Betty Castor: Return to elected & accessible FL Commissioner of Ed

February 6, 2016 by


Betty Castor, one of Florida’s last elected and most beloved commissioners of education speaks out about why this should not be an appointed post. As she wisely notes, returning to an elected Commissioner of Education who serves in the Governor’s cabinet will give voters a real voice regarding Florida education policy.  In her own words:

Two courageous legislators have filed bills that will allow Floridians to regain control of our public education system. HJR 767 and SJR 942 would return Florida’s commissioner of education to an elected position.

Floridians who want change must speak out forcefully in the weeks ahead.

HJR 767 (House Joint Resolution) by Rep Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, and SJR 942 (Senate Joint Resolution) by Senator Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, deserve our support.

It is time to move beyond complaining about excessive testing, dubious teacher bonuses, a lagging graduation rate and continued taxpayer bills for failing charter schools, which seem to be moving toward becoming the new normal. As vexing as these issues are, complaints won’t make it through because the current system is built to stymie access by anyone but insiders.

We can change this scenario by tossing the current closed system in which the governor appoints a Board of Education, the board then appoints the commissioner of education, and most folks outside of Tallahassee are shut out of the process.

Prior to 2002, the elected education commissioner was a member of the Florida Cabinet. When the change was made from elected to appointed, the bulk of the argument was that the shift would remove “politics” from education. In the 14 years since, that surely has not happened. Furthermore, the new system resulted in a revolving door, with four different commissioners of education serving the current governor alone!

This is about accountability — creating a strong, visible and clearly responsible advocate for education. Since the current system has been in place, it has become increasingly difficult for parents, teachers, school boards and superintendents to be heard.

Shouldn’t the commissioner of education be the advocate? One would hope so, but under the current set-up, the commissioner is beholden to the governor and the state board. “Advocacy” must be vetted.

How about our legislators as advocates? Many try. But the legislative calendar is controlled top-down. You have to be a heavy-hitter to get a spot in line. Those who carry the burden daily in classrooms, schools and districts cannot claim their rightful place on an agenda controlled by highly paid lobbyists, including hired guns for testing companies, the growing for-profit charter school industry, and others eager to make a buck off the school funding formulas.

HJR 767 and SJR 942 would return the cabinet to its crucial role as our Florida Board of Education. Under that scenario, the governor served as chair. All members of the cabinet were important in recommending a budget, as well as policy changes to the Legislature. They were approachable — and open to views from parents, teachers, student leaders, school boards, the business community and other advocacy groups.

Everyone knew who was in charge and where to find them.

They are all elected statewide and are known. Currently, the agriculture commissioner and the chief financial officer act as members of the cabinet, the state’s highest governing board. Surely, education is as critical to Florida’s future as agriculture. The chief financial officer would bring to the table an understanding of the actual costs of education and the impact of this precious sector on state resources.

Meetings of the governor and cabinet are public. They receive much more scrutiny than the current board of education, whose members are unknown to most. With the largest part of state spending going to education and the future of our state determined by the quality of our schools, this is an issue that demands discussion, debate and a vote of the people.

It will not be easy.

The resolutions that have been submitted are similar to legislative bills that are assigned to multiple committees. Unlike regular bills, which only require a majority vote, these require a 60 percent vote in each chamber.

If passed by the Legislature, the new amendment goes directly to the ballot, where it also must receive 60 percent of the vote to pass.  Therefore, those who want change must not be shy about this.

HJR 767 and SJR 942 deserve our support.

A version of this opinion was published in the Tampa Bay Times  January 4, 2016.  Betty Castor lives in Tampa and is a former University of South Florida president, state senator and commissioner of education and gave permission for this posting.


Take action now!   Tell legislators what you think about restoring the Commissioner of Education to an elected position.

Daily recess bill to be heard by Florida House education panel

January 26, 2016 by


by: Leslie Postal|Orlando Sentinel

January 25, 2016

A parent-pushed measure to require 20 minutes of daily recess in all of Florida’s public elementary schools is to get its first committee hearing Tuesday.

The Florida House‘s K-12 education panel has the bill (HB 833) on the agenda for its 9 a.m. meeting. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando.

