Vouchers are Big Business in Florida

For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature. It is essentially a money management/marketing firm operating as a non-profit charity.

The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama. According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets.

Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into general revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida has just released an investigative report that details the history, financial dealings, political connections, and audit findings for Step Up for Students. The full report is available here.

Chartered For-Profit: NPE’s New Report

It is time to end Chartered4Profit to ensure that children, not corporations, profit from our tax dollars. Read NPE’s new report which exposes the for profit sector. Over one-half of Florida’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies. Against the law you say?? Well yes, it is. Florida law makers and charter school companies have found away around that issue. The charters are granted to non-profit organizations which then subcontract to for-profit management firms. These firms hire the teachers, manage the books, and control the curriculum. In most cases, the management companies select the charter school board members in the first place. It is a cozy arrangement.

Why is running a charter school so attractive to businessmen and many politicians? There is money to be made particularly in real estate, fees, and side organizations that provide services. Lots of money–your tax money!

The Network for Public Education has done a deep dive into these organizational structures. You can see for yourself how they work. The report focuses on the four largest chains: National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, Charter Schools USA, and Academica. Two of these were launched in Florida.

When states take action to privatize schools through school choice, they are choosing to take your money to make money. President Biden was quoted in May 2019 saying “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period!” Let’s see if he means it.

Run for Cover or Stand Up for Public Education?

The direction of the Florida Senate is clear….vouchers will expand if Senator Manny Diaz Jr. has his way. His bill SB48 is, however, not just about vouchers. Yes, he would consolidate the scholarships for children with disabilities into the McKay-Gardner scholarship. Then, he would consolidate the Hope, Florida Tax Credit, and Family Empowerment Scholarship into one program. Step Up for Children, which administers the voucher programs, will only have to account for the money every three years instead of every year.

It may sound like just a bureaucratic maneuver, but the devil is in the details. Educational Savings Accounts, previously restricted to students with severe disabilities, are now to cover other students. These accounts give parents tax credits to use for services like private school tuition, tutoring, after school programs, micro schools etc. I listened to a Step Up for Students podcast where the opportunities for many new small business were being extolled. There is mention of programs for three and four-year-old children as well, and I am not certain if the qualifications for programs have been relaxed. Maybe one of you can help me out there.

How well this expanded voucher program will be funded is yet to be determined. The bill raises the cap for corporate tax credits from 50% of taxes owed to 100% for those businesses that contribute. The amount of those donations has been declining, so one might assume that the General Fund will be tapped even more. The General Fund provides money to public schools which of course means there will be less money available.

The vision of mini schools and a cafeteria of services which parents must navigate in this new vision of education is daunting. I see car pools galore, micro schools ‘not open today’, fees added on to voucher payments to make programs ‘better’ or to make them unavailable for the less well-to-do. I see parents realizing too late that the quality of a program is not what is advertised. It makes me remember a saying from my childhood: “Watch out what you wish for!”

It is curious that the Florida Constitution prohibits public funding for private schools. The Florida Supreme Court upheld this prohibition in 1996. The Florida public rejected vouchers at the ballot. But, here they are again. Let your legislators know what you think!

Big Debate on Racial Disparity in Gainesville

 I wrote this post for this blog in June of 2016.  When I took the data to the district staff, they confirmed that the gap was not limited to specific schools or grade levels.  It was a district-wide problem.  We did not have an explanation, but the income-gap may have been an indicator. Gainesville had the fifth highest income gap in the nation.

In 2018, the U.F. Bureau of Economic and Business Research published a study of racial inequity in Alachua County.  They reported that Alachua County African Americans fared worse than in other areas of the state and nation.  Specifically, they have lower economic well being, educational performance and attainment, and more involvement in the justice system.  These factors are correlated.  Children from low-income families struggle.

In 2016, many explained the achievement gap in Alachua County by pointing to the fact that Gainesville is a college town.  Its people value education.  The district has national awards in math, AP, and culinary arts among other areas.  How could there be a problem?  Yet, there are the same achievement gap problems in Alachua County schools as there are across the nation.  Some say that the problems are worse, and implicit racism in schools is the culprit.  There may be other explanations.

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Who IS Carlee Simon: Alachua County Acting Superintendent?

The new majority on the Alachua County School Board acted quickly to change the Superintendent. Dr. Carlee Simon was named Interim Superintendent today. Karen Clarke has been replaced. Clarke has been called an excellent manager but not a visionary. The School Board will launch a search for a new Superintendent. Some speculate that they will search for someone they already know i.e. Carlee Simon.

