March 07, 2015

How a charter school was born -- and Jeb Bush became Florida's education governor

Libertycity1

After a bruising defeat in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Jeb Bush approached a well-known civil rights leader in Miami with an ambitious plan.

He wanted to open an experimental "charter" school in Liberty City, one of the nation’s poorest communities. And he wanted T. Willard Fair to help.

Fair, the president of the Miami Urban League, was skeptical. Some members of his inner circle suggested Bush was using him for political gain.

The two men met in Miami. Fair assumed it would be nothing more than a photo-op. But it ended up being a 90-minute discussion on the state of Florida’s schools.

"Jeb was genuine," Fair recalled. "You can’t fool me. I’m going to test you too many times."

Two years later, in the summer of 1996, a group of 60 students, donning crisp red uniforms, entered the new Liberty City Charter School. It was the state’s first charter school, and it paved the way for hundreds of others.

There’s no doubt that the experience in building the charter school helped Bush politically, softening his image in advance of his successful 1998 gubernatorial race. But it also sparked a deep interest in education policy that would define his legacy, both as Florida’s governor and later as a leader in the national education reform movement.

"It opened his eyes to aspects of urban issues that he hadn’t thought about before,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor and author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.

As Bush defines himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, the story of the Liberty City Charter School is certain to draw attention. It’s a double-edged sword for Bush. Supporters can point to the school’s academic success in boasting Bush’s leadership in education. At the same time, opponents can point to the financial troubles that led to its closing in 2008 as evidence of Bush’s failed education agenda.

More here.

March 05, 2015

Florida lawmakers eye charter schools

Testing isn’t the only closely watched education issue state lawmakers will tackle during the 60-day legislative session.

The Florida House is moving swiftly on a proposal to create a statewide institute to assist with the opening of new charter schools.

The proposal (HB 7037) would also require the immediate termination of any charter school that receives back-to-back Fs from the state. And it would require charter schools to submit monthly financial statements to their school-district sponsors.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Horne, who lobbies for the school-management firm Charter Schools USA, called the bill "long overdue."

"The money saved will far exceed the amount of money you invest in this," he told lawmakers, noting that the institute would help new charter school operators more fully think through their proposals before opening.

The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1448) goes a step further, allowing students to attend any traditional or charter school that has not reached capacity.

Students would not be limited to schools in their home counties, said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, the bill’s sponsor.

Legg, who operates a Pasco County Charter School, said he included the provision because families should have the ability to transfer to specialized programs without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

More here.

Activists: Say 'no' to guns on campus

 

Activists are launching an aggressive campaign against legislative proposals that would allow guns on Florida campuses.

The groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have a new television ad that will air across Florida. It features a clip of National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre telling the 1999 NRA convention that schools should be "absolutely gun free."

"What was true then should be true now," the ad says. "So why are Florida's lawmakers trying to allow guns into schools and force them onto college campuses?"

The TV spot references two pieces of legislation, one of which would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college and university properties. The bill (HB 4005/SB 176) has already won the approval of one Senate panel, despite strong objections from Florida State University President John Thrasher and the state Board of Governors.

The other bill (HB 19/SB 180) would allow designated teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons on public school campuses.

The NRA has come out in support of both proposals, saying they will increase security on college campuses and at public schools. But Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America believes otherwise.

"Our kids' teachers enter the esteemed profession of education to teach, not to become sharpshooters," said Chryl Anderson, who volunteers with the organization's Florida chapter. "Florida lawmakers should do their jobs, too -- pass laws to keep Floridians safe from gun violence instead doing the bidding of the gun lobby."

In addition to the ad, the group will hold a rally at the Capitol on Monday.

Florida House rolls out testing proposal

The Florida House plans to move quickly on its testing bill, leaders said Thursday.

"We're going to try to get this to the floor as soon as we possibly can so we can alleviate all of the stress and uncertainty in the field," House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole said.

Her goal: to ensure "the teachers can teach, the students can learn, and the parents can be assured that we know what we're doing." 

The 70-page draft proposal is similar to the version in the Senate. It eliminates a new 11th grade language arts exam, removes the requirement that school districts test every student in every subject, and reduces the extent to which student test performance factors into teacher pay.

It also gives local school districts the flexibility to start school as early as August 10. (Current law says school may start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.)

The House education panel took some testimony on the proposal Thursday morning.

Orange County Schools lobbyist Scott Howat called the bill "an excellent start," but raised questions related to this week's bungled administration of new online tests.

"We know students are rushing through the process, and they are trying to get their work done quickly, thinking they could get kicked off, they could lose their work..." Howat said. "There are some things we could look at, [such as] should we use this as a baseline year or a beta year?"

O'Toole said schools would still be graded based on student performance, though they would not be penalized.

