Today's news -- February 22, 2017





Using charters to hide dropouts and game the system *

Tucked among posh gated communities, and meticulously landscaped shopping centers, Olympia High School in Orlando offers more than two dozen Advanced Placement courses, even more afterschool clubs, and an array of sports from bowling to water polo. U.S. News and World Report ranked it among the nation’s top 1,000 high schools last year. Big letters painted in brown on one campus building urge its more than 3,000 students to “Finish Strong.” Olympia’s success in recent years, however, has been linked to another, quite different school five miles away. Last school year, 137 students assigned to Olympia’s attendance zone instead attended Sunshine High, a charter alternative school run by a for-profit company. Sunshine stands a few doors down from a tobacco shop and a liquor store in a strip mall. It offers no sports teams and few extra-curricular activities.

Sunshine’s 455 students — more than 85 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — sit for four hours a day in front of computers with little or no live teaching. One former student said he was left to himself to goof off or cheat on tests by looking up answers on the internet. A current student said he was robbed near the strip mall’s parking lot, twice. Sunshine takes in cast-offs from Olympia and other Orlando high schools in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Olympia keeps its graduation rate above 90 percent — and its rating an “A” under Florida’s all-important grading system for schools — partly by shipping its worst achievers to Sunshine. Sunshine collects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), a more than $1.5 million-a-year “management fee,” 2015 financial records show — more than what the school spends on instruction. But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth-largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students — some say against their wishes — into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts. “I would show up, I would sit down and listen to music the whole time. I didn’t really make any progress the whole time I was there,” said Thiago Mello, 20, who spent a year at Sunshine and left without graduating. He had transferred there from another alternative charter school, where he enrolled after his grades slipped at Olympia. The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found. Concerns that schools artificially boosted test scores by dumping low achievers into alternative programs have surfaced in connection with ongoing litigation in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, and echo findings from a legislative report a decade ago in California. The phenomenon is borne out by national data: While the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates. The role of charter alternative schools like Sunshine — publicly funded but managed by for-profit companies — is likely to grow under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, charter schools have been responsible in part for a steep rise in the alternative school population. She recently portrayed Florida as a national model for charters and choice. In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability system. The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all. Between the day in 2012 when it first opened, and the end of the 2015 school year, Sunshine High coded 1,230 withdrawals as students leaving for adult education. At least nine of the company’s other charter schools statewide — including three in Orange County — followed a similar pattern. Not counting Sunshine, the other ALS schools in Florida reported 5,260 more such withdrawals. ALS ran seven of the 10 high schools statewide with the most withdrawals to adult education in 2015. Sunshine ranked first. If all such withdrawals from ALS schools in Florida were counted as dropouts, the number of times that students quit school statewide that year would increase by at least 5 percent. In Orange County, the number of dropouts would jump by at least 80 percent. The apparent suppression of the dropout rate occurred as Orlando’s district, Orange County Public Schools, geared up to win a major national education award. In a written statement, district officials disputed that the transfers helped elevate the school system’s standing under state accountability rules. Students who quit to pursue adult education do count against the district’s overall graduation rate, even though they aren’t labeled as dropouts, they said. They did not respond to questions about whether transfers to Sunshine and other alternative charters have inflated the graduation rates of traditional schools like Olympia.


Senators seek solution on school construction

Half of a two-part effort to bridge differences between charter schools and traditional public schools over construction funding was approved Tuesday by a Senate committee -- but the other measure was left to an uncertain future. The Senate Education Committee voted 6-2 to advance legislation (SB 376) that would require school districts to share construction funds raised by local taxes with charter schools, which are public schools generally run by third parties including corporations or non-profit organizations. But the committee put off a vote on another proposal (SB 604) that would allow school districts to increase the local property taxes that provide the construction money. School districts have been wary of being required to provide local construction funds for charter schools, but have long pushed for the authority to increase the property taxes back to where they were before being lowered in 2008 and 2009. Boards were allowed to redirect construction funds to operations in 2009. Sen. David Simmons, who chairs the Senate education budget-writing committee, said he still hopes to move forward with both pieces of legislation. The vote on the tax legislation was delayed because some members wanted to require increases to receive either supermajority approval of school boards or approval in referendums. "I believe it would have passed, but it would have been very narrow," said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. He said some senators likely would have voted for it only as a courtesy to him. School districts, though, said the tax bill was needed for school districts to be able to fund their current commitments and new charter projects. Ruth Melton, with for the Florida School Boards Association, told the committee her organization was not opposed to sharing funds with charter schools. "But it would not be possible to do or to carry out without this (tax) bill," she said. Simmons said he still planned to push the taxing language, perhaps even formally folding it into the charter construction bill. And he appeared to take preemptive steps during the meeting to counter a possible political problem for Republicans opposed to raising taxes. "This does not require and this is not a tax increase," Simmons said. "And it's because there is nothing other than simply authorizing local control over a local issue." The bill could face an uphill battle in the House, though. Last year, House Republicans pushed a measure cracking down on alleged overspending on construction by school districts, though the bill did not become law. The charter school provisions are controversial in their own right. Supporters of charters say that, as public schools, they're entitled to tax dollars for construction just like any other public school. Opponents argue against diverting dollars away from traditional public schools and raise concerns about sending tax dollars to private charter-school management companies. Karen Zaremba a teacher from Lantana, said traditional public schools tend to be older and have more maintenance problems, along with the lingering effects of staff cuts after the financial crisis. "This (bill) would dedicate more money to the charter schools, which are new, and less to the public schools that have delayed repairs to the facilities," she said. The charter school bill also includes some provisions aimed at making sure that private providers don't use construction funds for "self-enrichment" by barring charter schools from using the funds to renovate or build facilities owned by people or companies affiliated with the schools.