The bill, and its Senate companion, would require all elementary schools to work 20 minutes of recess into their daily schedule. It would also prohibit educators from taking recess away from kids for “academic or punitive” reasons.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has not been heard in committee yet. Some of the parent backers have said they are worried Senate leaders do not want to take up the bill.

The bills were pushed by Florida parents — many of them local — upset that recess has been fading from Florida schools, with some campuses offering it only to their youngest students or only on Fridays. Schools have curtailed it in part to meet state academic requirements, such as providing a 90-minute block of reading instruction.

But these parents argue students need a break from academics in order to better focus on their lessons. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education both agree, as both recommend daily recess for young kids.

The parents had some success in the past few years convincing the Lake and Orange school districts to work in more recess, but they pushed for law because they feared the local changes wouldn’t stick.

Current state law does not require recess for public schools.

House staff said a recess mandate could cost school districts more money, presumably because they might need to extend the school day to work in recess along with other state requirements.

read full article here.

Dockery: Thanks to Florida’s teachers

January 22, 2016 by


by: Paula Dockery, Tampa Bay Times

January 21, 2016

Here’s my message to Florida’s 180,000 public school teachers: Thank you.

Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for your professionalism. Thank you for your long days of teaching and your long nights of grading papers and preparing for the next day’s lessons.

We don’t appreciate our teachers as we once did. Over the last 20 years teachers have been demonized, demoralized and blamed for what some politicians want to brand a failing public education system. With a steady stream of mandates and micromanaging coming from the state capital, teachers had to constantly adjust to the policies pushed by the politically well-connected education-for-profit folks.

A sampling of those changes includes: standardized testing; grading schools; creating the FCAT; adopting the Common Core curriculum; switching to new, unproven tests; tying teacher salaries and school grades to student performance on high-stakes tests; pushing expansion of for-profit charter schools and vouchers; converting public schools to charters; and implementing controversial bonus schemes instead of increasing teachers’ salaries.

Teachers have not been particularly engaged in the political process. They’ve been too busy jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

The devaluing of classroom teachers is taking a toll on them and may have reached a tipping point. Teachers are fed up, frustrated and many are leaving the profession.

Wendy Bradshaw, a special education teacher in Polk County, resigned and spoke out about her reasons for leaving public education. Her heartfelt resignation letter was posted on social media and quickly spread nationally.

Bradshaw, an outstanding teacher with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in education, was consistently rated highly effective in her evaluations. She’s the kind of teacher we need to recruit and retain in our public schools. Unfortunately, she’s also the type of teacher we are chasing away.

She said that she had become more and more disturbed by the misguided reforms taking place, which are robbing her students of a developmentally appropriate education, and that she cannot justify making students cry anymore.

This past week thousands of educators flocked to Tallahassee hoping that legislators would hear their concerns. What do they want?

They want politicians out of the classroom. They want policy decisions to be made based on input from educational professionals. They want an end to high-stakes testing. They want the same accountability standards for voucher programs and for-profit charter schools that they have. They want an end to the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program. They want better wages for teachers and more autonomy in their classrooms.

Bradshaw was one of the speakers at the rally. She lamented the fact that the whims of politicians were more important than the students. After attending a state Board of Education meeting, she left feeling “the board was only listening to the opinions of those seeking to profit off of our children, and not those who want our children to profit from their education.”

Other fed-up teachers are speaking out. Susan Bowles, a kindergarten teacher in Alachua County, turned to Facebook to detail the tests she is expected to give to 5-year-olds and why she will no longer give some of them to her students — even if it costs her her job.

Joshua Katz, an Orange County algebra teacher, took to YouTube with a fiery 17-minute attack on high-stakes testing, calling it the “toxic culture of education.”

It’s great that teachers are speaking out. Will legislators listen?

The Legislature doesn’t ignore farmers and ranchers when developing agriculture policy; doesn’t ignore business when setting virtually any policy; doesn’t ignore doctors when changing health care policy; and certainly doesn’t ignore sheriffs when discussing criminal justice policy. Yet they turn a deaf ear to teachers — the education experts with hands-on experience. Why?

It’s disingenuous for the Legislature to tie educators’ hands and then blame them for not being innovative. They are the ones responsible for stifling creativity. It’s no wonder we have a teacher shortage.

