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.

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.

New Tallahassee Community School

What’s a community school, you ask? It’s one where whole families can congregate. The best example in Florida is Evans High School in Orlando. It went from a ‘D’ to a ‘B’ school by engaging families, not dismissing them. The concept is sponsored by Children’s Home Society (CHS). They provide a director, and three staff for coordinating health, parent engagement and after school care.

At Evans, there is a health clinic that serves the school staff and the families. There is onsite counseling and food pantries. There is a Parent Resource center and after school programs. CHS has launched nine of these community schools, and it is a partnership. The legislature provides some funding, but local businesses and universities pitch in to support the staffing.

The CHS staff coordinate services; the principal is in charge of academics. They all work together. Now, Tallahassee will have a community school. It is a practical, impactful approach to supporting children’s needs.

Check out their website. When CHS came to Gainesville, at Howard Bishop Middle School, the League celebrated. It is not easy to pull all the resources together, but it is a worthwhile effort. We are doing what we can to spread the word and build support.

It’s a concept to build, not divide, communities.

Quick fix solutions are merely demons in disguise

Do term limits get rid of a bureaucratic establishment and allow new people with great ideas to enter the scene? This is the argument put forth by CRC member Erika Donalds from Collier County’s school board. Her proposal to limit school board members to two terms passed the CRC education panel yesterday. She also argued for appointed superintendents. This is a term limit too in a sense. Appointed superintendents tend to last about three years and move on. An account of the arguments was reported by the News Service today. It made me go searching for an answer to the question: What really happens to the legislative process when term limits are introduced. The answer? Power shifts to consultants who wave the possibilities for future jobs at legislators.

I found a story about how power shifts told by a promoter of term limits, Gina Loudon, who had a front row seat in its impact. Here are her observations:

  1. Absolute power does not dissipate, it transfers…not to the young legislators but to those not elected i.e. the staff, consultants, and lobbyists.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of the political process is critical for effective legislating. Term limits eradicate that knowledge.
  3. Freshmen legislators now trade their votes for jobs they were promised when they were elected.
  4. Leadership in the legislature is controlled by lobbyists. Even individual staff members may be assigned to legislators by the leadership. Legislators spend their time jockeying for positions not on advocating for their constituents. Legislators are smart; they know where their bread is buttered.

The corruption is now more insidious, greedier, and more controlling, and there is nothing the voters can do about it. She says “You can’t defeat lobbyists, consultants and staffers in an election”. The answer to political corruption is not term limits. The answer is voter involvement. She concludes that citizen engagement matters more now than ever in American history.

How will this play out at the local school board level? Take a look at Los Angeles where pro charter forces banded together to promote candidates favorable to privatization. There’s a lot of money connected to education, and privatizers want access to it. School board races set a record for expenditures. The three candidates raised over $2 million and outside money reached $14.3 million.

The adversaries were The California Charter School Association Advocates and the Los Angeles teacher’s union. We know who the teachers are. Who backs the CCSAA is not so clear, but one investigator uncovered large donations from Doris Fisher of The Gap, Alice Walton from Walmart, Lauren Jobs from Apple, and Michael Bloomberg from Wall Street. Should they be controlling Los Angeles school board races?

We the voters will decide in November 2018 which amendments to the Florida constitution will pass. Remember that term limits, however appealing on the surface, shifts power from the voters to the corporate sector where money is king and the voters lose.

Gutting Class Size Limits

The latest from the Bush foundation is to gut the class size limits. Yes, the legislature has been doing this for years by exempting almost all classes. Any ‘elective’ is exempt, like American literature, marine biology, AP classes…or any school choice magnet programs, so those classes are much larger. Basic reading, writing and math courses are still covered. Scott Maxwell describes the persistent effort by the Bush ‘Excellence? in Education’ foundation to equate excellence with cheap. It’s a hard case to make, but Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation is doing her best. Let’s hope it is not good enough to further erode the quality of our public schools.

Think about the impact of large class sizes for young children. Think about the impact of large classes we now have for children learning languages. You know more examples.

Levesque and Bobby Martinez, co-members of the Constitutional Revision Commission have filed an amendment to the Florida constitution. The voters have the final say at the November 2018 election. Read Scott Maxwell’s article and decide how you will vote.

An Attorney Who Knows, Speaks on Bullying

I have represented quite a few students who have been victims of bullying. The largest target group for bullying is students with disabilities. While it is true that schools are rarely effective in addressing the bullying, making parents often desire to move their children to protect them, that ineffectiveness applies across the board to traditional public, charter and private schools. In Florida, public school students at least have a bullying law requiring that school districts create and follow an anti-bullying policy or risk losing funding. There is no legal protection for private school students (other than using tort law if there is substantial injury, and few personal injury attorneys are willing to take these cases because of statutory limits on liability). Charter school compliance is rarely enforced by districts, who find it easier to invite the student back to public schools than to get the charter schools to do something.

Also, simply moving students to new schools does not always stop the bullying. Students are often targeted for their differences, and I see a disproportionate number of students with weak social skills (due to Asperger’s, ADHD, or mental health conditions) get bullied over and over in different settings until someone looks at them and gets them the supports they need to interact more effectively with their peers. My son was one of those kids. Public schools have the resources and knowledge to evaluate and provide these supports; the privately-run schools usually do not.

