Senate Education Package Announced

The Senate Education Committee released this press report with its education priorities.

Family Empowerment Program. Vouchers to private schools paid through the public school per student program funds. These vouchers are capped at 15,000 students for this year. Families with incomes up to 260% of the poverty level will receive 95% of the district average cost. I do not know how this voucher plan is legal. Florida’s constitution prohibits vouchers.

Recruitment, Retention, and Recognition bonuses. The SAT/ACT scores are no longer required. Recruitment bonuses are for specific core academic areas of need. Retention bonuses are targeted and include a gain score component. Recognition bonuses are determined by the principal.

Remove Barriers to Teacher Certification This seems to reduce costs of retake exams.

Revise School Facility Plant Survey and Student Cost per Station Requirements to Allow More Flexibility. This is a much needed revision of how new schools are funded.

Enhance Support for Community Wrap-Around Services. These community schools would be given support for after school programs, extended day or year instruction, counseling and other services. There are some excellent community schools, and this bill supports their expansion. They are district managed.

Enhance Safety and Security.. This is the Guardian program which allows districts flexibility to move funds from school operations (mostly instruction) to capital outlay (mostly facilities and equipment) to meet state mandates for school hardening.

We do not have the House priorities yet.

Public Schools Deserve Support

By Betty Castor
This article appeared in the Tampa Bay Times this morning. Betty is a former Florida Commissioner of Education who is very concerned about the privatization of public schools.

This is a crucial year for traditional public schools. If the past few years are any indication, there will likely be fierce competition for funds with those who favor privatization. However, there is no doubt that citizens support their public schools. In county after county, including all the counties in our Tampa Bay area, voters have approved public referenda to provide new, safe school facilities and/or operating funds. Eighteen such issues were passed statewide in the last year! Now that the public has spoken, it is time for the Governor and the Legislature to prove they’re listening.

Governor DeSantis’ initial public-school budget recommendations appeared positive. While last year’s increase ended up as a paltry 47 cents per student, the Governor is seeking a sorely needed addition of $50 per student. While many public school advocates were initially pleased, he has left many confused by his very recent recommendation for a new voucher program.

This so-called “equal opportunity scholarship” would divert public funds directly to students attending private schools. Not only is this a dramatic departure from current policy, but it is also unconstitutional. It raises the critical question of whether these funds would cut into our scarce resources for students currently enrolled in our traditional public schools.

Florida already ranks at the lower end of the fifty states in per capita spending by state governments and per capita spending of personal income. If we continue to siphon off funds directed to current students and school districts, we will fall further behind. Florida’s districts could surely use those proposed new funds to recruit and retain qualified teachers, purchase technology for classrooms, computers for students and provide modern equipment for workforce training.

The costs of our burdensome testing programs could and should be reduced. Although neither the Governor or his Commissioner of Education has yet signaled a change, no issue is more critical to students and families than the arbitrary and unfair high stakes testing that permeates all instruction. Testing has been used to sort students, retain many at grade level and prevent others from graduating. Florida is one of a small and declining number of states that continue to use a single test as the only measurement for high school graduation!
There are alternatives. Students should be evaluated using course grades, teacher evaluations and industry certification.

In the early grades, testing should be diagnostic, not used for widescale retention. Teachers, whose evaluations are based in part on student test scores are often forced to teach to the test at the expense of more meaningful curriculum. Our students don’t deserve these arbitrary barriers. Thankfully, some thoughtful legislators are exploring alternatives to this punitive and costly high-stakes testing.

Choice continues to be the watchword of proponents for more charter schools and vouchers. While their mantra is choice, they ignore the reality that there is plenty of choice in traditional public schools where students participate in magnet schools, honor societies and academic clubs. The vast majority of the 2.8 million students in Florida are enrolled in traditional public schools. They are taught by certified teachers in districts whose funds are audited and whose meetings are public.

