A Primer on Big Money

If you hear something often enough, you might start believing, it especially if it builds resentment. Take for example the charges that public schools are failing, teachers are ineffective, unions are evil. For all of these reasons and more, children are short changed. It is a powerful message, but is basically fake news. Yes, some schools struggle, but public education is not the cause, and private schools are not the answer. How does anyone counteract this argument? First, we all must understand the strategy behind the messaging. It includes a few basic points that we need to have at our fingertips.

Diane Ravitch’s reviews two books that describe the origins of the theory and strategy of privatization. Read the entire article, but here are a few key points:

  1. The privatization movement is based on the premise that there is no ‘public interest; rather there is a collection of private interests. It was originated by Friedman and others who sought to make government more efficient. Charles Koch, however, advocates for the end of the role of government in public education, Social Security, Medicare, U.S. Postal Service, minimum wage and on and on. He funded the Center for Public Choice, now at George Mason University, where the political strategies for privatization are articulated. It was founded by James Buchanan, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his public choice economic theories which basically argued for the preservation of wealth.

  2. Buchanan designed the strategy to divide the political coalition behind government programs by building resentments. For example, claim that social security is not viable thus, for many younger people, they have no stake in it. But, current recipients would not loose benefits. Then, propose raising retirement ages and increase payroll taxes so everyone is angry at the system. Similar strategies were used against Medicaid expansion etc.

  3. Build resentment against teachers unions by targeting other workers who have lost their unions. Unions need to be thwarted by the privatization movement because they are the only well funded, organized opposition to privatization in education. Extend the strategy to state that some students are locked into low performing schools in inner cities, thus, the entire education system is failing. Fear and resentment develops not only within central cities but also among those who are concerned about the need for funding and racial equity.

  4. The privatization movement has a legislative arm called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is funded by corporations and represents twenty five percent of all state legislators. They draft legislation that appears across the nation. Check the Center for Media nd Democracy website, ALECexposed.org, that tracks ALEC legislation.

  5. There is a billionaires’ club behind privatization. Keep abreast of the Koch brothers organization, Americans for Prosperity. They along with other billionaires such as the Walton family that owns Walmart, the DeVos family, and the Broad and Gates Foundation fund everything from pro choice expansion to local political races. The Jeb Bush Foundation in Florida is part of this group. You find can out more information by reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind thee Rise of the Radical Right.

Recognize these strategies for what they are. Watch for how they will unfold as time goes on. When the corporate interest replaces the public interest, we are likely to see the emergence of technology driven, data based systems that reduce the role of teaching in favor of ‘coaches’ who are less expensive. We will see the deterioration of funding for school facilities; they are expensive. We will see the further division of our communities into have and have not schools based upon the ability of specific groups to fund them. It is not a pretty sight.

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.

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.

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.

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.

NPE: Charter Management Exposed

The Network for Public Education summarized the dangers inherent in charter school practices that hurt children and communities. They give detailed examples. Here’s a quick list of problems and an important list of recommendations to manage the chaos that the choice system has created. Adherence to a free-market, no regulation philosophy is not necessary to have reasonable choices for children. Unregulated school choice is creating a monstrous problem with:

Charters that are not free public schools.
Charter students who need not attend school to graduate.
Charters for the wealthy..
Charters with secret profits
Seedy charters in storefronts.
Charters paying kids.
Religious charters.
Charters for political parties.
Charters faking achievement data.
Charters shedding students.
Shady charter business practices.
Charters that exacerbate segregation.
Charters that exclude students with disabilities.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE. The NPE list of recommendations represent a growing consensus:

Impose a moratorium on charter expansion.
Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.

Make charter management companies’ accounting systems transparent.
Ensure students’ due process rights in admission and dismissals.
Ensure enrollments are representative of community demographics.
Require openly disclosed bidding processes.
Review property leases and bond issues for appropriate costs.
Revert ownership of closed charter facilities to districts.
Strengthen local district authorization and oversight of charters.

With little or no oversight, abuse is given free rein. Which is the greater evil, reasonable rules or exploiting students and families for personal gain?

Tampa Teachers are Angry: Promises Not Kept

Education is the billionaires playground, and they are making a mess of it. The school choice movement is based on the theory that competition among schools and pressure on teachers will make students learn. In 2010, Bill Gates (Microsoft) came to Tampa to show how it is done. He promised $100 million dollars if the school board would try out his teacher evaluation system. The teachers and the district bought in. It’s a pay to play system. Teachers whose ratings were satisfactory would eventually be given raises…maybe.

Gates decided his system did not work. He pulled out and took his money with him. Twenty million dollars for salary raises disappeared. In 2015, his system was scrapped.

