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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

DeVos Scraps More 'Out-of-Date' Federal Directives to Schools

From Education Week's Blog
"Politics K-12"

By Andrew Ujifusa
October 27, 2017


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has announced that she is withdrawing still more of what the U.S. Department of Education called "out-of-date" guidance and other documents involving schools' approaches to various issues, some of them stemming back more than a decade.

The Friday announcement rescinds guidance documents from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, covering areas such as the now-defunct School Improvement Program, flexibility from the now-replaced No Child Left Behind Act, using Title I funds for schoolwide purposes, and other matters. The documents date from 1996 to 2015. 

Importantly, however, the Trump administration did not appear to scrap the Obama administration's Every Student Succeeds Act guidance on areas like evidence-based interventions for low-performing schools, and the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, better known as Title IV of ESSA.

As of mid-day Friday, the department had not released any documents it was rescinding from the department's office for civil rights.

Click here to read the full list of guidance and other directives that DeVos has decided to rescind.

It's been a busy seven days for DeVos when it comes to tossing out directives from prior administrations.

A week ago, the department swept aside prior special education guidance and regulations. Some of those documents were old, and the department said that they had been superceded by subsequent actions.

However, the move still caused an uproar in much of the special education community. DeVos' agency quickly responded to the outcry, providing explanations for why it had rescinded the documents.

With her proposals to expand school choice stymied in Congress, cutting back on federal guidance and regulations to public schools has been one of DeVos' biggest priorities.That's in part because President Donald Trump has told his department and agency heads to reduce Uncle Sam's footprint.

In June, DeVos' Education Department requested input from the public on cutting back federal directives in education that drive up costs, create too much paperwork, and in general create an unnecessary burden on schools. That emphasis extends beyond just K-12. As we wrote about DeVos' tenure leading the department after six months, amid struggles to push school choice and hire key staff:

"DeVos has arguably been able to do more—and get more Republicans on board with her agenda—on higher education. For example, she and her team have been slowly scaling back, pausing, or moving to overhaul Obama-era student financial aid regulations."

In a speech to principals in September, DeVos said they should be able to focus on people, not paperwork.

Read the list of rescinded guidance and other documents HERE.

Blood-Based Epigenetic Research May Hold Clues to Autism Biology, Study Suggests

From the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
via ScienceDaily

October 24, 2017

Using data from blood and brain tissue, a team led by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that they could gain insights into mechanisms that might help explain autism by analyzing the interplay between genes and chemical tags that control whether genes are used to make a protein, called epigenetic marks.

The findings, to be published October 24 in Nature Communications, could ultimately help lead to new ways of treating and preventing the disorder.

Researchers have long known that chemical modifications, a collection of "marks" on DNA known as the epigenome, play a key role in how cells operate by guiding differences between various tissue types in a given individual's body, despite the fact that they all carry the same genetic code.

"The reason a brain cell is different from a heart cell is because of the epigenome, which affects which parts of a cell's DNA are read," says study lead M. Daniele Fallin, Ph.D., chair of the Bloomberg School's Department of Mental Health and director of the School's Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

"Think of it like an encyclopedia with a bunch of tabs. Cells don't need to read the entire encyclopedia; they jump to the tabs they need to get things done."

The current work shows that changes in the genetic code of a particular gene can control epigenetic marks at different genes, implying that a gene's genetic code can affect whether other genes are turned on and off, which makes it important to understand the function of all genes involved, not just the one with the so-called misspelling.

"Our findings suggest that looking only at genes with misspellings related to autism might be too narrow a focus," says Fallin. "Instead of looking solely at the genes directly implicated in autism through their genetic code changes, we really should be also studying the functions of the other genes implicated by these changes in genetic code through epigenetic connections."

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by deficits in socialization, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Since the 1960s, the prevalence rates have skyrocketed, with one in 68 U.S. children now being diagnosed with ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While a few rare gene variants can explain a fraction of ASD cases, Fallin and other researchers suspected that the epigenome could add significantly more to understanding this disease. However, researchers have been skeptical of blood-based epigenetic studies for one main reason: While the genome is the same in any cell from the same individual, the epigenome necessarily changes from tissue to tissue.

And although brain tissue -- the tissue most affected by ASD -- might yield the most useful epigenetic data, it can't be sampled from living individuals. The findings show the promise of collecting epigenetic data in blood.

To investigate this question, Fallin and her colleagues started by surveying four different tissue types -- blood and cord blood from their own collections, as well as lung and fetal brain tissue from public collections -- to find small variations in the genetic code of each sample that appear to be responsible for DNA methylation state, a type of epigenetic modification, in that particular tissue.

The researchers examined millions of these genetic code variations, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and found thousands that control DNA methylation in some or all tissue types.

