August 29, 2017

In Tallahassee, Betsy DeVos draws flak for focus on 'innovation' over traditional schools

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While advocating for “innovative” learning in Florida’s capital city on Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s education chief drew complaints for choosing to tour two schools that are atypical of the traditional public school experience most children have.

Public education advocates — ranging from Democratic candidates for governor to the dozen protesters who picketed her visit — criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for her continued promotion of private schools, charter options and voucher programs over the traditional schools that still educate most of the nation’s children.

“She doesn’t seem to have the interest of public schools in mind,” said Al Thorburn, who — with his wife, Colleen — faced the blistering Tallahassee summer heat to protest DeVos’ stop at Holy Comforter Episcopal School, a private Christian school for pre-K through eighth grade that charges annual tuition reaching up to $11,800 a year.

“The fact that she’s coming to a private school here and then an experimental school — although it’s supported by taxpayer money — she isn’t going to the city’s public schools. That seems to be a pattern,” Thorburn said.

Inside Holy Comforter, DeVos took a tour of the facilities, visiting several classrooms where every child had an Apple MacBook Air or other laptop to use in their lessons. She read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to an attentive kindergarten class, observed third-graders building robots in the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab and somewhat awkwardly joined a fifth-grade class in raising their hands in “silent cheers” when they got the right answers during an interactive quiz on English idioms.

Later in the afternoon, DeVos visited Florida State University Schools — a K-12 charter school known as “Florida High” that’s affiliated with FSU’s College of Education. She observed a physics lab where students learned the fundamentals behind robotics and then she tested the school’s flight simulator, before eating lunch privately with students.

DeVos praised Florida as “an innovator in approaching education and meeting the needs of students,” but she deflected questions about whether she was observing a typical student experience.

More here.

Photo credit: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos participates in a lesson with fifth grade students at Holy Comforter Episcopal School in Tallahassee on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, as they use an online-learning platform to take a quiz about idioms. DeVos spent two hours visiting classrooms at the private Christian school. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

Betsy Devos will be in Tallahassee today

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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a controversial champion of school choice, is making another trip to the Sunshine State with plans to visit two schools in the state capital on Tuesday, one public and one private.

DeVos will spend the morning at Holy Comforter Episcopal School, a private Christian school that opened in 1955, before visiting Florida State University High School, an “A”-rated public charter school that’s known as “Florida High” and is affiliated with FSU’s College of Education.

Additional details about her trip, such as if she would be meeting with any elected officials while in town, were not released Monday afternoon.

DeVos — a billionaire Republican donor from Michigan who came in to the secretary’s job lacking experience in public education — has made several trips to Florida since she was narrowly confirmed by the Senate in February.

More here.

Photo credit: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos alongside FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg,left, visits FIU in Miami in April. David Santiago / El Nuevo Herald

August 15, 2017

State: Each school district must review teachers' eligibility for 'Best & Brightest' bonuses

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The Florida Department of Education says it will be up to each of the state's 67 county school districts to determine which of their local teachers is eligible for the state "Best and Brightest" bonus program that lawmakers revamped as part of a massive education law that took effect this summer.

Hershel Lyons, Florida's chancellor of public schools, issued guidance to school district superintendents through a two-page memo last week that details how the revised and expanded program should be implemented. It's the latest in a trickle of memos from the DOE that explain how school districts should make sure they comply with the plethora of new education policy in House Bill 7069.

In addition to the original "Best and Brightest" bonus that was first enacted two years ago and is based on teachers' own SAT/ACT scores, HB 7069 calls for top teachers to also get extra money each year for simply being evaluated as "effective" or "highly effective."

All "highly effective" teachers will now get $1,200 bonuses, while "effective" teachers can get "up to $800," under the new law.

RELATED: "Lots of questions but few answers on how to make state’s new education policy work"

"Highly effective" teachers can also still receive bonuses of $6,000 if they can show they scored in the 80th percentile or above when they took the SAT or ACT -- either in high school or more recently, if they choose to retake the exam. (A change to the program that reduces that threshold to the 77th percentile and makes it easier for teachers to qualify using other exams and criteria does not take effect until the 2020-2021 school year.)