Perhaps the rally will entice more teachers to actively engage in the political arena. Imagine what would happen if 180,000 teachers started calling their legislators out on their actions. Better yet, what if they all registered to vote and actually voted?

The Florida Legislature might hear them.

Read full article here.

FL teachers have had enough – rally sends message to lawmakers

January 15, 2016 by

Florida gave charter schools millions before they closed

December 15, 2015 by


by: Gary Fineout & Terry Spencer|Associated Press/Orlando Sentinel

December 14, 2015

Less than a mile from the state Capitol, a former steakhouse shows little evidence that it was once part of a movement to change Florida’s schools.

It was on this location nearly two decades ago that the leader of a prominent Tallahassee church put together one of the state’s first charter schools. The space where customers grazed the salad bar became student desks. The parking lot became home to two portables used for classrooms.

The only trace of C.K. Steele/LeRoy Collins Community Charter Middle School is a sign in the parking lot. It closed in 2014.

But over the course of the preceding decade, the school received nearly $540,000 to help with capital purchases under a program enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and supported by the past three governors. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church owned the building when the school opened and it still does.

Charter schools, which are public schools run by private groups, have received more than $760 million from state taxpayers since 2000, according to an Associated Press analysis of state Department of Education records. Schools can use the money for construction costs, rent payments, buses and even property insurance.

Yet charter schools in 30 districts have wound up closing after receiving as much as $70 million combined in such funding, the AP’s analysis showed.

Taxpayers usually can’t recover the capital money invested in those schools because most of it has been spent on rent or leasing costs. The Department of Education reported it has taken back just $133,000 in the past three years from schools that closed.

“Even if it’s the Taj Mahal, if you lease it and it closes there’s no way for the district to recoup that,” said Jenna Hodgens, who is in charge of dealing with charter schools for Hillsborough County schools.

In Central Florida, a total of 18 now-closed charter schools in Orange, Seminole and Lake counties have received nearly $8.3 million in capital outlay dollars since 2000. Four schools received more than $1 million apiece. As in other parts of the state, schools often rented facilities rather than purchasing them.

Some officials say they don’t like to see charter schools getting money for facilities when traditional public schools are underfunded. Bill Sublette, chairman of the Orange County School Board, said the district struggles to keep pace with the growing student population, even with voters’ approval last year of a half-cent sales tax, which is expected to generate $2 billion. The school district gained about 5,000 students this year alone.

“We can’t afford to lose any money any outside sources because we are scraping by just to keep up with the growth in our community,” said Sublette, who added that he nonetheless supports charter schools.

In Orange, Summit Charter School took out a mortgage for a property previously owned by a private school in Maitland for $1.3 million in 2000. When the Summit School closed in 2011, it still owned a significant amount of money to its mortgage holder, which foreclosed on the property. The school had been plagued by money troubles for years.

The area’s most recently closed school, Milestones Community School in Leesburg, received $1.3 million between 2002 and 2015. The school leased facilities from a church, said Sherri Owens, a spokeswoman for Lake County schools. The Florida Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists owns the school’s former facilities, according to property records.

Seminole County Public Schools worked with one of its schools, Rays of Hope Charter School, to purchase a property in Sanford. The district took over the facility when the school closed in 2009. The property is now part of a complex that now includes the district’s teacher store and training center, as well as Journeys Academy, a district-run alternative school.

Across the state, Democratic lawmakers have criticized the expenditures, especially since the Legislature have curtailed construction money for traditional public schools in recent years.

Charter schools, which proponents see as a way for some families to move their children into schools better suited to their needs, have grown in popularity since they were authorized in the 1990s. There are more than 650 charter schools statewide with more than 250,000 students. These schools receive money from school districts to pay for day-to-day expenses like salaries.

But the growth of charter schools has trigged a tug-of-war in the Legislature over how much money they should also get to pay for capital needs such as classrooms and transportation. The capital money directed to charter schools reached a high of $90 million two years ago but dropped to just less than $48 million this year.

Charter school backers say they need state help because, unlike school districts, they can’t rely on local property taxes to help pay capital expenses.

“Banks don’t usually lend to charter schools,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “You can’t walk into Bank of America and say, `I have a good idea and I may have 100 kids show up.’

read article here. 



