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Breitburn Energy pledges $1.2 million to support Step Up For Students’ scholarship program for low-income K-12 students in Florida

By Lisa A. Davis

TAMPA – Step Up For Students and Breitburn Energy Partners LP (NASDAQ:BBEP) announced this week a new partnership bringing the nonprofit scholarship funding organization and oil and gas company together to support children who need K-12 educational options.

Breitburn,  a publicly traded, independent oil and gas master limited partnership focused on the acquisition, development, and production of oil and gas properties throughout the United States, has pledged $1.2 million, which will provide 205 scholarships for the current school year.  Breitburn designated their funds to assist Step Up scholars in those counties where Breitburn is currently operating:  Collier, Escambia, Hendry, Lee and Santa Rosa.  So far, about 1,220 Step Up scholars are enrolled  in private schools in those counties for the 2015-16 school year.

Breitburn_logo_stackedHal Washburn, Breitburn’s CEO said:  “We are excited to be contributing to Step Up scholars in Collier, Escambia, Hendry, Lee and Santa Rosa counties, the communities where we operate in Florida.  Our dedicated employees serve as important role models in those communities, and our pledge demonstrates our further support for them, their families and their neighbors.  We believe that assisting in the education of our youth and future leaders is one of the best ways to invest in the communities where we do business.”

Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps Florida’s poorest families to send their children to the private school of their choice with a scholarship worth up to $5,677 , or use a $500  scholarship to help pay for transportation to an out-of-county public school.

“With corporate donors like Breitburn, this year alone, we are able to help about 78,000 students attend a school that best meets their learning needs,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “For that, we are truly grateful, and we know thousands of parents and guardians are, too.”

 

 

The distorted history of Florida tax credit scholarships

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on Aug. 31 on redefinED, a blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. It is written by Jon East, Step Up For Students vice president of Public Affairs and Policy.

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Jon East

In a new appellate brief asking the courts to throw out a 14-year-old scholarship serving 78,000 of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students, lawyers for Florida’s teachers union have doubled down on a conspiracy theory. These attempts to sow seeds of doubt about the political origins of the Tax Credit Scholarship strike the unusual combination of being both irrelevant and wrong.The brief, filed 10 days ago in the First District Court of Appeal following a circuit judge’s decision in May to dismiss the case on standing, opens with a bold assertion: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.”

The teachers union is trying to sell its lawsuit as a type of police action for Bush v. Holmes, the 2006 Supreme Court decision that overturned publicly funded school vouchers for students who were assigned to district schools judged to be failing. Meyer wants judges to believe lawmakers made a fast end-around on the Holmes decision.

A broad expanse of case law suggests this distinction is, constitutionally speaking, a red herring. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court and three state supreme courts have all found in favor of tax credit scholarships, and no state courts have ultimately ruled against them. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2011 precedent, went so far as to deny standing to those challenging tax credit scholarships in Arizona, ruling that tax-credited contributions are not the same as government expenditures.

Arizona draws an even clearer legal line. In cases that are strikingly similar to Florida, the Arizona Supreme Court approved of scholarships funded by tax-credited contributions on the one hand and outlawed publicly funded vouchers on the other. “This tax credit is not an appropriation of public money,” it wrote in the first instance. “Unlike the funds (for tax credit scholarships), the funds at issue here are withdrawn from the public treasury and earmarked for an identified purpose,” it wrote later in rejecting direct vouchers.

But let’s return to the conspiracy theory for what it’s worth. Merriam-Webster defines “successor” as someone or something that “follows in sequence” or “after someone else.” That is simply not the history here. The Tax Credit Scholarship was passed into law in 2001, five years before the Bush v. Holmes decision that invalidated tax-funded vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). Five years.

On the next page of its brief, the FEA contradicts the “successor” claim when it acknowledges that the Legislature created the program “while the Holmes litigation against the OSP was still pending” – not after the court had ruled.

Later in the brief, the FEA takes the conspiracy down a different path, linking growth in the Tax Credit Scholarship to the court decision: “Since the 2005-2006 school year — when the Supreme Court invalidated the OSP — the amount of tax revenue that has been diverted to pay for these private-school vouchers has increased from $88 million to more than $286 million.”

In this instance, at least, the brief captures the correct time frame for the Bush v. Holmes decision. But the implication that the Legislature began growing the Tax Credit Scholarship program as a means of replacing the OSP is nonsensical. The tax credit program has never provided eligibility for students who are assigned to public schools deemed to be failing, and the growth in the scholarship reflects primarily the demand from low-income families who are eligible.

In 2010, the Legislature went further and decided to allow growth to be triggered administratively when certain financial and enrollment thresholds are met. Like previous expansions of the program, the Legislature’s intent was clear: To extend learning options to more disadvantaged students.

Readers should be aware that I’m vice president for policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, the state’s largest scholarship organization, so I can reasonably be accused of bias. But what strikes me about the conspiracy claim is how easy it is to refute and yet how prominent a role it continues to play in the FEA’s lawsuit narrative. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the brief also implores appellate judges to adhere to a procedural requirement, at this stage, to “accept all well-pled allegations in the complaint as true.” This one is not so much.

