Sunday, September 23, 2018

New Florida scholarship aims to boost third-grade readers

Third grader Gavin Kaechele’s mom, Laryssa, knew something was up when the 9-year-old used the word "invalidate" while preparing to take the Florida Standards Assessments last week.

"He said, ‘If I fidget in my chair, it could invalidate my test,’" Laryssa Kaechele recalled. "I was so shocked because, where did that word come from? But this is the reality. Our kids are taught for testing. He was nervous."

She said it’s nice to know the state’s new $500 reading scholarship would be available as a back stop, just in case Gavin needs it.

The Legislature created the program this spring for kids who don’t score at grade level or above on the third- and fourth-grade language arts FSA. On a first-come, first-served basis, families can use the money to pay for remedial reading instruction or materials outside school.

"I’m very excited," said Kaechele. "This gives me the control to choose a program for him I think would work."

Ever since Florida set the third-grade reading test as a gatekeeper in 2003, holding thousands of lower performing children back from fourth grade, lawmakers and education leaders have launched a variety of initiatives aimed at getting them up to speed.

Most districts including Hillsborough County continue to run summer reading camps, targeting the lowest performing students. Many of them including Hernando County also focus on younger children before they ever take a state test. Several offer school-year programs before and after classes, and even weekend programs in Miami-Dade County.

The districts alert parents to all their options as soon as they detect learning needs, with more specifics after test scores arrive.

Some parents do not prefer these programs. The state has sought options for them, too.

For a time, the state required districts to use Title I funding to support a private tutoring model for struggling students. The system proved rife with corruption, though, as tutoring companies often took money for services they didn’t actually provide.

It was "the fleecing of America," said Elena Garcia, a Manatee County school district official who oversaw the program while in the Pasco County district.

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Lawmakers effectively ended the program in 2012, redirecting the money. Still, they kept looking for more ways to boost third-grade readers — especially as they saw scores stagnating.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who chaired the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee, was among those who floated the idea of a scholarship. An influential school choice advocate who works for an affiliate of Florida’s largest charter school operator, Diaz proposed a system similar to the Gardiner Scholarship for children with disabilities.

Fully funded by the state’s general revenue, the Gardiner program reimburses parents for certain educational expenses. The new reading scholarship aims to do the same for children who struggled on the state language arts exam in the grades where the state expects them to transition from learning to read, to reading to learn.

The Legislature allocated $9.7 million for the program. Last year, 187,169 students scored below Level 3 on the third- and fourth-grade language arts tests — about ten times more than the money could support.

"These are kids in which families have decided the traditional public school is the best place for them, but they still need extra help," Diaz said. "And it’s choice, because it’s providing parents a choice on how they provide supplemental assistance to their student."

He suggested that, although scholarships are available to anyone who meets the academic requirement, the program will help families that otherwise might not afford the services. In the future, Diaz added, he might ask to tweak the model so it benefits low-income children more.

During the recent session, the scholarship did not attract the same attention as another program that will help students who say they are bullied in school pay for a private education.

A couple of lawmakers raised objections to a provision that would have allowed families to save the $500 for college, suggesting that would not help them improve in elementary school. That item was removed.

Other criticisms were more muted, focusing primarily on the Legislature’s move to further restrict uses of general revenue. The money would not be available for districts that have reading remediation programs already in place, though districts would not be prevented from offering those services.

But in the face of expanding tax credit scholarships for private schools, reading scholarships got little pushback.

Many of the tutoring firms that gained from the old system have long departed. Observers speculated they would resurface if the business looks good.

Some of the more established and reputable ones said they would look forward to participating, once more information is known.

"Obviously, we would welcome the opportunity to work with students," said Cari Diaz, vice president of Tampa-based Club Z. "It’s fantastic when there are other funding options for families."

Local teachers will be able to work as tutors, too, though most districts do not allow their teachers to receive pay for tutoring students in their classes.

The main point, Diaz stressed, is the new chance for parents to look for assistance outside school, which might not have been helping as much as they hoped.

That’s something worth celebrating, Kaechele said. "Who knows better how your kid learns?"

The money becomes available on July 1. The state Department of Education is still working on guidelines for how to implement the new program.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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