It gets worse. The Superintendent was fired in spite of being a finalist for national superintendent of the year. She was fired because she and some pro choice members of the Tampa school board did not get along. Some are currently under fire for taking campaign money from for-profit charter schools. The public would have to fire them.

Superintendent Elia did alright; Elia was hired as New York’s State Superintendent.

The education reform system put Hillsborough schools in financial trouble. More charters have opened. More children are in low quality private schools. Now, the teacher raises promised three years ago were cancelled. Students have walked out to support their teachers. The teachers came out in the hundreds this week to protest to the school board.

The public has been duped by the reform movement. Beware of strangers bearing gifts. Beware of school board members who accept them. Beware of the myth of cheap charters. It does not take a financial wizard to recognize that if you pool your resources, you have more funding. If you divide funds into charters, private schools and district run schools, you have less.

Now the public has a choice. Support your teachers or lose them. Support more charters and vouchers, lose not only quality in the classroom, but also the quality of the classrooms. Florida already has one of the lowest cost education systems in the country. The billionaires like Gates, Waltons (Walmart) and Koch (oil) know about making money. In Florida, they are figuring out how to bleed a turnip. The public gets what is left when they are through. In Tampa, it is a mess.

Mass Turnout at Hillsborough School Board Meeting

Imagine a thousand people turning out for a school board meeting. People are stirred up. They have reason to be. Read League member Pat Hall’s testimony at the November 14th meeting.

by Pat Hall

Thirteen hundred teachers, children and others attended this meeting, more than ever in the history of Hillsborough County! Salary negotiations have broken down, promises made and not kept, the budget is strained and nerves are frayed. I spoke because four more charter schools were on the agenda for school board approval adding 4404 students in the next 5 years. We’ve asked for an estimate of FTE (full time equivalent) dollars; approximately $7,178 per student per school year that will fly to these four charters as well as PECO (public education capital outlay) dollars lost to traditional schools by the addition of four more charters.

My goal in this statement was to wake up parents and the public to this boondoggle. “The management company for SLAM (Sports Leadership Management Academy) – proposed to teach 2750 children in two buildings is Academica. Academica is under multiple year federal investigation the last I checked. Eric Fresen was Chair of the Education Committee of the Florida Legislature for 8 years. Fresen is the brother-in-law of Academica owner Fernando Zulueta. Fresen is now in jail for fraud and tax evasion. He did not file returns the 8 years he was in the Legislature. Newpoint Company (for-profit management charter co.) has been indicted in Escambia County on fraud charges including Pinellas, Duval and the closing of Newpoint High in Hillsborough County in 2013.

The charter friendly atmosphere here changed immediately after the firing of Mrs. Elia. Tom Gonzales and Jenna Hodgens (H.C. Director of Charter Schools) had a strong case against Kids Community Charter school in Brandon and it was dropped at the request of Mr. Eakins and the Board (chaired by Susan Valdes in 2015).

Statewide 2.7 million traditional students attend public schools. Hillsborough County has 215,000 students including 22,500 in charters. Charter schools represent 10 to 11 % of school aged children in Florida but have grabbed the lion’s share of PECO funds for years. Most for profit charters have been built in the last seven years. The average age of individual schools in Hillsborough County is fifty years. The dramatic shift to charter schools was orchestrated in the legislature by convicted felon Eric Fresen and his very wealthy pals –Jon Hage, owner Charter Schools USA and F. Zulueta, owner of Academica. Research done by Noah Pransky of WTSP, CBS Channel 10 in August, 2014 proved millions of dollars had been stuffed in the pockets of legislators to influence their votes. Governor Scott took $50,000 in 2014 from Hage. In 2014 and 2016 in election contributions we documented, at least three current school board members have taken money from numerous for profit charter school owners, developers and real estate affiliated companies.

One board member took a five day long trip to Miami to visit SLAM there at taxpayer expense of over $1,200. Why 5 days? Why no limits on school board travel when the budget is so tight? This board member collected $13,000 from charter school operators.

Large for profit managed charters receive millions of FTE dollars as do traditional schools based on enrollment. While 86% of traditional school money is spent on instruction, our investigation has proven that large for profit managed charters spend 45 to 48% of FTE on classroom instruction and teachers. The owners take 42-50% of our taxpayer dollars for management fees and real estate leases and rent fees.

When these schools close or go out of business –these buildings we have paid for remain the property of the charter school owners! In Hillsborough County we have authorized 123 schools since 1997 (under Jeb Bush, Governor). We now have 51 open-7 consolidated like Pepin Academy- but 65 never opened or have closed. What are taxpayers choices?