Public Schools Deserve Support

By Betty Castor
This article appeared in the Tampa Bay Times this morning. Betty is a former Florida Commissioner of Education who is very concerned about the privatization of public schools.

This is a crucial year for traditional public schools. If the past few years are any indication, there will likely be fierce competition for funds with those who favor privatization. However, there is no doubt that citizens support their public schools. In county after county, including all the counties in our Tampa Bay area, voters have approved public referenda to provide new, safe school facilities and/or operating funds. Eighteen such issues were passed statewide in the last year! Now that the public has spoken, it is time for the Governor and the Legislature to prove they’re listening.

Governor DeSantis’ initial public-school budget recommendations appeared positive. While last year’s increase ended up as a paltry 47 cents per student, the Governor is seeking a sorely needed addition of $50 per student. While many public school advocates were initially pleased, he has left many confused by his very recent recommendation for a new voucher program.

This so-called “equal opportunity scholarship” would divert public funds directly to students attending private schools. Not only is this a dramatic departure from current policy, but it is also unconstitutional. It raises the critical question of whether these funds would cut into our scarce resources for students currently enrolled in our traditional public schools.

Florida already ranks at the lower end of the fifty states in per capita spending by state governments and per capita spending of personal income. If we continue to siphon off funds directed to current students and school districts, we will fall further behind. Florida’s districts could surely use those proposed new funds to recruit and retain qualified teachers, purchase technology for classrooms, computers for students and provide modern equipment for workforce training.

The costs of our burdensome testing programs could and should be reduced. Although neither the Governor or his Commissioner of Education has yet signaled a change, no issue is more critical to students and families than the arbitrary and unfair high stakes testing that permeates all instruction. Testing has been used to sort students, retain many at grade level and prevent others from graduating. Florida is one of a small and declining number of states that continue to use a single test as the only measurement for high school graduation!
There are alternatives. Students should be evaluated using course grades, teacher evaluations and industry certification.

In the early grades, testing should be diagnostic, not used for widescale retention. Teachers, whose evaluations are based in part on student test scores are often forced to teach to the test at the expense of more meaningful curriculum. Our students don’t deserve these arbitrary barriers. Thankfully, some thoughtful legislators are exploring alternatives to this punitive and costly high-stakes testing.

Choice continues to be the watchword of proponents for more charter schools and vouchers. While their mantra is choice, they ignore the reality that there is plenty of choice in traditional public schools where students participate in magnet schools, honor societies and academic clubs. The vast majority of the 2.8 million students in Florida are enrolled in traditional public schools. They are taught by certified teachers in districts whose funds are audited and whose meetings are public.

Good charters also are those with local boards and transparency. However, too many utilize for-profit management companies with no real ties to the community and little accountability. According to Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee based research group, 373 charters have closed since 1998, an average of 20 a year. When they fail, it is a terrible loss of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, it is reassuring that the Governor would like to ban the “bad actors” among the charter providers.

The tax credit scholarship supporters have also convinced the legislature to permit the tax credit scholarship program to expand. Some of those schools perform well with quality staffs. Others do not. According to the Department of Education website, two thirds of the schools, enrolling 83% of students, are small and religiously-affiliated. There are presently no requirements for certified teachers. Yet proponents oppose even modest safeguards that would help to provide transparency to their business supporters and the public. The tax scholarship program as well as the Governor’s new scheme for expanded vouchers need a lot of scrutiny.

The students in traditional schools will need continuing support and the resources to help them become successful. Our leaders in Tallahassee should welcome information and incorporate the suggestions of those who represent the majority of students in Florida. The ultimate goal is an open, fair and productive system that helps our students to achieve their fullest potential. The voters have told us as much.

DeSantis Announces New Voucher Program

Governor DeSantis plans to fund vouchers to private schools from the state treasury for about 14,000 students. Vouchers paid from public funds were declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court, but DeSantis believes the new appointees to the Court will support vouchers. How vouchers can be legal when the constitution specifically says they are not is worrisome. Granted the MacKay and Gardiner scholarships for students with disabilities have not been challenged in court. Is the Governor planning to redefine disabilities?  Will he fund personal learning accounts and claim the money goes to parents not private schools?  Getting around the law has become a habit.

