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.

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

Incessant Testing Does More Harm Than Good

An Eastside High School teacher in Gainesville speaks her mind. Who benefits from all this testing? Certainly not the students How about the teachers? Some do and some equally proficient do not. For example, if you teach an AP course, you get a bonus. If you teach in a school that receives an ‘A’ grade two years in a row, you get a bonus. If the school gets an ‘A’ one year and a ‘B’ the next, you do not.

Teachers get frustrated. Many students cry or sleep through the test. What a waste of time and money. Read this teacher’s story.
http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20171n004/amanda-lacy-shitama-incessant-testing-does-more-harm-than-good?rssfeed=true

There are those who say testing is a good thing. Surely, these same people understand that there can be too much of a good thing.

Who Gets Rewarded and Why?

The State of Florida DOE released the names of schools that received bonus money for schools with good test scores. To be eligible, the school grade must be high and/or school achievement gains must be large. These bonuses are supposed to be incentive awards to work hard and produce results. Is it effective? Some argue that the whole concept is totally unfair and counterproductive. The bonus money which amounts to about $50,000 for a school with 500 students goes to teachers, school equipment or temporary support staff.

I am including a link to the schools in each district that were rewarded. I looked at Alachua to see which schools got money. Here’s what I found:

  1. Schools receiving an ‘A’ school grade for two consecutive years received a $100 bonus per child.
  2. Schools receiving a ‘B’ school grade (9 schools) or below for two consecutive years received no bonus.
  3. Schools that dropped a letter grade, even from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’ received no bonus.

School grades are correlated with the socio-economic status of the children’s families. Thus, fluctuations in grades have as much or more to do with which students are enrolled than with the quality of the instruction.

For a small school, the most direct way to improve a school grade is to enroll fewer students from struggling families and more from more stable and affluent families. District schools are not able to control enrollment, and school grades can fluctuate as families enter and leave the school. Charter schools are able to screen and dismiss schools more freely. They are often motivated to do so since they can be closed if they receive consecutive failing grades. If charter schools attract more students from stable families, when these students leave a district school, the district school grade is likely to decline. They then have a harder time attracting experienced teachers. A downward spiral often begins.

School grades can be improved by extra instructional time and high quality staff. These factors are important and costly, but are not sufficient approaches to a quality education. Children learn from one another, and schools that can enroll students from diverse backgrounds can create a school climate in which all students feel they have a chance to succeed. The trade off may be that an ‘A’ school becomes a ‘B’ school because some children from low income families are enrolled. The quality of instruction may be even better as a result, because those children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have rich experiences but lower test scores.

School grades are meant to be incentives to improve schools. Parents are supposed to vote with their feet to seek better schools. Too often, this shifting students from one school to another has the opposite effect. Districts may not be able to estimate enrollments, plan appropriate instructional programs, and know which types of teachers they need.

Bottom line? Bonus incentives can simply add insult to injury.

FTC Scholarships: Who Benefits? Who knows!

Yes, there is yet another study about Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. This one is funded in part by the Walton and Bush foundations. Don’t bother to read it you say? Not so fast. I found some useful tidbits.

The study looks for evidence that students who stay in the FTC program benefit by enrolling in college (community college) at a higher rate than similar students from public schools. Depending upon how you count, about five percent of the FTC program students are more likely to attend, but not graduate from, a community college. We can all celebrate students who succeed. We can also predict who they are likely to be.

What the report admits is that this study is not about student achievement. Florida private schools do not administer state tests, so comparisons cannot be made with public schools. In fact, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio studies demonstrated that participating in their FTC programs reduced student achievement on state tests. So, the researchers asked different questions.

Who enrolls in Florida FTC private schools? What happens to them?
1. The study supposedly matched public school and FTC private school students by income and race. The match had problems. The public school group included 4% more children from families below the poverty level. Data on FTC students in the reduced lunch category, which is about a $10,00 higher income level, was even more starkly different. Only 11% of the FTC students were in the reduced lunch group compared to 31% of public school students. This fact alone may explain the difference in the rate of college enrollment between the two groups.
2. The Florida DOE data show that 83% of FTC students attend a religious private school. FTC students who enrolled in a Catholic or a non Christian religious school were more likely to enroll in college, but few FTC students enroll in these schools.

Who benefited from the FTC program?
1. FTC students who are most likely to attend college are Hispanic students who were born outside the U.S.
2. FTC students enrolled in private schools that were in existence before the program began in 2003 are more likely to go to college.
3. As more FTC students enrolled in a school, the less likely the students enrolled in community college.