They then matched up these SNPs with those already known to be associated with autism and saw that more autism-associated genes act to control DNA methylation than would be expected by chance. This was true in both blood and fetal brain tissue.

When the researchers looked at the role of genes that were methylated by genes with code differences related to ASD, including additional genes beyond those with direct code changes, they found that the majority were involved in biological pathways that were important in immune function.

The finding wasn't surprising, Fallin explains -- numerous studies have identified abnormal gene expression of immune genes in autism samples and environmental experiences such as prenatal infection or prenatal exposure to pollutants that can ramp up immune responses are risk factors for ASD.

However, none of the genetic code mutations directly identified in autism had pointed to these pathways. It is only when considering which other genes they may regulate that this biology is revealed.

More study on these biological pathways, she says, could lead to specific genes or proteins that could be modifiable with pharmaceuticals or other interventions, possibly offering new ways to prevent or treat ASD.

"We made our findings here by comparing brain data to blood data," she says, "but the vast majority we could have learned from blood."

Journal Reference
  • Shan V. Andrews, Shannon E. Ellis, Kelly M. Bakulski, Brooke Sheppard, Lisa A. Croen, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Craig J. Newschaffer, Andrew P. Feinberg, Dan E. Arking, Christine Ladd-Acosta, M. Daniele Fallin. Cross-tissue integration of genetic and epigenetic data offers insight into autism spectrum disorder. Nature Communications, 2017; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-00868-y

Monday, October 30, 2017

Learning How Bullying Happens in Order to Prevent It

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Ariana Figueroa
October 27, 2017

One in four students report being bullied, but not all say they are bullied the same way. And some students are more likely to experience bullying than others.

That's what one new survey found after posing questions to more than 180,000 students across 412 schools between 2012 and 2017. The data, collected by the nonprofit organization Youth Truth Student Survey, looked at fifth- through 12th-graders in 37 states.

The survey found: 73 percent of students said they were verbally abused, 53% reported being socially bullied, 28% said they were physically abused and 23% of students reported being harassed online.

Percentages do not add up to 100% because
students were able to choose multiple options
for this question. Youth Truth Survey
Results also showed that most harassment occurs in person and that students who don't identify with a specific gender are more likely to be bullied than their peers.

Students were also asked why they thought they were the targets of bullying. Forty-four percent of students answered that "how they looked" was a reason, 17 percent of students said it was because of their race or skin color and 15 percent said it was because other students thought they were gay.

"If you are an educator and you have a feeling that bullying is a problem," says Jen Wilka, the executive director of Youth Truth, "now you are able to have information about what proportion of students are being bullied and how it is happening."

And that's the goal of the survey, Wilka says — help teachers understand bullying in order to help prevent it.

Educators play an important role in preventing bullying, says Bailey Lindgren, a spokesperson for the national bullying prevention center, Pacer.

"Often, if students share with an adult that they are experiencing bullying, it may be the first person they've told," she say

The center was founded in 2006 to educate communities and bring awareness of bullying prevention.

The survey can help teachers respond to students who may think bullying is their fault because of their differences, Lindgren says.

"It's important for educators to keep this in mind when responding to students who experience bullying, reinforcing the message that they aren't alone and the bullying is not their fault."

DeVos Weighs Changes to Special Ed Rule

From DisabilityScoop

By Michelle Diament
October 26, 2017

The U.S. Dept. of Education is reportedly considering delaying or wiping out a rule designed to ensure that children from certain backgrounds aren’t unnecessarily placed in special education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly thinking about delaying
a rule finalized late in the Obama administration aimed at preventing
overrepresentation of minorities in special education.

The agency is debating the future of a rule finalized late last year by the Obama administration in an effort to prevent overrepresentation of minorities in special education, according to Politico.

The Washington news outlet says it has obtained an unpublished draft of a Federal Register notice from the Education Department that would ask for comment on delaying the rule for two years and ultimately potentially changing, replacing or doing away with it altogether.

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that she could not verify the document that Politico has, but acknowledged that discussions are underway about the rule.

“What I can tell you, is through the regulatory review process, we’ve heard from states, (school districts) and others on a wide range of issues, including the significant disproportionality rule. Because of the concerns raised, the department is looking closely at this rule,” Hill told Disability Scoop.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to identify school districts with “significant disproportionality,” or high rates of students from particular racial or ethnic groups that are placed in restrictive settings or are subject to discipline.

But the Obama administration said that with various states using different measures to assess representation in special education, school districts have rarely been flagged. The rule — set to take effect in July 2018 — was designed to address this by creating a uniform standard across the country.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is now considering delaying implementation until 2020, according to Politico. Even in that scenario, however, states that wish to go forward with the rule next year would reportedly have the option to do so and data from states that proceed would be used to assess how well the rule works.