Good charters also are those with local boards and transparency. However, too many utilize for-profit management companies with no real ties to the community and little accountability. According to Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee based research group, 373 charters have closed since 1998, an average of 20 a year. When they fail, it is a terrible loss of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, it is reassuring that the Governor would like to ban the “bad actors” among the charter providers.

The tax credit scholarship supporters have also convinced the legislature to permit the tax credit scholarship program to expand. Some of those schools perform well with quality staffs. Others do not. According to the Department of Education website, two thirds of the schools, enrolling 83% of students, are small and religiously-affiliated. There are presently no requirements for certified teachers. Yet proponents oppose even modest safeguards that would help to provide transparency to their business supporters and the public. The tax scholarship program as well as the Governor’s new scheme for expanded vouchers need a lot of scrutiny.

The students in traditional schools will need continuing support and the resources to help them become successful. Our leaders in Tallahassee should welcome information and incorporate the suggestions of those who represent the majority of students in Florida. The ultimate goal is an open, fair and productive system that helps our students to achieve their fullest potential. The voters have told us as much.

Modern Day Good Guy

Here’s a story about Russell Edgar who prosecuted the Newpoint charter school case. He was quoted as saying: “Charter schools in Florida are a real problem.” In this interview by Duwayne Escobido, he delayed his retirement to prosecute this case because he wanted to educate officials, lawmakers, and prosecutors on how to build a case against charters that break the law.

Edgars has had several high profile cases…remember the Black Widow? Also think back to the first case against a doctor over opiods.

You may find this interview very interesting and reassuring that there are people who care very much about the public interest. Read the article here.

Making Sense of the Session to Come

Ideas are swirling around. It sounds a lot like guns for money. Diaz wants guns in schools. Districts want to fix holes in buildings. The governor wants bonuses for teachers. Many want an escape hatch from Jeb Bush’s A + Plan that supported Common Core. I wonder about that. It will not change the testing mania simply because the federal government requires annual testing. It will create more havoc to change once again. I did a count of all the curriculum changes in the last twenty years. It is unbelievable. How teachers are supposed to know what and how to teach and students are to know what is important from one year to the next is a mystery to me.

I did another check on the Bush A+ Plan with which our legislature is enamored. When competition among teachers and schools for bonuses don’t work to raise achievement, it is a problem for the legislature. Did you realize that now that the legislature knows that students are graduating from high school and need remediation in community colleges that the legislature changed the law? Remediation is no longer required. Simple fix that?

This year’s simple fix to Florida’s relatively low graduation rate is to reduce the number of credits required. Some students may be redirected to vocational/trade certification programs that require fewer credits. Actually, many of those certification programs are quite rigorous. So, it is worth considering alternatives if they are not dumbed down. Instead students need a lift up, but that does cost money.

The discussion comes down to the usual smoke and mirrors. The governor would move the bonuses into a different pot of money…the per student allocation schools have to operate. It would look like schools were getting more money. The House does not want even the appearance of a tax increase, so schools will not get the benefit of the increase in property values. But, those holes in the buildings leak. Something must be done.

From what I hear, it will be a tradeoff…guns for money with some whispers about a little religion thrown in by extending the personal learning accounts for private schools. Remember that about 83% of the children attending private schools on tax credit scholarships are going to small, poorly staffed religious schools.
Those schools are getting more economically and racially segregated. Children do not learn well in those settings, and hiding that fact in private schools is unfair to children and their families.

What a world!

Exciting News From New Mexico

Florida’s Citizens for Strong Schools case was a school funding case that the Florida Supreme Court decided was not ‘justiciable’.  In the majority opinion, the school policy was the purview of the legislature.  The New Mexico education funding case had a different outcome.  Their schools will get some relief.  See the article below from Meredith Machen.

Exciting news from New Mexico about the landmark education ruling that will be of great interest and helpful to other states with similar claims related to education funding.

