Florida Twenty Years Later: Undermining Public Schools

Diane Ravitch asked me to do a series on my reflections about the impact of school choice in Florida. I did four articles that will appear daily in her blog.

The first post “Florida Twenty Years Later: Undermining Public Schools” appeared in her blog today. It covers the false assumptions behind the choice movement i.e. choice saves money and spurs innovation. What really has happened the last twenty years to school facilities, teachers, and the learning process that demonstrate Florida schools are nearing a crisis? You can read it here.

The second piece: “Twenty Years Later: Impact of Charter and Private Sector Schools” summarizes where the lack of common rules governing schools leads. The simple answer is profiteering, corruption and charter school closures.

The third piece: “Twenty years later: Who Benefits, Not Schools!” covers the impact of choice policies on civil rights, funding, local vs. state control, and accountability. One might ask: Who benefits in a system that generates so much conflict? Politicians and profiteers, but not the public may well be the answer.

The fourth piece “Twenty Years Later: The SociaI Impact of Privatizaton” covers resegregation and the result of the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy governing school choice. Separate is not equal.

Only 35% of Florida’s SAT test takers are ‘college ready’

Are Florida’s high school graduates ready for college, career and life? Evidently, only 35% of the 177,000 students tested met the SAT college readiness standard.

Pulling students out of the public schools and enrolling them in charters or private schools has not improved Florida’s educational system. If fact, it hurts more students than it helps. See for example, the CREDO Urban Study on charter schools where Florida’s charters performed less well than comparable public schools. Check out the high withdrawal statistics for students in tax credit scholarship private schools. Over sixty percent of students leave private schools within three years. Many return to public schools further behind than when they left.

School choice has lasted twenty years in Florida. It is not the answer to Florida’s low achievement rate. It plants the seeds of its own destruction by discouraging college graduates from entering the teaching profession and dividing Florida’s limited funding into three inefficient directions…public schools, charters, and private schools.

It is time the legislature focuses on creating learning environments that facilitate student achievement. We cannot test our way to the top. We cannot segregate students by race and income and expect students to believe that education is the key to their futures. We cannot blame teachers for social failings in our communities. We can redirect funding to support community schools. We can create learning environments where
students work together in schools much as they will have to do in the workforce i.e. in diverse teams solving common problems. We can put a moratorium on choice expansion just as the governor of New Jersey has. We can prohibit the expansion of for-profit charter management.

Want to hear Diane Ravitch and Me on Louisville Radio?

Prior to the Louisville, Kentucky Save Our Schools forum on Thursday, Diane and I were interviewed by the local radio. Diane is on the first seven minutes. I follow her. We cover privatization of schools and testing. We also covered social issues such as racial and economic segregation, charter vs. public school achievement, tax credit scholarships, teacher turnover Then, we cover for-profit charter profiteering. We close with the funding drain from public schools and describe the consequences for public school facilities and programs. We even mentioned the PACT campaign against for-profit charters. We closed with some signs of hope.

If you would like to listen, click here. The link is for October 11th and appears at the bottom of the screen.

Bridging the Gap in Pinellas

In 2016, Pinellas County schools were in a crisis they made themselves. Five schools were labeled “Failure Factories”. They were the result of a 2007 school board decision to end busing and allow the resegregation of schools. Prior to 2007, Pinellas was under a federal school integration plan. When busing ended, south Pinellas schools became very segregated. In theory, these mostly minority schools were promised district support; in practice little support was given. As a result, they could not keep teachers or students and achievement levels plummeted. Of the 187 Florida schools whose students were from families as poor or poorer, only seven had lower achievement scores than the ‘Failure Factories’. The pattern of the increase in the achievement gap as schools became more segregated is a national problem.

In 2016, Pinellas school district launched a massive effort to turn around these five schools and to eliminate the achievement gap in all schools, by infusing data driven instruction, faculty training to change expectations for their students, teacher bonuses, and a host of other support programs for students and families. The report is out for the first year. Schools improved slightly on five measures: graduation rate, advanced coursework enrollment, ESE identification, minority hiring, and student discipline. On the sixth measure, closing the achievement gap between white and black students, there was no change. Approximately one-third of the black students earned a level 3 score, indicating proficiency or near proficiency levels in math and English language skills.

Pinellas set a ten-year goal to end the achievement gap. It is too early to predict how well students will fare. Some schools made more progress than others. Gains may be uneven from year-to-year. Why this is so matters. Is it a difference in attitude of students and the school community, a meaningful difference in the implementation of the plan in particular schools, or changes in socio-economic differences in student backgrounds within schools? Student enrollment within a school can change dramatically from year-to-year as families move around or enroll and then withdraw children in charters and tax credit supported private schools. These are the questions the district must address to give meaning to the data. Numbers do not tell the real story; they just shine a light on a problem.

