Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Florida’s unheralded school revolution

Two weeks ago Florida Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have ended teacher tenure and established merit pay. His action was widely criticized and effectively ended his primary race for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

And yet last week, Mr. Crist signed an education bill that will dramatically expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It has attracted little attention, but this legislation could revolutionize K-12 education in the Sunshine State.

The tax credits support private school choice for low-income children by encouraging businesses to donate money for their education. A business's tax liability is cut by a dollar for every dollar it donates to a nonprofit scholarship organization. The nonprofits use the funds to help poor families pay private school tuition.

Currently, there is a $118 million cap on the program. This year nearly $100 million was donated in the program, which as of February translated into scholarships for 27,700 students. But the new law raises the caps on the value a scholarship (eventually to $5,500) and on the total amount of money that can be donated in the program to $140 million in fiscal year 2011.

It also allows the program to rise 25% annually and expands the tax base against which credits can be taken. That used to be limited to corporate income and insurance premium taxes. Now credits can be taken against taxes on oil and gas production, self-accrued sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders, and alcoholic beverage taxes on beer, wine and spirits.

This change could prove dramatic: In 10 years the program could raise $1.3 billion and support over 8% of Florida's students. In 15 years it could approach $4 billion and support more than a quarter of the state's students. A girl born in Florida today might find that a third or more of her peers are being educated in private schools by the time she sets foot in high school.

But will the state's politicians and special interests allow that transformation to take place? Looking at how the reform legislation fared in the state's Republican controlled legislature, it seems the answer is already in. The bill passed both houses overwhelmingly, including support from 42% of Democrats and 52% of the legislative black caucus. (Nearly every Republican voted yes.) That is a remarkable turnabout for a program that received one Democratic vote when it was created in 2001. Why the shift?

Money is part of the answer. On average, public schools in the state spend over $11,000 per student, far more than the scholarships. Therefore the state gains $1.49 in savings for every $1 it loses in tax revenue in the program, according to a 2008 fiscal analysis by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. The state Senate Ways and Means Committee estimated the program's expansion will save $20 million over the next four years.

But money is far from the only reason Democrats support this program. State Rep. Bill Heller, the top Democrat on the House Education Policy Council, wrote recently in the St. Petersburg Times, "To me, a scholarship option for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity."

There is also clear evidence that many private schools outperform public schools academically. The first children to enter the Washington, D.C., voucher program, for example, now read more than two grade levels above students who applied for the program but didn't win the voucher lottery.

Researchers from Northwestern University will soon release a study on how competition from Florida's education tax-credit program is impacting the performance of children who remain in public schools. The preliminary evidence is that school choice lifts the performance of public-school students significantly.

Florida's scholarship program appears to be the first statewide private school choice program to reach a critical mass of funding, functionality and political support. As an ever increasing number of students in Florida take advantage of the scholarship program, other states will find it hard to resist enacting broad-based school choice.


Charter schools threaten to sue D.C. for funding

Parity pursued across nation

D.C. supporters of charter schools are among a number of national proponents who are turning toward litigation to get charter students their fair share of public education dollars.

In North Carolina, a charter coalition has filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination after winning a funding lawsuit in February. In Missouri, St. Louis charter schools and parents claim that the school district owes them millions of dollars that the public school system failed to distribute after receiving the money from the state.

D.C. advocates say they will sue if Mayor Adrian M. Fenty fails to increase the per-pupil allocations for charter students. The Washington Times broke the news about the threat on its website Friday after a daylong D.C. Council hearing on school budget discrepancies, teachers salaries and a new union agreement.

At the hearing, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray cited a draft proposal by charter advocates that spells out several demands, including aligning charter schools per-pupil allocations with those of traditional schools. The funding concerns stem from a tentative union agreement that includes five years worth of raises and a much-heralded merit-pay package.

"If Mayor Fenty does not agree to modify the per-student funding formula to include the impact of this new proposed compensation structure, it is the charter communitys intent to take the city to court in order to ensure parity and equity in accordance with D.C. Charter School laws and regulations," according to the four-page document titled "Draft Charter School Position Paper on Salary Increases," a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

Funding for charter schools varies from state to state and, like public schools, they receive a combination of local, state and federal money. Many school districts and states base their funding for charters and traditional public schools on a per-pupil formula, which is then "weighted" to factor in such additional costs as special education and transportation.

