Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Charter Schools: Something to be Concerned About in Florida?

When I learned that two candidates for the Collier County School Board are closely affiliated with the county's newest charter school, the Mason Classical Academy, I wanted to know more - both about charter schools in general, and this school in particular.

A 2011 State Impact Florida article titled “Five Misconceptions About Charter Schools” showed that much of what we’ve heard isn’t necessarily true:
  1. Charter School students don’t have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - “Pants on Fire”
  2. Local school districts get no say - “Mostly True” (once a charter school is up and running)
  3. Charter schools can hire any teacher they want - “Mostly False” (charter schools must hire state-certified teachers)
  4. Charter schools only have to accept the best and brightest - “Half True”
  5. Nothing happens to bad charter schools - “Mostly False”
What are charter schools? Who attends them? How are they funded? How are they regulated and held accountable? Are they a threat to public education? And importantly – what is the mission of the Mason Classical Academy and how do I feel about the possibility of having people affiliated with that school on the School Board?

In this post and the next, I’ll tackle the basics. The specifics may come in a later post -– but hopefully my having raised the questions will get YOU thinking about them, too.

What are charter schools?
Charter schools are a hybrid between traditional public schools and private schools. GreatSchool.org explains:
Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free, and they can’t discriminate against students because of their race, gender, or disability. However, parents must usually submit a separate application to enroll a child in a charter school, and like private schools, spaces are often limited. Charter schools are independently run, and some are operated by for-profit private companies.

However, charter schools are still funded by government coffers and accountable to the government body — be it state, county, or district — that provides the charter. (Many successful charters do substantial additional fundraising as well.) If a school is mismanaged or test scores are poor, a charter school can be shut down.
Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement….

Charter schools were created to help improve our nation’s public school system and offer parents another public school option to better meet their child’s specific needs. The core of the charter school model is the belief that public schools should be held accountable for student learning. In exchange for this accountability, school leaders should be given freedom to do whatever it takes to help students achieve and should share what works with the broader public school system so that all students benefit….

Minnesota’s legislature passed the first charter law in 1991, and the first charter school opened in 1992.
There were 6,004 charter schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C., in the 2012-13 year, accounting for 6 percent of all public schools.

Florida approved its first charter school law in 1996.  Charter schools are a more significant factor in Florida than nationally, with 576 charter schools accounting for 15 percent of the total. However private schools, not charter schools, are the largest alternative to district schools in Florida.

In Collier County, five of 48 public schools (just under 10 percent) are charter schools. They are:

Who attends charter schools?
As the below chart chows, almost 4 percent of the nation’s public school students attended charter schools in 2010-11; the figure is was almost 5 percent  two years later  In Florida, charter schools are more pervasive: almost 6 percent of public school children attended charter schools in 2010-11; almost 8 percent two years later.

Nationally, charter school students are more likely to be Black, Hispanic and/or poor (eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) than in non-charter public schools.

In Florida, they are more likely to be Hispanic, but less likely to be poor. Black children are about the same percent of the students of both types of schools.

How are charter schools funded?
As noted above, charter schools receive revenue from federal, state, and local governmental sources, as well as private sources. In Florida, charter schools receive federal and state funding based on student enrollment, the same as other public schools in the state.

According to NAPCS, 67 percent of all charter schools are independently-run non-profit, single site schools; 20 percent are run by non-profit organizations that run more than one charter school; and just under 13 percent are run by for-profit companies.

How are charter schools regulated and held accountable?
According to NAPCS, public charter schools are required to meet all state and federal education standards, just like traditional public schools. In addition, they are judged on how well they meet student achievement goals established by their charter contracts. And as noted above, if mismanaged or the students don’t meet certain requirements, they can be shut down.