At the link below is annotated version of the “insufficiency” case, which is resulting in New Mexico’s spending an additional $450-600 million each year on education and overhauling our system to address the needs of at-risk students (in the broadest sense of the word and defined here). Public education is already 43% of the our budget, so this ruling will increase funding to 46% or more. It is quite exciting to have witnessed and be witnessing this amazing turn of events in education. Here is Robert Nott’s summary of the key articles on the Yazzie v. Martinez* decision. I suggest you start reading at p. 533 of the 608 page doc because it refers to federal and state rulings that set precedents.

Michelle Lujan Grisham, our new governor, will not challenge Judge Singleton’s ruling against our previous governor along with Hanna Skandera, our previous PED secretary. The case would have gone to the NM Supreme Court. Instead New Mexico is on a new, long-overdue, desperately needed trajectory, which I recommend you watch.

Catch up on Florida Tax Credit Vouchers

Much of what has been happening with these tax credit vouchers has been under the radar. I took a peek, and here is what has happened lately. The cost keeps going up, but are corporations getting fed up?

Changes in the FTC program funding are reflected in the automatic increase in the cap for corporate donations, the expansion in eligible funding sources, changes in family income eligibility guidelines, and the increase in percentage of the per student allocations for public schools allowed for private school scholarships.

Most years, excluding 2016-17, the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program saw a 10,000 student increase in participation. In 2016, the enrollment doubled from the previous year due to legislative changes in eligibility. In 2018-19, however, enrollment dropped by 10,000 due to a decline in corporate donations.

• In 2016-17, the income qualifications based on a family of four were raised to 185% -260% of poverty level or from about $44,123 to approximately $62,000 per year. The proportional amount of the full scholarships are reduced for middle income families.

• FTC scholarships are funded from corporate tax rebates up to a designated funding cap. The program funding sources were expanded to include credits against insurance premium tax for contributions to eligible non-profit SFOs, severance taxes on oil and gas production, sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders, and alcoholic beverages taxes.

• There is a 25% automatic increase in the cap as long as enrollment exceeds 90% of the cap.

• The amount of the scholarship was originally set at 72% of the FEFP per student funding for public schools, but an automatic increase was provided up to 82% of FEFP in 2016-17. In 2017, the FEFP percentage was again increased from 82%, depending upon grade level, to 88-96%. The maximum award in 2017-18 was $5,886. Step Up has reported a 10,000 student decrease in 2018-19 FTC enrollment due to a decline in corporate donations.

• In 2017-18, Step Up distributed $689 million of the dollars to 108,000 students in over 1700 private, mostly religious schools. These donations were about 10% below the allowable cap. This year, corporate pledges are $687 million. The largest corporate donors to the FTC scholarships are the beverage industry and United Health Care.

• Tax Credit Scholarship Expansion. Given the projected decrease in corporate funding, the legislature turned to donations from sales taxes for new cars to expand the FTC program. These are called Hope Scholarships and were implemented in 2018-19. The maximum scholarship award for a student ranges from $6519 to $7111 for those whose family income is no more than double the federal poverty level. There were 66 participating students in fall of 2018.

References.
http://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/k-12-scholarship-programs/ftc/ftc-faqs.stml
https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2017/1314/Analyses/
2017s01314.pre.ed.PDF
https://www.tampabay.com/article/20180815/ARTICLE/308159799

Florida Tax Credit Scholarship enrollment drops


Click to access 14-fsba-issue-brief-on-ftc.pdf

Florida – Hope Scholarship Program

Florida Supreme Court Rules Against Public Schools

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?

This Really is Scary: Aviation Charter School Fraud

The Osceola County school board voted to close the Aviation Charter school that is training 111 student pilots. The reason: falsifying student records, double billing the state, and belittling students. The charter school will appeal the decision. This is really hard to think about. The school board is doing its part by shutting down the charter. Will the State Board of Education do its?

Charter School Teacher Unions Strike

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?