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Setting FSA cut scores: high or low, it’s about politics, not kids

December 9, 2015 by


Lower FSA cut scores recommended by Commissioner Pam Stewart have the effect of repeating the school grades issued in 2013-14, FCAT’s last year. That means there will be roughly the same As and the same Fs.  Certain members of the Board of Education such as John Padget and Gary Chartrand along with lobbyists for Jeb’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries are ardently opposed to anything less than setting the harshest of cut scores, causing a startling spike in so-called “failing schools.”

Both Stewart and the Florida Board of Education continue to ignore the point that the FSA is a flawed, unproven test that cannot be used to determine any gains whatsoever. The more we hear from the Florida Board of Education and school “reformers,” the more it’s apparent that their real goal is to use cut scores to drive a significant increase in D and F schools.  Parents and educators have it right. It makes no sense to use the FSA and its flawed data to measure or grade anyone. The controversial cut scores will be voted on at the January 6th Board of Education meeting.

The Tampa Bay Times recently wrote this about Stewart’s cut score recommendations:


Using her proposed definitions, which superintendents and other groups have backed, Stewart presented a picture that’s not nearly as negative as many observers have anticipated.

In her model, 1,159 schools would earn A’s, and 627 would receive B’s. On the other end, 875 would get C’s, 364 would make D’s and 189 would rate F. Those numbers match up closely with 2013-14 grades, which department officials noted are not good comparisons because they are based on different tests, standards, scores and rules.

Many groups have, in fact, opposed the release of any grades at all this year because of the differences, most prominently the lack of student academic gains data. Because the grades are based primarily on proficiency, many of the lowest performing schools align closely with the areas of most poverty.

“Any grades released this year can’t be valid, because there’s no baseline data,” said Linda Cobbe, Pasco schools spokeswoman. “We’re not going to celebrate A’s, and we’re not going to mourn F’s.”

Department leaders and lawmakers have insisted on moving ahead with school grades nonetheless. They did remove some, but not all, of the consequences attached to the results.

“Reviewing simulation data is the final phase of the process for this rule,” Stewart wrote in a letter to superintendents. “As you develop your final comments, I am providing you with a simulation of the letter grade each school would earn should the State Board adopt my proposed achievement level cut scores and the school grades rule in its current form. After the State Board adopts the rule and it goes into effect, we will calculate and release the official preliminary informational baseline school grades, which eventually will be the basis for school recognition dollars.”


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HUR 759: Filed by charter school exec Rep. Manny Diaz eliminates school board authorizing power

November 21, 2015 by


Rep. Manny Diaz, dean of Doral College, a private university run by the state’s largest for-profit charter school management firm, Academica, is at it again. He’s filed another bill to strip school boards of the power to authorize charter schools.  His bill, HUR 759, seeks to create a state level charter school approval process that eliminates districts from the process. Currently, districts are able to approve or deny charters and recent legislation has already given the state has the power to over ride their decisions.

This is not the first time Diaz has tried this legislation. Large for-profit charter school chains such as Academica and Charter Schools USA have ignored the state requirement that charters be innovative. Lobbyists for these groups are currently involved with a dispute in Palm Beach County over what  many feel are predatory charter school applications which offer no new innovations, yet serve to drain highly rated district schools of students making both schools under-populated.

From WFSU:
A massive charter school bill is getting revived ahead of the 2016 lawmaking session. The plan would standardize charter school applications across the state, and change the way such schools are terminated, expanded, approved, or denied.

House Choice and Innovation Committee Chairman Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, says Florida’s current system of approving charters is viewed negatively by some.

“In these cases, the districts acting as authorizers is like McDonald’s telling Burger King where they can open up a franchise, for lack of a better term.”

A similar bill died last session amid legislative in-fighting. The proposal has gotten pushback from school districts who say it interferes with local control, but Diaz says he wants to promote high quality charters.

“What we don’t want to see is barriers put up arbitrarily that prevent quality options to be provided to our kids and our parents,” he said.

The proposal includes language for charters to provide more financial disclosure, and immediate termination for poor performance. It also makes it harder for districts to deny applications. The bill’s return comes as the Palm Beach School district is suing over the process used by the state to override local charter school decisions.