Section 1002.33 (Charter Schools) of the Florida Statutes includes these requirements:
  • A charter school must be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and operations.
  • A charter school must ensure that reading is a primary focus of the curriculum and that resources are provided to identify and provide specialized instruction for students who are reading below grade level.
  • The curriculum and instructional strategies for reading must be consistent with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and grounded in scientifically based reading research.
  • Students in charter schools shall, at a minimum, participate in the statewide assessment program created under section 1008.22 [currently the FCAT until replaced by common core assessments, end-of course (EOC) assessments, and common core assessments in English Language Arts and mathematics] and the state-wide school grading system. In secondary charter schools, students shall satisfy the state requirements for graduation.
  • Charter schools are subject to the same accountability requirements as other public schools.
  • Charter school employees shall have the option to bargain collectively.
  • Teachers employed by or under contract to a charter school shall be certified.
  • A charter school shall organize as, or be operated by, a nonprofit organization.
As noted above, a charter school can be shut down for failure to perform. Under Florida law:
The sponsor shall make student academic achievement for all students the most important factor when determining whether to renew or terminate the charter. The sponsor may also choose not to renew or may terminate the charter for any of the following grounds: 
  • Failure to participate in the state’s education accountability system or failure to meet the requirements for student performance stated in the charter.
  • Failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
  • Violation of law.
  • Other good cause shown.
The District School Board of Collier County is the sponsor of the county’s current five charter schools.


I hope this post has give you a better understanding of charter schools than you had before you read it. I know I’ve learned a great deal by doing the research. 

In my next post, I’ll look into whether or not charter schools are a threat to traditional public schools. This is a controversial topic, and I’ll try to present the position of both sides. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Common Core: An Issue for the School Board Elections? Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Common Core State Standards, explaining what they are, how, why and by whom they were developed, and how Florida became involved with them.

I chose this topic because I believe opposition to the Common Core is likely to be one of the topics voters will be hearing about at some of the candidate forums, and I’m concerned that some readers may not be adequately informed. (I certainly wasn’t, before I began researching that post!)

As I tried to find out what was behind the opposition expressed at the May 2013 presentation I attended, I discovered that there is an anti-Common Core movement, not just locally but nationwide. Floridians Against Common Core Education and the SWFL Citizens Alliance are two of the groups I discovered.

Floridians Against Common Core Education is:
comprised of men and women from all over the state of Florida dedicated to conservative values derived from the Constitution of the United States. It is our constitutional right and duty to protect our children in the State of Florida from progressive liberal socialist Marxist ideologies. Thus we are bound by our unalienable rights to restore to all of Florida's classrooms what has been lost and will continue to be lost if conservative values are not restored, secured, and protected. 
Its website lists the Cato Institute, the Eagle Forum, Freedom Works, the Heritage Foundation, the Home School Legal Defense Assoc., the National Republican Party and Tea Party Patriots among those who oppose Common Core.

The SWFL Citizens Alliance lists three three “current initiatives”:

Collier County School Board Elections
Protect Your Right to Keep & Bear Arms
Stop Common Core

Its vision is “to inspire a rebirth of liberty in Southwest Florida.” Its mission is to provide a platform for

  • Educating citizens on the moral foundations that support the principles and values of a free society.
  • Involving citizens in learning about, discussing and influencing legislation.
  • Vetting candidates for office and then holding them accountable for their official conduct. [emphasis added]

The “Stop Common Core” link redirects to StopCommonCoreFlorida.com, which says “we must stop common core now!” because (among other reasons) it “Removes local control of education:”
Common Core standards are created and controlled by unelected and unaccountable Washington DC and state bureaucrats, funded primarily by the federal government, foundations, trade groups, and large corporations with financial interest in the computers, materials, and testing required for the implementation.”
These groups are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you might find if you research the “stop Common Core” movement. I urge you to do so. At a minimum, be aware of the issue and goals of these groups.

With that as background, here are my thoughts on the questions "Are the concerns of those who oppose Common Core valid?," ”Who funded development of the standards?” and "Should Common Core be an issue in the School Board elections?"

Are the concerns valid?

Is Common Core a federal takeover of our local schools? Based on my research, the answer is no. As noted previously, the Standards were developed by a diverse group of experts from across the country. And in Florida, after holding public hearings, changes were made that actually added to the CCSS.

Per a June 2014 report by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations (“The Florida Standards: What they mean. Why they matter. What’s happening now.” or the “CFEF Report”):
It is important to remember that states voluntarily adopted the Standards. Equally important is to know the difference between standards – what we want students to know
and be able to do at each grade level – and curriculum. The Standards provide the “What” we expect students to know in each grade; decisions about the “How” in terms of curriculum and instruction methods are made at the local level. [emphasis added]
Was the State Board of Education "forced to be under the gun of the federal government” as stated at the information session I attended? I believe this assertion relates to the requirements of the Race to the Top funding that states adopt “standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy,”  “demonstrate achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps,” and build “data systems that measure student growth and success.”

