[UPDATE] Expansion of Charter, Virtual Schools Poised to Become Law

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[UPDATE] 5-5 10:50am

The Legislature on Wednesday approved two major education reform proposals that authorize significant expansion of charter and virtual schools.

But advocates for public schools say the measures drain dollars away from traditional schools, favoring charter schools and virtual programs which do not have to meet the same rigorous standards as public schools.

Only Gov. Rick Scott’s signature stands in the way of the bills becoming law and all indications are that he will likely sign them. “These bills expand choices for students and their parents, giving them a chance to get the education that best suits the needs of the student,” said Scott spokesman Lane Wright.

Increasing options for parents beyond traditional public schools is a high priority of Republicans, who are expanding upon a legacy of school reforms that began with Gov. Jeb Bush in the late 1990s.

Indeed, Bush weighed in over Twitter on the passage of the bills on Wednesday, as the legislative session enters its last couple of days.

“Florida is one step closer to transforming education for 21st century,” Bush said, using Twitter shorthand, on Wednesday. “Thanks to Florida’s leaders for expanding access to customized education.”

The charter school bill (SB 1546), passed by the House in a 87-27 predominantly party-line vote, establishes a system that allows highly rated charter schools to expand enrollment and add new grades without having to seek approval from school districts. A school that has received an “A” or “B” grade in the last three years would qualify as highly rated. It also grants these schools longer 15-year charters.

The virtual school bill (HB 7197), passed the Senate in a 27-12 predominantly party-line vote, and allows charter schools to offer full-time or part-time virtual school classes, if approved by the school district.

It also requires all high school students to take one online class prior to graduation and permits children as young as five to take full-time virtual classes paid for with state funds. It expands the number of grades the Florida Virtual School offers and requires districts to offer more virtual instruction programs.

Bill sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said it promotes the kind of interactions children are used to – on computers and the Internet. "It's a step in the right direction to make sure that we as the adults catch up to the way our kids are learning,” Flores said. Many Democrats suggested it was unfair to push technology on to students who may not have equal exposure to computers at home.

Some critics of online education also question the quality of instruction, with tales of students taking open-book exams and copying homework answers from the Internet. Virtual schools say they have stringent quality standards.

Even some Republicans marveled at the wide-ranging impact of the virtual school bill.

"I wish that the increase to virtual schools would have been more modest,” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

During debate on the charter school expansion, Democrats said they were troubled by the push to increase charter schools rather than help failing public schools. “This bill takes away from traditional public schools and gives an unfair advantage to charter schools,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami.

Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said the bill carves out favors for charter schools. “We need to fund low-performing schools,” Gibbons said, not make it easier for charter schools to expand.
But Republicans said the bill rewards charter schools that are performing well.

“The reason I like this bill is because it allows us to copy success,” said Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville. “There are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools. We are able to emulate the good charter schools.”

A common criticism of using state funds to support private, virtual or charter schools is that they are not held to the same standards as public schools in terms of testing, class sizes, merit pay and other requirements.

Florida School Board Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton said “as long as everybody is on a level playing field,” these expansion plans are fair. But Blanton said public schools are subjected to more oversight.

For instance, the new teacher merit pay law may not apply to some teachers of virtual programs.

The virtual school bill permits hiring of adjunct instructors, who are exempted from the new merit pay law that requires tying teacher pay to test scores, according to Florida Education Association lobbyist Ron Meyer.

“Once again, while the public schools in Florida are held to prescribed standards, charter, voucher and virtual schools - all of which are funded with public dollars - are not required to meet the same standards,” Meyer said.


[UPDATE] 5-3 8:45am

The House and Senate approved a slew of bills Monday to expand virtual schools and voucher programs, potentially siphoning more students away from traditional public schools.

One of the bills, an expansion of the John McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities, is one signature away from becoming law after the Senate approved the House bill on Monday.

The measures reflect a Republican priority of boosting “school choice,” whether it be more virtual classes, expansion of charter schools or vouchers for private schools. This is largely an extension of education reforms that began with Gov. Jeb Bush in the late 1990s with his push for private school vouchers.

