The CRC Wrecking Crew

In 1998, the Constitutional Revision Commission strengthened Florida’s education system. Twenty years later, the current CRC is called a wrecking crew in the Orlando Sentinel editorial.

What is at stake?

Martinez proposes to end the separation of church and state. Can you believe this: The Chair of the State Board of Education, Marva Johnson, is proposing to abolish the prohibition to fund private schools with public money. Other CRC members would allow public funds to be used for services in private schools. Even more unbelievable is the proposal by a member of the Collier County school board, Erika Donalds, to allow charters without having school board approval. And then, Martinez would totally get rid of the provision for a uniform system by creating charter school districts.

There’s more. The only hopeful thing is that Florida’s voters have rejected many of these same ideas before, more than once. Voters will have to turn out in droves in November 2018 to say once more that all children must have access to a free, high quality education.

Scott Cites Budget Surplus

Once again there are promises on the table. As last year, Governor Scott’s budget calls for education funding increases. He would push for a $200 per child funding increase and increased revenue from property taxes. Will anything come of it?

The battle in the legislature will be over privatization once again. Proposed changes to the Florida constitution would eliminate the separation of church and state and expand vouchers. Charter school districts would create a separate school system. Expansion of who can approve new charter schools beyond elected school boards would create a back room bargaining network that would be impossible to manage.

Class sizes will continue to grow as limits disappear in proposed legislation from the Bush Foundation’s Patricia Levesque. Just think, the legislative session has not even begun, and we already are shaking our heads in disbelief. Governor Scott has a projected budget surplus with which to bargain. Let’s hope it will not be the Faustian bargain it was last year.

NPE: Charter Management Exposed

The Network for Public Education summarized the dangers inherent in charter school practices that hurt children and communities. They give detailed examples. Here’s a quick list of problems and an important list of recommendations to manage the chaos that the choice system has created. Adherence to a free-market, no regulation philosophy is not necessary to have reasonable choices for children. Unregulated school choice is creating a monstrous problem with:

Charters that are not free public schools.
Charter students who need not attend school to graduate.
Charters for the wealthy..
Charters with secret profits
Seedy charters in storefronts.
Charters paying kids.
Religious charters.
Charters for political parties.
Charters faking achievement data.
Charters shedding students.
Shady charter business practices.
Charters that exacerbate segregation.
Charters that exclude students with disabilities.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE. The NPE list of recommendations represent a growing consensus:

Impose a moratorium on charter expansion.
Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.

Make charter management companies’ accounting systems transparent.
Ensure students’ due process rights in admission and dismissals.
Ensure enrollments are representative of community demographics.
Require openly disclosed bidding processes.
Review property leases and bond issues for appropriate costs.
Revert ownership of closed charter facilities to districts.
Strengthen local district authorization and oversight of charters.

With little or no oversight, abuse is given free rein. Which is the greater evil, reasonable rules or exploiting students and families for personal gain?

Mass Turnout at Hillsborough School Board Meeting

Imagine a thousand people turning out for a school board meeting. People are stirred up. They have reason to be. Read League member Pat Hall’s testimony at the November 14th meeting.

by Pat Hall

Thirteen hundred teachers, children and others attended this meeting, more than ever in the history of Hillsborough County! Salary negotiations have broken down, promises made and not kept, the budget is strained and nerves are frayed. I spoke because four more charter schools were on the agenda for school board approval adding 4404 students in the next 5 years. We’ve asked for an estimate of FTE (full time equivalent) dollars; approximately $7,178 per student per school year that will fly to these four charters as well as PECO (public education capital outlay) dollars lost to traditional schools by the addition of four more charters.

My goal in this statement was to wake up parents and the public to this boondoggle. “The management company for SLAM (Sports Leadership Management Academy) – proposed to teach 2750 children in two buildings is Academica. Academica is under multiple year federal investigation the last I checked. Eric Fresen was Chair of the Education Committee of the Florida Legislature for 8 years. Fresen is the brother-in-law of Academica owner Fernando Zulueta. Fresen is now in jail for fraud and tax evasion. He did not file returns the 8 years he was in the Legislature. Newpoint Company (for-profit management charter co.) has been indicted in Escambia County on fraud charges including Pinellas, Duval and the closing of Newpoint High in Hillsborough County in 2013.

The charter friendly atmosphere here changed immediately after the firing of Mrs. Elia. Tom Gonzales and Jenna Hodgens (H.C. Director of Charter Schools) had a strong case against Kids Community Charter school in Brandon and it was dropped at the request of Mr. Eakins and the Board (chaired by Susan Valdes in 2015).

Statewide 2.7 million traditional students attend public schools. Hillsborough County has 215,000 students including 22,500 in charters. Charter schools represent 10 to 11 % of school aged children in Florida but have grabbed the lion’s share of PECO funds for years. Most for profit charters have been built in the last seven years. The average age of individual schools in Hillsborough County is fifty years. The dramatic shift to charter schools was orchestrated in the legislature by convicted felon Eric Fresen and his very wealthy pals –Jon Hage, owner Charter Schools USA and F. Zulueta, owner of Academica. Research done by Noah Pransky of WTSP, CBS Channel 10 in August, 2014 proved millions of dollars had been stuffed in the pockets of legislators to influence their votes. Governor Scott took $50,000 in 2014 from Hage. In 2014 and 2016 in election contributions we documented, at least three current school board members have taken money from numerous for profit charter school owners, developers and real estate affiliated companies.