What we need is to strengthen the existing law and to expand coverage to all schools. The current law does not give families a direct right to pursue action if the bullying investigation and follow-up are ineffective, so long as the district has a policy and follows the steps in the policy. Without this leverage, schools will not be fully invested in completely eliminating the problem. Additionally, Palm Beach County is working on creating academic standards for social competencies so that all kids (bullies and victims) learn better ways of interacting. We need to advocate to make this statewide.

I am happy to speak about my family’s experience with bullying and my clients’ struggles with bullying in charter and private schools. I can also ask some of the families to speak out. I know several who would love to help change the system.

Kimberley Spire-Oh is an attorney in Palm Beach and a member of the League of Women Voters.

Douglas County Defeats Dark Money for Vouchers

Douglas County, next to Denver, Colorado school board races are national news and funded nationally. Why? It is a target area for school privatization. So much money is involved that candidates form coalitions. The pro choice/voucher group is called ELEVATE. The anti voucher group is called Community Matters. Evidently, community does matter in Denver. The four anti voucher school board candidates won by 60%.

The district began a voucher program in 2011, but it has been stalled in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court told the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that vouchers in Colorado were unconstitutional. The decision by the voters is likely to slow privatization of schools in Denver.

The race was touted as a test case for school vouchers. Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative Koch Brothers faced off against the teachers union. Politico estimated that the race cost over $800,000 dollars. Democracy is getting very expensive with all that dark money pouring in from billionaires. This time, the citizens won.

Segregation: Is the federal government to blame?

Did the federal government end segregation of schools while at the same time promote segregation? How could this be?

In this Education Votes article, Sabrina Holcomb presents Rothstein’s arguments that federal housing policy created the current educational policy crisis. In ‘The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America’, Richard Rothstein is provocative. It is worth a minute to read the Education Votes summary. It focuses our attention on what needs to change to reduce the inequities that our schools are supposed to overcome.

It is clear that attempts to overcome the housing segregation that occurred due to federal housing loan policies dominate our school systems. School choice is one of the most dramatic examples. Charters that siphon off and divide minority neighborhoods are a direct result of trying to find an inexpensive alternative for families to ‘escape’ the low income, educationally disadvantaged schools that federal policy created. They are also a way for some higher income parents in other neighborhoods to maintain their advantage. The emphasis on magnet programs to fill under enrolled schools is also related. Wholesale tracking of students into advanced and gifted programs is another unintended consequence. So, what can be done?

You can’t pick up and move homes. Moving children around is sometimes so time consuming and expensive that it creates as many problems as it solves. Some localities are experimenting with incentives to promote more economically diverse housing options. Others suggest that schools must solve the inequities that communities produce. Online education advocates promote packaged instruction that does not create the student engaged, project based interdisciplinary instruction that motivates students. We do need some sort of learning networks, however. What could these be like both within and across schools and community partners? How can entire communities pull together to support a positive learning environment for all kids? How can real estate developers, local governments, education and social service systems work toward common goals?

Isn’t this what we should be talking about? The first learning network that comes to my mind is one where those communities that are working toward a collaborative vision can learn from one another. Hmmmm, the Integrative Communities blog. Know of one? Surely some exist in the city planning world.

Mom Guilt: Are charters a good choice?

A quote from the Tampa Bay Times article on the movement toward charters: “You don’t want to be the mom who made the wrong decision”. What is behind this concern:

  1. Children are leaving Lutz elementary, a well thought of district school, because they want to be first in line for a charter middle school.

  2. Why a charter middle school? Middle schools draw from a larger areas and parents are concerned that discipline problems increase during those years. The big take away is that some parents worry that district schools are less ‘safe’. Charters can dismiss students which parents can use as a warning to their own children.

Other parents and educators see the impact of choice on their communities. As one parent said, “I know we are not going to be a great city without great public schools.”

The choice system extends divides by class, race, opportunity and ideology. The public district choice options are to offer magnet programs and magnet schools. The advantage is that there is district planning and oversight which reduces fraud, abuse, and other mismanagement problems. It makes district planning more cost effective. It does not, in its current form, solve the equity problems for less affluent families. It’s only a step in the direction of equal access to high quality education.

I just read a column in the New York Times where David Leonhardt came down on the side of charter schools based in part on his reading about the positive impact in Florida for students who graduate from charter schools. I posted three summaries of studies re Florida charters:

  1. Charter High School Long Term Effects. Interesting that in Florida, the data from the study were from charter students entering high school back in 2002.  Those charter school 8th graders who went on to a charter high school were more affluent, less likely to be black, more likely to be Hispanic and not have an ESE designation (p.16).  Soooo, the conclusion is that charter school students who graduate from a charter high school do better on most out come measures e.g. college attendance, income etc. than 8th graders from charters who did not graduate from a charter high school.   To put it another way, in South Florida which has a high proportion of Hispanic students in charter schools, these students do better in the long run than lower income black students who return to district high schools.  Should this surprise anyone?

I also posted these additional studies:

  1. CREDO Urban Study shows in 5/7 Florida cities, charters did less well than comparable public district schools. Charters performed better in only one city.

  2. National Alliance of Public Charter Schools reports that, “despite consistent growth by charter schools in Florida, the schools have lagged on quality, diversity and innovation.” 2016.

Academic achievement aside, many decisions are about feelings. What do we do about the uncertainties we all face? I remember the famous saying from President Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. At the time, there were riots, food lines, and the looming prospect of war. Plenty to worry about. We made it then; we will make it through this time.