News that the rule could be delayed is drawing a strong rebuke from Democratic lawmakers.

“It seems Betsy DeVos is on a mission to decimate basic protections for students at all levels,” U.S. Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., wrote on Twitter.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Data Do-Over Backs Dominance of Genetics in Autism Risk

From Spectrum News

By Ciara Curtin
October 17, 2017

A re-analysis of data from more than 2 million children in Sweden suggests inherited genetic factors account for 83 percent of autism risk (1).

Sibling scrutiny: Researchers studied data from a large set of siblings in
Sweden to gauge the heritability of autism. kupicoo / iStock

A 2014 study using the same dataset pointed to an equal contribution from genetics and the environment, but experts in the field were critical of the findings, citing flaws in the study’s methods.

Then, to their surprise, the researchers came up with a heritability estimate of 85 percent using an overlapping dataset of nearly 800,000 Swedish children (2). That result prompted them to revisit their earlier work.

In both studies, non-inherited genetic factors called de novo mutations are included in the 17 percent of autism risk dubbed ‘environmental.’ De novo mutations are thought to be important in autism.

“We have been working on this question using more updated data and, doing so, we then found heritability to be larger than we estimated earlier,” says lead researcher Sven Sandin, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

The new estimates align with findings from a 2010 study that placed the contribution of inherited genetic factors to autism risk at 80 percent (3). That study also included de novo mutations in the ‘environmental’ category.

Sibling Similarities

In their 2014 study, Sandin and his team analyzed data from 2.6 million non-twin sibling pairs, 37,570 pairs of twins, and 877,812 half-sibling pairs, all born in Sweden between 1982 and 2006. Of these individuals, 14,516 have an autism diagnosis. The data came from Swedish national health registries.

The researchers looked for siblings who were ‘concordant’ for autism, meaning they both have the condition. They followed one sibling from each pair from birth until he or she was diagnosed or until the study ended in 2009, whichever came first. If that child was diagnosed, they looked to see whether the sibling had also received a diagnosis.

But this approach missed some children who received a diagnosis only after the sibling the researchers followed was diagnosed.

“Some concordant siblings would have been considered not concordant the first time” the researchers analyzed their data, says Qian (Kenny) Ye, associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study.

In the re-analysis, the researchers looked at data from both siblings until 2009. By that time, the youngest children were 4 — old enough to receive an autism diagnosis. If both members of the pair received an autism diagnosis at any point during the study, the researchers considered them concordant.

Double Digits

Using this approach, the researchers nearly doubled the number of concordant sibling pairs in their study. They also boosted their estimate of autism’s heritability from 50 percent to 83 percent. The results appeared in September in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“I think it’s great that this group of researchers took the trouble, actually, to publicly acknowledge that their previous publication might have been sub-optimal,” says Dorret Boomsma, professor of biological psychology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, who was not involved in the study.

In their other study, published in September in Biological Psychiatry, the researchers again drew on Swedish health registry data, but focused this time on the period between 1998 and 2007. This sample includes 776,212 children, 11,231 of whom have been diagnosed with autism. They also looked for autism diagnosed among the children’s relatives, including siblings and cousins.

They applied statistical models that account for the family relationships to estimate the heritability of autism. They calculated that genetics contributes 84.8 percent of autism risk.

“I think it has been repeated several times now and we are converging to this number,” Sandin says.

He and his colleagues are also using the Swedish registries to study recurrence of autism within a family — the likelihood that a sibling of a child with autism also has the condition.


  • Sandin S. et al. JAMA 318, 1182-1184 (2017) PubMed
  • Yip B. et al. Biol. Psychiatry Epub ahead of print (2017) Full text
  • Lichtenstein P. et al. Am. J. Psychiatry 167, 1357-1363 (2010) PubMed

Schools Without Rules: An Orlando Sentinel Investigation - Part 1 of 3 Parts

October 24, 2017

Florida private schools rake in nearly $1 billion in state scholarships with little oversight.

Private schools in Florida will collect nearly $1 billion in state-backed scholarships this year through a system so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records.

The limited oversight of Florida’s scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.

Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.

Despite the problems, the number of children using Florida’s scholarship programs has more than tripled in the past decade to 140,000 students this year at nearly 2,000 private schools. If students using Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships made up their own school district, they would be Florida’s sixth-largest in student population, just ahead of the Jacksonville area.

“The scholarships are good. The problem is the school,” said Edda Melendez, an Osceola County mother. “They need to start regulating the private schools.”

