Community Schools: We all can help

What can be done when communities experience more income and racial segregation? It impacts school culture and the sense of equity and access to the wider world. The Florida legislature has mandated charter takeovers. Community schools are the public school answer to those takeovers. They are emerging as an effective strategy to counter the isolation. Florida has twelve. The first, Evans High School sponsored by the Children’s Home Society, is a marvel. Read about how Evans went from an ‘F’ rated school to a ‘B’ rated school and grew enrollment from 1600 students to over 2400. Its graduation rate went up from 50% to 80%.

What exactly is a community school? There is a report out that describes four essential qualities. We need to track these schools. We can also help these schools. Here in Alachua County we are meeting with our community school leaders to find ways to support their after school programs. You might find a way to help one of your schools.

Community schools have strong connections between educators and local resources, supports and people. Meaningful learning and well-rounded development is everyone’s top priority. This learning strategy is not about regurgitating facts. It is about tackling real world complex problems using collaboration to create deeper learning. Too aspirational you might say? Not so! Low expectations send a message to children. Helping children tackle real-world problems engages them.

Here’s what to look for:

  1. Student support services are integrated into the school and coordinated by a school staff member.
  2. After school, weekend and summer programs provide additional academic instruction and enrichment activities.
  3. Schools become a neighborhood hub where parents’ educational or other civic needs can be met e.g. specialty classes.
  4. Collaborative leadership and practice through teacher/leadership teams, teacher learning communities, and a community school coordinator.

Here’s where to look for other community schools in Florida.

Fla. Appeals Court Supports State Education Policy

No surprise, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling against Citizens for Strong Schools. Basically, the Court held that the “high quality” and “efficient”, language from Article IX of the Florida constitution, were political judgments. The school choice, and testing and accountability policies were political decisions not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts. If it is truly political, then the voters have to change what is.

In an additional ruling, the court decided that vouchers for the McKay scholarships for children with some form of disability did not violate the uniform system of free public schools provision in the constitution.

Southern Legal Counsel, which filed the case, now must decide how to go forward. The case can be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. You can read about the case on their website.

Education funding and fairness lawsuits occur across the country. For an overview of other cases see the Education Law Center.

This case has gone on for years. It will continue the fight. Floridians must also continue the fight for high quality, fair and efficient schools.

Hidden Curriculum: Lost Children

The Huffington Post took on a Herculean task. It created a database of 8000 schools across 25 of the 27 states with private school choice programs. They check their religious affiliations and try to identify the curriculum.

Their results found 25% were non religious private schools. Of the 6000 religious schools, 29% were Catholic and 42% were Christian-non Catholic. There were a few other religions represented 2% Jewish and 1% Muslim faiths.

The reporters focused on the 2500 Christian non Catholic schools. They checked websites and/or contacted the schools to identify which curriculum was used. Many declined to respond to requests for textbook information. Of those who did respond, about one third of the Christian non Catholic schools used Abeka, Bob Jones or ACE textbooks for at least part of their curriculum. The article lists 1024 Florida private choice schools using these texts. The number raises questions.

While the database does list the names and locations of the schools, the numbers exceed the Florida private school list and the number of private Florida tax credit schools reported by the Department of Education. Florida reports 2663 private schools of which 1733 are private FTC schools. Two thirds or about 1154 of the FTC schools are religious. If about half of those are Christian, non Catholic, the actual number of private choice schools using those fundamentalist Christian texts would be closer to 385 than to the 1000 the article lists.

Do the numbers matter? What is really important are the children and whether the State of Florida should provide funding, directly or indirectly to private schools, most of which are religious. If you are interested in the ideology behind the fundamentalist Christian textbooks and the interviews with children who felt they had been deprived of an education, read the article. At one point I had several of these books to review. It will give you pause. The children matter.

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.

Donalds files Another Textbook Bill

Who decides what children learn and which instructional materials they use? Some say the Florida school districts and Department of Education have that responsibility. Rep. Byron Donalds seeks to strengthen the law, HB 989, he co-sponsored in 2017 to give the community the right to review textbooks. This time, HB 827 would allow parents to suggest alternatives to books and instructional materials they do not like. School boards must then contact publishers and invite them to bid on purchases. The State Board of Education approves textbooks.

Texas experienced the same pressure from religious groups. Bill Moyers summarized their concerns including separation of church and state, censoring capitalism, lack of conservative spokespersons, social expectations, and others.

Is a Revolt Brewing Over 4 Day School Weeks?

Florida’s isn’t at the bottom of the state education funding ranking; it hovers around 42nd. At the bottom are states like Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma. What’s it like for schools there? Schools are trying to cut costs by holding school four days a week. It does save some transportation and food costs but not much else. The school days are longer; thus teacher salaries remain the same.

According to former Republican Governor Keating, parents are rebelling. They view the legislature as dysfunctional. They are voting out those they blame. The Atlantic calls it ‘The Red State Revolt‘. It is over the constant cuts in education that have resulted in teacher shortages and larger class sizes. In Oklahoma, one-fourth of the schools are open only four days. Maybe there is a point where parents say enough is enough to cuts in education spending. Will Florida’s legislature listen? It has not yet restored funding at pre recession levels.

Can Florida afford to do any better for its children? A new report by the Education Law Center says ‘Yes’. The 2017 ELC report ranks state by funding level, how funds are distributed based on student need, effort related to economic capacity, and fairness based on percentage of students in public vs. private schools. These ratings are very revealing for Florida.

“California and Florida are positioned very poorly on all four fairness measures, receiving an “F” in Funding Effort” and a “C” in Funding Distribution”. On all other indicators, Florida ranks between 40th and 50th in the nation. The data show that Florida can afford to do better for its public schools. It also shows the growing emphasis on sending children to private schools which are becoming increasingly dependent upon public funding through tax credits and vouchers.

The choices that Florida’s legislators are making may well run into the same wall of rebellion by the citizens of Florida who want more for their children. The State can afford to do more, but it is choosing not to. Our funding levels are just above Oklahoma, and current attacks on public school funding due to HB 7069 will only make things worse. The ‘choice’ bubble in Florida may well burst as it appears to be in Oklahoma.

Separation of Church and State Under Siege

Roberto Martinez filed P4 to end the ban on public funding for religious schools. In a 5-1 vote yesterday, the Constitutional Revision Commission sub committee on Declaration of Rights agreed. The provision in question, commonly known as the Blaine amendment, has been in the Florida Constitution for over a 100 years.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Martinez says he supports separation of church and state and public schools. He just thinks banning money from religious institutions is wrong.

This argument is as old as our country. The voters will have to decide once again. Florida’s Supreme Court supported the Blaine amendment is 2006. A ballot measure to allow private school funding was defeated in 2008, The voters rejected a subsequent to fund private schools in 2012.

Once again, it is time to stand up to the values in our Florida constitution. They have withstood the test of time. Some variation of this latest attack on the separation of church and state will appear on the November 2018 ballot. Voters once again will have to reinforce the distance between an impartial public school system and individual religious preferences.

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.

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.

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.