League of Women Voters Launches Education Blog

To Educate and Inform on Issues Relating to Public Education

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Our blog is a tool box. Make it work for you. Here you will find data, studies, and perspectives that inform the discussion about school choice. Send stories of events in your state. Tell us about studies that clarify issues. Do your own studies. Use the information you find here to advocate for League positions.

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There’s a war going on.

I gave a talk at our Education Forum this morning. It’s a different slant than I sometimes take. I talk about cheerios and TV channels. We have more of each than we need, but we continue to pay for them. What does this have to do with school policy? A lot actually. See what you think.

There’s a war going on, and the ammunition is fake news. Take for example, the charge that educators resist change. Recent history tells a different story. After WWII, everyone was expected to go to high school; most did not before. When I was in high school, the space race put pressure on schools to teach more mathematics. My grandchildren are now taking math courses in middle school that I took in high school. Consider also the upheaval in the 70s, when schools were desegregated. Now globalization and the loss of jobs due to technology require schools to educate children to create their own jobs.

In Florida, most people believe that public schools do the best job of preparing students for the diverse and complicated world in which they will live. School reform policy, however, assumes that consumer based competition with charter and private schools will make schools even better. In fact, competition in the private consumer sector does make many choices e.g. there are 13 types of cheerios and 189 TV channels most of which none of us has eaten or watched.

Educational choice has been around for nearly twenty years. There are 4,000 public schools, nearly 2,000 private schools, and 652 charters all drawing on the same pot of money. In Florida, we have more choices and less money than most states. Florida is in the bottom tier, 44th in state funding for education, and the State continues to cut funding. Competition is creating a crisis.
Businesses find ways to cut corners and shift costs. Sometimes a pound of coffee has only 12 ounces. While some charters find innovative ways to help kids, most replicate what already exists; it is less expensive. District schools are asked to do more with less, and they have reached a tipping point.

At least fourteen districts have joined together to sue the State over HB 7069, the education bill passed in last legislative session. The conflict, however, is about more than money. It’s also about local control, equity and quality. These are the issues:

Local Control. Who decides how our local taxes are spent?
Florida’s constitution gives the authority to levy taxes for schools to the elected school boards. A majority in the legislature, however, wants to control all funding even though it only supplies half of what is needed. Local property taxes provide the rest. The legislature now requires districts to share their property tax revenue with privately owned charter school buildings. It makes it impossible for districts to maintain their own facilities, and charters must cut corners as well. No sector, public, charter or private, can provide quality facilities.

HB 7069 also removes the federal authority given to local districts to determine how best to allocate money to help low income students. The State, not the district, now determines how federal money is allocated. This restricts districts’ ability to concentrate support where it is most needed, and it appears to violate federal law.

Equity: Is separate equal?

  1. Charter that screen and dismiss students increase economic and racial segregation even within low income areas. It becomes a have and have not system.
  2. Struggling district schools now can be closed after a year below a ‘C’ grade, but charters that take them over can stay open for five even though the school grade does not improve.
  3. Most of the state funding to help struggling schools goes to charters, not district schools. Yet, charters tend to have less experienced teachers and higher teacher turnover.

Quality: More is not better. For example,

  1. The failure to curb self-dealing corporate charter school business practices allows an excessive amount of money to go to charter real estate firms. Yes, they have their own real estate companies. To pay these leases, money is taken from teacher salaries and benefits and charged to parents for supplies.
  2. More teachers are leaving and fewer are entering the profession. The response by the legislature in HB 7069 is to reduce teacher certification requirements.
  3. There is a loss of instructional time and subject matter in order to support test prep strategies. Civics, for example is now taught one half hour per week.
  4. Choice alone does not raise achievement levels, and one-third of charters close. The money invested in is lost. Private schools do not even have to meet the public curriculum, testing or teaching standards.

    BOTTOM LINE: School choice that offers nothing new just repackages but does not improve our schools. It is not cost efficient or effective. In a system in which all choices become mediocre, everyone loses. It is time to rethink. How much choice of which types do we need? How can we redirect the conversation about school quality?

  5. Demonstrate what education should be to engage students: Passion to Teach.

  6. Support collaborative efforts to help teachers not just improve but want to join the profession.
  7. Make schools and communities mutually supportive. Find ways to better integrate pre school, after school, extra instructional time, and community activities into the schools. This is the goal of community schools like the one we are implementing at Howard Bishop.
  8. Recognize that the quality of schools and communities are intertwined. Ask: How can the community improve the schools and how can the schools improve the community? It matters where new schools are built, where and how students learn, what opportunities students have to interact with the world outside their schools.
  9. Learn about the tradeoffs of choice policies. Choice has a nice ring, and some choices truly are better for some children. But remember, more choice does not always create better choices. Ask how much is enough?

We have an example of a choice we must make right now…a mega CSUSA for-profit charter school has drafted a proposal for an 1124 student school in Gainesville. It would pull another $600,000 out of our facility budget in addition to the approximately $600,00 that will go to our local charters. It will impact every school as students shift around and take funding with them. It brings nothing new or innovative. It can discourage any child who is in any ‘different’ from enrolling and can dismiss any they find expensive or difficult to educate. In their proposal, they state they cannot compete academically with similar schools for at least five years.