No matter how the numbers are manipulated, private schools are no answer to improving student achievement. The students who succeed attend selective, well established private schools that will only enroll a few scholarship students. No doubt these children were carefully screened for admission.

The State can no longer even say that the tax credit scholarships save money. The legislature increased the stipend for tuition. The legislature must turn its attention to improving the quality of schools. Simply moving children around from place to place harms kids. Even this study mentions this disruption.

HB 7069 Lawsuit: Local Control is the Real Issue

Politics is a see saw. Currently, Republicans are in control in a majority of states. There is a very organized movement to seize control from local communities, and the source of the movement is political and has a name ‘ALEC‘. According to the New York Times July 17, article, many cities are ‘blue’ while the state legislature may be ‘red’…read Democratic vs. Republican. States with conservative Republican party majorities have targeted local cities’ ability to make their own rules and regulations. By using pre emption laws, state legislatures are blocking local ordinances against everything from fracking in Texas to the use of plastic bags in Michigan. Some state legislatures have banned the ability of their cities to enact local minimum wage laws, paid sick leaves, sanctuary cities and protect gender rights.

It is no surprise that cities and school districts are fighting back. Even though some district school boards continue to ponder, most large districts have voted to join together to sue the State of Florida over the local control of their schools that was usurped by HB 7069. What is at stake is more than money. It is who decides, the local community or the state, how local funding for schools will be spent, and who decides which schools will be locally managed. The Florida constitution states that local school boards decide. It will be very important to track the Constitutional Revision Commission proposed amendments to the Florida constitution that make it to the November 2018 ballot. Perhaps the pendulum will begin to swing back as those who support the public interest become as organized as those who support private interest. The November 2018 election results will be a bell weather.

Here’s the latest tally, according to news reports, of school districts that have voted to join the lawsuit and those who have not:

JOIN

Alachua
Bay
Broward
Clay
Duval
Hamilton
Lee
Martin
Miami-Dade
Orange
Palm Beach
Pinellas
Polk
St Lucie
Volusia

NOT JOIN
Manatee
Sarasota

There’s a war going on.

I gave a talk at our Education Forum this morning. It’s a different slant than I sometimes take. I talk about cheerios and TV channels. We have more of each than we need, but we continue to pay for them. What does this have to do with school policy? A lot actually. See what you think.

There’s a war going on, and the ammunition is fake news. Take for example, the charge that educators resist change. Recent history tells a different story. After WWII, everyone was expected to go to high school; most did not before. When I was in high school, the space race put pressure on schools to teach more mathematics. My grandchildren are now taking math courses in middle school that I took in high school. Consider also the upheaval in the 70s, when schools were desegregated. Now globalization and the loss of jobs due to technology require schools to educate children to create their own jobs.

In Florida, most people believe that public schools do the best job of preparing students for the diverse and complicated world in which they will live. School reform policy, however, assumes that consumer based competition with charter and private schools will make schools even better. In fact, competition in the private consumer sector does make many choices e.g. there are 13 types of cheerios and 189 TV channels most of which none of us has eaten or watched.

Educational choice has been around for nearly twenty years. There are 4,000 public schools, nearly 2,000 private schools, and 652 charters all drawing on the same pot of money. In Florida, we have more choices and less money than most states. Florida is in the bottom tier, 44th in state funding for education, and the State continues to cut funding. Competition is creating a crisis.
Businesses find ways to cut corners and shift costs. Sometimes a pound of coffee has only 12 ounces. While some charters find innovative ways to help kids, most replicate what already exists; it is less expensive. District schools are asked to do more with less, and they have reached a tipping point.

At least fourteen districts have joined together to sue the State over HB 7069, the education bill passed in last legislative session. The conflict, however, is about more than money. It’s also about local control, equity and quality. These are the issues:

Local Control. Who decides how our local taxes are spent?
Florida’s constitution gives the authority to levy taxes for schools to the elected school boards. A majority in the legislature, however, wants to control all funding even though it only supplies half of what is needed. Local property taxes provide the rest. The legislature now requires districts to share their property tax revenue with privately owned charter school buildings. It makes it impossible for districts to maintain their own facilities, and charters must cut corners as well. No sector, public, charter or private, can provide quality facilities.

HB 7069 also removes the federal authority given to local districts to determine how best to allocate money to help low income students. The State, not the district, now determines how federal money is allocated. This restricts districts’ ability to concentrate support where it is most needed, and it appears to violate federal law.

Equity: Is separate equal?

  1. Charter that screen and dismiss students increase economic and racial segregation even within low income areas. It becomes a have and have not system.
  2. Struggling district schools now can be closed after a year below a ‘C’ grade, but charters that take them over can stay open for five even though the school grade does not improve.
  3. Most of the state funding to help struggling schools goes to charters, not district schools. Yet, charters tend to have less experienced teachers and higher teacher turnover.

