You have to tell it like it is, especially when so many people have so much money invested in a failing education reform policy. Read the summary of the report: Twenty Years Later: Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan fails Florida’s Children posted by Diane Ravitch. Find out the hard truth about the impact of the A+ Plan on student achievement, school grades, teaching, and communities. Insist on an end to policies that seek to destroy public schools and rob children of a high quality education.
An organized group of ultra conservative legislators have filed a bill to teach religion in schools. The group called ‘Florida Citizens Alliance’ does not like climate change either. FCA is a group Erika Donalds and her husband, who is in the legislature, have formed with support from others like former Senator Joe Negron’s wife Rebecca and Richard Corcoran’s wife Anne. The group is the same coalition of politicians and wealthy donors who unsuccessfully pushed Amendment 8 to create a separate charter ‘independent’ school system. Last year they got a bill passed to enable citizens to review textbooks for content they oppose.
Bill 330 by Senator Baxley from Ocala requires the Florida Curriculum Standards be revised to be minimum standards. Additional standards could be added to them. This revision is to add controversial science and economic theories to the curriculum. A similar bill was filed last year but did not pass.
What is really at stake is Florida’s Blaine Amendment in the constitution. It specifically addresses the issue of teaching a religion, not just teaching about religion. This becomes a blurry line in practice. Senator Baxley’s bill would require that schools teach about controversial topics. It is one of those tactics to infiltrate policy that keeps such topics separate from school curricula.
For a legal analysis of the Blaine amendment, see the explanation in the Stetson Law Review. I would expect the legislature to consider an amendment to the Florida constitution to overturn the Blaine amendment. Keep watching.
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?
Some charter school teachers in Chicago have gone on strike. Part of the allure for management companies to open charter schools is that they are not part of the teacher unions…or are they? In Louisiana, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that charters are not a subdivision of the state. Therefore, they are subject to the National Labor Relations Act. The court declared that even though New Orleans was a charter dominated system, it was the public school system. It was not, however, a politically accountable entity. Basically, the court argued that since the state could not control the charter board membership, the charter was independent. Independently run charters must allow employees to unionize. Teachers can then bargain to be covered in health insurance and retirement programs or increase salaries.
In Chicago, the teachers, both public and charter, are fighting for their profession. Some charter teachers have organized their own union, and/or join the public school system unions. It gets complicated! Nevertheless, in 2016, the union bargained with the mayor to put a moratorium on charter school expansion. Teaching conditions have not improved. Now, 500 charter school teachers who did unionize, have gone out on strike.
The issues for Chicago charter school teachers are real. They work longer days and have a longer school year…about 20% longer. Their class sizes are larger and their salaries are smaller than for public school teachers.
Florida has a strong teacher’s union, but it is hampered by an agreement to ban strikes. Back in 1968, Florida teachers launched the nation’s first statewide teacher strike. The settlement included a ban on future strikes. So, teachers like parents must choose to accept what is offered or leave. Many are. It is one way to raise awareness that when some groups are treated unfairly, everyone suffers. Surely, there must be a better way!
An interesting question comes to mind. Are Florida charter teachers public employees? They are hired by private companies, not school districts. Can they organize and strike?
Politico reports that the new Florida Commissioner of Education is rumored to be former House Speaker Richard Corcoran. Stewart had announced her plans to retire at the end of Governor Scott’s term, but the State Board of Education asked her to remain to ‘groom her successor’. Corcoran pushed for Schools of Hope to replace struggling public schools with charters. He also supported the Hope Scholarships to give students who were bullied Florida tax credit scholarships to private schools. The State Board of Education is already solidly in the pro choice camp, so they likely will rubber stamp this nomination.
A preview of the conservative agenda for education is available from the Florida Citizens Alliance advocacy group. They anticipate that Governor-elect DeSantis will expand choice programs to include vocational programs that focus on apprenticeships, ending proprietary testing, and ending Common Core Standards. (I do not see where DeSantis makes any statement about K12 testing policies.)
Amendment 8 proposals to expand civics education, term limits and centralized charter systems are likely to resurface. DeSantis has made civics education a priority. This is a national priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative coalition of legislators. The idea is to focus on concepts that, according to Betsy DeVos, lead young people to support socialism rather than a conservative ideology that is anti-government.
If this agenda succeeds, Florida’s educational system will once again be in turmoil.
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. Read it here.