Au revoir French class? Coding could replace foreign languages

November 19, 2015 by

by: Amanda Claire Curcio|Tallahassee Democrat

November 17, 2015

Often, when she is thinking, she’s thinking in French; if she could, she would breathe in French. Everything is lovelier when spoken in French, too — even dreaded subjects like math. To Leon High School senior Jamilah Mitchell, learning the Romance language for the last four years has unlocked a world replete with opportunities.

But if approved, legislation filed last month would limit students’ options of delving deeper into world languages by altering the requirements for the Bright Futures academic scholarship program, which funds tuition at public colleges and universities in Florida.

Students would need to complete two years of computer programming, instead of fulfilling the current two-year foreign language criteria — potentially supplanting the study of foreign languages in school, educators worry.

The bill also mandates that school districts draft proposals to include coding classes in every high school by January 2017, likely overhauling staffing plans and costing districts training dollars.

The underlying aim of SB 468 — introduced by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, former executive at Yahoo!, and backed by Republican leaders — is to encourage more high school graduates to pursue computer science in college, remedying the shortage of trained professionals in the field. There is no companion House bill yet and SB 468 has been assigned three committee stops. In 2014, similar legislation died.

Ring later clarified that he intended to afford students another option in meeting the foreign language requirement in Bright Futures — students who opt to take two years of French would not have to enroll in coding, for instance. However, the bill’s language states that two credits of coding courses would be “required” for students who wish to be eligible for the scholarship.

‘Ill-informed and burdensome’

For students like Jamilah — she has no interest in coding, but is also studying Korean and endeavors to learn five languages — the bill only poses obstacles.

“When I am speaking French, I am just happy,” said Jamilah. “Language is an art; language is a smile, but done through spoken communication.

“I wouldn’t be excited about taking a coding class,” she added, shaking her head. “At all.”

While some state schools, like Florida State University, could be willing to tweak its foreign language requirements — “in certain cases,” said Hege Ferguson, a representative from the admissions office — students who are attending private or out-of-state schools could be at a disadvantage if coding is promoted over foreign language, because those institutions do not have any obligation to alter admissions criteria. A majority of colleges and universities require at least two years of foreign language in high school.

Local teacher union representatives view the bill as “another ill-informed and burdensome” educational initiative needlessly thrust upon districts by lawmakers.

“Once again, the legislation is putting things into place that place restrictions on teachers, students and the overall joy of learning,” said David Worrell, president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association. “There’s a responsibility to ensure that students are prepared for the future, but eliminating the requirement for foreign language is absurd. If anything, students should be focused more on learning languages.”

Not only will kids be unprepared for a global economy, Worrell said, but the bill could eventually jeopardize any number of the 36 foreign language teachers’ jobs at Leon County Schools.

District officials do not expect teacher layoffs in the “immediate future” though, said Randy Pridgeon, LCS divisional director of secondary schools, since many students may opt to take both electives. If colleges begin to accept coding instead, he hypothesized, an eventual decrease in foreign language teaching positions is probable.

If the bill passes, LCS will gauge student enrollment through course surveys conducted in the spring prior to the upcoming school year when the coding requirements would begin, Pridgeon explained. Legislators did not specify which type of programming language, such as C, Python or Java, would be implemented.

The biggest challenge, added Pridgeon, would be hiring qualified coding teachers because they would need to earn requisite education certifications.

Programmers earn a significantly higher salary in the private sector and “retooling” current teachers would cost money. Specifications of computers would have to be adjusted to run instructional coding programs.

Despite expected costs, there aren’t any provisions included in SB 468 that would give LCS more resources associated with this transition.

“I would not suggest making this a legislative priority,” Pridgeon concluded.

A utilitarian approach to education

In recent years, Gov. Rick Scott and legislators have backed Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education initiatives — as a better use of tax dollars to prepare students for rapidly expanding fields, or those that are expected to emerge in the future, they explained.

Some educators say more technical STEM activities “level the playing field” for students who don’t perform well in more traditional classes, like foreign language. Mayor Andrew Gillum, for instance, has already launched the Google CS First program, a coding initiative that exposes students to computer science curriculum, at Cobb Middle School last month.

