A Primer on Big Money

If you hear something often enough, you might start believing, it especially if it builds resentment. Take for example the charges that public schools are failing, teachers are ineffective, unions are evil. For all of these reasons and more, children are short changed. It is a powerful message, but is basically fake news. Yes, some schools struggle, but public education is not the cause, and private schools are not the answer. How does anyone counteract this argument? First, we all must understand the strategy behind the messaging. It includes a few basic points that we need to have at our fingertips.

Diane Ravitch’s reviews two books that describe the origins of the theory and strategy of privatization. Read the entire article, but here are a few key points:

  1. The privatization movement is based on the premise that there is no ‘public interest; rather there is a collection of private interests. It was originated by Friedman and others who sought to make government more efficient. Charles Koch, however, advocates for the end of the role of government in public education, Social Security, Medicare, U.S. Postal Service, minimum wage and on and on. He funded the Center for Public Choice, now at George Mason University, where the political strategies for privatization are articulated. It was founded by James Buchanan, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his public choice economic theories which basically argued for the preservation of wealth.

  2. Buchanan designed the strategy to divide the political coalition behind government programs by building resentments. For example, claim that social security is not viable thus, for many younger people, they have no stake in it. But, current recipients would not loose benefits. Then, propose raising retirement ages and increase payroll taxes so everyone is angry at the system. Similar strategies were used against Medicaid expansion etc.

  3. Build resentment against teachers unions by targeting other workers who have lost their unions. Unions need to be thwarted by the privatization movement because they are the only well funded, organized opposition to privatization in education. Extend the strategy to state that some students are locked into low performing schools in inner cities, thus, the entire education system is failing. Fear and resentment develops not only within central cities but also among those who are concerned about the need for funding and racial equity.

  4. The privatization movement has a legislative arm called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is funded by corporations and represents twenty five percent of all state legislators. They draft legislation that appears across the nation. Check the Center for Media nd Democracy website, ALECexposed.org, that tracks ALEC legislation.

  5. There is a billionaires’ club behind privatization. Keep abreast of the Koch brothers organization, Americans for Prosperity. They along with other billionaires such as the Walton family that owns Walmart, the DeVos family, and the Broad and Gates Foundation fund everything from pro choice expansion to local political races. The Jeb Bush Foundation in Florida is part of this group. You find can out more information by reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind thee Rise of the Radical Right.

Recognize these strategies for what they are. Watch for how they will unfold as time goes on. When the corporate interest replaces the public interest, we are likely to see the emergence of technology driven, data based systems that reduce the role of teaching in favor of ‘coaches’ who are less expensive. We will see the deterioration of funding for school facilities; they are expensive. We will see the further division of our communities into have and have not schools based upon the ability of specific groups to fund them. It is not a pretty sight.

Who Owns Our Schools: Turkish and Chinese Companies?

Florida Prep Academy in Melbourne has been sold to NewOpen USA, a subsidiary of the Chinese company, Chongquin. The company has made a ‘significant’ investment in the private school. The operation of the school will remain under its President, James Dwight.

Florida Prep will be the first investment by a Chinese company in a U.S. school, but it will not be the last. They plan to expand. The investment may not ordinarily be noteworthy. Chinese companies buy properties in the U.S. all the time. Florida Prep, however, accepts FTC scholarships. These are funded by tax rebates to Florida companies.

Florida already has a number of Gulen owned schools run by the Turkish foundation. These schools are charter schools that take funding directly from Florida tax payers.

Interesting issue, who should own our schools? Privatization of our schools has consequences far beyond our legislature’s awareness.

Community Schools: We all can help

What can be done when communities experience more income and racial segregation? It impacts school culture and the sense of equity and access to the wider world. The Florida legislature has mandated charter takeovers. Community schools are the public school answer to those takeovers. They are emerging as an effective strategy to counter the isolation. Florida has twelve. The first, Evans High School sponsored by the Children’s Home Society, is a marvel. Read about how Evans went from an ‘F’ rated school to a ‘B’ rated school and grew enrollment from 1600 students to over 2400. Its graduation rate went up from 50% to 80%.

What exactly is a community school? There is a report out that describes four essential qualities. We need to track these schools. We can also help these schools. Here in Alachua County we are meeting with our community school leaders to find ways to support their after school programs. You might find a way to help one of your schools.

Community schools have strong connections between educators and local resources, supports and people. Meaningful learning and well-rounded development is everyone’s top priority. This learning strategy is not about regurgitating facts. It is about tackling real world complex problems using collaboration to create deeper learning. Too aspirational you might say? Not so! Low expectations send a message to children. Helping children tackle real-world problems engages them.