Simon has been involved with the community activists associated with GNV4All’s education committee. The committee is chaired by Nathan Crabbe, the Opinion Editor of the Gainesville Sun. According to the Gainesville Sun, the signature project for GNV4All is to create a community health and social service center to be located at Metcalfe Elementary School in east Gainesville. The Center will provide prenatal care along with educational and wrap around services for families with children up to age four. The estimated cost is $350,000 a year.

Funding for the Metcalfe pre-school must come from the community and would need an organizational home. GNV4All has just filed as a nonprofit organization which could receive funds. One might suppose that it would submit a proposal to the Alachua County Children’s Trust for funds from the local tax initiative passed in 2018. Tina Certain, a member of the School Board who participates in GNV4All is also a member of the board of the Children’s Trust.

Carlee Simon faces a big challenge. She has background knowledge in educational policy but limited administrative experience. She was a classroom teacher for five years and earned a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2010. She was Assistant Professor for eight years at the University of Cincinnati. She returned to Gainesville and is currently enrolled in a graduate program in Urban Planning. Simon is more than a student. She teaches a course as an Adjunct at the University of North Florida and manages her own real estate business.

Running the Alachua County Schools is a complex, challenging job. Simon will have a steep learning curve. Her priorities are clear. She has a vision for equity. Her skills at implementing that vision, however, will be tested. The school system budget is over $537,000,000 but shortfalls in funding are expected due to the pandemic. This is a time of conflicting educational and vocational program needs. We have major school construction projects and difficult school rezoning issues. Some schools are under enrolled and others over enrolled.

Simon will be walking a tight rope as she attempts to build a consensus on how to address the problems. If she falls, Alachua County will need yet another superintendent in June. The School Board will lose face, and GNV4All’s equity goals may be thwarted. We have to be hopeful and vigilant.

Proposed Education Budgets May Force Cost Cutting Again

Once again what looks like more money is not. The House and Senate 2020-21 budgets provide Alachua County with $50 or $40 more per student. The mandated increased cost for the Florida Retirement System is $80 more per student (in Alachua County). The districts must also pay for new students and the Teacher Salary Supplement. The district must cut its budget for 2020-21. The total reduction for Alachua County in the House bill is $3,487,197 and the Senate total is $2,564,352

The House (HB 5001) and Senate (SB 2500) budgets differ in priorities. The House budget includes more funding for teacher salary supplements but less than the Senate’s allocation for turnaround schools, students with disabilities, digital technology, and support for poorer districts. Both chambers include the mandate for districts to fund increased costs for the Florida Retirement System (FRS). The two bills must be reconciled in a joint conference.

The FRS increased cost is due to an auditor’s analysis that the FRS estimated rate of return on its investments should be lowered. While the current income on investments exceeds expectations, it has not completely recovered from the 2007 recession, see kic restoration. The FRS includes 643,00 state, local, and school district employees. Their contributions support pensions for 416,000 retirees. Teachers and other district employees are nearly one-half of all participants.

Florida Legislators at Work….For Themselves

Remember when the three Jefferson County schools were closed and taken over by Academica, the largest for-profit charter management company in the state?  The story makes your hair curl.  Here is a report by WLRN news that details where the money came from and where it went. Find out how Academica works and how the students fared.

New funding included a $2.5 million special appropriation from the Florida Legislature, $2 million from federal startup grant funds, and a $1.9 million interest free loan from Academica’s Somerset division.  This was funding denied unless it became a charter district. Academica received $327,000 in fees in 2017-18 to manage the fewer than 800 student K12 school.  The per student cost rose to $16,600 which school leaders recognize cannot be sustained.  The state pays much less.

The behind the scenes orchestrators for the takeover were Senators Manny Diaz and Anitere Flores, both of whom have close ties to Academica. Diaz is an administrator at Doral College and is Chair of the Senate Education Committee.  Flores is deputy Majority Leader for the Florida Senate and moved from being the head of Doral College to the Academica foundation.  The current Doral College president, Rodriquez,  was named to supervise the transition of the Jefferson County schools to Academica.

In previous posts, I reported on a series of misdeeds associated with Diaz and Flores related to their association with Doral College.  The college was bankrupt and had no students or faculty when Academica took it on.  It now offers online courses to Academica students.  The credit was worthless because the college had no accreditation.  Diaz worked to get a private school accreditation agency to recognize the college.  Diaz’s personal interest is noted here.  