Melendez complained to the state last year about a private school in Kissimmee. The school promised specialized help for her 5-year-old twin sons, who have autism, but one of their teachers was 21 years old and didn’t have a bachelor’s degree or experience with autistic children.

“I feel bad for all the parents who didn’t know what’s going on there,” she told the state.

Jonathan, 5; Ryan, 9; and Jahdiel Ramos, 5, play as their mom Edda Melendez
watches, at their Kissimmee home. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)

Last year, nearly a quarter of all state scholarship students — 30,000 — attended 390 private schools in Central Florida. The schools received $175.6 million worth of the scholarships, which are for children from low-income families and those with disabilities.

During its investigation, the Sentinel visited more than 30 private schools in Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola and Brevard counties, reviewed thousands of pages of public records and interviewed dozens of parents, private school operators, state officials and policy experts.

Unlike public schools, private schools, including those that accept the state scholarships, operate free from most state rules. Private school teachers and principals, for example, are not required to have state certification or even college degrees.

One Orlando school, which received $500,000 from the public programs last year, has a 24-year-old principal still studying at a community college.

Nor do private schools need to follow the state’s academic standards. One curriculum, called Accelerated Christian Education or ACE, is popular in some private schools and requires students to sit at partitioned desks and fill out worksheets on their own for most of the day, with little instruction from teachers or interaction with classmates.

And nearly anything goes in terms of where private school classes meet. The Sentinel found scholarship students in the same office building as Whozz Next Bail Bonds on South Orange Blossom Trail, in a Colonial Drive day-care center that reeked of dirty diapers and in a school near Winter Park that was facing eviction and had wires dangling from a gap in the office ceiling and a library with no books, computers or furniture.

The scholarships are good. The problem is the school. They need to start regulating the private schools.
— Osceola County mother Edda Melendez

However, scholarships can be appealing because some private schools offer rigorous academics on modern campuses, unique programs or small classes that allow students more one-on-one attention, among other benefits. Bad experiences at public schools also fuel interest in scholarships.

Parents opting out of public schools often cite worries about large campuses, bullying, what they call inadequate services for special-needs children and state-required testing. Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as "testing refugees."Use a searchable map to see which private schools were visited by Orlando Sentinel reporters.

But the Sentinel found problems with Florida’s programs, which make up the largest school voucher and scholarship initiative in the nation:

► At least 19 schools submitted documents since 2012 that misled state officials about fire or health inspections, including some with forged inspectors’ names or altered dates. Eight of the schools still received scholarship money with the state’s blessing.

► Upset parents sometimes complain to the state, assuming it has some say over academic quality at these private schools. It does not. “They can conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate,” reads a typical response from the Florida Department of Education to a parent.

► The education department has stopped some schools from taking scholarships when they violated state rules, from the one in Fort Lauderdale led by a man convicted of stealing $20,000 to a school in Gainesville caught depositing scholarship checks for students no longer enrolled. But the department often gives schools second chances and sometimes doesn’t take action even when alerted to a problem.

► Florida’s approach is so hands-off that a state directory lists private schools that can accommodate students with special needs — such as autism — without evidence the schools’ staff is trained to handle disabilities.

Florida Pioneered Public School Accountability

Robert Godin learned in late 2015 that a teacher at his son’s school — Central Florida Preparatory School in west Orange County — had been terminated from a Seminole County public school years before for having pornography on his school computer. He didn’t think the private school, where he sent his son using a state scholarship, should have hired a teacher who had been forced out of a public school and fined by the state.

Two other Central Florida private schools that take state scholarships had also hired the man, who no longer works at Central Florida Preparatory.

“If they’re getting money from the government, why would they not have the same requirements to hire as a public school?” Godin asked.

Attempts to reach Central Florida Preparatory for comment were unsuccessful.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the largest of the three scholarship programs, pays private-school tuition for children from low-income families. The average family using the scholarship earns only about $25,000 a year. The McKay and Gardiner scholarships pay for students with a wide range of disabilities.

Most of the state’s scholarships are worth from about $6,300 to about $10,000 per student. Gardiner and McKay are paid directly by the state. The tax-credit program is funded by donations from companies that receive dollar-for-dollar credits on their state tax bills, so it uses money that would otherwise go into Florida’s budget.

If they’re getting money from the government, why would they not have the same requirements to hire as a public school?
— Robert Godin, father

The state’s Republican leaders started the first version of the scholarships nearly 20 years ago, which put Florida on the leading edge of a national movement to offer parents alternatives to their neighborhood schools. President Donald Trumpand Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited a private school near Orlando in March to tout the benefits of the programs, with Trump saying he wanted to replicate Florida’s “great success” nationwide.

Florida pioneered accountability for public schools with its A-to-F school grading system.