"That is the position at this point in time," she said. "We are going to grade the schools just so we can see where we are at."

The committee plans to vote on the bill Monday.

The House Education panel also heard from state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who the software problems plaguing the new Florida Standards Assessment had been resolved. She noted that testing was ahead of schedule.

"We expect everyone to be completed by the end of next week," she said. 

Florida Association of District Schools Superintendents lobbyist Joy Frank noted that some large school systems were still facing intermittent problems. "These are problems that will be resolved," she said. "I'm confident about that."

Florida Senate panel votes to scale back testing

A plan to scale back testing in Florida schools cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, winning the approval of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent, said the bill would "place a lid on too much testing."

But the vote did little to satisfy parent and teacher groups, who say state lawmakers need to take more dramatic action — especially in light of this week’s problem-plagued rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"What's happening in public schools is criminal, and this bill doesn't do much to help our kids," said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall.

More here.

March 03, 2015

'Software issue' to blame for Florida testing woes

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on Tuesday said "software issue" were to blame for the previous day's testing glitches.

Students across the state had trouble logging on to the new Florida Standards Assessment testing platform. The connections were so slow that some districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward, decided to postpone testing until later in the week.

Stewart said state education officials had consulted with the with the test developer, the American Institutes for Research, to better understand the problem.

"AIR has determined that a software issue caused log-in issues, including delays and error messages for a number of districts," she wrote in an email to superintendents Tuesday. 

While many large school systems delayed testing, about 98 percent of students who started the test completed it, according to the email.

Stewart also noted that some software changes had been made -- and were already leading to improved performance.

"Districts may begin or resume testing as soon as they desire, and additional guidance will be provided to assessment coordinators shortly," she wrote.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee will discuss testing on Wednesday.

March 02, 2015

School districts report testing troubles

Some school districts are reporting problems with the new Florida Standards Assessments, which made their debut Monday morning.

Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the new online platform was running so slowly that testing had been postponed in Miami-Dade County until Tuesday.

Hillsborough schools spokesman Steve Hegarty reported similar issues.

"It's slow," Hegarty said. "The volume seems to be affecting the online testing."

Hegarty said middle schools had been impacted in particular because they logged on later than other schools.

Hillsborough schools also have the option of delaying testing, he added.

The problems were not limited to Miami-Dade and Hillsborough. Students in Palm Beach County were having trouble, too, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Testing began Monday, with students in grades 4 through 10 sitting for the writing portion of the exam.

March 01, 2015

Here they come: Florida's latest round of standardized tests

via @cveiga

More students are expected to flunk. School districts warn they might not be ready. And parents are threatening to boycott.

Ready or not — and many school boards, parents and teachers have been screaming to lawmakers that they’re not — Florida will roll out its new, much debated standardized tests on Monday.

The Florida Department of Education is forging ahead, even with a host of unknowns hanging in the air. Students, for instance, don’t even know what score they’ll have to make to pass.

“We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently told a Florida Senate education committee.

More here.

February 24, 2015

Were some Florida students forced to cite Islamic prayer and make prayer rugs?

A spat between parents and administrators over a Seminole County high school history lesson in Islam has simmered into a minor cause célèbre for online critics.

Ron Wagner of Longwood complained to a local TV station that his 15-year-old son was required to recite an Islamic prayer as part of a world history class at Lyman High School. The students also had to make an Islamic prayer rug as a homework assignment, according to Wagner, who said lessons like that don’t belong in public schools.

"There’s a difference between teaching of the significance or the impact of a religion and teaching the specific tenets of the religion," Wagner told WFTV on Feb 9, 2015.

Blogs and right-leaning media seized on the report, decrying the lessons as attempts to indoctrinate students.

One blog, DownTrend.com, featured a post on Feb. 12 with the headline, "Students In Fla. High School Forced To Recite Islamic Prayer, Make Prayer Rugs."

We don’t mean to pick on this one site -- because there are manymany other placesthat have reblogged the report -- and the writer did update the story after we asked him some questions. But the headline encapsulated the alleged events that have outraged so many people. Were students forced to recite an Islamic prayer and make prayer rugs at Lyman High School? Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact Florida did his homework.

And from our archives, here is a fact-check of a Pants on Fire claim that "Florida Democrats just voted to impose Sharia law on women."

Rick Scott signs executive order to suspend 11th grade exam

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order on Tuesday suspending the new 11th grade exam in English language arts. 

The action comes in response to a growing backlash from parents and teachers to the state's standardized testing program.

Scott announced his plans to sign the executive order last week. The lag caused some confusion, as local school districts were told to continue preparing for the Florida Standards Assessment exam until a formal executive order was issued.

Leaders in the Florida Senate are also working on a plan to overhaul testing.