Here’s what to look for:

  1. Student support services are integrated into the school and coordinated by a school staff member.
  2. After school, weekend and summer programs provide additional academic instruction and enrichment activities.
  3. Schools become a neighborhood hub where parents’ educational or other civic needs can be met e.g. specialty classes.
  4. Collaborative leadership and practice through teacher/leadership teams, teacher learning communities, and a community school coordinator.

Here’s where to look for other community schools in Florida.

Fla. Appeals Court Supports State Education Policy

No surprise, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling against Citizens for Strong Schools. Basically, the Court held that the “high quality” and “efficient”, language from Article IX of the Florida constitution, were political judgments. The school choice, and testing and accountability policies were political decisions not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts. If it is truly political, then the voters have to change what is.

In an additional ruling, the court decided that vouchers for the McKay scholarships for children with some form of disability did not violate the uniform system of free public schools provision in the constitution.

Southern Legal Counsel, which filed the case, now must decide how to go forward. The case can be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. You can read about the case on their website.

Education funding and fairness lawsuits occur across the country. For an overview of other cases see the Education Law Center.

This case has gone on for years. It will continue the fight. Floridians must also continue the fight for high quality, fair and efficient schools.

Survival of the Fittest in New York City?

Who succeeds at New York’s Success Academy charter schools? The New Yorker provides some clues. The first high school graduating class at New York City’s Success Academies has made it through years of strict discipline and mind control. There is even a correct placement for your pencil when it sits on your desk. Suspension is ‘one tool in the toolkit’ and is used often, not to punish but to increase awareness of expectations. Only seventeen students made it to graduation, but their accomplishments are notable. Even the teachers tend not to last; an average of twenty-five percent leave every year.

The environment for learning attracts parents. Success charters receive large donations from the business community. There are well equipped classrooms and field trips. Instruction is both very directed toward skill mastery and somewhat more progressive. Teachers, however, do not develop their own lesson plans. They teach what the ‘network’ demands. Teachers and students alike operate within tightly controlled boundaries and frequent assessment, according to the authors.

The recipe for Success Academy is high expectations, strict and intense behavioral control, and formulaic teaching strategies. Test scores for those who last are excellent. Most do not last, and after second grade, new students are not added. By high school, enrollments are small.

College enrollment for graduates is high, but then something happens. Students do not complete college.

John Dewey’s educational philosophy gives a hint to what could be happening at Success Academy schools i.e. “The society for which a child is being prepared…should be replicated in a simplified form within the structure and culture of the school itself’. In other words, if a school prepares students in an authoritarian manner, then the students will expect to function in an authoritarian world as adults. They may well have problems, as students at a Success Academy high school experienced, when they were given the opportunity to structure their own time and academic activities. They simply did not know how.

We all have to ask ourselves what is important about education. Is it measured by test scores or is there something more fundamental? These are not simply philosophical questions. There is a constitutional amendment proposed in Florida to define the purpose of education the development of the intellect and preparation for the workforce. What’s missing in this definition?

Hidden Curriculum: Lost Children

The Huffington Post took on a Herculean task. It created a database of 8000 schools across 25 of the 27 states with private school choice programs. They check their religious affiliations and try to identify the curriculum.

Their results found 25% were non religious private schools. Of the 6000 religious schools, 29% were Catholic and 42% were Christian-non Catholic. There were a few other religions represented 2% Jewish and 1% Muslim faiths.

The reporters focused on the 2500 Christian non Catholic schools. They checked websites and/or contacted the schools to identify which curriculum was used. Many declined to respond to requests for textbook information. Of those who did respond, about one third of the Christian non Catholic schools used Abeka, Bob Jones or ACE textbooks for at least part of their curriculum. The article lists 1024 Florida private choice schools using these texts. The number raises questions.

While the database does list the names and locations of the schools, the numbers exceed the Florida private school list and the number of private Florida tax credit schools reported by the Department of Education. Florida reports 2663 private schools of which 1733 are private FTC schools. Two thirds or about 1154 of the FTC schools are religious. If about half of those are Christian, non Catholic, the actual number of private choice schools using those fundamentalist Christian texts would be closer to 385 than to the 1000 the article lists.

Do the numbers matter? What is really important are the children and whether the State of Florida should provide funding, directly or indirectly to private schools, most of which are religious. If you are interested in the ideology behind the fundamentalist Christian textbooks and the interviews with children who felt they had been deprived of an education, read the article. At one point I had several of these books to review. It will give you pause. The children matter.

FTC Private Schools: A Disturbing Trend

Over time, a higher percentage of FTC scholarship students are enrolling in private, high poverty schools. Their long term success rate decreases. FTC students in schools with more than 30% FTC students do less well than similar FTC students in private schools that enroll fewer FTC students. We can only speculate why this may be so. According to this report released by the Brookings Institute, differences could be related to teacher certification, length of the school year, or the type of curricula.

