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Choice nuggets: Surging demand for Florida tax credit scholarships, creationist fears, horse therapy and more

Number of the week: 87,062

That’s how many low-income Florida families began applications for tax credit scholarships this year, up from 69,000 last year. It’s another sign of fast-growing demand for the largest private school choice program of its kind in the country.

Demand is so high, in fact, that Step Up For Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit that administers the program (and is home to redefinED), had to close applications last week to new students for the 2012-13 school year. More than 50,000 scholarships have already been approved, and thousands more are in the pipeline.

Not all families who begin applications finish them. And not all students who are approved for scholarships take them. That’s in part because some families determine they can’t afford the difference between the scholarship amount ($4,335 this fall) and the private school’s tuition and fees. The scholarships are only available to students whose families meet the income eligibility requirements for free- or reduced-price lunch.

Last year, the tax-credit scholarships program served 40,248 students, according to a Florida Department of Education year-end report posted Monday. That’s nearly double the 21,493 it served just five years ago. In the spring, the Legislature bumped up the program cap from $219 million to $229 million so about 9,000 additional students could be served.

A bigger problem for science in Louisiana

Two widely circulated stories recently noted the anti-scientific teachings of some private Christian schools that will be participating in Louisiana’s new voucher program.

The first, from the Associated Press, quoted a science advocate who lamented that public money will be used to finance creationism and other “phony science.” Meanwhile, Mother Jones headlined, “14 Wacky ‘Facts’ Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools.” Tops on the list: “Dinosaurs and humans probably hung out.”

From a scientific standpoint, such teachings are indefensible. But as I’ve written before, the poor track record of public schools in science instruction, particularly with low-income and minority students, can’t be defended either.

According to the latest NAEP results in science, Louisiana ranked 46th of 50 states. Twenty-two percent of its eighth-graders were deemed proficient.

And Florida’s next education commissioner will be …

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of speculation about who will replace Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who unexpectedly announced his resignation last week. Among the names often thrown out are two Florida superintendents, Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho and Hillsborough’s MaryEllen Elia.

In the past decade, arguably no big Florida district has gotten more traction with low-income students than Miami-Dade, and Carvalho, hired in 2008, certainly deserves a share of the credit. Elia, meanwhile, has a resume that includes the $100 million teacher effectiveness grant from the Gates Foundation and a bold push to open college-caliber AP classes to far more students.

If results were the only thing that mattered, former Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson and former Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker would be on somebody’s list, too.

Between 2001 and 2010, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange made the biggest across-the-board gains among Florida’s 12 biggest school districts. Over that period, Palm Beach ranked No. 1 in reading gains for black students, and No. 1 in math gains for black and Hispanic students. In reading gains, Orange ranked No. 3 with Hispanic students, and No. 2 with black, white students and low-income students.

Lottery joy, lottery pain

Do you know how hard it is to get this? When you get an opportunity like this, you can’t let it go.

– Barbara Payne, a Washington D.C. resident whose 10-year-old son was one of 299 new students who won a voucher through a lottery this month and will attend a private school. Another 206 students didn’t make the cut.

I’ve tried e-mailing, calling, crying. I just pray to God that this doesn’t happen next year because I don’t know what I’m going to do.

– Crystal Robinson, a Louisiana resident whose 9-year-old daughter was one of more than 4,000 students who were eligible for the state’s new voucher program but were not matched to a seat.

Horse therapy

The Just For Girls Academy, a new charter school opening in Bradenton, Fla. this fall, will offer something truly unique for its students: Lessons focused on “emotional intelligence,” developed through bonding with horses.

If it works, why not?

(Image of fried okra from

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


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