For private schools, though, the Legislature crafted the scholarship programs to operate with scant state oversight, endorsing a philosophy that the free market would sift out poor-quality schools.

Florida law, for example, limits to 10 the number of scholarship schools the state can visit each year, unless it checks on others with a history of problems. Last year, the state visited 22 of nearly 2,000 schools. The year before it visited 27 — and found only four compliant with all scholarship regulations.

Scholarship laws also require private schools to hire only employees who pass criminal background checks, but they do not require the state to routinely check those records.

In recent years, while investigating other problems, the education department caught at least eight schools with staff members who had criminal records. One Osceola school was forced to fire its P.E. teacher and coach when the state discovered his record. But the man now works about a mile away, at another private school that takes scholarship students.

Supporters: Vouchers Help Students Get ‘High-Quality’ Education

Supporters say the programs let parents choose schools they think are best for their children, helping kids who are struggling in public schools and giving poor families a way to afford private tuition.

“Families who opt for private school through any one of our scholarship programs have made the decision that best meets the needs of their students,” wrote Meghan Collins, a spokeswomanfor the Florida Department of Education.

The department would not allow the Sentinel to interview Education Commissioner Pam Stewart or Adam Miller, head of its office of independent education and parental choice, which oversees the programs.

The department, Collins wrote via email, wants all Florida students to get a “high-quality education” and believes the scholarships help with that goal.

“We are able to really change these students’ lives, and I believe that would really be the highest standard of accountability that a school can have,” said Bryan Gonzalez, the 24-year-old principal of TDR Learning Academy in Orlando who is a student at Valencia College. The school, founded by a pastor and housed in a shopping center on Curry Ford Road, relied on scholarships for most of the nearly 100 students enrolled last year.

Like many of the Christian schools that take state scholarships, TDR uses one of a handful of popular curricula that, as one administrator explained, teach “traditional” math and reading but Bible-based history and science, including creationism.

TDR uses ACE, which includes workbooks for every subject. Students are to complete up to 70 a year. Gonzalez, the pastor’s son-in-law, said students benefit from doing ACE workbooks at their own pace.

Gonzalez also said parents don’t seem to mind his young age or that he and some TDR teachers lack college degrees. TDR’s enrollment has grown since it opened five years ago.

At Harvest Baptist Academy in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood, parents choose the 20-year-old school for its academics, Bible-based lessons and no-nonsense discipline that includes spanking children, said Harry Amos, recently retired principal.

“The scholarships are fantastic,” Amos said.

All two dozen students at the school used them to pay tuition last year.

Parents “just want a different environment,” he said. “Our leader is the Lord Jesus.”

About 78 percent of Florida’s scholarship students are enrolled in religious schools. Most are Christian schools, though some Jewish and Muslim schools take part, too.

St. Andrew Catholic School served as a backdrop for Trump’s visit. The Catholic schools are among some of the most well-regarded and long-established private schools that take Florida’s scholarships. Last year the Catholic Diocese of Orlando collected more than $28 million through the public programs.

Not all private schools accept the state scholarships. Lake Highland Preparatory School and Trinity Preparatory School, for example, rely on their own financial aid programs.

The state allows many private schools to begin enrolling scholarship students as soon as they open their doors. Many rely on that funding for most of their income.

Where did the money go? It didn’t go to our student.
Lake County parent Diana Highland, in a complaint to the state about a Zellwood private school

Schools must meet only a short list of state requirements, such as employee background checks and fire and health inspections, to receive the money. Such a low barrier to entry has helped the number of private schools in Florida to jump by more than 20 percent in the past 10 years.

Parents often don’t realize how few checks there are of these schools.

“Where did the money go?” wrote Lake County parent Diana Highland in a complaint to the state, upset about a private school in Zellwood that abruptly shut down last year. “It didn’t go to our student.”

Parents Complain to the State About Some Schools

The complaints the Sentinel reviewed came from across Florida. A parent in Bradenton was upset a school assigned her eighth grader an elementary-level worksheet on clocks and telling time. Another was angry a North Florida school made students clean toilets as punishment. A Jacksonville mother wrote that her son’s education was neglected. “They were paid $10,316.00 for my son’s tuition, and I have nothing to show for it,” she told the state.

In every case, the education department responded there was nothing it could do about a private school’s academic choices.

But in the past five years, the education department did deny or revoke scholarship eligibility more than 60 times, with some schools sanctioned more than once, for violations of state rules. Some schools also were ordered to pay back scholarship money.

A Broward County school lost its scholarship eligibility when it failed to find a permanent home — and at one point, it held classes in a hotel conference room. At least a dozen schools, from Miramar to Jacksonville, got kicked out of the programs, at least for a time, when they were caught forging parent signatures on scholarship checks or using other means to take scholarship money for children not enrolled at their schools.