It is short sighted to put fingers of blame on the districts alone. Elected school boards reflect community values. The entire community must be committed to providing equal access to a high quality education for all students. Finding ways to create equal access within and across schools is a challenge thwarted by the more segregated housing patterns that have evolved in the last twenty years.

Florida 5th Worst State for Teachers

Florida has a teacher shortage; here are reasons why. According to an article in the Herald Tribune, only Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona and Hawaii are worse than Florida on a group of measures such as:

  1. salaries, pensions, income growth potential
  2. student-teacher ratios
  3. teacher turnover, union strength, teacher safety

Florida ranks 41st in per pupil spending. It takes an average of eleven years before Florida teachers can expect to earn $48,000. Unfortunately, a fifth of all teachers resign before the end of their first year. About one-half resign within five years. Which states, according to the financial analysis by WalletHub, are the best states in which to teach? New York, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

The news is not all bad. Across all 25 indicators used to rank states on overall school quality, not only on teaching conditions, Florida ranks 26th.

I was particularly interested in how WalletHub defined ‘school quality’. The measures that used included: performance, funding, safety, class size, and instructor credentials. It would seem from this study that Florida is a ‘middle of the road’ state educational system with a big problem attracting and keeping teachers.

Integrity Florida Nails the For-Profit Charter Industry

A newly released report by Integrity Florida underscores the Florida League of Women Voters concerns about charter school policy and its negative impact on public schools. Remember that charters are funded by public tax dollars but run by private companies. The report focuses on the abuse and negative impact of for-profit charters in Florida.

It’s all here.

KEY EXCERPTS

  1. Page 17-18. For-profit charters like Academica, CSUSA, Imagine and S.M.A.R.T. perform less well than similar students in traditional public schools.
  2. Page 19: For-profit charters hurt public schools…substantial share of public expenditure…extracted for personal or business financial gain.
  3. Page 21: Lease and management fees are largest income source of for-profit charters.
  4. Page 22: 373 charters have closed.
  5. Page 24: Corruption continues even after 2016 legislative reforms.
  6. Page 25: Charters cherry pick students to reduce costs and services for struggling students.
  7. Page 26: Charters use money and influence to affect policy outcomes. $2,651,639 was spent on committee and campaign contributions in 2016 alone. John Kirtley, who heads many of these committees also is chair of Step Up for Students which distributes a billion dollars in corporate tax credit scholarships to private schools. All Children Matters, run by Betsy DeVos, gave over $4 million to Florida political committees between 2004 and 2010. The Walton family gave over $7 million between 2008 and 2016 to Florida’s All Children Matter. Large contributions by the Waltons, John Kirtley, CSUSA, Academica, Gary Chartrand, and others were also made to the Florida Federation for Children. For profit charters have spent over $8 million in lobbying in Tallahassee.
  8. Page 35: Conflict of interest claims in the Florida legislature have been made against current and former legislators including Richard Corcoran, Manny Diaz, Anitere Flores, Michael Bileca, Eric Fresen, John Legg, Seth McKeel, Kelli Stargel, Ralph Arza, and Will Weatherford.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

There are a number of management practices recommended including the publication of charter contracts, prohibition of advertising for students, and increasing local school district oversight authority. Other specific recommendations include:

  1. Limit charter expansion.
  2. Report for-profit charter expenditures and profits by school.
  3. Fund public schools sufficiently to remove competition.
  4. Limit the amount of public funds for leases.
  5. Report number of charter student drop outs, withdrawals, and expulsions.

California has gone a step further. Last week the governor signed a bill to prohibit further expansion of for-profit charters.

Teacher Shortage Gets Worse: On Purpose

The latest shortage numbers are over 4,000 teachers. Now it seems the State has laid off another 1,000 beginning teachers. Many teachers are employed right out of college and must complete three tests in general knowledge, subject area knowledge and professional education within three years. Until 2014, between 80 and 93% of teachers passed each exam.

ABC News reports that the general knowledge exams were made more difficult in 2015. Pass rates dropped between twenty or thirty percent. For example, pass rates in General Math dropped from 80% in 2014 to 57% in 2018. The exam includes number concepts, geometry and measurement, and algebraic thinking and the coordinate plan. You can see the required elements in each exam here.

