Bennett to Florida: Sure, why not?

It should come as no surprise that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is moving to Florida to take over as that state’s commissioner of education. Hey, I called this one in August. And back then I couldn’t have predicted Bennett would lose the election and be out of a job come January.

Bennett has looked to Florida for inspiration and ideas throughout his tenure as Indiana superintendent. A-to-F grades for schools, dramatic expansion of charter schools, retention for third-graders who don’t pass a reading test – all those Indiana policies were pioneered in the Sunshine State.

So were school vouchers, before the state’s Supreme Court held them to be unconstitutional.

And Bennett has long been a favorite of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He chairs Bush’s Chiefs for Change organization. Two members of the Florida State Board of Education are former Bush chiefs of staff. (The state board appoints the state education commissioner; the board’s members are appointed by the governor). So it makes perfect sense that he would be drawn to Florida, and vice versa. Continue reading

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More on Indiana and pre-K; more on Bennett and Florida

A new study from Texas adds weight to the argument that Indiana should find a way to provide state support for pre-kindergarten programs. The study finds that children who attended state-funded preschools scored better on standardized tests and were less likely to be retained in grade.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, Rutgers-Camden and the Communities Foundation of Texas carried out the study, which was posted as a working paper by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research, or CALDER.

This is hardly the first research to find benefits from preschool programs. (See Nobel laureate James Heckman’s site for a bunch of information). But the authors note that many previous studies examined small, intensive programs, such as Perry Preschool in Michigan and the Carolina Abcedarian Project. The CALDER study looks instead at the state preschool program for at-risk children that Texas started in the 1980s. It finds that taking part in the program was associated with increased scores on the math and reading sections of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and with a decreased likelihood of being retained or being identified as needing special education.

This is just one study, but a key point is that Texas’ program is far from a model program. The National Institute for Early Education Research gives it low marks for funding, class size and staffing ratios. Continue reading

Prospective Indiana ‘turnaround operator’ plays politics in Florida

Just as the Indiana State Board of Education is about to decide whether to turn over under-achieving schools to Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based school operator is under fire in its home state.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Rep. Dwight Bullard, the ranking Democrat on the Florida House Education Committee, is calling for a state investigation regarding a rally that Charter Schools USA helped stage recently in Orlando.

The for-profit company, which manages 25 Florida charter schools, bused 2,000 teachers, administrators and staff from across the state to the charter-schools rally. Speakers included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Bullard objected that the company appeared to be using taxpayer money to promote a political agenda. A spokesperson for Charter Schools USA said the expenses were paid by the company and didn’t come from the publicly funded budgets of charter schools. But she declined to reveal the cost.

Officials with Florida public school districts said there’s no way, given current funding cuts, that they could afford to bus teachers to a political rally. And imagine the outrage from Republicans and self-styled taxpayer advocates if they did. For certain, they wouldn’t be able to hide what they were spending on such an event the way Charter Schools USA could.

Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, is an old hand at Republican politics. He was a speechwriter for the first President George Bush, worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, and served (with Rhee) on Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team.

Three months ago, Charter Schools USA bused students from some of its charter schools to a budget-signing ceremony and political rally for Scott. “Now, other public schools have all kinds of policies about not participating in political activities, so I guess this is another one of the freedoms that have been granted to taxpayer-financed charter schools,” the Sentinel’s Dave Weber wrote on the newspaper’s education blog, Sentinel School Zone.

A Charter Schools USA representative said the governor invited the students, and they attended to learn about the political process. The lesson for the day, though, was about realpolitik – Democrats who tried to attend the rally were removed by sheriff’s deputies.

The news from Florida brings to mind the March 30 “education reform” rally staged in Indianapolis by a coalition of groups advocating charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay, etc. – also with Michelle Rhee as a featured speaker. The rally took place at mid-day on a Wednesday, but kids from charter schools and/or private schools were at the Statehouse to provide the visuals while Rhee and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett declared that the reform agenda is all about students.

Again, imagine the outrage if regular public schools gave their kids a day off to rally at the Statehouse for, say, raising state taxes to fund education or protecting collective bargaining for teachers.

Bennett will announce recommended interventions today for seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. One option: turning some or all of the schools over to turnaround operators – Charter Schools USA, EdisonLearning or Indianapolis-based EdPower. The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet Monday to decide which interventions to adopt.