But as stated previously, states were not required to adopt the Standards to receive the funding. Nor were the Governor and Florida Legislature required to apply for it. They chose to apply for the grant, took the money, and then spent it. Those who have a problem with the decision should blame the state Legislature, not the Federal government.

Who funded development of the standards? (and is that a problem?)

StopCommonCoreFlorida.com charges that the standards were “funded primarily by the federal government, foundations, trade groups, and large corporations with financial interest in the computers, materials, and testing required for the implementation.”

A recent Washington Post article, “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution,” is illuminating. It states that in 2008, Bill and Melinda Gates met with Gene Wilhoit, “director of a national group of state school chiefs,” and David Coleman, “an emerging evangelist for the standards movement.” From the article:
What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes…. 
The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards. 
Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core….
The political fall-out, though slow to develop, has been significant. The WaPo article continued:
The movement grew so quickly and with so little public notice that opposition was initially almost nonexistent. That started to change last summer, when local tea party groups began protesting what they viewed as the latest intrusion by an overreaching federal government — even though the impetus had come from the states. In some circles, Common Core became known derisively as “Obamacore.” 
Since then, anti-Common Core sentiment has intensified, to the extent that it has become a litmus test in the Republican Party ahead of the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination process.
Personally I don’t have a problem with how the effort was funded.  But this article helps put the anti-Common Core sentiment into perspective.

Should Common Core be an issue in the School Board elections?

According to Wikipedia, at least 12 states that adopted the Standards have since introduced legislation to repeal them outright, and Indiana has since withdrawn from them.

So in my view, candidates’ views about Common Core, as well as about charter schools, school vouchers, and the use of technology in the classroom, are relevant because a School Board is a bully pulpit from which to lobby and pressure the Governor and Legislature. The more School Boards that share the anti-Common Core view, the stronger the pressure they can put on the Legislature for change.


We may hear a lot of talk about Common Core, testing and assessment in the months leading up to the August 26 school board elections.

Regardless of how the effort was funded, and while there are differing opinions about the Standards’ implementation and assessment, there is widespread support for them among a diverse group of Florida stakeholders. These include, per the CFEF Report:

You, the reader, must look at the standards, how they were developed and how their development was funded.

Then you must decide if you want a School Board that supports Common Core (as modified in the Florida Standards), or one that opposes it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Common Core: An Issue for the School Board Elections? Part 1

I first became aware of the intense emotions and controversy over the Common Core State Standards (“Common Core,” “CCSS” or “the Standards”) at an information session for parents, teachers and community members at the Collier County School District Administrative Center in May 2013.

During the Q&A that followed, “the discussion got heated,” reported WINK News (putting it mildly), citing among the concerns raised at the meeting:
  • It takes away control at the local level.
  • We shouldn’t be “forced to be under the gun of the federal government.” 
What is Common Core and who developed it? When and how did Florida get involved? Are the concerns raised at that meeting valid? And should Common Core be an issue for the School Board elections?

What is Common Core?

Common Core is a set of education standards for the areas of English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics that were voluntarily adopted beginning in 2010 by 44 states, DC, four US territories and the U.S. Department of Defense schools.  (The states that have not adopted the Standards are Alaska, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. Minnesota adopted the English Language Arts/Literacy Standards only.)

The Standards were designed to result in students graduating from high school “career- and college-ready,” i.e. able to meet employer expectations and/or be prepared for college-level work without needing remedial classes.

By way of background, the Common Core grew out of a 1983 report titled “A Nation at Risk” by a commission established by President Reagan.  That report called for setting standards for what students should know and be able to do and marked the starting point for standards-based education reform in the U.S.  Following publication of “A Nation at Risk,” individual states began adopting standards. In 2001, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act which strengthened requirements for the kinds of standards states set and required states to test students in specific grades and subjects, while leaving states free to set their own standards and create their own tests.

Who developed the Common Core Standards? 

