Putting Education Reform To The Test

11 for 2011: The Best Of StateImpact Florida

This was a good year for us at StateImpact Florida.

We launched six months ago with the mission of becoming Florida’s source for education news and analysis brought to you by NPR and WUSF in Tampa, WLRN in Miami, and WJCT in Jacksonville.

We had a few successes and learned a few lessons along the way. Here’s a look back at our biggest, best and favorite stories from 2011.

1. No Choice: Failing to Serve Students With Disabilities — We spent three months reporting this story, which found 86 percent of Florida charter schools did not enroll a single student with a severe disability.

Several lawsuits have been filed across the country challenging charter school admissions, and the issue will draw more scrutiny as the schools increase in popularity.

This broadcast version of this story made Morning Edition, and the online version was featured on NPR.org.

Photo provided by Leena

2. No Paper, No Scholarship: Undocumented Students Could Lose Out — Our first story at StateImpact Florida also made the front page of the Miami Herald.

In a little-noticed addition, Florida lawmakers required Bright Futures scholarship recipients to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The document requires a Social Security number, meaning some undocumented students or the children of undocumented students could lose their scholarship.

The change has also prompted complaints from parents concerned about identity theft.

3. Explaining Gov. Rick Scott’s War on Anthropology (And Why Anthropologists May Win) — The combination of divisive governor, a controversial policy proposal and a choice sound bite is a winner for reporters.

Plenty of people fact-checked Gov. Rick Scott after he chose anthropologists as his example why Florida universities need to better match graduates with growing job fields. We joined in too.

Our story looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data that showed job growth for anthropologists matched or beat that for many of the science and technology fields for which Scott was advocating.

This was also the debut of our Planet Money-inspired broadcast story — a feature you’ll hear more often in 2012. This story was also featured on NPR.org.

4. Mapping Average Teacher Salary Change in Florida — This was out first post to spread virally, providing the first lesson of covering education: Teachers are interested in their pay.

The map shows at a glance what teachers have been feeling in their wallets for years and how their school district compares to others.

The post was passed around Twitter and Facebook and featured on NPR.org. The map still draws visitors to the site.

5. Two Students Suspended For A Hug — You never know what will get people talking. When a Brevard County principal gave two students an in-school suspension for a hug, strong opinions followed. The story brought attention to ‘zero tolerance” policies that mandate punishments with no room for circumstances or mitigating factors.

6. Petition Seeks to Remove Florida Governor’s Name From Diplomas — Another piece of fallout from Gov. Rick Scott’s push to refocus state university priorities. A group of students started circulating a petition asking Scott’s name and signature be removed from state university diplomas.

7. Issue 2 Would Make Ohio Schools More Like Florida — Ohio’s ballot measure, which would strip collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees, was where politics and education intersected in 2011.

Voters overturned the state law stripping collective bargaining by a wide margin in November. The results bolstered labor leaders across the country.

The fight could be coming to Florida, where collective bargaining is a state constitutional right. Florida has already adopted many of Issue 2’s other changes, including teacher evaluations and performance-based pay.

8. Teachers Earn Too Much, Study Argues — Combine conservative-leaning think tank research and teacher pay and you’ve got what might be the ultimate water cooler story.

A Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute study concluded teachers earn 52 percent more than their private sector counterparts. “Hogwash,” teachers responded in the comments, but others defended the study.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

The UCP Bailes campus has a playground designed to be accessible for students with disabilities.

9. Why Everyone Learns More When Students With Disabilities Are Included — A follow-up to our charter school investigation, this story looked at the most recent research on including students with disabilities in general education classrooms.

Researcher shows both students with disabilities and those without learn more in combined classrooms, in part because general education teachers and special education teachers collaborate and create better lesson plans.

This story was featured on NPR.org.

10. How Florida Schools Are Coping With Budget Cuts — $500,000. That’s how much Seminole County schools would save by raising thermostats up to the state maximum. It’s just one example of the decisions facing school districts across the state next year.

Florida’s economy is starting to recover, but school districts will continue to face tough budgets in the near future.

11. Merit Pay Could Mean Big Rewards For Florida Teachers — Another story on pay, this took a look at the different approaches Florida districts are taking toward state-mandated merit pay.

Some districts are emphasizing big bonuses for a handful of teachers. Other have a tiered system offering a number of smaller bonuses for hitting a list of performance measures.


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