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.
Arizona Superintendent of Schools Diane Douglas announced she will recommend the curriculum standards for Classical Academy charter schools. They are sponsored by Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan that has gone into the charter business. It had to do something a few years ago because it was scandal ridden due to the sexual exploits of its president resulting in his son’s wife’s suicide. It is also the charter chain that Erika Donalds, a Collier County Florida school board member, personally supports. She has filed a proposal to open another one in Martin County. It’s the same chain that won its appeal to Florida’s State Board of Education to open a Classical Academy in Tallahassee this past week.
Florida’s State Board of Education Chair is no supporter of public schools. Marva Johnson advocated that Florida’s constitution be changed to allow public funds to support private, religious schools. Johnson was voted by SBE members to succeed Gary Chartrand. He is one of the financial supporters of KIPP charters in Jacksonville. He is also one of the major contributors to school board races. His candidates support charter schools.
There is a lot of money to be made from Florida’s charter schools. Almost half of the 650 charters are run by for-profit management companies that are subcontractors with the charter boards they help to create. Want to know about the inside dealings of Academica, Florida’s richest charter firm? Read the Miami Herald report. This story ran before Erik Fresen, Zulueta’s brother-in-law and former Florida legislator was arrested for forgetting for eight years to file his income tax returns. He already had been cited for conflict of interest in his role at Academica.
Large non-profit charter management chains have their own way of making money. Eva Moskowitz, head of the NY based Success Academies, made over $782,000 in 2016 to run 46 schools. The Superintendent of Orange County, Florida public schools runs 191 schools, but her salary is less than half of what Moskowitz earns.
Until Florida citizens demand change, too many charters will syphon off public tax dollars for private gain. When the money goes to charters, it comes from your children’s schools.
Here’s an excellent letter from the Florida League of Women Voters President Patti Brigham!
She tells it like it is.
Florida’s 652 charters run the gamut from small ‘mom and pop’ charters to large chains organized by for-profit management companies. Some serve children and districts well. Many others tell different stories. They involve not only political ideology but also religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, self-interest.
The Erika Donalds version of the charter story starts simply. A small group of members seceded from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). Erika Donalds, a member of the Collier County school board and wife of Florida Representative Byron Donalds, fronts this coalition, but the political network behind it is extensive. It goes all the way to our nation’s capital.
About 14 of the 50 alternative school board association members have been publicly identified, including:
• Rebecca Negron, who has just been defeated for a seat on the Martin County school board even though her supporters raised over $250,000 to unsuccessfully attack her opponent. She is the wife of Senate President Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to give corporate taxes to private schools.
Some FCSBM members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups.
• Erika Donalds openly displays the Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group supported by the Koch brothers and others.
• In the March 29, 2018 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Speaker of the Florida House Richard Corcoran’s wife Ann, who operates her own charter school, is identified.
• Shawn Frost, who is Chair of the Indian River school board, is part of this coalition. He announced in the Indian River Guardian that he expects to be appointed to the Florida State Board of Education. Frost reported campaign contributions from Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education. In 2014, Frost received $20,000 in campaign contributions from the American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. Frost lives in Vero Beach, but maintains a room in his father’s house in Indian River to meet the residence requirements for being on the school board. He is also the head of MVP Strategy and Policy which specializes in consulting for school board races.
• A Duval School Board member Scott Shine has reportedly joined the FCSBM. He withdrew from his 2018 reelection campaign due to ‘personal attacks’.
• Sarasota school board members Erik Robinson, a former Republican Party Chairman and Bridgit Ziegler are listed members. Ziegler’s campaign reported $45,000 in donations from the out of state Phoenix Media LLC. According to the Herald Tribune, the money was funneled through a PAC run by fellow board member Erik Robinson, who is often called ‘The Prince of Dark Money’.
Some FCSBM members are collaborating to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charters. This isn’t just any group of charter schools. They are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College, located in Michigan, has a long religious/conservative/libertarian agenda. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundations fund the initiative. There are 17 of these charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and the newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Donalds and her husband have been active with the Mason Classical Academy in Collier County. Donalds is currently seeking to add a Classical Academy in Martin County where Rebecca Negron was running for school board.