Florida Tax Credit Scholarships draw more disadvantaged students

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By TRAVIS PILLOW 
Florida’s tax credit scholarships continue to draw some of the state’s most disadvantaged students from struggling public schools, according to the latest evaluation of the program by independent researchers.

As in previous years, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students kept pace, on average, with their national peers. A score of zero means a student made the same learning gains as all test-takers.
After the students enroll in private schools on the scholarship, they tend to keep pace with their peers around the country, making about a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time.

The report for the 2013-14 school year, released by the state Department of Education on Tuesday, is based on test scores for more than 27,000 students in grades 3-10. It is the eighth evaluation of its kind, and the first conducted by a team from the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, which took over the role after a 2014 change in state law.

As in previous years, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students kept pace, on average, with their national peers. A score of zero means a student made the same learning gains as all test-takers.

While the findings are similar to previous years, they cover more students, and include results for more individual schools, than ever before.

The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts the redefinED blog and employs the author of this post. It is the largest private school choice program in the country, and served nearly 60,000 students in the year covered by the report.

New scholarship students were more likely to be black, less likely to be white or Hispanic, and less likely to be English language learners than the low-income students who qualified for the program but did not participate. They also tended to score lower on standardized tests in public schools, and were more likely to come from schools that struggled academically. More than 25 percent of scholarship students came from public schools that had been rated “D” or “F” in the previous year.

“New [scholarship] students, as in previous years, tend to come from lower-performing public schools prior to entering the program,” the report states. “Moreover, they are more likely to be among the lower performing students in their prior school before attending the program, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”

The new evaluation also reports learning gains for scholarship students at 158 private schools, 48 more than the previous year. (Though scholarship students that year attended more than 1,400 schools, the state reports learning gains only for individual schools with at least 30 scholarship students who have current and previous-year test scores.)

Learning gains compare students’ national percentile scores from one year to the next. If students’ percentile rankings hold constant from one year to the next, they can be said to have made about a year’s worth of progress.

There is considerable variation among schools. Researchers found most of the schools achieved roughly the same learning gain as the program overall — a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time. But they also found 18 schools where students’ three-year average gains were significantly greater than the norm, and 31 schools where they were significantly less.

In their conclusion, the researchers note scholarship students overall appear to be keeping pace with their peers.

“[T]he typical FTC student tends to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with all students nationally both in mathematics and reading,” they write. “It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just students from low-income families.”

Travis Pillow is editor of redefinED. He spent his early professional career reporting on the inner workings of state government for a variety of news organizations, and became immersed in Florida’s education policy debates while covering schools and the Legislature for the Tallahassee Democrat. A product of Seminole County Public Schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2010. Reach him at tpillow@sufs.org or (407) 376-3105. Also, follow him on Twitter @travispillow.

Student Spotlight: Denisha Merriweather, Step Up graduate; USF graduate student

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedBy Sherri Ackerman

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, Denisha Merriweather thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life. Denisha snipToday, the 24-year-old college graduate is working toward her master’s degree.

“I’m just so grateful,’’ Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.’’

She’s on a mission now educating others about Step Up and seeking support so the nonprofit can continue to help disadvantaged students like herself realize their dreams.

“So many doors of opportunity have been opened for me that I feel the best way to say thanks is to make sure other children are given the same chance,’’ Denisha said.

Read more and watch videos about Denisha’s path to success through Step Up For Students here.

School Spotlight: Merritt Island Christian School

By Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady

If Principal Jamie Bopp could use only one word to describe Merritt Island Christian School (MICS), it would be “family.”

Principal Jamie Bopp

Principal Jamie Bopp

“Our family environment creates a culture of genuine love for one another,” he said. “We seek to live out our mission … and we are constantly asking ourselves what’s best for our students?”

MICS is a co-educational pre-K through 12th-grade day school on a 14-acre campus along Brevard County’s Space Coast.  Of the school’s 300 K-12 students enrolled in 2015-16, 72 will receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Instruction is focused on academic achievement, which is measured annually by the national TerraNova test in grades K-10. Students in grades 11 and 12 take college placement tests, such as the ACT and SAT.

“We want to make data-driven decisions to best serve our students,” Bopp said. “We are proud to say that our school scored above the 2015 national average in every grade!”

Tuition this school year ranges from $6,592 to $9,476, depending on grade. Merritt Island is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and a member of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools.

Students take part in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), a new initiative that allows them to bring their iPads, Kindles, cellphones and other electronics to class. The goal is to engage students and boost achievement, Bopp said.

MICS also is growing a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, offering students a diploma track, and the school recognized the first graduates of the program last spring.

“We have invested in technology because it helps our students learn,” Bopp said.

High school students can participate in a dual enrollment program through Palm Beach Atlantic University that allows them to earn college credits faster.