“With coding, and STEM, students can see how many opportunities can go beyond college and how they play out in workforce and vocational areas,” said Stu Greenberg, LCS chief academic officer. “This unlocks the entrepreneurship of students and triggers creativity and synergy to move kids forward.”

In the U.S., there are 586,982 available computing jobs, but only 38,175 graduates with a degree in computer science, according to, a nonprofit that advocates to increase access to computer science. This gap is expected to widen; by 2020, there will be 1.4 million open computing positions, but only 400,000 computer science students, statistics suggest.

Critics contend this practice of assigning a utilitarian value to learning can be destructive to students.

“Computers are useful, essential tools that enhance students’ learning opportunities, but it cannot replace a course where students are making human connections,” said Colette Clarke, a French teacher at Leon High. “That’s the only thing we say matters — is STEM or something STEM-related? You can’t put students behind a computer and say this is your only accomplishment.”

Clarke says foreign language classes also prepare students in bridging cultural divides — going beyond multilingual skills, such as vocabulary and grammar.  Students are provided a lens to outside traditions, values, food, music, arts and sports of people who “are just like us who live in other countries,” she said.

As a result, students become more empathetic and diplomatic — evidenced during cultural exchanges the school hosts for dozens of French students every year. This cannot happen in a computer class, she asserted.

Professionals in the computer science field say students can receive this sort of cultural enrichment from other classes, like history or English Language Arts, but still disagree with lawmakers’ attempts to make coding mandatory in lieu of foreign language for Bright Futures.

Most programmers, said Michael Viscontini, Chiles High graduate and developer at Canopy Software, can skip college and be successful, so “it doesn’t make much sense” to make it a scholarship requirement. Foreign language is something you need to get into college, but that isn’t the case with computer science.

Viscontini, 27, was an anthropology major at Florida State University until the program was slashed due to budget shortfalls. He decided to leave school and found a job coding. A lot of his expertise stems from on the job training, although he had enrolled in a handful of computer science courses at FSU.

While Viscontini maintains that coding is structurally similar to a language — “it has its own syntax, its own semantic meaning and overall organized structure” — he says students should be able to choose, based on their interests.

“You are potentially short-handing those who are more inclined to do well in languages,” he said. “Instead of arguing one or the other, why not recognize the merit in both fields? You want more people in school, not less.”

read full article here. 

Legislators, Comm. Stewart cry foul over their own “Schools of Choice” double standard

November 16, 2015 by



Regarding the Class Size Amendment, Florida legislators have worked double-time to subvert the will of the people who voted twice for the initiative. They’ve written legislation to ease class size restrictions specifically for charter schools to allow school wide averages for calculations.  They’ve excluded elective courses from class size. The net result is two sets of rules.  One for district schools and another for publicly funded for profit charter schools. Now, when districts decide to avail themselves of some of the liberties that charters enjoy, lawmakers are crying foul.

Many districts have embraced the “schools of choice” label to take advantage of a loophole that allows them to adopt the more attractive charter school rules. So, Sen. John Legg, who runs a charter himself, thinks, “it is time to stop playing shell games.” Commissioner Stewart now wants to define the meaning of a “school of choice.”   Can the legislative intent be any more clear?  They are passing laws to benefit the charter school industry, to give them the financial advantage of hiring less teachers.  These laws are deliberately vague, allowing a broad interpretation to benefit charter management organizations.  And when districts seize some of this love for themselves? No dice.

The people of Florida have clearly expressed a desire for smaller class sizes.  By objecting to school districts taking advantage of a class size loophole meant to benefit charter, Florida politicians have provided a clear example of their ongoing efforts to ignore Article IX, section 1 of the Florida constitution, which clearly requires equity and uniformity.

According to the Tampa Bay Times:

Florida school districts dramatically increased their use of a loophole in the state’s class size law last year, according to newly released Department of Education data that’s bolstering lawmakers’ call for changes to the rule.

By the numbers, districts identified 56 percent more of their schools as “schools of choice” in 2014-15 than a year earlier, meaning that nearly two-thirds of all schools carried that designation. In 2013-14, 39 perecnt of schools had the label, which allowed them to calculate class size as a school-wide average rather than room by room.