“It’s about doing what is right for students,” said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during House floor debate. “We want you as a parent to have the choice to go to whatever school you feel is best for your student.”

The bills have the backing of Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on promises that the state would offer more school choice.

But advocates for public schools see the changes to Florida’s education system as a way of chipping away at public schools by using state funds that would have gone to school districts to instead help support private schools and virtual schools.

“This Legislature, under the leadership of (Senate President Mike) Haridopolos and (House Speaker Dean) Cannon, have side-stepped their requirement to take care of public schools, they are just looking for gimmicks that can save the state some money,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.

Among the bills approved by the House on Monday are:

-HB 1331: Expands the definition of a failing public school from a school that has received an “F” in a four-year period to a school that has received a “D” or “F” in the prior year, and allowing students in failing public schools to use the Opportunity Scholarship to transfer to a higher-rated public school elsewhere in the state.

-HB 7197: Requires students take a virtual class prior to graduation and allows children as young as kindergarten to take full-time virtual school classes with private vendors paid for by state funds. It allows the development of virtual charter schools and expands the amount of grades the Florida Virtual School can offer.

-HB 965: Allows companies that donate to a corporate tax scholarship group to receive a tax credit worth 100 percent of that donation. Under current law, these companies only get a tax discount worth 75 percent of their contribution. Corporate contributions go toward scholarship groups that use these funds to pay for private school vouchers. This bill was amended to take out a provision that would have given these scholarship groups access to a list of the top 100 taxpayers in Florida in order to approach them for donations.

The Senate approved on Monday:

-HB 1329: An expansion of the John McKay scholarship for students with disabilities. It expands the definition of disabled students, allowing potentially up to 50,000 more students to receive state funds to attend a private school.

Democrats are generally opposed to these changes, citing concern about a failure to help struggling schools and an emphasis on virtual classes that may not benefit students who don’t have much exposure to computers.

“We don’t have failing schools, we have failing communities because parents aren’t getting involved,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. “We should be trying to make sure we get parents more involved.”

Under HB 1331, more students could leave failing schools, Democrats said, crippling the school’s ability to improve.

During debate on the virtual school expansion bill, Democrats said they were concerned about the emphasis on virtual classes, given the inconsistent exposure that Florida students have to computers. “We have students who lack home access,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “This puts some students at a disadvantage.”

Supporters of virtual school expansion said children are savvy at online interactions and the bill better equips them to handle online classes in college. “The classroom is simply not the same as when we were in school and we were kids,” said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville. “This bill will let parents know about the options and will help our kids go into the 21st century and prepare them.”

The Senate also passed a bill (SB 1546) last week that makes it easier for highly-rated charter schools to expand enrollment and add grades, paving the way for more charter schools competing for public school students.

The combination of these bills and a cut to school funding in the budget means tough times for school districts, said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former superintendent.

“You will see some tough times in school districts throughout Florida,” Montford said.


[UPDATE] 5-2 10:30am

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A bill expanding Florida's school
voucher program for students with disabilities has passed in the
Senate and gone to Gov. Rick Scott.

The Senate on Monday voted 28-9 for the bill (HB 1329) that
previously had passed the House.

The McKay Scholarship Program currently provides public funds so
21,000 students with physical and learning disabilities can attend
private schools.

The bill could add thousands more with lesser disabilities such
as asthma, allergies and diabetes.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, argued against the
bill. She said it unnecessarily takes money from public schools for
students whose ailments can be controlled in a traditional
classroom setting.

School districts would lose basic funding for each voucher
student but not money spent on accommodating their disabilities.



Lawmakers are poised to expand the state’s school voucher programs instituted more than 10 years ago that enable more students to attend private schools.

Under three bills advancing in the Legislature, all of Florida’s existing voucher programs would be affected in some way. But unlike when these major school reforms were proposed over 10 years ago, protests have been muted. Some Democrats, who were once ardently opposed to voucher programs, have even begun to support vouchers.

