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Education

Lawmakers To Debate Vouchers, School Grades And Charter Schools

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*Correction: The Tax Credit Scholarship provides low-income students with a tuition subsidy to attend private schools. The subsidies are not based on whether a student previously attended a low performing school, as originally stated in this article.

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Many of the education priorities outlined by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz were already in the works before the two met with reporters. But the changes got a boost when the leaders pushed them to the top of a fairly long list of legislative priorities.

Performance Funding for Universities

The board overseeing the state’s public universities has already announced it wants more money for the schools, based upon how well they do in areas such as job placement and graduation rates. During the board’s most recent meeting, chairman Mori Housseini said if schools want more money, they have to be willing to risk something:

“They say ‘look, if you want new money, you have to have skin in the game.”

The shift toward tying performance to additional university funds began last year and looks to continue this year. The universities could also be facing another hit: this time in the revenues they generate from tuition. In recent years, the Legislature has allowed schools to hike tuition as their state funding decreased. Now lawmakers want to trim the amount tuition can rise without their approval -- from 15 percent a year down to 6. Weatherford says that’s because tuition increases have outpaced growth in Florida’s Prepaid College fund.

It’s made the prepaid contract unaffordable. And universities aren’t increasing their tuition by 15 percent. So, by lowering the cap to 6 [percent], we make every day middle class Floridians be able to afford a prepaid contract. That’s what this is about," he said.

Veterans Tuition

Also up for consideration: a plan to give out-of-state veterans in-state tuition. Governor Rick Scott vetoed the bill last year, but several versions of it have been refiled in both the House and Senate. The issue is largely non-controversial, but not all of the leaders’ plans will enjoy smooth sailing.

School Vouchers/Corporate Tax Scholarship Program

Weatherford and Gaetz want to increase the amount of money going into the state’s Corporate Tax Scholarship fund – Florida’s term for school vouchers. The program gives businesses tax breaks on money they donate to provide low-income students with a tuition subsidy to attend private ones. But critics have long blasted the program as unfair.  Colleen Wood heads the public education advocacy group, 50th No More:

“I think the voucher program in Florida is a very deliberate thing. Unfortunately, it’s a system that doesn’t give a lot of accountability to the taxpayers of Florida for the dollars diverted from the budget. So we’re not really sure how the students are being educated and what they’re being educated on.”

Private schools don’t have to abide by state education standards, and students in them don’t take state-based exams, providing few ways to make accurate comparisons with public school students.

School Grades

Florida lawmakers are gearing up for a battle over revamping the state’s troubled school grading formula – a formula some say has hurt high-performing schools like Miami’s Jackson Senior High School. The school earned enough points last year to receive an “A”, but the Department of Education gave the state a “B” instead, due to some English-Language Learners being counted in the formula when they shouldn’t have been. When school grades came out last year, former State Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan called them unreliable:

“We’ve overcomplicated the model, and I don’t think it’s a statistically relevant model," Shanahan said. "I believe that, with my biochemistry-math background. So my concern is, I am not sure the A-B-C-D-F’s are still as relevant with all the stuff we’ve added to that matrix.”

The state made nearly three-dozen changes to the grading formula over the past year—including giving schools a cushion to avoid drastic drops. Many fear the formula will become even more convoluted when new statewide standardized English and math tests are adopted later this year.

Speaking of those tests, the state has not finalized whether it will use the Common Core-linked PARCC exams or choose something else. State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said the Department of Education is preparing a series of revisions to the grading scale, due out in February.

Education Funding:

Governor Rick Scott has proposed a $542 million  increase to public education. Even with the increase, says 50th No More’s Colleen Wood, the per-student spending portion still falls short of pre-recession levels

“While its being called an historic amount of money, when you look at the past its actually restoring one of the most historic cuts that occurred under this governor. It feels like politics over our kids.”

Per-student spending peaked in 2007-08 at around $7,100, right before the national economy went into recession. It was further impacted during Governor Rick Scott’s first year in office, when he championed a billion dollar cut to the budget—reductions he’s been working to reverse for the past two years. This year's increase would up per-student funding by more than $160, up to about $6,950.