Perhaps even more troubling is over a third of FTC students return to public schools in one year; over half return in two years. Students who struggle academically are the most likely to leave private schools, and they are further behind than before they left public schools. Choice is creating churn, and churn hurts students.

The Florida House Innovation subcommittee on Education hearing December 6, 2017 agenda focused on needed regulations. Representatives from the McKay Scholarship program, the Florida DOE, Step Up for Students and the A.A.A. FTC distribution agencies testified. The theme was predictable; you can’t regulate your way to quality. Private schools do not want the testing and accountability system mandated for public schools. About one third of the private schools do not choose to participate in the FTC program in order to be free of regulation.

Nevertheless, at least the Catholic Diocese representative differentiated regulation from quality standards. He reported that Catholic schools in Florida require accreditation and teacher certification, unlike many other types of private schools accepting FTC scholarships. Catholic (15%) and religious non Christian school students (5% Jewish or Muslim) tend to enroll in a community college at a higher rate than similar students in district schools. FTC students in other private schools tend to do about the same or less well than similar public school students.

The hearing agenda was focused on needed regulation in the FTC program. The State, by law, visits few schools. Moreover, of the over 1700 FTC schools that enroll 98,889 students, only 681 schools that receive more than $250,000 must file financial reports.

Proposed regulations to stem the mismanagement of schools included more DOE site visits, better background checks for private school owners, improved information about schools for parents, and quarterly rather than annual financial reports.

Little will come of these regulations. The DOE would need an army to visit nearly 2,000 private schools. Better paperwork won’t create quality programs. Expanding FTC enrollment in private high poverty schools, however, will make a bad problem worse. The difference between public and private high poverty schools is that the lack of oversight and transparency keeps parents in the dark. There is a message in all of this…students in schools with high quality staff and mixed income families do better. How do families get that choice?

There was at least one bright spot. Representative Lee made the comment that too little was said about the many successes public schools have. He is right.

Something is Happening in Chicago

Chicago’s children, all children, show dramatic gains in test scores, according to a Stanford University study.

Their achievement gain from third to eighth grade was six grade levels compared to five levels nationally. Third graders also had higher scores in recent years. Chicago test scores are still about 1 to 1 1/5 below the national average, and the achievement gaps remain even though Hispanic achievement grew faster than white students.

About 49% (415) of Chicago’s schools remain zoned neighborhood schools, and most of these are elementary schools in affluent areas. Three fourths of high school students do not attend neighborhood schools. There are 265 no zone elementary schools of which 130 are charter schools. A Chicago Tribune article described the impact on neighborhoods. Choice made public schools less bureaucratic but now it is overkill; we are just competing with one another. To improve enrollment, some district schools are becoming community schools like one that includes the IB program. It now stays open on Saturdays and evenings and holds classes of interest to parents.

Some schools develop new STEM or other specialized programs to attract parents, but the effect is that other schools have a high percentage of students who struggle academically and have disabilities. An administrator asks: What is the cost for the neighborhood and for the kids who stay behind? There is a loss of social networks because children in the same area go to so many different schools. The schools they attend may not be much different from the one they left, but parents do not know. They don’t connect with one another. What they do know is that those zoned schools in affluent areas have no room for them.

The expected explanations e.g. declining population and high student retention (14%) do not account for the achievement gains, at least on the surface. Improvement happens in all socio-economic groups. The Stanford researchers call for a deeper dive into the migration of students into and out of the city. The percentage of minority groups remains the same, but are they somehow different? Do the children who struggle the most leave Chicago, thus the children who stay have, on average, higher scores? Do school choice policies have an impact? The study calls for more studies.

A lot is happening in Chicago, but we cannot explain it. Let’s hope that there will be a deeper dive into the schools. Are the children who were pulling down the scores leaving at a higher rate than others? Does leaving behind the students who struggle the most actually improve the school climate? It does not seem like this is the explanation simply because schools in affluent areas have not been impacted by poverty, and their scores are also improving.

Donalds files Another Textbook Bill

Who decides what children learn and which instructional materials they use? Some say the Florida school districts and Department of Education have that responsibility. Rep. Byron Donalds seeks to strengthen the law, HB 989, he co-sponsored in 2017 to give the community the right to review textbooks. This time, HB 827 would allow parents to suggest alternatives to books and instructional materials they do not like. School boards must then contact publishers and invite them to bid on purchases. The State Board of Education approves textbooks.

Texas experienced the same pressure from religious groups. Bill Moyers summarized their concerns including separation of church and state, censoring capitalism, lack of conservative spokespersons, social expectations, and others.