“We hold participating private schools accountable to the full extent of the law,” Collins wrote to the Sentinel.

But the Sentinel found that in some cases enforcement is lax.

Hidden Treasure Preschool Christian Academy is located in Sanford.
(Leslie Postal / Orlando Sentinel)

The state allowed at least eight schools that submitted bogus fire or health reports, including Hidden Treasure Preschool Christian Academy in Sanford, to receive scholarship money after it discovered the documents were phony. In some cases, the school reassigned or terminated the person responsible, and the department found that sufficient, a DOE spokeswoman said.

Hidden Treasure, a small school in a 1970s house that received at least $8,000 in scholarship money last year, submitted a form showing a clean inspection in 2013. But the actual inspection by the Sanford Fire Department documented problems with electrical wiring and emergency lighting.

The department allowed Hidden Treasure to take the scholarships after it fixed the code violations. Judy Scott, the school’s director, did not answer questions about how the false form was sent to Tallahassee.

Jon Pasqualone, executive director of the Florida Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association, said schools turning in falsified documents is troubling.

“School is where children spend the majority of their day away from the protection of their parents and their home. It’s absolutely imperative that schools are safe for our children,” said Pasqualone, a retired fire marshal in Martin County.

Despite Problems, School Keeps Getting Scholarships

Agape Christian Academy in west Orange County forged fire safety inspections, hired staff with criminal records and failed to turn in required test scores on time, all violations of Florida scholarship rules, records show.

Despite nearly a decade of problems, the school housed in a cluster of aging buildings on Hiawassee Road enrolled about 115 scholarship students in the 2016-2017 school year and collected $5.6 million in scholarships since 2012. The department revoked the school’s scholarship eligibility on August 3 after it found yet another rule violation. The school remains open, and the owner’s attorney said they are challenging their 10-year suspension from the scholarship programs.

Bright Learning-Cyber High rented a building on Aloma Avenue near Winter Park for its school — until it was evicted in May. The building, which reporters visited while school was still in session, had holes in the office wall and ceiling and an empty room the director called its library.

Orange County court records show the school’s owners had stopped paying rent in March 2016 and owed the landlord $50,000. A judge ruled against the school but has not yet determined how much it must pay in back rent.

The education department said it wasn’t aware of the eviction proceedings, but even if it had been, those financial troubles wouldn’t have barred the school from receiving state scholarships. Bright Learning enrolled 30 scholarship students last year and collected about $170,000.

The school has moved to a shopping plaza not far from Colonial Drive in east Orange County. Seventeen scholarship students are enrolled, the education department said.

Joanne Friedland, who runs the school with her husband, called the eviction irrelevant to the school’s participation in the scholarship programs. “We had a conflict. It’s been resolved.”

Alan and Joanne Friedland previously helped operate failed charter schools — public schools run by private groups — in Orange and Seminole counties. Both charter schools were shut down in 2002 by local school boards that cited serious academic and financial problems.

The Friedlands, along with another relative, converted Cyber High to a private school and began taking state scholarships in 2003. At least two other private schools in Central Florida, and a few others across the state, are also former charter schools that local boards either shut down or pressured to close because of poor performance.

Samuel Vidal, who ran a private Christian school in Brevard with his wife, shut down his campus last year after a student told police he had improperly touched her. Vidal and his wife then opened a new school under a different name and continued to take scholarship students.

Samuel Vidal, 41, a Palm Bay pastor and principal, was arrested and
charged with lewd or lascivious molestation of a child in February of 2017.
(Brevard County Sheriff's Office)

The department said the first school was registered under Vidal’s name and the second under his wife’s, so it did not realize the connection.

Palm Bay police arrested Vidal in February and charged him with lewd or lascivious molestation. Vidal, through his attorney, denied the allegations. After the arrest, the education department revoked the second school’s scholarships. But this summer, the department approved scholarships for yet another new school run by people with ties to Vidal, though his wife said she and her husband don’t have a role on that campus.

At the now-closed Heaven Academy, a school for students with autism, a teacher wrote to the state in October of 2016, questioning whether one of the school’s owners was misusing state scholarships and Medicaid money, and whether the owner had state approval to hold classes on Heaven’s Orlando campus — which was not authorized to receive scholarships. The owner also ran Angels Center for Autism, an Orange County school that was approved to take scholarships.

The education department requested some documents from Angels but did not ask if it had opened the Heaven campus and took no action against the school, where 99 scholarship students attended. Angels took in more than $706,000 in scholarship money last school year.