Florida saves about $500 per student for those who enroll in private schools. It is a nice tuition support program for children already enrolled. It is a sham for children who attend private schools with unqualified teachers. The latest Brookings study, Are Low-Quality Private Schools on the Rise in Florida? underscores the issue. Private schools are becoming more racially and economically segregated, and their students have poor achievement gain.

Governor Scott, No DeSantis, abolishes Common Core WHAT?

I just thought you might get a smile from this newspaper article I love the headline: Governor Scott: ‘Common Core Out in Florida’ Back in 2014, Governor Scott signed HB 7031 which banned all mention of Common Core in Florida law. Now, Governor DeSantis is banning it again?

Granted most of those original Common Core standards were just renamed back in 2014. There were some changes in primary grades and math. So, did Governor DeSantis ban the FSA testing this spring? Those tests are based on the FSA (read Common Core) standards. The federal government says we have to test. Bit of a pickle this! Must we endure this constant political interference in educating our children?

Florida Supreme Court Rules Against Public Schools

My take on Friday’s Supreme Court decision on the Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit.

Article IX of Florida’s constitution, ratified voters in 1998, called for the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children to have a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools…. In 2009, the Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit began its arduous journey to the Florida Supreme Court. The plaintiffs had argued that Florida’s choice system failed its constitutional mandate. In one example, the plaintiffs cited data showing “one million Florida minority students (1/2 of all students), moreover, do not read at grade level”.

The defense defined educational quality as ‘continuous progress’. Thus, in the state’s view, if test scores go up, the system is working. NAEP was the standard used to show improvement. There has been improvement in Florida’s NAEP scores over the past twenty years. The state claimed that the improvement in achievement was attributed to the quality of teachers and administrators and the pressure from school choice. The plaintiffs argued that improvement is fine, but the achievement is still low. Moreover, a high quality system gives access to all children, not just some.

At its core, the lawsuit was about adequate funding to meet children’s needs. If the plaintiffs had won the lawsuit, they would have asked for a cost study so that requirements would be aligned with resources. In the current choice system, funding to support charter and private schools drains needed resources from public schools. Florida’s per student funding is one of the lowest in the nation.

In January 2019, the Court in a contentious 4/3 split decision, rejected the claims of the plaintiff. The majority opinion of the court was that the terms ‘high quality’ and ‘efficient’ are ambiguous and do not create judiciable standards. Education policy and funding are in the domain of the legislature, not the judicial system. Chief Justice Canady said: the plaintiffs “failed to provide any manageable standard by which to avoid judicial intrusion into other branches of government”. The minority opinions stated that the majority opinion “eviscerates the 1998 opinion…only time will truly reveal the depth of the injury inflicted upon Florida’s children”.

What is the correct basis for the legal argument? is it a rational basis or must the state comply with specific requirements to provide a high quality education? A Wikipedia explanation stated that it is easier to define a rational basis by what it is not. It is not a genuine effort…to inquire whether a statute does in fact further a legitimate end of government. I found a quote attributed to Thurgood Marshall…the constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws. The case may have hinged on the interpretation of the legal basis of the case. It reminds me of a saying I have heard often: Is it close enough for government work or do we have to get it right?

Where do Florida citizens go next to garner support for the education of their children?

School Discipline Policies: Helpful, Hurtful, Both?

Do out-of-school suspensions help or hurt school climate? Are student discipline problems getting worse or better? Betsy DeVos has eliminated the Obama era policies of federal oversight of discipline policies that may impact some student groups more than others. She charges that the Obama policies that are intended to reduce inequitable discipline practices have made problems worse. When teachers are afraid to refer students to the principal, and schools are afraid to suspend students acting in a dangerous way, are school classrooms becoming a ‘free for all zone’? Some teachers may think so. Others claim that minority students are often subjected to harsher penalties than white students for the same offenses. Suspending students, moreover, may simply make student problems worse. It is a conundrum.