But the mayor and schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee strayed from that formula, which is mandated in the School Reform Act, by brokering a union deal that excludes charters from receiving additional funding, said a spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Like their public school counterparts, charters view funding as key to their operations, and as competition for those dollars grows, so do legal actions.

The St. Louis Charter School filed a lawsuit last year claiming that St. Louis Public Schools had shortchanged its funding by $3.86 million over four years. The state put a preliminary estimate at $1.5 million. If the states calculations are applied to across the board, the dollar amount could reach as high as $20 million for the city's dozen charters.

In North Carolina, the Association of African American Charter School Administrators filed a discrimination complaint last week with the U.S. Department of Educations office of civil rights.

The complaint claims a state Board of Education policy approved in December is biased against charter schools because it mandates that a charter be revoked if less than 60 percent of a charters students pass standardized tests in two out of three consecutive years and if students fail to meet or exceed expected growth based on those tests.

Traditional public schools are granted more leeway, the complainants said.

"Our concern is we just want the support and the same treatment," Eugene Slocum, principal of Alpha Academy, told the Fayetteville Observer.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools spokesman Barnaby Towns made similar remarks to The Times, pointing to the D.C. mayor's budget plan for fiscal 2010 and 2011.

"Any additional public funding needed for DCPS teacher pay increases should be put through the funding formula. … [The] inequity in public funding could be legitimately pursued in a lawsuit."


Nothing is so harmful to our children’s futures as education

Michael Deacon reports on a series of initiatives to banish risk from British classrooms

Many schools are no longer teaching dissection in biology, according to a report. This is apparently for various reasons concerning health and safety, one of which is that badly behaved pupils might steal the scalpels and use them in fights.

This seems unlikely, given that most pupils today are already equipped with their own knives, but I'm sure we all agree that there is nothing so harmful to our children's futures as education, and that the less they receive of it, the better. These days, rather than doing dissection themselves, pupils watch it carried out on video, or a computer simulation.

You will no doubt be as pleased as I am that school authorities have passed the following equally positive measures to safeguard pupils.

• Owing to the threats posed by compasses, protractors and pencils, children will no longer study mathematics. Instead, they are to be shown videos of children studying mathematics, or a computer simulation of someone counting.

• Because of their sharp edges, scissors are to be removed from all school first-aid kits. For similar reasons, the popular game Scissors, Paper, Stone is to be renamed Paper, Paper, Paper.

• The obvious risks associated with gym equipment, flying footballs and physical movement mean that all pupils will now be automatically excused PE. Any child wishing to do PE will require a note from his or her parents.

• The tug of war will remain a part of school sports day. However, to avoid muscle strain, all competitors must pull from the same side.

• Running is prohibited in school corridors, the playground and during the 100m sprint.

• To avoid grazes resulting from falls, school playgrounds must be made of rubber. To reduce the risk of tripping on them, all marbles should be cuboid. Playing tag is acceptable, provided that it is non-contact.

• All potentially dangerous elements are to be removed from the periodic table. It will henceforth consist of oxygen and tin.

• Schools are permitted to keep pets, on condition that they are not alive.

* Excellent political news: all three main parties have agreed to a Meaningless Phrase Amnesty, effective from Friday. On that day, specified buzzwords and clichés are to be handed in, no questions asked, to a specially created Drivel Depot in central London, where they will be decommissioned.

Among the phrases to be taken permanently out of use are these: "a new politics"; "changed the political landscape"; "hard-working families"; "relish the opportunity to get out and meet real people"; "these two old parties"; "our national dialogue"; "take money out of the economy"; "my vision of Britain moving forward"; "Gordon Brown".

* Mills & Boon plans to publish a series of throbbing romances about inhabitants of National Trust houses. I'm worried about this, because my father both works at and lives on a National Trust property. I hope they're not drawing a character in his image. I also hope nobody will accuse me of unkind stereotyping if I say that few of the National Trust members I have met struck me as thrusting Casanovas.

"Nicole," said Hugo, "I want to ask you something. Something important." Nicole's pulse quickened uncontrollably. Her knees turned to water. How she yearned for his masterful touch. "Anything, Hugo, anything," she breathed. He fixed on her his smouldering dark gaze, and spoke. "What do you think we should do about the greenfly on the lupins in Border M?"


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