"Each scholarship has its own eligibility requirements that districts must review and administer locally," Lyons wrote to the districts on Aug. 11.

Teachers seeking the $6,000 have until Nov. 1 to submit their SAT/ACT score report to their local school district, Lyons wrote. Then by Dec. 1, each district must tell the DOE how many classroom teachers they have eligible for the "Best and Brightest" awards.

Lyons said the DOE will disburse the award dollars to districts by Feb. 1, so that eligible teachers can receive their bonuses on April 1, 2018.

The expanded "Best and Brightest" program also includes new bonuses for top principals, but guidance on how that will be implemented isn't available yet. "Information regarding the Best and Brightest Principal Scholarship Program will be sent in the near future," Lyons wrote.

Neither Lyons' memo nor other guidance to date from the DOE has addressed a concern raised by Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho relating to how teachers' evaluations should be calculated under the new law -- an issue that, Carvalho said, could effect whether teachers know if they are eligible for the bonuses.

Another part of HB 7069 eliminated a state mandate requiring teachers to be evaluated based on a state-approved formula known as the "value-added model," or VAM, but state law still requires teachers' evaluations to factor in student performance. “So if not VAM, then what?” Carvalho asked last month, noting teachers' final evaluations could be delayed in the interim.

House Republicans -- who have fought for the bonus program since lawmakers first enacted it through the 2015-16 state budget -- say "Best and Brightest" is a way to reward good teachers, but the program has been heavily criticized by teachers' unions and other groups.

Critics argue a one-time bonus -- even annually -- isn't as good as an actual and permanent bump in salary, which they say would benefit teachers more. They've also complained about tying the bonus to teachers' SAT/ACT results, saying a teacher's performance on a single exam isn't an indicator of one's ability to be an effective teacher.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

July 25, 2017

Miami-Dade schools will weigh joining HB 7069 lawsuit during Wednesday workshop

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Miami-Dade Public Schools could decide as soon as Wednesday whether to join Broward County and other school districts in challenging the constitutionality of a sweeping K-12 education reform law that took effect this month.

Miami-Dade School Board members are holding a workshop to discuss their legal options when it comes to House Bill 7069 — but it’s evident by legal counsel they’ve already received which avenue they’re most likely to pursue: Suing the state.

Tapping the help of three outside legal firms, the district has already spent about $9,900 to research the constitutionality of HB 7069, a district spokeswoman said Monday. According to documents requested by the Herald/Times, some of that legal advice came even before the final version of the legislation was introduced and passed in the final days of session in early May.

With five memos in all, each raises questions about the law’s constitutionality and presents arguments the district could use in court. Chief among them are various ways, the attorneys argue, that the law grants new powers to privately managed charter schools and bypasses the authority of locally elected school boards to oversee public schools within their districts.

Full details here.

July 24, 2017

Lacking key DOE guidance, Florida schools try to adopt statewide reforms in HB 7069



Every year, new state laws hit the books that have to be implemented once they take effect. But House Bill 7069 isn’t your average new law.

The sweeping, 274-page, $419 million measure that reforms Florida’s public K-12 schools spans dozens of changes in statute — some of which are complex and take effect at different times over the course of the next few years.

So, what goes into implementing something like that?

The Florida Department of Education doesn’t want to answer questions about it and hasn’t offered much detail publicly three weeks after HB 7069 became law on July 1.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file

July 21, 2017

Gov. Scott vetoed a higher ed bill. Now he wants universities to spend their money wisely.



When Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a major higher education reform bill last month, it didn’t strip away millions of dollars for Florida’s public universities that was already approved separately in the state budget but linked to that proposed policy.

Because the policy didn’t become law, the universities aren’t as limited now in how they can spend the money.

Scott sent letters to each of the 12 public universities this week urging them to use the dollars — more than $120 million among the individual institutions — to “focus on graduation rates” and encourage post-graduation career opportunities.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Matias Ocner / Miami Herald

July 20, 2017

FLDOE releases guidance on 'Schools of Hope,' new school improvement rules



Nine low-performing traditional public schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties can apply for extra funding this school year under the controversial new “Schools of Hope” program that lawmakers narrowly approved this spring.