What is the result of the takeover?  Behavioral specialists were hired to help students, teacher salaries increased, and the physical facilities were improved. Initially, the school grades rose to a ‘C’, but the elementary school has now reverted to a ‘D’.  The increase in the percentage of students passing the FSA state examinations in order to raise the school grades may have had as much to do with discipline policies as with learning strategies.  The charter school policy created a 45 day suspension policy in which students were given a laptop and sent home.  They were to take online classes from Doral College.  Many students never returned.  It is one way to raise school grades…just limit which students take the tests.

There is no question that the years of neglect in Jefferson County created the abysmal schools.  Parents who could, mostly white, had left for private schools or for schools in nearby Leon County.  Those few students who remained had the greatest needs and the fewest resources.  No doubt some students and their families were grateful for the influx of new funding for the charter district, but it cannot last.    

This is the result of a choice system in which racial and economic segregation flourishes as described in ‘Tough Choices‘, a report sponsored by the Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University.  It has happened in other Florida cities.  It is the dark side of a choice system that favors some at the expense of others.

 

Miami: Is This Really Our Future?

Miami is the school choice capital!  According to this EducationNext article, 20% of Miami’s public schools are charters.  Another 20% of students are in private schools, and approximately half of those are paid for with vouchers and tax credit scholarships.  It does not stop there.  District-run choice programs now enroll 61% of public school children.  Is this a school choice dream or a nightmare?

Dade County schools tout high academic achievement.  The district receives an ‘A’ grade from the state and no failing school grades.  Of course, there are only 15 schools in the state that have an ‘F’ rating, so Miami is not unique there.  An ‘A’ school only has to earn 62% of the possible points based on state assessment test scores etc.  Over one-half of all Florida’s schools earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade.

Miami’s  fourth grade students rank above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, but there is no statistically significant difference between Duval, Hillsborough and Dade Counties’ scores.  Could it be that third grade retention pushes Florida scores up because so many fourth graders were retained?

The Dade County eighth grade NAEP scores also seem to be higher in comparison to other cities.  Yet, the average Miami-Dade score is right at the national average.  Miami’s high school graduation rate is just below the national average.  It would seem that Miami-Dade is good at hype.  The reality is quite different on the ground.

According to the report ‘Tough Choices‘, Miami is the second most segregated district in the state.  Of 460 schools in Miami, 214 are considered isolated.  They are more than 85% single race.   Miami’s lowest performing schools are overwhelmingly black.  Hispanic students also tend to be enrolled in segregated schools.

Is this what Florida is striving for?  Our schools are driven by grades which are easy to manipulate.  Yet, Florida, the third largest state in the nation, is just average in student achievement and children are increasingly separated by race and economic status.

Choice has had an impact in Miami-Dade, but it is on the lives of families and funding for school facilities.  One wonders how families manage the challenges presented by so many choices, many of which are not good choices.

*What happens when parents chose a school, but the school does not chose their child?  How do parents manage when their child’s school is located an hour’s drive away?

*What happens when children are told  that their school is not a ‘good fit’ for them.

*What happens when a parent realizes that the teachers at their charter or private school are not well qualified and tend to leave quickly?

*How does a parent console a child whose test scores do not qualify for a magnet program but his friend’s score does.  The score difference may be minimal, but the impact is not.  This is the world that broad-based choice creates.  A feeling of anxiety permeates these schools defeating a child’s willingness to learn.

Florida will expand its career and technical programs in the next legislative session. adding another level of complexity,.Finding competent teachers for these skills will be a challenge.  Even more difficult, Florida closure rate for charters is exceptionally high.

Florida Pension Plan Shortfall

There are rumblings that the 2020 Florida Legislature may revise funding for the Florida Pension Plan.   There is no question that the retirement system revenue has declined; it has not been 100% funded since the 2008 recession. The current rate is about 84% of the cost if all people retired at one time. Of course that is an unlikely scenario, but there are now more people vested in the system than are contributing to it. One million public employees participate in the system, about half are teachers and the others are local and state government employees. As retirees increase and new participants decrease, covering costs becomes more problematic.

While there is no immediate crisis, the problems cannot be ignored in the longer run. There are four basic reasons why the funding has declined:

  1. Expectations that the stock market will do well are not always met. Average earnings across years are about 1% below expectations.
  2. The state is not making sufficient employer contributions to the retirement system.
  3. How the state calculates the value of promised retirement benefits increases risk and makes real debt larger.
  4. The switch to 401(k) accounts in 2017 did not require sufficient contributions from employees and employers to cover costs. It may benefit new teachers who leave the profession but not the profession as a whole.