One board member took a five day long trip to Miami to visit SLAM there at taxpayer expense of over $1,200. Why 5 days? Why no limits on school board travel when the budget is so tight? This board member collected $13,000 from charter school operators.

Large for profit managed charters receive millions of FTE dollars as do traditional schools based on enrollment. While 86% of traditional school money is spent on instruction, our investigation has proven that large for profit managed charters spend 45 to 48% of FTE on classroom instruction and teachers. The owners take 42-50% of our taxpayer dollars for management fees and real estate leases and rent fees.

When these schools close or go out of business –these buildings we have paid for remain the property of the charter school owners! In Hillsborough County we have authorized 123 schools since 1997 (under Jeb Bush, Governor). We now have 51 open-7 consolidated like Pepin Academy- but 65 never opened or have closed. What are taxpayers choices?

FTC Scholarship Program Under Review?

Today’s Sun Sentinel ran an article outlining needed improvements in the FTC program that provides tuition scholarships to private schools. There are about a billion dollars of corporate tax credits that the State of Florida diverts to this program. According the Sun Sentinel, a legislative committee is holding a hearing. Here’s why:

  1. Some school operators continue to receive scholarship money even though they have filed for bankruptcy.
  2. Eight schools hired staff with criminal records, and some people with criminal records start schools.
  3. Some schools falsify fire and health inspection records.
  4. Teachers without college degrees are employed.
  5. Students with disabilities are promised services that do not exist.
  6. Schools receive funding for students who are not enrolled.
  7. School facilities can be so substandard that they may be unsafe and in strip malls with unsavory neighbors.

The point of school choice is to limit regulation. Parents are supposed to ‘vote with their feet’ if a school is not what it seems. Unfortunately, these parents are in a ‘buyers beware’ market. Are there responsible, well-run private schools? Of course there are. Do parents know which are which?

Are rules and regulations only for schools with elected school boards and other charter and private schools are free to mismanage with few or no consequences? Who benefits in this system…children do not seem to. Districts are called bureaucratic as if standards and fairness in how they are implemented are the enemy. At the same time, however, the legislature heaps on more controls for public schools while they give more money and autonomy to private schools they support with public money.

There is just something fundamentally wrong with this divided educational system. There is a need to free our schools from so much top down management by the state while holding districts responsible for running schools well. What we don’t need is a system of extremes…no regulation vs. too much. There is one member of the Constitutional Revision Commission who is thinking along these lines. Watch for tomorrow’s post on district-run charter systems. It is the start of a better conversation.

NPR: Grading Charter Schools…Did NPR make the grade?

I love NPR, most days. When it comes to charter schools, however, I wonder where their objectivity is. On Innovation Hub this morning, Kara Miller’s guests were David Osborne and Chester Finn. Both have written books advocating for school reform. Miller did ask questions that reflected criticisms about charters, but accepted their responses with no follow up. Where were the knowledgeable experts on the negative impact of charters on communities? Where was the discussion about the profiteering? Where was the admission that few charters are innovative and most duplicate what already exists?

The end result of the interview was the usual propaganda that if only there were more and better charters, education would improve. At least there was a reluctant admission that school choice had no substantive impact on school achievement. I took a few notes on the other questions asked.

Political support for charters was one of the most interesting and perhaps revealing questions asked. Conservative Republicans support charters for other people, not themselves. Their suburban district schools are good, and charters help their children the least of all. Liberal Democrats, many of whom are from urban districts are no longer so supportive of charters, even though charters are supposedly helping those children the most.

The switch in allegiance by Democrats was attributed to the fact that the teacher unions realized that charter teachers were not joining the union, so the charter movement lost union support. The fact that charter teachers sign ‘at will’ contracts and can be fired for no reason was not mentioned as a reason those charter teachers did not join unions.

Could it be that parents and educators in areas where charters have proliferated are best equipped to recognize their shortcomings? Parents want the best for their children, but resegregation and the destruction of whole communities may be tempering enthusiasm. Parents may be recognizing that pulling out a few children for special treatment may turn out not to be so special. Their political representatives are listening.

Charters have made no significant academic improvement based on test scores was acknowledged. Some cities are purported to have been successful e.g. Boston. Their success was attributed to the small number of charters that met stringent authorization qualifications. In too many other places, such as Dayton, Ohio, anyone can open a charter and the quality can be abysmal.

Improvements in district-run public schools is the rational for providing competition from the charter sector. Osborne did slip in a comment about more district operated charters are likely in the future. This option is worth exploring. This could result in better authorization standards and oversight.

Charters pull money away from district schools was denied. I loved this response. If districts are under enrolled, the district should get creative and lease out the building to charters. If that is the best example of creativity, charters have a long way to go to make their case.

