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.

Resegregation of Florida Schools: Problem or Solution?

We came to Florida in 1966. Florida was the ‘New South’ thanks to Governor LeRoy Collins. It was to be a model of positive change, and for many years, it was. Florida led the nation in desegregation. Then in the 90’s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions repealed desegregation mandates. The ‘Separate but Equal’ era reasserted itself. Districts–communities–ended bussing and suburban sprawl was the norm. Large, mostly urban pockets of very low performing schools developed due to racially and economically segregated housing patterns.

In a just released study of Florida public education, the bottom line for children is that with whom they attend school matters. The report states: “White, middle-class student enrollment is especially important since these students have access to more challenging courses, peer groups and support systems in strong schools. These educational advantages benefit disadvantaged students in ways that enrollment in predominately minority schools do not.”

Reaching the goal of racially and economically diverse schools is a challenge. Florida’s population has become more diverse and less affluent. The percentage of white/Asian students fell from 60% to 43%. While the percentage of black students in public schools remains about 20%, the percentage of Hispanics doubled to 31%. Are the public schools more diverse? Well yes, on average. We have more multi racial schools– 1/5 in 1994 to 1/3 in 2014. The diversity, however, is not uniformly spread among schools. The percentage of schools that are 90-100% minority has doubled from 10% in 1994 to 20% in 2014.

While exposure to other races and ethnicities has increased over time, the typical student in each group tends to go to schools where the majority of students are like themselves. This is especially true for white students. They attend schools with about one-third minority enrollment, whereas black and Hispanic students are typically in schools where they represent two-thirds of the school’s enrollment. Given the economic differences among racial/ethnic groups on average and the correlation between income and achievement, it is predictable that concentrations of low performing schools are found in low-income areas.

Under the school choice policies initiated by Governor Jeb Bush in the 2000s, parents are offered choices to escape the problems associated with concentrated poverty. Resegregation, as a result, increased. One in four black students attends an intensely segregated charter school. Hispanic students in charters are even more likely to attend a charter school with a predominately Hispanic student body. In Florida, Hispanic students are the largest group attending charter schools. Given that charter schools are counted as public schools, the conclusion that public schools are becoming more segregated is no surprise.

The obvious problem is what can be done that encourages a better cross section of students who can learn from one another. In Governor Collins’ era, the State supported research to design desegregation plans. Florida does have a controlled enrollment option for districts. Lee and St. Lucie counties have implemented this approach to school assignment in order to better integrate its schools. Okaloosa County has voted to go in this direction. Nevertheless, the report concludes that Florida has come a long way since the era of LeRoy Collins, but the integration of public schools is not one of them.

Bash Schools or Build Democracy

The October Atlantic reports on the war on public schools. We know this war. The strategy is changing, and this is a good thing. The reform mantra that school achievement has declined, teachers are inadequate, unions protect mediocrity and school choice (read privatization) solves all problems has become hackneyed, if not outright false. The Atlantic article raises a much different and more fundamental concern. The attack on public schools reflects the emphasis on individual rights as opposed to the collective good. This is an age-old theme in America. It waxes and wanes, but the stakes are high.

The author cites the political theorist Benjamin Barber’s warning: “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.” Why?

Our schools integrate diverse groups from widely ranging backgrounds into our civil society. They learn to be ‘American’. The public schools give all of our people a stake in the future of our democracy. School choice, however, is further segregating our society and creates more enclaves. The impact on our communities is being felt. We no longer teach civics, and fewer young people participate in voting.

In some countries, the population disengages in their political system. When this occurs, the whole process of negotiation among citizens to resolve problems disintegrates. A good analysis is offered by Harry Boyte, Co-Director of the Center for Democracy. He says “Politics is how diverse groups of people build a future together”. This is the message that will determine our future. We have a choice. We can build or divide our schools and our communities.

Should We Close Schools?

The latest push to improve test scores is to close low performing schools. This CREDO study from Stanford University was designed to see what happened to the students. They looked at traditional public schools (TPS) and charters whose students scored at or below the 20th percentile on state tests. Some schools in both sectors were closed and others not. Why? What happened to the children?