There is a report: School-safety that addresses these concerns and the need for more attention to factors within and outside of schools that impact student safety. There are best practices identified from which states and local district are urged to select those that fit their circumstances.

One has to wonder if this data driven educational system based on student test scores and a ‘test and punish’ mentality is also at fault. Students’ schools are labeled as failing or near failing; so are the students themselves. Even students who are achieving at grade level may feel alienated when they do not qualify for a particular magnet program or other selective program. Students feeling tense, left out, and inadequate may well act out.

Some parents opt out of local schools only to find that they enter into a separate system of schools where take it or leave it policies prevail. What they are forced to put up with in many charter and private schools has little to do with student achievement. Discipline and discrimination, moreover, may be even more rigid and arbitrary. These schools have everything to do with which kids get in, which do not and who gets kicked out. There is a better way, a more equitable way, where students and parents from diverse backgrounds feel a sense of belonging. These schools exist. How can we create more of them?

VAM Hits Good Teachers Hard

Six teachers with good overall teacher evaluations must be transferred from Greco Middle School in Hillsborough. The school has had a ‘D’ grade for two years. It is one of those HB7069 things. Teachers at the school whose value added (VAM) scores for their students were not high enough were targeted by the State of Florida. How can this happen? The Florida Department of Education website says that VAM scores are not mandatory….or are they?

Check out the State Board of Education rules for low performing schools. Even though teachers may be rated as effective or highly effective using the district evaluation systems (that also must include student achievement growth measures), if their students’ achievement gain scores are below what similar students across the state gain based on the state VAM scores alone, those teachers must be removed from the school.

What are these VAM scores? They indicate the growth of student achievement scores on the English Language Arts and Math scores from grades 4 through 8, plus Algebra I. Three year average scores of all students in the state are calculated and adjusted by differences in school characteristics and student performance. Average scores for similar groups of students and schools statewide are compared to each teacher’s student scores. These VAM scores are calculated for about one third of Florida’s teachers. Evaluations for the other teachers must include some measure of student growth, either VAM or other locally determined measures of achievement. Local districts determine how best to evaluate their teachers.

The outcry by the American Statistical Association and others that VAM scores alone are not a valid measure of teacher effectiveness was heard in Tallahassee. VAM scores use became optional for district teacher evaluations even though they must include some measures of student progress. Maybe the State Board of Education was not listening. They still make decisions about teachers’ futures based on invalid VAM scores. Let me give you an example of how unfair this is. A teacher here was removed from a low performing school who had an ‘highly effective’ rating. Her ‘mistake’ was to take over a classroom mid year when the district had been unable to fill an empty slot created by the illness of the assigned teacher. The class had several long term substitute teachers….not good for anyone whether teacher or student. The class did not score well on the state assessment. The good teacher who stepped in to help was blamed. We may see more of these cases as the teacher shortage increases.

What is amiss with VPK?

As always, when a state test indicates kids are failing, parents have to wonder whether the problem is the test or the program. Now the focus is on the Voluntary Prekindergarten program. (VPK). Over forty percent of children who were enrolled in VPK do not meet the new STAR readiness standards for kindergarten. Once again, the stakes are high. Early learning providers can be placed on probation if fewer than 60% of children enrolled do not meet the state standard established for the new STAR kindergarten readiness test.

The new readiness test has higher standards than the previous one, so a drop in kindergarten readiness rates is no surprise. Back in 2012, Florida OPPAGA reported that 72.9% of VPK children were ready for kindergarten and now only 40%??.

There is a lot we do not know about the quality of VPK programs. The VPK program only provides funding for 540 hours of instruction for children…about 1/2 time during the school year and 300 hours in the summer. So, programs may offer VPK in the morning and just daycare in the afternoon. Lead teachers must be at least 18 years old have post secondary course work in early childhood education. Is this adequate to meet state standards?