The ‘creaming of students’ charge was given short shrift. Beware of slipping into worst case scenarios arguments was the response. To be fair, they did state that a good school is not enough. The example of the trauma that children experienced from the aftermath of Katrina was cited as a need for more support.

The conclusion was that achievement is not getting better fast enough. David Osborne admitted that test scores are not the sole indicator of good schools. What should be used? Graduation rates, parental opinion, and qualitative assessments by independent evaluators…..sounds expensive. This argument, I believe, may be the weakest of all. The premise that evaluation will drive instruction is wrong headed. It is not working….school grades don’t improve schools; they destroy them.

Listen to the broadcast here.

Send comments here: wgbh.org Innovation Hub

Facilities and Fresen: What a cozy arrangement

You know that former Florida Representative Erik Fresen is going to jail. In this Palm Beach Post article, some other facts about this champion of for-profit charter schools are revealed. Not only did he fail to file his income tax returns for his eight years in office, he:

  1. was a lobbyist for Academica, the for-profit charter chain that his sister and brother-in-law run.
  2. earned $150,000 a year as a consultant for Civica which is the land use company that builds charter schools for
    Academica.
  3. fast tracked the bill to force local districts to share the tax money they received with charters and then capped
    the amount of funding districts could raise.

The education crisis Florida faces that has resulted in a major lawsuit filed against State and is a direct result of the influence peddled by a man who now is going to jail. What remains to be seen is how the current legislature responds.

Florida Must Take A Closer Look At Charter Schools

In today’s Sun Sentinel, see the League’s opinion piece on Gulen for-profit charter schools. This is a unique chain. The profits go to support an international religious movement. The article explains how profits are generated in an example from River City Science Academy in Jacksonville.

Gulen is a Turkish Imam who had a falling-out with the Turkish President Erdogan. He moved to Pennsylvania and is the head of a movement that has 170 charter schools in the U.S., twelve in Florida. The leaders bring in Turkish nationals under ‘specialty occupation’ visas for positions that are questioned as a violation of the intent of the visa program. In Florida, 195 visas were given for Turkish men to work in Gulen schools, even if their mastery of English was very limited. Their business practices in Georgia resulted in their expulsion.

The for-profit charter industry has a complex web of real estate dealings that make millions for the management company at the expense of tax payers. The Gulen schools, managed in Florida as Charter Educational Services and Resources, have cover names. In Jacksonville, they are River City schools. In other areas they are often tied to names like math and science academies. Gainesville had two Gulen schools–Sweetwater Branch–that closed for poor academic performance and low enrollment. Their teacher salaries on average were lower than the beginning salary for new teachers in the district. I happened to speak, the other day, with a former teacher at a local Gulen school. She was dismayed at the way the school had been operated. They never knew from day to day which teachers would show up; the leadership was disorganized and disinterested. At least it closed, but not before it became profitable.

The League has long recognized Florida’s lax oversight of charter school management practices. The legislature must respond.

Charter School Moratorium Proposed

Some things make my eyes light up. Tighter controls or the elimination of for-profit charters is one. Another is a moratorium on the expansion of school choice. New York is ahead of Florida on these issues. The state eliminated the expansion of for-profit charter management several years ago. Now, three elected members of the Buffalo school district have asked for a moratorium on charter growth. It is the usual problem, as charters grow in number, resources dwindle for everyone.

The Buffalo charter sector wants to expand. Its response to the school board decision for a moratorium, however, might not be what you would expect. The spokesperson for the Northeast Charter Schools Network said: “We understand that charter schools are not perfect; they’re not the magic answer”. He went on to say that if parents want them, they should not be denied the choice.

There is a fundamental flaw in the argument that choice is more important than the common good. We all have to ask, How much is enough? I keep going back to the private sector competition model that creates 13 kinds of Cheerios and nearly 200 TV stations. We pay for those, but we don’t use them. Soon the private sector starts to cut corners to cut costs. If you are sensitive to consumer market surveys, you might have recognized that some brands of coffee are sold in 12 ounce packages, not the one pound packages we expect. The price is the same. There is some truth to the old adage that there can be too much of a good thing.

Marion County Denies For-Profit CSUSA School

CSUSA with drew from Alachua County. Now, their proposal to build ‘somewhere’ in Marion County was denied by the school board. No doubt CSUSA will appeal to the State Board of Education.

The Marion County Superintendent recommended the board deny the proposal. According to an article in the Gainesville Sun, she said: CSUSA do not “have the best interests of our students at heart.” “In fact, I believe the exact opposite…I believe they want to take advantage of our students to enhance their bottom line…”

It is clear that for-profit charter school management is under public scrutiny. Now, perhaps if the voices become loud enough, the legislator will take a closer look at which charters serve a useful purpose and do it well. Charters can survive by screening which students to admit to control their school grades. This policy does not improve education, it fragments communities.

Remember and tell everyone what the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says about Florida:

“despite consistent growth by charter schools in Florida, the schools have lagged on quality, diversity and innovation.” 2016