Thirty-three school districts had more than 50 percent of their campuses deemed “schools of choice” in 2014-15, up from 27. Among those, Seminole County increased its count from 18 of 61 schools to all of them, Palm Beach jumped from 25 of 177 schools to 153 of 177, and Marion County grew its number from 5 of 53 to 50 of 53.

“This data the commissioner outlined is going to spur some legislative action,” said Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, who requested the information a month ago. “It is time to stop playing shell games.”

Legg suggested two possible courses of action. One would be to clearly define the term “schools of choice,” which commissioner Pam Stewart noted in a letter to Legg has no clear meaning.

At the very least, Legg said, the schools should have open enrollment with available seats, and some form of innovative academic programs. He criticized districts such as his home county of Pasco, where 100 percent of schools are listed as “schools of choice” despite several being frozen to admission from outside their attendance zones. Pasco also has very few magnet programs, he added.

By contrast, Hillsborough County, known for its aggressive magnet and choice program, listed just 13 percent of its schools in the category. Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins has said that could change for 2015-16, for which data is not yet available.

The other possibility would be to eliminate the loophole and require all schools, including charters and other nontraditional programs, to adhere strictly to the 2002 voter mandate on class size.

Legg, a strong supporter of school choice who runs a charter school, said he preferred the former option. Parents and children deserve choices, he said, and the Legislature tried to provide flexibility for public school alternatives meeting those goals.

He expected action in both the Senate and House.

“I’ve had in-depth conversations with (House Choice and Innovation chairman Manny) Diaz,” Legg said. “He is sharing my concern.”

Diaz could not be reached for comment.

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Why Hedge Funds Love Charter Schools

November 16, 2015 by


by: Alan Singer|Huffington Post

July 20, 2014

Obscure laws can have a very big impact on social policy, including obscure changes in the United States federal tax code. The 2001 Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, included provisions from the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000. The law provided tax incentivesfor seven years to businesses that locate and hire residents in economically depressed urban and rural areas. The tax credits were reauthorized for 2008-2009, 2010-2011, and 2012-2013.

As a result of this change to the tax code, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools in under-served areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to one analyst, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years. Another interesting side note is that foreign investors who put a minimum of $500,000 in charter school companies are eligible to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members under a federal program called EB-5.

The tax credit may also explain why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg partnered with the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey to promote charter schools, donated a half a million dollars worth of stock to organizations that distribute charter school funding, and opened his own foundation, Startup: Education, to build new charter schools.

The real estate industry, which already receives huge tax breaks as it gentrifies communities, also stands to benefit by promoting charter schools and helping them buy up property, or rent, in inner city communities. One real estate company,Eminent Properties Trust, boasts on its website “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The Charter management group Charter Schools USA recommends that rental costs should not exceed 20 percent of a school’s budget. However the Miami Heraldreported that in 2011 nineteen charter schools in Miami-Dade and Broward exceeded this figure and one in Miami Gardens paid forty-three percent. The Herald called south Florida charter schools a “$400-million-a-year powerhouse backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians, but with little oversight.” Its report found charters paying exorbitant fees to management companies and that many of the highest rents were paid to landlords with ties to the management companies running the schools.

Tax benefits and real estate investment may also explain why Wall Street is so hot on raising money for charter schools. On Monday night, April 28, 2014, hundreds of Wall Streeters gathered at Cipriani in Midtown Manhattan to raise funds for Success Academy Charter Schools. Former Florida Governor and GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush gave the keynote address. The dinner was chaired by hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb. Loeb is the founder of Third Point LLC and chairman of the board for Success Academy. The gala raised at least $7.75 million for Success Academy. Alsoattending were Kyle Bass of Hayman Capital Management, Joel Greenblatt of Gotham Asset Management, Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital, John Paulson of Paulson & Co. and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater USA.

According to The New York Times, the ten highest paid hedge fund operators with close ties to charter schools also includes David Tepper (number 1 at $3.5 billion in 2013), founder of founder of Appaloosa Management and New Jersey based “Better Education for Kids”; Steven A. Cohen (number 2 at $2.4 billion) of SAC Capital Advisors, which was forced to pay a $1.2 billion dollar penalty for insider trading, who has given over $10 million to the Achievement First charter school network; and Paul Tudor Jones II (tied for tenth at $600 million), founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation who has supported charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation.

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