These general exams are required of all teachers. In addition, teachers may add specific subject area certification. These subject exams have much more detailed content coverage. The question being raised is whether the increase in complexity of the general exams is warranted. The rationale for the increase in difficulty is that student tests are more complex; thus teachers’ tests should also be. At what point is testing for the sake of testing creating more problems than it solves

Citizens for Strong Schools Hearing Set

On November 8,2018 the Florida Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether Florida is meeting its “paramount duty” to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.” The constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 1998 assigned this responsibility to the state. Has Florida met its obligation to the children of Florida?

Two lower courts have ruled in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education that the question is not one for the courts to decide, and that it is instead up to the Florida Legislature. The plaintiffs disagree.

“At the heart of this case is really whether the Florida Constitution has any meaning at all in the eyes of our courts,” said Jodi Siegel, the executive director of Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville-based, statewide nonprofit law firm representing the parents and advocacy groups that filed original case and have appealed it to the state’s highest court.

“The lower courts have basically said that only two of the three branches of our government have any responsibility for enforcing an amendment that clearly expresses the will of the people when it comes to one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government – educating the state’s children,” Siegel said. “We believe the Florida Supreme Court will recognize that the courts not only have that authority, but in fact that it is their sworn duty to uphold the Florida Constitution – and not just select parts of it, but all of it.”

Southern Legal Counsel filed the case in 2009, and it has been working its way through the courts until now. If successful, the parents and advocacy groups are requesting that the Court remand the case back to the trial court with instructions on how to interpret and apply the education clause. They contend that, when viewed under the proper legal standards, the evidence presented at trial shows clear disparities in the opportunity provided to children to receive a high quality education. For example, the evidence presented showed that more than 40 percent of Florida students are not passing statewide assessments in reading and math.

The Florida League of Women Voters strongly supports the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

VPK Study Raises Serious Questions

Why would children attending Voluntary Pre School do slightly better than similar students in kindergarten who did not attend VPK but less well in third grade? A serious longitudinal study in Tennessee found just that. VPK students lost ground in math and science and performed the same in reading. There were no significant differences in attendance, grade retention or discipline infractions.

This is counter intuitive, of course, and the authors provided possible explanations. At the same time, they reference similar findings in a study of Head Start students. It is thought provoking. Are these children enrolled in preschools treated differently e.g. immersed in language arts to the expense of science and math? Why would this be true for children from VPK programs but not for children with similar backgrounds?

The quality of VPK programs differ, but this in itself may not explain the study’s results.

Florida Gets an ‘F’ on Support for Public Education

Public education is about the value and necessity of providing equal access to high quality education. As public funds get diverted to private schools and entrepreneurs, the public school system gets more and more fractured. There is less money as cost inefficiencies mount. More communities are fractured by race, income, and academic programs. In areas where privatization is dominant, parents must search for a school to accept their children. If transportation is a problem, as it often is, they may not have good choices because available schools may be segregated racially, economically and/or by achievement levels. They may not even have a way to evaluate the quality of the available options.

By design, no one really knows much about where the money is spent and what is happening in privately operated schools. Parents who question are invited to withdraw their children. Children who do not ‘fit in’ are invited to leave. There are people in leadership positions for whom children can be ploys in policies to implement a political and/or religious agenda. Proponents celebrate their successes without regard for the children they exclude, dismiss or serve poorly. Parents learn this the hard way.

Most private schools are openly religious. Many charters are covertly supporting particular religious orientations e.g. those housed in religious facilities or that espouse a particular set of ‘Christian or other values’.

Many charters and private schools do not support children with special needs or who are learning English as a second language.

The Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education analyzed data to assess support for public education in each state. Overall, Florida received an ‘F’. You can see state-by-state results here.
The criteria include:
1. Types and extent of school privatization
2. Civil rights protection of students in private school voucher and charter programs
3. Accountability, regulations and oversight
4. Transparency of voucher and charter programs
5. Other charter school accountability issues

Florida’s low grade is due several factors:
1. It has the most school privatization of all states.
2. Students receiving vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are not required to participate in the state testing or teacher certification programs. Private schools are not required to be accredited. Thus, most are small religious schools of unknown quality. Private schools are also exempt from federal civil rights protection. Children can be denied admission or expelled for any reason.

What would improve accountability?
1. Comparable pubic and private school student achievement measures.
2. Transparency in how money is spent for charter and voucher ESE students by individual schools.
3. Comparable attrition and discipline measures for public, charter and private schools.
4. Public accountability of spending by charter management firms.
5. Stronger provisions to avoid conflict of interest between charter board members and management companies.
6. Return school facilities to the public if charters close.