually cooling a bit: last year’s jump was a higher-than average 12 percent.

While public schools are expected to increase by about 400 students this year, charter schools are projected to welcome almost 6,000 more students in Miami-Dade.


“Miami-Dade County Public Schools as we know it has undergone a drastic change in recent years. We used to be a monopoly. That is no longer the case,” said Ron Steiger, Miami-Dade’s chief budget officer.


The increase means there will be about 400 less teachers in public school classrooms next year, according to district officials. Overall, the district still employs more than 20,000 teachers.


Still, Steiger said natural attrition — through retirement, resignations and maternity leave — has “luckily” always outstripped the declining number of positions in public classrooms. “We have not cut teachers due to economic reasons here,” he said.


As students leave for charters, not only are less teachers needed but there is also less money for the public school system. Charter schools are privately run but get public money on a per-student basis. Charter schools are projected to claim $400 million from the district’s general fund in 2015-2016.


Students aren’t the only ones leaving the public school system. United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram said the union expects more teachers to retire this year. Dramatic changes to teacher retirement plans in 2011 caused a spike in participation in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, he said. Five years later, teachers in the program have no choice but to retire.  “I think we’re going to be facing a teacher shortage,” Ingram said.


About 400 teachers are required to retire by May 31, according to the union. Another 200 are expected to leave by the time the academic year ends in June. That’s in addition to regular retirements, separations and teachers who leave for any other reason.


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Let schools use simpler alternatives to state tests

July 20, 2015 by


Orlando Sentinel |Opinion

printed July 19, 2015

It’s a solution that would have pleased Henry David Thoreau, who urged, “Simplify, simplify.”

Seminole County Public Schools had fits this spring administering Florida’s new standardized test. So Superintendent Walt Griffin wrote state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on Monday to request her support for a simple, economical alternative for his district: reliable, reputable national exams.

It’ll take a change in state law to give school districts the flexibility to substitute tests such as the Iowa Test or SAT for the Florida Standards Assessment. But Stewart’s support for this reasonable change could help persuade lawmakers to act.

School districts throughout Florida rolled out the FSA for the first time this year. In many districts, the test’s debut was a debacle. The FSA must be administered by computer, and network, software and other technical problems forced districts to suspend testing — in some cases for several days.

The computer mandate also left Seminole and other districts no choice but to close their school media centers to other students for days while testing took place. It forced them to raid classrooms of their computers, making them unavailable as learning tools for students who weren’t taking tests.

The FSA ended up disrupting instruction at Seminole’s middle schools for 29 days and high schools for 31 days, according to Griffin. These testing woes aren’t evidence of poor management in the district. Seminole is A rated, and has been one of the state’s top performers for years.

Widespread problems with the FSA led lawmakers this year to require that the tests be evaluated before results get released. That will delay scores from going out until at least September, three months behind schedule. The evaluation will add another $600,000 to the $220 million that the state is spending over six years on the FSA.

Districts wouldn’t have suffered this year’s testing problems if they had been free to use the Iowa Test and SAT. Both are paper-based exams. Griffin said they would have reduced testing time to four hours, and produced results in about 30 days.

Stewart, in a Friday letter to Griffin, wrote “other assessments would not be able to measure student achievement of our state’s specific educational benchmarks and expectations appropriately.” But Florida’s standards differ only slightly from the Common Core standards used in other states. And the Iowa Test and SAT, along with other national tests, are aligned with Common Core.

Griffin said he’s not arguing for Florida to abandon its commitment to accountability in education. Nor are we. Tests are an essential tool to hold schools, teachers and students accountable for results.

But if Stewart doesn’t change her mind — if Florida’s education leaders decree that districts have no alternatives to expensive, troubled tools like the FSA — shaky public support for accountability will collapse.

Read article printed in Orlando Sentinel here.