Florida ranks fourth for Advanced Placement success


Florida may mandate recess


Nonprofit wants to get the lead out of schools' water


Transition to new era begins at Sarasota school district (Barry Dubin quoted)


Trump considers giving public money to private schools *

The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit voucher program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools. The federal tax credit proposal is one of several ideas under review by the White House to fulfill Donald Trump’s campaign promise to promote the expansion of charter schools and vouchers that would allow families of low income to use public money for private school tuition, sources say. During a recent meeting with parents and teachers at the White House, Trump said he wants “every single disadvantaged child in America, no matter what their background or where they live, to have a choice about where they go to school.” But the federal tax credit proposal already has critics on the left and right. Public school advocates say such a tax credit is a voucher program in disguise and would divert tax dollars from struggling public schools.  “The end result is the same — federal tax dollars going to private schools,” said Sasha Pudelski, assistant director for policy and advocacy at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, who called the program “a backdoor voucher.” “It’s just done through a more complex and less direct mechanism,” she said. While a tax credit may be more politically palatable than asking Congress to find or reallocate money to fulfill Trump’s $20 billion promise to expand charter and private school options, “just because it’s more palatable, doesn’t mean it tastes good,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the group’s associate executive director. Critics on the right, meanwhile, worry such a plan would increase the federal role in education and pressure states to standardize state tax credit programs, many of which now allow nonprofit groups to prioritize a particular type of school, such as those of particular religious denominations, for instance. A federal tax credit scholarship program could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate. Delays in repealing Obamacare, however, are complicating Republican plans to push tax reform through Congress. The White House did not respond to questions on the tax credit proposal or its status by deadline. Details of how the Trump administration might structure the plan remain unknown. But sources close to the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly say the program might be capped at a level as high as $20 billion, and resemble legislation first introduced by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana in 2013, called the Educational Opportunities Act. That bill, which has never passed either chamber, would have created a federal tax credit of up to $4,500 for individuals and up to $100,000 for corporations that make donations to nonprofit “scholarship-granting organizations,” or SGOs. Those organizations would award the funds to low-income students, who could use the money to attend private schools, including those run by religious groups.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised the bill in 2015 when it was reintroduced and she was chair of the school choice advocacy group, American Federation for Children. DeVos has pointed to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program as one of her biggest successes. Before being named to Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos was on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a reform group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.


Trump appears set to reverse protections for transgender students


Bad news for the Office for Civil Rights and the students it serves?


Iowa pol wants universities to ask prospective professors how they would vote


"Hope springs eternal two weeks before session"


House panel votes to kill Enterprise Florida, decimate Visit Florida


Tourism carrying state's economic growth


In major reversal, mandatory sentences called a waste of taxpayer money


House backs unanimous juries in death cases


“We choose life,” say churches calling to stop executions


Judicial term limits move ahead amid Senate doubts


Judicial ethics watchdog could suffer in fight for independent Florida courts


It's time to stop attacks on judiciary


What home rule? How lawmakers try to take power away from cities


Trump's visits to Florida costing taxpayers millions


Florida looks to gain two members of Congress, electoral votes after next Census


New Trump deportation rules allow far more expulsions


Major elements of Trump’s new immigration policies


Trump’s “deportation force” prepares an assault on American values


Could Trump really deport millions of unauthorized immigrants?


Hospitals pressured to reject foreign students because of Trump policy


The road, or flight, from detention to deportation


Advocates gearing up to challenge tough new rules on deportation


Mr. President, don’t break America’s promise to “Dreamers”


Miami Republicans on deportations: “You’re going to catch a lot of good people”


Miami-Dade mayor says of sanctuary change: “I did a lot less than you thought”


Trump’s crackdown on undocumented threatens Palm Beach economy


Trump immigration policy spurs discussion from Demings, Soto


State Republicans must become check on deportation abuse


Europeans watched Jews being deported. America must not repeat that mistake.


Poll: Support for Obamacare is rising


At town halls, doses of fury and a bottle of Tums


Ross, Webster face hostile Central Florida crowds at town halls


Trump dismisses town hall crowds “planned by liberal activists”


Judge blocks Medicaid cuts to Planned Parenthood in Texas


Union-busting Republicans love the prospect of a federal right-to-work law


Why Trumponomics fails


Trump’s first budget would end program to help low-income Americans get lawyers


Trump hiring freeze forces suspension of military child care programs


Why art matters to America


Cabinet picks clash with White House over hiring


Trump’s war on the press is a strategic calculation


Trump’s vilification of the media sounds familiar


“You are not the enemy of the American people,” Ros-Lehtinen tells Miami media


Trump’s unbroken streak of falsehoods now stands at 33 days


Bannon molded Breitbart into a far-right sledgehammer


Fox News couldn’t book anti-Trump organizer, so they hired an actor


After delay and amid pressure, Trump denounces racism and anti-Semitism


A brief history of Trump addressing questions about racism and anti-Semitism


Why was it so darned hard to get Trump to condemn anti-Semitism?


Trump's too little, too late response to anti-Semitism


Spicer shows why there’s skepticism about Trump’s claims of tolerance


Anne Frank Center slams Trump


At Jewish cemetery, seeking answers amid heartbreak


33 questions about Trump and Russia


Senate Intelligence Committee asks for Russia-related records to be preserved


Schumer: Sessions must recuse himself from the Flynn investigation


From Trump the nationalist, a trail of global trademarks


Trump forgets his Obama criticisms


Trump’s favorite so-called insult




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