The Florida Department of Education released a preliminary list of eligible schools in guidance sent to the state’s 67 school districts this week, advising superintendents of how they must address their failing schools under the terms of House Bill 7069, which took effect July 1.

One option available to 93 newly failing schools statewide — which serve about 64,500 students — is to vie for “Schools of Hope” dollars: up to $2,000 per student that could be spent on wraparound services, such as after-school programs and community partnerships.

The schools will have less than a month to make their pitch and only 25 of the 93 schools will get the extra money in 2017-18, due to a cap Republican legislators put in the new law.

Full story here.

July 18, 2017

Appeals court considers lawsuit over Florida's public education system

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The Florida Constitution requires the state to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” — but is that general standard something that can be measured?

That’s what an appeals court in Tallahassee will decide in the latest round of a long-standing battle over whether the Legislature, state Board of Education and the Florida Department of Education are fulfilling their constitutional obligations for 2.8 million children in the state’s public schools.

After a five-week trial last year, a Leon County Circuit Court judge tossed out the lawsuit that was filed in 2009. While the plaintiffs — led by two advocacy organizations, Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now — argued the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty, Judge George S. Reynolds III found they hadn’t met the burden to prove that was the case.

Now the First District Court of Appeal will decide whether Reynolds erred in that ruling. Central to that decision is whether the constitutional standard — adopted by voters in the late 1990s — is one that can be definitively measured.

Focused on that theme, the three-judge appeals panel peppered attorneys for the state and for the plaintiffs with questions during an hourlong hearing Tuesday.

Read more here.

July 07, 2017

Florida House responds to Broward Schools' threat of lawsuit with promotional video



Two days after the Broward County School Board decided to sue over newly enacted and controversial statewide education reforms, Florida House Republicans countered by debuting a promotional video that touts their hotly debated “Schools of Hope” plan.

The “Hope” program — a top session priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — is one of several provisions within House Bill 7069 that attorneys for the Broward school district plan to argue is unconstitutional.

Corcoran on Wednesday said the Broward School Board’s vote earlier that day to file a lawsuit was “clueless” and “arguably heartless,” in part, because “Schools of Hope” aims to break the cycle of traditional public schools that earn failing grades year after year.

RELATED: “Broward Schools to sue over controversial new schools law”

The House’s new video advertising “Schools of Hope” is the most recent product of an aggressive digital marketing strategy implemented under Corcoran, who took over as speaker in November.

The video’s message — and an accompanying tweet from Corcoran promoting it — are consistent with how Republican lawmakers have argued in defense of HB 7069: By casting critics as people opposed to helping tens of thousands of children in perpetually failing schools who might not have other public education options to turn to.

“As they prepare to sue ... we help prepare kids to soar,” Corcoran wrote Friday on Twitter, appearing to reference the Broward County School Board.

Watch the video and read our full story here.

Image credit: "Florida House of Representatives" YouTube page

Lawsuit alleges Florida's colleges, universities owed $1B from state

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via @harrisalexc

In the 1970s, Florida joined a wave of states that encouraged private philanthropy to public universities by matching donations. Following the housing market crash and economic downturn, the Legislature put the matching rules on hold “temporarily” in 2011.

Temporarily has turned into six years. Now, a state lawsuit has been filed against lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to pay out the money — all $1 billion of it. That’s $600 million in backlogged matches and the rest in estimated potential donations if the automatic match is reinstated.

Grace Mead, a Miami attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit under the name of two recent University of Florida graduates, argues that the Legislature’s continued hold on donations matches violates Florida’s constitution and harms students’ education. The two students named as lead plaintiffs are Alexis Geffin, a Wisconsin sports reporter, and her brother Ryan Geffin, an incoming medical student at Florida International University.

“We’re not seeking damages,” Mead said, “we’re seeking allocation of funds.”


Full story here.