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Foundations use report cards to influence votes

July 16, 2015 by



July 15, 2015

This is the season when the Foundation for Florida’s Future, the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries of Florida release their 2015 Legislative Report Cards.  In particular, the Foundation assigns grades to legislators’ based on their willingness to pass the Jeb Bush/ALEC-driveneducation reform/privatization policy agenda.

These grades are a road map for voters. When your favorite Senator repeatedly gets an A grade from these folks, that’s a sign. It’s a big part of why legislators are willing to look foolish as they defy all logic to pass policies that hurt children and harm public schools.

Since 2009, parents, teachers, grandparents, districts and students have raised a mighty voice against the mind-numbing, narrowed curriculum, disrespect to teaching and the insane numbers of unfair high stakes tests. Every major newspaper has repeatedly demanded better from legislators. Despite all objections, politicians follow the plan and spend millions of public dollars on vendors, often in support of schemes promoted by wealthy ROI philanthropists eyeing a piece of what Joel Klein and others see as a $600 billion dollar education industry.  

 Sadly, it’s not enough to drive get-out-the-vote numbers.  Voters must know who they are voting for. Take Florida’s Orange County Delegation: There are 13 members and 8 of them got As from Jeb’s Foundation. These legislators carry the water for a particular, extreme policy group, not for voters. Parents seeking relief from Florida’s cruel education reform policies will get zero help from these lawmakers.  

 Orange County Delegation 13 members/8 A grades from FFF:

Sen. Hays, R, Dist. 11

Sen. Gardner, R, Dist. 13

Sen. Soto, D, Dist. 14

Sen. Stargel, R, Dist, 15

Rep Cortes, R, Dist 30

Rep. Sullivan, R, Dist. 31

Rep. Eisnaugle, R, Dist. 44

Rep. Miller, R, Dist. 47

 The remaining 5 members of the Orange delegation who voted or advocated against high stakes testing, tying teacher pay to test scores, corporate tax voucher expansion, handing over voter approved public school tax millage to for profit charters and other measures received considerably lower grades, including an F for Orange’s Rep. Bracy, D, Dist. 45.

 Voters must understand that politicians who push policy agendas such as School reform are rewarded in many ways. Money pours into races from PACs such as the American Federation for Children and the Florida Federation for Children. And the education reform/privatization agenda seeks to redefine “local control” to reference state legislatures. As a result, duly-elected Florida school board members are under attack for disagreeing with reformers.

It’s interesting to look at a smaller Florida district whose entire delegation is under the sway of education reform.  Superintendent Walt Griffin recently wrote a letter to Commissioner Pam Stewart asking to allow Seminole to return to paper and pencil, abandon the state’s troubled FSA and switch to a nationally norm referenced test such as the ACT. How much support will Griffin get from his public servants?

 Seminole County Delegation: All 4 members received an A grade from FFF:

Sen. Simmons, R, Dist. 10

Rep. Brodeur, R, Dist. 28

Rep. Plakon, R, Dist. 29

Rep. Cortes, R. Dist. 30

 Those who work to advance high stakes education reform policies cross all political stripes. If a candidate is not willing to turn down education reform campaign funding, that’s a problem. If a candidate refuses to oppose using tax dollars to create multiple uneven, unfair school systems, that’s a deal-breaker.

 We have reached a point where a candidate’s dedication to investing in and improving public education must be a litmus test for service. Legislators often give constituents less than 2 minutes to talk in Tallahassee while policy lobbyists such as Jeb’s Foundation for Florida’s Future are afforded unparalleled access across the board.

 Using power and money to drive policy and elections is not restricted to Florida. The Foundation for Florida’s Future is part of an established national agenda. In fact, its affiliated with the Foundation for Excellence in Education National, whose motto is: Turning Reform into Reality.

It’s a cruel irony that politicians are so eager to earn grades for passing policies that hurt children. Now voters must use these education reform “loyalty grades” as a tool to weed out politicians who don’t deserve reelection.   

re-blogged from The Edvocate Blog


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