Four months later, police arrested that owner and school office manager, accusing them of stealing more than $4.5 million in Medicaid funds from student accounts. Only then did the department revoke the school’s scholarships, citing the arrests and the use of an unauthorized school site, which the teacher tipped off the department about months earlier. The department, in a document written after the arrests, said it did not act earlier because it had nothing to “conclusively show” violations of state law.

The office manager has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. The arrested owner, Maria Navarro Martin, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Melendez, the Osceola mother of autistic twins, pulled them from Central Pointe Christian Academy after a week.

One of her sons ended up with a teacher whose main qualification was “a calling from God,” Melendez said, but the young woman had no idea how to help the boy who seldom spoke and sometimes had tantrums. Melendez was also worried missing door locks and exit signs meant the school wasn’t ready for students.

She complained to the state about the academy’s “learning center” in September 2016. The education department told her it could do nothing about academics and took no notice of her concerns about the new facility — which it didn’t know had opened — and a lack of city permits, records show.

Kissimmee officials confirmed Central Pointe opened that special-needs facility, in a former shopping center deli, last year without a required fire inspection or building permit. The city granted approval on August 23 of this year, they said.

Yanira Pares, the school’s administrator, blamed the permit problem on the building’s landlord and insisted she did not put students in an unsafe facility. She did not notify the state of her new “learning center” because she didn’t realize she needed to, she said.

Central Pointe had more than 320 scholarship students last year, taking in more than $3 million, and this year has more than 420 students relying on scholarships.

“It’s the only way a private school can stand strong,” Pares said. Central Pointe serves Osceola’s Hispanic population, whose parents value the school’s Christian lessons and bilingual staff, she said.

Most of her teachers have bachelor’s degrees, though she does employ a few teaching assistants who do not, including the young woman Melendez referred to, Pares said. Melendez said the young woman, whatever her title, acted as her son’s teacher.

Just as they are free from public school hiring rules, private schools that take state scholarships are exempt from giving the Florida Standards Assessments, the state’s standardized tests. But they must give some scholarship students another exam of their choosing, and Florida hires outside experts to study those results.

No Consequences for Poor Academic Performance

There are no consequences, however, for the students or schools when the studies show some schools leave children worse off academically. More than 70 schools, out of about 280 studied, showed declines in students’ math or reading skills, according to the most recent report.

A separate study released last month by the Urban Institute found the tax-credit program increased the rate at which students go on to enroll at community college by about 15 percent, though the authors said those results were “tempered” because the scholarships did little to boost the likelihood students actually earned a degree.

The typical Florida scholarship student makes appropriate academic gains, but some attend excellent private schools while others go to ones that hurt students’ academic progress, said David Figlio, dean of the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, who conducted some of the studies while he was at the University of Florida.

Parents don’t always have enough information to avoid the “terrible schools,” Figlio said.“There needs to be a role for public monitoring.”

Tawanna Smith enrolled her two children at Harvest Baptist in Orlando last year because she didn’t like the “gossiping and fighting” at her daughter’s public middle school or state testing, which often tripped up her daughter.

“I love the scholarship program,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about all those tests.”

Smith’s only complaint was that Harvest Baptist has limited resources. Housed in an older building, the school has only a patch of grass and a gravel parking lot for recess or sports. Her daughter, now in ninth grade, is back in a public school and her son, a seventh grader who is still using a tax-credit scholarship, is at a larger private school that has better facilities, including a gym, she said.

Many of the private schools that take scholarships lack amenities common at public schools, including art and music rooms, athletic facilities, laptops and other technology and free meals for needy kids.

But they still offer children what they need, supporters say.

“No matter how big or small the school is, or no matter how it looks, doesn’t determine the quality of what’s behind it,” said Krista Jex, director of Scholar’s Prep Academy, a private school that opened in a shopping center in Orange County last year and recently moved to a bigger facility. Parents, she said, want a place that will “just do right by the kids.”

Step Up for Students, the nonprofit agency that administers most of the tax credit and Gardiner scholarships, said demand for the scholarships is increasing every year because so many disadvantaged parents think their children are ill-served by public schools.

Step Up is a key player in Florida’s school-choice movement. The group’s founder, John Kirtley, helped create the program with then Gov. Jeb Bush and worked for years with DeVos advocating for voucher programs nationwide.

Step Up President Doug Tuthill acknowledged that one of the chief political selling points of tax-credit scholarships — that they cost less than the amount it takes to educate a child in the public school system — is also one of the program’s flaws.

“The scholarship ought to be worth more … ought to be able to pay teachers the way we pay teachers in district schools,” Tuthill said. “These schools don’t have nearly the resources that public schools have.”

This spring, the Legislature boosted the value of the tax-credit scholarship, from $5,886 to as much as $7,000. The state is spending an average of $7,297 for each child in public school.