In addition to academic courses, students can choose among more than 35 activities, including robotics, choir and sports – which boasts 10 highly competitive varsity teams. The school also features a fine arts department that produces award-winning work.

Every year, MICS has a theme to encourage students to excel – academically, emotionally and spiritually.

“Our MICS theme for 2015-2016 is ‘Anchored,’” Bopp said. “It is a theme based on identity. We will ask our students, ‘What are you anchored in?’ We will encourage them to be anchored in Christ.”

Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story?  Please contact Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady, marketing specialist, at nbrady@stepupforstudents.org.

Meet MICS graduate Savannah Lang.

 

 

Student Spotlight: Savannah Lang, Merritt Island Christian School graduate

By Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedRhonda Ford wanted more of a say in her only child’s education. But the divorced mom and self-employed massage therapist thought her options were limited to her neighborhood school.

Then one day in 2002, Ford learned about Step Up For Students and the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Once the family received approval, Ford enrolled Savannah Lang into

Savannah Lang, left, receives her high school diploma in May from MICS Superintendent Nanci Dettra. Savannah plans to take classes at Eastern Florida State College this fall.

Savannah Lang, left, receives her high school diploma in May from MICS Superintendent Nanci Dettra. Savannah plans to take classes at Eastern Florida State College this fall.

kindergarten at Merritt Island Christian School (MICS) for the 2002-03 school year.

Mother and daughter never looked back. Today, Savannah is a high school graduate starting college in the fall with plans to become a pharmacist.

“Step Up for Students helped my daughter in every way,” Ford said. “I am a single mom and I would never have been able to afford a private school like MICS.”

Ford liked the small class sizes and the Christian environment, and the partnership between teachers and parents.

“I felt like I had more control over her education, and I felt comfortable knowing that her friends and their parents had similar beliefs to mine,” she said. “Savannah did not get lost in the crowd.”

Savannah excelled academically, earning an overall 3.89 GPA for her high school career. Her favorite subject was math because there are many ways to solve a problem. She was part of the National Honor Society and received the Humanitarian Award for most volunteer hours.

Savannah also participated in dual enrollment at MICS, taking high school courses along with college-level ones through a local community college and Palm Beach Atlantic University. During her senior year, she received the Principal’s Scholarship, a two-year award from Eastern Florida State College to help pay for classes there. She starts in the fall and has earned enough credits to receive her Associate in Arts degree in less than two years.

“While I was at MICS, my teachers and my mom taught me to be a hard worker,” Savannah said. “If I put my mind into something, I will achieve it. I have a dream of becoming a pharmacist, and I will achieve it and be very successful.”

She gained a lot of maturity in recent years helping care for her maternal grandmother, who was paralyzed by a stroke and died in July 2014.

“I couldn’t have made it without Savannah’s help,” Ford said.

Her daughter spends most days now working at a pharmacy. But Savannah is not all school and work. When she has some free time, she enjoys horseback riding and volleyball.

After she graduates from Eastern College, Savannah plans to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville. She said she will miss the 26 seniors she graduated with at MICS. Together, they amassed more than $1 million in college scholarships, Principal Jamie Bopp said.

Many of those students also were on the Step Up For Students scholarship, like Savannah.

“Step Up For Students is giving students and their families an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Bopp said. “Savannah’s story is a perfect example of that. You doing what you do helps us do what we do. You truly are making a difference.”

Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story?  Please contact Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady, marketing specialist, at nbrady@stepupforstudents.org.

 

Layla and Jeremiah Cirino

cirino-kidsc

Layla and Jeremiah Cirino

By Lisa A. Davis

Meet Layla and Jeremiah Cirino of Kissimmee. They began their academic life attending their neighborhood school, but as the years went by, the school became overcrowded and the environment made learning a challenge for the siblings.

Jeremiah was bullied. Layla faced violence in the classroom. Their mom, Adrienne Cirino, was desperate to find an alternative school for her children, but as a single mother private school seemed out of reach. Then she heard about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and applied through Step Up For Students. Soon, Layla’s grades were back to her usual A’s and B’s and Jeremiah was doing better than ever.

“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids,’’ Adrienne said. “They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.” Read their full story here.

Welcome

Welcome to the Step Up For Students blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.” We’re excited to have you join us as we debut a new forum for our parents, teachers, students and advocates to connect with one another and share their personal experiences with the (income-based) Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

We hope to be informative, sharing news about Step Up For Students, our scholarship application periods, participating schools and services, among other topics. We also aim to intrigue you with profiles about our scholarship recipients and their families, our partner schools, our program donors and partners.

In addition, we’d like to help answer your questions and provide a network of support for you as you navigate your child’s educational path. Which private schools accept the scholarships in your community? What combinations of therapies have helped your child with special needs? Is there a homeschool curriculum that really brings results? In the months ahead, we will feature guest bloggers, including parents and educators. We’ll also publish various series, such as a behind- the-scenes look at all things Step Up. We invite you, our readers, to become active participants.

We look forward to growing our blog, and taking this adventure with you. Thank you for reading.

Your friends at Step Up.