We do know that the kindergarten standards have gone up, and in usual Florida style, the funding has gone down. We also know that about 25% of eligible children, mostly from low-income families, do not attend a VPK program at all.

At issue is more than the results of a test. Test scores go up if teachers teach to the test. Children can spout facts and reproduce simply defined skills if enough time is spent on drill and practice. As many of us know, however, memorizing words and facts does not an essay make. Spouting facts and skills does not produce critical thinking and problem solving. Naming tools does not equate to the ability to make things or do things. Fixing that problem with a test and high stakes consequences for failure makes a bad problem worse. Knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge and think critically about the result is what is required for a strong educational system. The legislature needs to put this into practice. Test and punish philosophies just do not work.

Reformers Say: Testing Does Not Work!

Speaker after speaker at a conference held by the Center for Reinventing Education (a pro-choice think tank) lamented that current testing and accountability programs are not working. Large scale standardized testing does not improve achievement or close achievement gaps. This is no surprise. Tests take the temperature; they don’t improve teachers, instruction, or the motivation to learn. They do not build up neighborhoods; they more likely tear them apart. Everyone wants the ‘A’ school and tries to escape the bottom rung. Only in Lake Woebegone, however, are all children above average.

One wonders if the current wave of criticism of testing is simply manufactured by companies who have invested heavily in data driven online learning. To make room for the new, business practice destroys the old. Picture students who sit in front of a computer much of the day learning in a ‘new way’. They read an excerpt, answer a few questions, take a quiz, and generate lots and lots of data. Companies build data bases, build evaluation tools, and create pictures of what a student knows every day. Hmmm, I see the image of a gold mine where students don’t profit from all that data mining but companies do. No wonder this movement is sponsored by the Gates Foundation.

Don’t get me wrong! The current test and punish philosophy is destructive. A system rigged against most kids is destined to fail everybody. The focus has to shift to teaching and learning. To make meaningful changes in what and how children learn, we need skilled teachers and a school climate where all children feel valued, not just measured and found wanting. Getting there will take a careful look at the consequences of how test scores are currently used….school grades, teacher evaluations, selection into academic programs, and monetary rewards. These scores emphasize who does not measure up and who will be left out. No one needs to be hit with bad and often fake news everyday.

When we rediscover ways to make teaching an attractive profession and learning a joy, we can test every few years to get a sense of how things are going. Right now we have the cart before the horse.

The Tide is Turning Against Education Reform

Hints about the education agendas of the Florida legislature are beginning to emerge. House Speaker Oliva (R. Miami-Dade) wants to create education savings accounts to expand schools choice. Senate leaders call for a review of school choice and improved funding for public schools. See the report by the Tallahassee Democrat here.

The trend to reevaluate school choice policy is not unique to the Florida Senate. The Fordham Institute, a pro-choice think tank, published a report called ‘The End of Educational Policy’. The authors state that the fight over education reform is a draw. The authors acknowledge that it has been a ‘Lost Decade’ for achievement gains as reflected by the flat NAEP scores for the past ten years. We can expect ‘incremental growth in school choice options, but no appetite for big, bold new initiatives’. There is, in other words, no looming take over of public schools.

What can be expected? Modest proposals for better management and oversight of charter schools for one thing. Other goals of the Fordham Institute include better teacher preparation, and improved career and technical education programs to help foster higher academic skills for high school graduates.

Nowhere in the Fordham article is any mention of improving incentives to help the teaching profession attract and retain more qualified college graduates. Nor is there any acknowledgement of the decline in funding for public education infrastructure. Instead, there is a continued reliance on testing and accountability ratings as the means to improve our schools. There is a call to focus on the achievement gains of all students, not just those children struggling to become proficient on state tests.

The Florida legislature will no doubt make some effort to curb the abuses of school choice management practices. If these measures are to be meaningful, they must address the for-profit management of charters, the lack of standards for private schools receiving tax credit scholarships, and the irresponsible creation of charters that screen and dismiss students rather than address their achievement needs. Perhaps the Senate will call for a moratorium on the expansion of choice in order to reevaluate education policy.