Even the Florida Education Association, which is opposed to vouchers, is reluctant to spend its energies fighting it. “There are only so many battles one can fight in a legislative session,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow.

Though the voucher expansion bills will have relatively minor impact on public schools, critics see them as part of a larger chipping away at traditional public schools through a series of reforms. Those changes include major expansions of virtual and charter schools and reforming how public school teachers and school board members are paid.

Among the bills that expand vouchers are:

-A measure (SB 1656, HB 1329) that expands the definition of students who can receive John McKay scholarships for disabled students, funneling more taxpayer dollars into private schools

-A bill (SB 1822, HB 1331) that permits students who are in public schools rated “D” or “F” to transfer to a better-rated public school anywhere in the state through the Opportunity Scholarship program.

- A bill (SB 1388, HB 965) that gives corporate tax scholarship programs access to data on Florida’s top taxpayers to solicit them for donations and expands how much of a tax discount a business could get.

The McKay scholarship bill has the most potential to funnel more students into private schools. It expands the definition of eligible students from students who are primarily learning disabled, or have vision or hearing impairments, to students who have physical impairments, ranging from paraplegia to allergies.

By allowing students with “504” accommodations, the scholarship could be available to as many as 50,000 students. That’s the number of students that currently have that type of accommodation at a Florida public school.

To get a “504” designation, a student must have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to the bill analysis. Lobbyist Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students, said this can be applied to a student who has a peanut allergy.

“Why would a peanut allergy entitle my child to a voucher?” Cerra said in an interview Friday.

The McKay scholarship bill passed its second committee stop in the House on Friday. Groups such as Foundation for Florida’s Future, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush to promote education reform, support it. Bush was a big champion of private school vouchers and pushed for the first voucher programs beginning in 1999.

Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for FEA, said the problem with expanding the McKay scholarship is it opens the door to legal challenges.

The Opportunity Scholarship, which used to provide vouchers for students in low-ranking schools to attend private schools, was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court after it was deemed unconstitutional. Now it just exists as a voucher for students to attend different public schools.

Many fear the McKay scholarship would face the same fate if expanded.

“From a legal standpoint you saw a narrow incursion into what the Supreme Court has said is a prohibition of creating a dual system of public schools,” Meyer said of the McKay scholarship. “The passage of (the bill) threatens the very existence of the McKay scholarship program.”

Meyer said the FEA was slow to support the McKay scholarship, but has “seen the good” the scholarship provides students. Vouchers in general are also gaining more support from Democrats. Four Democrats in the House have voted for the McKay bill so far, and three have supported a bill that would help the corporate tax vouchers.

Tampa-based Step Up For Students gives vouchers to low-income students funded by donations from companies. Those companies then receive a nearly equal tax credit.

Backers say the once controversial program is gaining support.

“This program has managed over the years to attract genuine bipartisan support,” said Step Up For Students spokesman Jon East. A bill passed by last year’s Legislature that expanded the voucher award amount and allowed more students to participate was backed by “almost half of the Democrats in the Legislature and a majority of the black caucus,” he said.

Many black Democrats have long supported vouchers – because they’re often trapped in bad neighborhood schools.

Some Democrats remain staunchly opposed to vouchers.

“We have to be exceptionally careful when we talk about expansion of voucher programs,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who has voted “no” on the voucher bills that have come through committees he sits on.

“The question we have to keep in mind with any of the voucher programs is what the negative impact is on the school districts,” said Montford, a former school superintendent.

“It’s very hard to argue against parental choice…at the same time we have to make sure we are cognizant of the negative impact on the programs and public schools where the voucher students are leaving,” Montford said.

School lobbyists say they are resigned to their fate.

“It is acceptance of reality,” said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for several school districts.

He said the Republican-controlled Legislature and conservative governor support allowing parents the choice between public and private schools, a legacy that began with Bush in 1999.

The main complaint from public schools, Pickup-Crawford said, is that private schools receive state funding but aren’t held to the same accountability standards. Not to mention that schools continue to lose state funding.

“It’s siphoning money away from public schools,” he said.

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