Why should this ‘choice’ be imposed on our community? Wouldn’t we be better off to build our own schools and have a voice in how they are run?

Some of us have formed a PACT to help our community understand the choices that lie ahead. You can join the PACT; volunteer in schools, encourage less test prep and more activity based learning. Join the PTA and find ways to bring our schools into the community and our community into the schools.
Be aware; get involved.

Stop Scapegoating Teachers and Public Schools

I attended a talk last night by Mary Dalton, the author of ‘From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television’. I learned some things.

Understanding the subtexts of programs we watch on television, helps to explain how the attack on public education gained credibility. Professor Dalton briefly described the shifts in decades from the 50s to the present in the focus of television sitcoms:

1950s…’Our Miss Brooks’ was the beloved, caring, ethical, and yes, white female teacher.
1960s…almost an utopian view of achieving racial and social equality
1970s…a classless society e.g. The Paper Chase
1980s…meritocracy where anyone can succeed
1990s…Teachers are real people with complicated lives of their own e.g. Hangin with Mr. Cooper who was gay.

Then, at the turn of the century, changes in educational policy were reflected in a serious downward spiral in how teachers and schools were depicted. This, Professor Dalton believes was not accidental. Season 4 of ‘The Wire’ was one example. The teacher was a failed policeman who became a good teacher but was underpaid and worked in an overwhelming environment. His experience in the classroom reflected social and political issues in a drug infested culture. ‘Mike and Molly’ was an even more stark and dark characterization of a teacher who exhibited over the top behavior and was fraught with problems.

These media depictions were inculcated in how the general public viewed public education….not their children’s schools but those other schools out there.

Questions from the audience probed how bad vs good teachers are now defined. Dalton responded with examples from the programs ‘Insecure’ and ‘Speechless’. A good teacher is caring and often depicted as a person of color who is an outsider, not an experienced teacher. Principals are depicted as bureaucratic.

In her response to a question about hope for a change in public perception to one that is more balanced and less stereotypical, Professor Dalton suggested that these trends shifted like a pendulum. As the mass of bad characterizations increase, their validity becomes questionable, and the public begins to push back.

I asked if there was any evidence that the return to normalcy was beginning and cited the film ‘Passion to Teach‘ that was recently released. The only cracks in the armor, however, seem to be in the depiction of non-profit charter schools as ‘good charter’ and those other profit seekers as ‘bad’ charters. At least charters are no longer uniformly good and public schools uniformly bad. The needed critical mass of outrageous assertions and depictions has not accumulated, but perhaps there is hope. We need a relentless drum beat.

Kuddos to the two University of Florida graduate students who organized this symposium. You can read their article in today’s Gainesville Sun here.

Florida Supreme Court Declines Palm Beach Case Against CSUSA

OK, it is up to us. The Supreme Court declined to hear a case against an unwanted CSUSA charter school in Palm Beach. The school board’s frustration was not with charters. Rather, it was with CSUSA’s proposals to open unneeded charters to openly compete for students. One proposal was to open a CSUSA charter across the street from Royal Palm Beach high school. Then, CSUSA submitted two more proposals, and the district went to court. The Court decided not to decide in spite of widespread opposition in the community.

Clearly, the Florida legislature and the State Board of Education are deaf to the destruction of our communities and the impact of poor fiscal policies on our educational system. Their choice policy simply ensures that no segment, public…charter…or private will have adequate funding. Thirteen districts, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Alachua among others have now joined forces to sue the State over the legislature’s seizure of control of local school district authority. More are in the wings. This is not over.

We need a change in approach to choice. We have to examine the policies of who we choose to represent our views in the legislature. If you need more information about CSUSA’s for-profit management style, see the PACT. We have to help others understand that not all choices are good choices.

Bash Schools or Build Democracy

The October Atlantic reports on the war on public schools. We know this war. The strategy is changing, and this is a good thing. The reform mantra that school achievement has declined, teachers are inadequate, unions protect mediocrity and school choice (read privatization) solves all problems has become hackneyed, if not outright false. The Atlantic article raises a much different and more fundamental concern. The attack on public schools reflects the emphasis on individual rights as opposed to the collective good. This is an age-old theme in America. It waxes and wanes, but the stakes are high.

The author cites the political theorist Benjamin Barber’s warning: “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.” Why?

Our schools integrate diverse groups from widely ranging backgrounds into our civil society. They learn to be ‘American’. The public schools give all of our people a stake in the future of our democracy. School choice, however, is further segregating our society and creates more enclaves. The impact on our communities is being felt. We no longer teach civics, and fewer young people participate in voting.

In some countries, the population disengages in their political system. When this occurs, the whole process of negotiation among citizens to resolve problems disintegrates. A good analysis is offered by Harry Boyte, Co-Director of the Center for Democracy. He says “Politics is how diverse groups of people build a future together”. This is the message that will determine our future. We have a choice. We can build or divide our schools and our communities.

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