According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website (www.corestandards.org):
By the early 2000s, every state had developed and adopted its own learning standards that specify what students in grades 3-8 and high school should be able to do. Every state also had its own definition of proficiency, which is the level at which a student is determined to be sufficiently educated at each grade level and upon graduation. This lack of standardization was one reason why states decided to develop the Common Core State Standards…. 
The effort … was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. 
States across the country collaborated with teachers, researchers, and leading experts to design and develop the Common Core State Standards. Each state independently made the decision to adopt the Common Core. Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core in their states. The federal government was not involved in the development of the Standards.
When and how did Florida get involved?

Florida got involved in two ways: by participating in the development of the CCSS, and by applying for a $700 million Race to the Top grant and including in the grant application a plan to adopt the CCSS and meet certain requirements as to assessment.

Participation in development of the Standards
As part of the nationwide movement to develop standards for learning that followed the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the Florida Legislature had adopted its own “Sunshine State Standards” in 1996. Those standards identified what Florida public school students should know and be able to do during each grade cluster in the areas of language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, the arts, health and physical education, and foreign language.

The Florida Board of Education then adopted a six-year cycle of review and revision, including the alignment of the standards with assessments, instructional materials, professional development and teacher licensure exams. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) was first administered in 1998 to measure student progress in meeting the Sunshine State Standards. The test results formed the basis for the school accountability program.

Fast-forward ten years to the early discussions about the need for common standards. “Florida was well represented in the development of the [Common Core State Standards] from the earliest conversations to the now adopted Florida Standards,” according to a June 2014 report by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations (“The Florida Standards: What they mean. Why they matter. What’s happening now.” or the “CFEF Report”):
Experts from across higher education—including the University of Florida, Harvard and UC Berkeley—as well as state departments of education (with Florida as a lead state), local educators, parents and students all developed and vetted the CCSS. In fact, Florida’s Next Generation process of standards development guided the CCSS development process and was cited as a resource for writers. Florida educators were continually tapped as content experts, writers and reviewers from start to finish.
(Note: Whether or not there was enough teacher involvement is a topic of much debate, including here in Collier County.)

Application for a Race to the Top grant
As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or Stimulus), through a program called Race to the Top, $4.35 billion of federal funding was made available to states to pursue a plan to improve student achievement. As explained in the Race to the Top Executive Summary, Race to the Top was
a competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers; and implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas:
  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy; 
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction; 
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and 
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools. 
While no state was mandated to adopt the Standards to receive the funding, many states chose not to pursue the federal grant and others chose not to adopt the Standards, Florida chose to both apply for a Race to the Top grant and adopt the Common Core Standards.

Florida won a $700 million grant to be spent in three areas outlined in the grant application, including implementation of the Common Core Standards. Florida adopted the Common Core in 2010 and began implementing it in the 2011-2012 school year, beginning with kindergarten and first grade with a gradual phasing-in for higher grades and eventual full implementation in 2013-14.

Recent developments in Florida

By 2013, concerns and misconceptions about the Standards, and the assessments and data-collection that would be used to measure progress toward meeting them, had started to build nation-wide, including in Florida. (The May 2013 information session I attended may have been a reaction to the growing unrest.)

In response, per the CFEF Report, “Governor Rick Scott directed the Florida Department of Education to pull back from the consortia of states committed to [the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment Florida had chosen] and to hold a series of public hearings on the Standards in late 2013.”

More than 19,000 comments were made in person or 
submitted online. Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart contracted for a review of the comments by outside experts and ultimately recommended 99 changes to the Standards. Per the CFEF Report:
These changes were predominately made through the addition of Calculus Standards in Math with cursive writing being added to the English/Language Arts Standards. The State Board of Education [in February 2014] unanimously voted to adopt these revised standards.  (Note: The addition of Calculus Standards does not mean students are required to take this level of math, they simply define the expectations for students who choose to do so.) 
While the changes and additions are highly consistent with CCSS, they now include standards specific to our state. Hence, they are now known as the Florida Standards, which will also encompass already adopted standards in other subject areas such as science and social studies.
Specifically, the Florida Standards now consist of Mathematics and Language Arts Standards modified as described and adopted in March 2014; standards for Science, Social Studies, Physical Education and Health Education, adopted in 2008; and standards for World Languages and Fine Arts, adopted in 2010. For the specifics of these Standards, click here.

In my next post, I’ll share my answers to the questions “Are the concerns valid?” and “Should Common Core be an issue for the School Board elections?” In the meantime, I hope this review has been informative.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Clarifying the Make-Up of Collier County’s Public Schools

A reader pointed out the need to clarify the information about the Collier County Public School District I included in yesterday’s post.

