Unless they’re snowbirds, Wisconsinites probably missed what happened in Florida last week. Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) signed a massive education reform bill into law – pushed by Republican majorities in the legislature – which impacts nearly every aspect of Florida’s K-12 education, including charter schools, low performing public schools, and Education Savings Accounts for special needs students. It would be wise for the Wisconsin legislature and Joint Finance Committee, which has yet to take up K-12 education in Governor Walker’s budget, to pay attention to the Sunshine State.
Florida House Bill 7069 helps charter schools maximize their access to K-12 federal funding. For instance, the bill requires charter schools to receive all federal funding that the school is eligible for, including funds for economically disadvantaged students (Title I, Part A), teacher and administrator professional development (Title II) and special education (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). While ensuring charter schools equal access to funds seems like common sense, Wisconsin charter schools often receive less than the full allocation of federal dollars, based on their agreements with charter authorizers, like public school districts (both instrumentality and non-instrumentality charter schools.)
Additionally, the bill creates a program, called “Schools of Hope” that is designed to attract high performing charter schools across the country to open schools in low-performing Florida school districts. This includes incentives to high performing charter schools to come to Florida, such as access to underused, surplus or vacant school district facilities at little to no cost. These schools can also use community facilities, such as libraries or museums, without having to receive new zoning or obtain special exceptions. Charter schools may also apply to receive a state loan for projects that are located in the attendance area of a persistently low-performing school to serve primarily serve those students.
This addresses the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) requirement of “rigorous intervention” in failing public schools. In comparison, the Department of Public Instruction, which is implementing ESSA for Wisconsin, has decided to use financial and community support to improve low-performing public schools to focus on the school’s improvement plans.
Moreover, the Florida ed reform bill expands the funding available for the Florida Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account (ESA) for students with special needs. The funding is based on the students’ matrix of services, as determined by the school district and the student’s level of need. The bill adds an additional $30 million to the ESA program, in addition to the funding already allocated in the state budget.
Likewise, the bill expands the existing teacher bonus program, which provides a financial bonus to teachers whose students achieve high scores on certain examinations, including International Baccalaureate and College Board Advanced Placement. Bonuses are available for teachers in low performing schools, designated on the state report card by a “D” or “F”, whose students achieve high scores on these examinations. The bill makes more “effective” and “highly effective” teachers eligible for these bonuses.
The bill also expands the Equity in School-Level Funding Act, an existing requirement for public school districts to give a set amount of state funding directly to schools. The new law requires that any remaining federal Title I, Part A funds for economically disadvantaged students must be given directly to eligible schools, which includes traditional public and charter schools who teach Title I students, in addition to the state funding. Charter schools will be able to use the additional federal funding to provide direct services to students through enrollment in advanced courses not otherwise available at the school, create supplemental programs to aid student development in specific academic instruction, training for teachers who work with Title I students, etc..
We are still waiting on Wisconsin to address the issues that Florida acted so boldly in, including fixing the vacant school building problem in Milwaukee, embracing the opportunities of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), creating an Education Savings Account program, improving choice for parents of children with special needs, and expanding the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to help children in rural and small town areas have access to vouchers.
Republicans in Florida have answered the call for education reform. What will their peers in Wisconsin do?