Erika Donalds has more than running a charter school on her mind. She was appointed by the governor to the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) which is convened every twenty years to consider proposals to amend the constitution. Donalds is a strategist to divide the Florida public schools into two separate systems, one for ‘independent schools’ and one for public schools established by locally elected school boards. Essentially, it would allow one system for charters and private schools receiving tax credit scholarships and one for traditional public schools.
This year the CRC was plagued with ‘log rolling’. It is a technique to bundle dissimilar proposals into one law. There is a spate of these ‘logs’ projected to be on the November ballot. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against them, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the League of Women Voters was correct in its opposition to at least one. This proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida constitution must be withdrawn from the November ballot. How this amendment came to be is a story in itself.
Amendment 8 combines three separate proposals: school board term limits, civics literacy and a clause stating that school boards are only responsible for schools they create. This third proposal is the heart of the amendment. The title for the amendment, however, is: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools”. Voters might be in favor of one part of the combined proposals but opposed to another. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ strategy. The wording, even the title was intended to confuse voters. Term limits and civics education may seem innocuous, but they are not.
Erika Donalds is also the Florida sponsor for the US Term Limits organization. This group has a well-documented conservative political agenda that targets school boards to create more opportunities to influence policy. The Koch brothers founded the US Term Limits group. The civics course requirement proposed by CRC member Gaetz, the former President of the Florida Senate, made no sense. Civics was already required by the Florida Department of Education. Former Governor Bob Graham, long a champion of civics education, stated that not only is Amendment 8 a hodge podge, it is not even good for civics education. The CATO Institute has a major focus on civics education and provides free civics material to k12 schools. Its message is clear. According to the Huffington Post, the CATO group states: “The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Government assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty”.
The third component of Amendment 8 was to remove local school board control over the authorization of new charter schools. This too represented the national move to privatize our schools by creating charters and funding vouchers to private schools. In the proposed Amendment 8, however, the schools were called ‘independent’, not charter schools. Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart stated that removing local school board control over the establishment of charter schools goes too far. CRC member Patricia Levesque, CEO of Jeb Bush’s education foundation however, supported the amendment as did Marva Johnson, the President of the State Board of Education.
Erika Donalds formed a Political Action Committee called ‘8 is Great’ to sway voters to support Amendment 8. According to the Vero Communique, Howard Rich, a wealthy New York real estate investor, invested $100,000 in the ‘8 is Great’ PAC. Rich serves on the Board of the CATO institute which was founded by the Koch brothers. David Koch ran for Vice President of the U.S. in 1980 on a platform opposing social security, the FBI, the CIA and pubic schools. The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity organization. They are concentrating on Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Their presence takes many forms. Watch for everything from donations to school board races, charter and voucher expansion efforts and state election campaigns. John Kirtley, the founder of Step Up for Children was a major donor. Step Up is the agency that administers a billion dollars for the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and Duval School Board member Scott Shine have joined the PAC according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Recognizing that term limits and civics education are popular among many voters, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wells submitted a brief to the Florida League of Women Voters in which he stated: “This change from local county school board control…is hidden by packaging the change with what are thought to be attractive proposals for term limits and civics education.” These schools were planned to be charter schools but the word ‘independent’ was substituted for the word ‘charter’.
There is a watchdog coalition of about 20 public interest groups, headed by the League, to follow and evaluate CRC proposed amendments. Amendment 8 was identified early by the coalition as part of a package of amendments intended to seize local control from city and county governments. The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined forces to file a lawsuit against Amendment 8 asking that Amendment 8 be removed from the November ballot. The suit claimed that the amendment was deliberately vague and intended to confuse the public. The circuit court in Tallahassee agreed. The State filed an appeal.
The Appellate Court immediately referred the case to the Florida Supreme Court saying, “The case involves a question of great public importance and requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court”. The vagueness of the amendment language and its misleading title: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” was the basis for the justices’ 4 to 3 ruling. The decision puts a roadblock in the effort to create an alternative charter school system. Some legislators will no doubt continue to push proposals to remove any local school board control of charter schools. In reality, local public schools have very limited responsibility to oversee charters, but they and the local press can shine a spotlight on what is at stake.
After sixteen years of choice, it is clear that choice divides communities, segregates children, and dissipates funding without making any appreciable improvement in student achievement. The Supreme Court has another case before it now ‘Citizens for Strong Schools’ that contends that Florida’s choice policy has failed to support the quality education for all children that the Florida constitution requires. The hearing is set. The future of our public school system will depend on the ruling from the bench.