Some key findings include:

  1. Charters that closed in Florida had significantly lower performing students than students in closed public schools. Why would this be? One possible explanation is that closure corresponded not only to low performance but also to declining enrollment. Parents of charters students tended to leave failing charters before the school actually shut down. As enrollment dropped, charters could not afford to stay open.

  2. Florida closed 24 TPS over 7 years and 34 charters. While the number of closed charters is higher, 85% of the students affected were in TPS. In Florida, 4,337 students in charters were affected vs. 5,410 TPS. Closure disproportionately impacted schools with high rates of minority students over other low performing schools.

  3. Most, 82% of TPS students, stayed in another TPS after closure while only 40% of charter students stayed in charters. In Florida, there were no differences between achievement gains for closed low performing charter students over time and similar students in charters that were not closed. Over time, children from closed charters did much less well than similar children from closed TPS.

  4. Students from closed schools do better if they are transferred to schools with higher performing students. But, there are too many low performing students able to enroll in higher performing schools. Less than half of the students from closed schools landed in a better performing school.

What is the take away from the data? Closing a school hurts kids unless they enroll in a school that has higher performing students. This becomes a socio-economic integration issue. It is a school culture issue. It is an opportunity issue. Suppose there are an insufficient number of schools with higher performing students to place these children? CREDO suggests innovative new schools are needed. If the old charter did not work, what should this new innovative school be? The answer is in the data. Children learn from children who are learning!

Flawed School Bill: What is wrong?

Here’s a good synopsis of the legal flaws in HB 7069. These constitutional issues need to be at our fingertips:

The bill:

  1. Strips the authority of local school boards to review charter school applications and enforce minimum quality standards e.g. earn a school grade of at least a ‘C’ and participate in the Florida Standards Assessment program.

  2. Violates the constitutional authority of school boards to levy property taxes to support schools by requiring revenue to be shared with privately owned charter schools.

  3. Allows some charters to hire uncertified teachers.

The courts may have to decide whether or not to throw out these provisions. Citizens need to decide whether politicians should have made these decisions in the first place. There is more at stake than money, which is a huge issue for the maintenance of public school buildings. The control of local schools by a few politicians who manipulated the legislative process by holding meetings in secret and launching legislation at the last minute is a practice that robs everyone of the right to know what is happening.

What Do Parents Really Want?

A new PDK poll is out saying people want more than straight academics in their schools. More parents oppose than support vouchers, value diversity in their schools, don’t believe tests measure what is most important, believe support services for children belong in schools, and, if they are parents, like their schools.

It could be there is a media problem with how schools and teachers are described that accounts for less positive ratings for schools by people who aren’t closely associated with them. There is some work being done on this topic by Dr. Mary Dalton. From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television. Dr. Dalton is speaking at the University of Florida Graham Center on September 20th at 6p.m. in Pugh Hall.

We are spreading some more good news here in Gainesville. The film: Passion to Teach will be shown at two schools in Gainesville and the events are open to the public. The film maker will be here from Massachusetts to lead a discussion about how communities are using the power of this film to enlighten the public about what is possible for schools to be even in this test driven culture.

If you want to see what else we are doing, go to our September: Public Schools Awareness Month website. I learned today that another Florida county will have a similar awareness month in November.

School has started, but not this charter! Parents Ask: Now what?

The Hillsborough School District is bending over backwards to help the new Avant Garde Academy charter school open. It has gotten to the point that parents are wondering just when, if ever, their children can enroll.

There is also the question of why this charter schools should open. There is room in nearby public schools. Parents feel helpless; in these charter operations, they often are.

Read the letter some parents have written. They tell the story all parents need to hear. There is no rhyme nor reason to the expansion of charters and everyone gets hurt when there is no planning and no transparency. It does not have to be this way.

HB 7069 Lawsuit Growing

The lawsuit against HB 7069 has a law firm to represent the 11 school districts that have now joined the complaint about the Florida legislature’s attack on local public school board authority. The Florida Constitution states that local elected school boards govern our schools. The legislature believes it does. More districts are considering the suit. Thus far, only Sarasota has decided not to participate.

Bay
Broward
Hamilton
Lee
Martin
Miami-Dade
Orange
Palm Beach
Polk
St Lucie
Volusia

Sarasota voted not to join