Pensions are not the problem..The real question as always is whether funding pensions is mostly a political, not a financial issue.  The National Association of State Retirement Administrators cited a report stating that an 80% funding level is the federal benchmark for financial stability of state pension systems.  Florida’s level exceeds that benchmark. Nevertheless, there is a political divide over providing pensions, and it is closely tied to those supporting school privatization.  Florida charters and private schools typically do not contribute to retirement systems, and the resulting high teacher turnover keeps salaries lower.   Thus, there is more money available for management companies in the private sector.   This is not a recipe for a high quality educational system.

This issue may have a strong impact on the growing teacher shortage. Pensions help retain teachers.  Kentucky’s teachers’ complaints about pension revision strategies were partially responsible for the recent defeat of their governor.  Yet, there are those who advocate replacing teachers with technology.  The motivations of those who attack the teaching profession whether they are political or financial in origin, need to be considered.

Florida 2020 Education Legislation Priorities

The 2019 legislative session focused on moving money and managing guns. The laws that emerged funded Schools of Hope vouchers for private schools and shifted funds from public schools to charter school privately owned facilities.   A lawsuit against the Schools of Hope vouchers is expected.  Funding increases for teachers and students were minimal, but teachers were allowed to carry guns.

The Florida Educational Association (FEA) reached an agreement to end a lawsuit against the ‘Best and Brightest’ bonus system that discriminated against minority and older teachers.  A signature from a federal judge will provide compensation to some teachers.

Teacher Recruitment. The focus of the 2020 legislative session may shift to teacher recruitment  and what is taught. FEA reported 4,000 teacher vacancies in the fall of 2019, and months later 2,000 positions remain unfilled.  In response to significant teacher shortages, Governor DeSantis is calling for a higher starting salary for beginning teachers. The impact may be mixed. Teacher recruitment may improve, but teacher retention may decline. New teachers may earn more than many experienced teachers.  At least half of these teachers did not graduate from college level education programs and will need mentoring and professional development that typically is not a legislative priority.

Curriculum Standards.  The Governor also called for a revision to the Florida curriculum standards that determine what is taught at each grade level. Draft standards have been released, and a summary of the results of public comment has been released. There was relatively little support indicated for eliminating the Common Core elements that have been in effect for the past ten years. More concerns were reported about the age appropriate level of standards particularly for children in K-3 but also in grade nine mathematics. As content taught in higher grades is pushed down to lower grades, the expectations for reading and math readiness for six to nine year old students become inappropriate for many children.

Where these concerns will lead the legislature is uncertain. Politically, the Governor has promised to end the Common Core skills that confuse parents. Practically, yet another change in standards not only changes what skills teachers must focus on, it also mandates that the state tests, school grades, and teacher evaluations  adapt. Teachers’ frustration are due to more than inadequate salary levels.  What are the expectations they must meet?

Adding fuel to the fire is the release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and the SAT and ACT test results for college admission. Scores are down yet again. Achievement gaps between white and minority students are higher. Choice based on competition and test scores is not working within public schools or among public, charter, or private school voucher-type programs.

Parents from all walks of life are questioning the system that pressures students to enroll in advanced courses e.g. AP English, math and science in order to improve school grades or admission to college. For a few students, these courses are a good option. For most, it results in an unrelenting pressure to chase test scores. Once they enroll in college many retake the same course in part because the passing standard of ‘3’ is too low for success in subsequent courses. Some colleges, like the University of Florida, require a ‘4’ on AP exams to earn credit.

It is a conundrum. Students need challenging courses that stimulate their interests, and Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of students who take and pass an AP exam. Yet, less than half of Florida students who take AP pass the exam with a score of ‘3’ or higher. This score represents a ‘C’ grade at the college level. The University of Florida requires at least a ‘4’ in many subjects in order to earn college credit.  Many students would prefer advanced courses geared toward alternative career options rather than the basic college track.

How will the Florida Legislature respond to the stalemate in student achievement? More of the same test-driven competition for scores does not work. Dividing funding among public, charter, and private schools is neither less expensive nor more effective.  Teacher recruitment and retention and quality facilities are an even bigger problem for charters and most private schools.

2020 legislative priorities for professional education associations are listed below.

Florida School Board Association.

Florida Association of School Administrators.

Florida Education Association.