But some parents who used scholarships wished the state would hold private schools to a higher standard.

Highland, the Lake mother who complained to the state, used scholarships to enroll her children in private school because she thought a smaller setting would be better.

But she grew disappointed with the Little Red School House in Zellwood. Teachers worked with outdated books and few materials, and the school’s owner “ran the school like a daycare,” she wrote. The school, whose owner declined to comment, shut down at the beginning of last school year after nearly 20 years.

“I think someone should have come and said, ‘You’re not doing this.’” Highland said. “These kids are not getting what they should be getting.”

But she also remains convinced that public school isn’t a good fit for her kids. They are using a scholarship again this year, this time at a new private school.

The Schools Without Rules Series

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Teachers Report Stressed, Anxious Students in the 'Age of Trump'

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Anya Kamenetz
October 26, 2017

This past spring, a history teacher in North Carolina was giving a lesson about Christopher Columbus. He covered how Columbus and his men enslaved and otherwise mistreated the native people of the island of Hispaniola.

One white student piped up: "Well, that's what needed to happen. They were just dumb people anyways like they are today. That was the purpose, that's why we need a wall."

Multiple students agreed. An argument ensued. After class, two Latina students came up to the teacher and said: "He doesn't need to be saying stuff like that in class. We are worried for our well-being. We're worried about things not going good for us."

The anonymous anecdote was collected as part of a new UCLA survey.

In it, teachers report that in the current political climate, some of their students fear for themselves and their families. Others reported that students seem more "emboldened" to express racist and derogatory views.

Even as the first lady spent time this week touring schools to promote caring and inclusion, many are ready to chalk up a new incivility in schools to the Age of Trump.

Previous surveys we've reported on, including one from the Southern Poverty Law Center, also found increases in school bullying related to overheated political rhetoric.

The UCLA survey, unlike those, relies on a nationally representative sample: 1,535 teachers at schools whose demographics reflect those of U.S. schools as a whole, rather than pulling from self-selecting volunteers. Also, the survey was conducted after President Trump took office.

Along with the survey, researchers at the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access conducted 35 follow-up interviews by phone.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • 79 percent of teachers reported that students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families because of what is in the news. Most commonly mentioned was immigration, but the list also included the much-publicized travel ban, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, threats to the Affordable Care Act and threats to the environment.
  • 51 percent of teachers reported more students experiencing "high levels of stress and anxiety."
  • 44 percent of teachers reported that students' concerns were affecting learning. In interviews, they spoke about students who seemed stressed, distracted and who were contributing less to class discussion for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
  • 41 percent of teachers reported that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims in class discussions, such as from Facebook or talk radio.
  • 27 percent of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. This included sexist as well as racist and anti-Muslim comments.
  • 20 percent of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms.

These last two figures were higher for teachers at predominantly white schools, says John Rogers, lead author of the report and a professor at UCLA's graduate school of education. He noted that teachers in eight states used the word "emboldened" to describe some white students' increasingly racist and offensive behavior.

The report is not comprehensive, and there's no easy way to compare its results with those during any previous administration. But it speaks to an ongoing national discussion about civil discourse and civic engagement inside and outside the classroom.

White nationalists like Richard Spencer are coming to college campuses purporting to embody free speech, even as their supporters commit violence.

Former President George W. Bush, and retiring Repubican Sen. Jeff Flake, each in a recent speech drew a line between the rhetoric that flies on Twitter and television, and what students in school are learning about the bounds of acceptability.

"Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children," Bush said. "The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them."

"It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are," said Flake.

Ron Avi Astor, who researches school climate at the University of Southern California, follows Rogers' work closely. He cautions that teachers may have a "really different" view of what is going on in their schools than students do.

A high school teacher, for example, may have 200 students in the course of a day, Astor explains. And if she sees problems happening with one or two of them, that doesn't necessarily generalize to every student in a school.

However, he says the results of this survey conform with what he has been seeing in the field and hearing from administrators and teachers.

Astor says he has seen schools in Los Angeles, where he lives and does research, taking steps to protect students who are worried about immigration crackdowns.

"You don't need a big study to know that kids turn on the TV and they see and hear the nastiness that's going on," he says.

UCLA's Rogers says the survey suggests that the political climate may be chilling classroom debate. "Teachers said they avoided talking about topics they otherwise would discuss, or had lessons that were more controlling and less engaging than in the past."

One teacher said, "I'd been trained to bring all different student perspectives into the discussion, but I don't quite know what to do when it creates a threat for other students or undermines a sense of community in my classroom."

Teachers told the UCLA researchers that they wanted more professional development and more leadership from their administrators on how to balance these concerns. "It would be troubling," says Rogers, "if the lesson was that schools need to back away from civic and political life."