Quality: More is not better. For example,

  1. The failure to curb self-dealing corporate charter school business practices allows an excessive amount of money to go to charter real estate firms. Yes, they have their own real estate companies. To pay these leases, money is taken from teacher salaries and benefits and charged to parents for supplies.
  2. More teachers are leaving and fewer are entering the profession. The response by the legislature in HB 7069 is to reduce teacher certification requirements.
  3. There is a loss of instructional time and subject matter in order to support test prep strategies. Civics, for example is now taught one half hour per week.
  4. Choice alone does not raise achievement levels, and one-third of charters close. The money invested in is lost. Private schools do not even have to meet the public curriculum, testing or teaching standards.

    BOTTOM LINE: School choice that offers nothing new just repackages but does not improve our schools. It is not cost efficient or effective. In a system in which all choices become mediocre, everyone loses. It is time to rethink. How much choice of which types do we need? How can we redirect the conversation about school quality?

  5. Demonstrate what education should be to engage students: Passion to Teach.

  6. Support collaborative efforts to help teachers not just improve but want to join the profession.
  7. Make schools and communities mutually supportive. Find ways to better integrate pre school, after school, extra instructional time, and community activities into the schools. This is the goal of community schools like the one we are implementing at Howard Bishop.
  8. Recognize that the quality of schools and communities are intertwined. Ask: How can the community improve the schools and how can the schools improve the community? It matters where new schools are built, where and how students learn, what opportunities students have to interact with the world outside their schools.
  9. Learn about the tradeoffs of choice policies. Choice has a nice ring, and some choices truly are better for some children. But remember, more choice does not always create better choices. Ask how much is enough?

We have an example of a choice we must make right now…a mega CSUSA for-profit charter school has drafted a proposal for an 1124 student school in Gainesville. It would pull another $600,000 out of our facility budget in addition to the approximately $600,00 that will go to our local charters. It will impact every school as students shift around and take funding with them. It brings nothing new or innovative. It can discourage any child who is in any ‘different’ from enrolling and can dismiss any they find expensive or difficult to educate. In their proposal, they state they cannot compete academically with similar schools for at least five years.

Why should this ‘choice’ be imposed on our community? Wouldn’t we be better off to build our own schools and have a voice in how they are run?

Some of us have formed a PACT to help our community understand the choices that lie ahead. You can join the PACT; volunteer in schools, encourage less test prep and more activity based learning. Join the PTA and find ways to bring our schools into the community and our community into the schools.
Be aware; get involved.

Making a Difference

At today’s legislative delegation hearing, all Alachua County government entities…cities and county commission spoke in favor of supporting our public schools.

At tonight’s school board meeting, the members voted to join the lawsuit against HB 7069 that wrests control from local school districts. Members also voted to put a half penny sales tax initiative on the ballot to help our school facilities. The legislature is putting all responsibility on local communities while they want to take all control away from them.

We will fight to take care of our children and our schools. We will support our school board in their efforts to do the same.

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.

Public School Awareness Month

Alachua County Cities and the County Commission to Proclaim:

SEPTEMBER PUBLIC SCHOOLS AWARENESS MONTH

Our schools are hanging in the balance. The Alachua County League of Women Voters, Council of PTAs, Education Foundation, and the University of Florida Education College Council have jointly requested that the month of September be proclaimed: Public School Awareness Month. This Proclamation has been submitted to the Alachua County Commission and to all Alachua County City Commissions.
We ask our community to become engaged. Our public schools are threatened. This is a critical time to understand what these threats are and how our district is responding. You can learn ways to make a difference by attending these events:

• “From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television,” by Dr. Mary Dalton. UF’s “Schools on Screen” Symposium—September 20 at 6pm in the U.F. Pugh Hall.

• Forum: OUR Local Schools Now and Moving Forward, September 23rd, Wiles Elementary at 9:30 am. featuring:

Karen Clarke, Superintendent of Schools: “Building New and Renovating Old Schools” and a panel discussion about making our schools responsive to our children’s needs. Sue Legg will speak about how State policies led us to where we are. Valerie Freemen and Anne Wolf will reveal the Culturally Responsive Teaching programs that Alachua County is launching. Come see how well this fits together as we move forward here.

• Florida Premier of ‘Passion To Teach’ and discussion led by the film producer, Bart Nourse.
September 24, 3:30 pm at Lincoln Middle School
September 26, 6:00 pm at Buchholz High School

See our webpage: http://acpublicschoolsawareness.org/