I had written:
As provided by Florida law, the School Board is responsible for policy and governance for the County’s 48 public schools, 12 Alternative School Programs and two career/technical centers.  (For Fast Facts about the Collier County School District, click here.)
Here is the exact description from the School District website:
The School District of Collier County has 48 schools and serves a total student population of 44,556. There are 29 elementary schools, 10 middle schools, 8 high schools, and a PreK-thru-12 school (Everglades City School). There are also 12 Alternative School Programs. 
The district’s two career/technical centers (Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology and Immokalee Technical Center) and adult education programs (located at several sites throughout the district) offer students both short- and long-term programs.
I also wanted to provide a link to the detailed information about the School District Budget, should readers wish to delve into it. Click here.

I greatly appreciate the input!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Our most important votes

There will be a number of races on the ballot for the August 26 Primary Election, but our votes in the three school board races will be the most important.


Because the people we elect will make policies that will directly shape the young people who become the voting citizens and leaders of Collier County’s future. 

And many of those policy decisions will be controversial. 

In this post, I’ll give some context for the upcoming elections in terms of School Board composition, responsibilities, and some of the issues. Future posts will delve deeper into some of the controversial issues, and look at each of the candidates.

I encourage readers to follow my Sparker’s Soapbox Facebook Page, where I’ll post relevant news articles, information about candidate forums and other opportunities to meet and assess the candidates. There’s going to be a lot of important information out there, and this new Facebook Page is my attempt to help you stay on top of it.

Composition of the Collier County School Board and the 2014 Elections

Collier’s five School Board members are elected at-large (i.e. by all county voters) in nonpartisan elections for staggered terms of four years. There are no term limits.

Three members will be on the ballot this year, and two members will be elected in 2016.

The incumbents from Districts 1 and 3 have chosen not to seek reelection, leaving the fields for those seats wide open. The incumbent from District 5 is running again, and faces a challenger.

Candidates have until June 20 to qualify to run for the School Board. As of now, there are at least two candidates for each District, so a primary election will be held on August 26. Unless a candidate receives 50% of the votes cast + 1, the top two voter-getters in each race will go on to the general election in November.

Responsibilities of the School Board

As provided by Florida law, the School Board is responsible for policy and governance for the County’s 48 public schools, 12 Alternative School Programs and two career/technical centers.  (For Fast Facts about the Collier County School District, click here.)

The Board manages the District’s $860 million budget, and has the authority to levy taxes and issue bonds. (Some 43% of a Collier County resident’s tax bill funds the School District’s Budget.)

The School Board is responsible for prescribing and adopting standards and policies to provide each of the County’s 45,000 students the opportunity to receive a “complete education program” -- as defined by state law.

Those policies must include guidelines for the adoption and purchase of district and school site instructional materials and technology, the implementation of student health and fitness standards, staff training, school advisory council member training, student support services, budgeting, and the allocation of staff resources.

The School Board may sponsor charter schools, and is responsible for the review and approval or denial of new charter school applications, and the termination of academically low-performing or financially unsound charter schools.

In addition, the School Board is responsible for:
  • establishing schools and school attendance areas;
  • adopting the school calendar;
  • governing personnel matters and collectively bargaining for district employee salaries;
  • providing adequate instructional materials to students;
  • providing for adequate school facilities;
  • providing for student welfare and discipline; and
  • providing for the transportation of students.
As you can see, the School Board is responsible for making substantive policies that will directly shape the future voting citizens and leaders of Collier County.

Controversial Issues

These are just some of the issues that have come up recently at the local, state and/or national levels that School Board members are likely to deal with in the coming years:

  • Vouchers, charter schools and “school choice”
  • The Common Core curriculum
  • After-school and summer programs
  • Parental review of text book selections
  • “Bring Your Own Device”

The School Board elections matter to us - whether or not we have children in Collier schools - because our schools are educating the voting citizens and leaders of our County’s future.

In coming posts, I’ll delve into some of the issues and candidates so that we can be informed voters in the August elections.  Meanwhile, please follow my Sparker’s Soapbox Facebook Page. And if you have any specific questions or topics you’d like me to cover, please post a comment and let me know.