Origins of Florida’s Tax Credit Vouchers–Or, Don’t Buy a Pig in a Poke

Diane Ravitch requested this article.  As I wrote it, I was struck by what a small, but politically well connected club was behind Florida’s choice movement.  They attracted big money to sell their ideas.  The end result, in spite of the growth of Florida’s tax credit vouchers, shows that: Not all Choices are Good Choices. 

Following Jeb Bush’s 1994 defeat in his run for governor, he dented his image.  According to a Tampa Bay Times report, in a televised debate Bush responded ‘not much’ when asked what he would do for black voters.  Faced with criticism, he launched a charter school in Miami, and the school choice movement in Florida began.

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Little Things Mean A LOT

For years now, small and medium sized mostly rural counties have received a little less per pupil funding than large counties.  It adds up.  Senator Hukill, Chair of the Senate Education Committee wants to fix it.  See SB 1394.

Her county, Volusia, receives .9739 for every dollar allocated for public school students.  Marion County receives even less, .9735.  Very rural counties like Calhoun and Franklin are much lower at about .93 cents on the dollar.  Across all students in the county, the funding loss can run into millions of dollars.

 

 

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Will Kentucky give up integration and go charter?

Kentucky:  United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Seven states have resisted the urge to go to charter schools.  Kentucky is one of them.  They kept bussing plans from the 1970s integration in place between the city of Louisville and its surrounding suburbs.  Yes, there was some complaining, but forty years later children are in classes with diverse socio economic and racial groups.  The latest opinion poll shows an 89% approval rating.  The Atlantic article contrasts Louisville with Detroit where charters abound.  Louisville comes out ahead, hands down.

Desegregation helped the city thrive.  Unlike Detroit, where affluent citizens fled to suburbs and bankrupted the inner city, all sorts of people and businesses flourish in Louisville.  Now their city cohesion is threatened with the introduction of three charter school bills in the state legislature.

Rep. Moffett’s bill 103 allow charters statewide but includes multiple authorizers.  This means that not just local school districts but mayors and universities or others could start a charter school.  Charter schools are essentially private schools that operate with public funds.  How is the public to know the effectiveness of charters?  If there are multiple authorizers, there will be different standards of oversight.  Some states have had charter school operators shop their ideas from one authorizer to another to find the one that will let them in.  The charter industry likes multiple chances to get started, but there are many reasons to keep the oversight and regulation of charters local and systematic.  Here is the take of one charter school proponent on why single authorizers work better.

Rep. John Carney, Chair of the House Education Committee, introduced his version of a charter bill 520 that allows only local school districts to authorize charters.  Disputes would be moderated by the State Board of Education in much the way that Florida operates.  The charters would take the same state accountability tests, follow the same health, safety, financial and transparency laws, and give priority to low income students attending low achieving schools. The staff analysis of this bill points out important concerns about sectarian and online schools, financial impact on public schools, provision for school closure as well as a major constitutional concern.

Targeting charters for low income students in struggling schools can be a trap.  Charters typically siphon off students in these areas who are more likely to succeed thus creating a downward spiral in those neighborhood schools.  It can make a bad situation worse.  The attrition rates of charters is typically high for both students and teachers.  The charter schools themselves fail at a high rate.  After all, the only ‘advantage’ of charters in those areas is that they can require teachers to work longer hours with less pay and no retirement benefits.  This is how the charters fund the extended time needed to improve student learning.  It’s all about money that is in short supply.

Bill 70 introduced by Senator Neal, would limit charters to a pilot project in Jefferson County.  The results of any pilot are clear.  They increase segregation both economically and racially, and they do not improve academic achievement.

If the educational goal is to close the achievement gap, then it will take something more disruptive than charter schools.  It will take a commitment to equity and that costs money.  Equity means that the needs of all children are addressed.

  • It likely will require more time time–a longer school day and school year.
  • It will help families and students to get access at schools to physical, mental and social support services; in other words, a community school concept where existing community services parents use are delivered in schools, not all over town.
  • School populations will be diverse in order to create a climate of possibilities.
  • Instructional strategies will have to be engaging to students with different abilities and interests.  This means that test driven curriculum and teaching strategy must yield to a more hands on, group based approach.
  • School cultures must be supportive and welcoming, not solely competitive for the next advanced class, targeted magnet, or gifted program.  Finding communalities must be as important as identifying exceptionalities.

There may be instances in which local district may benefit from the flexibility to try new instructional programs in a limited setting with a particular group of students.  Often state laws, district and teacher union regulations make these innovation programs difficult to implement.   Here in Gainesville, we have a charter that is affiliated with a psychologist’s clinic to help dyslexic children.  It is a unique approach that would not fit well in the district school, but the charter works with the district staff.  These collaborations can work but they are targeted to specific needs the district recognizes.

What does not work for schools is a whole sale ideology that private enterprise operates better than public responsibility.  In Florida, over a third of the charters operate for-profit, skim millions in self interested real estate and management scams, and compete directly with competent public schools thus weakening both the charter and public sectors.  The educational funding pie gets divided three ways, public, charter, and private tax vouchers which ensures no sector is adequately supported.

One of our mottos comes to mind:  School Choice is a Distraction, not a Solution.

Rotten to the Core: Cheating Children

In 2011, the Miami Herald published an expose on the McKay scholarship program that is supposed to benefit students with disabilities.  The article was called ‘Rotten to the Core‘.  It was followed by a list of private schools that headed its “Fraud Hall of Shame“.  In theory, the Florida legislature corrected the accountability problems and the DOE has posted new regulations.  Not so.

 

 

 

 

 

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New Bill: More Money for Vouchers

The first of an expected onslaught of voucher or ‘voucher like’ bills has been filed:  HB15, Sullivan.  School choice can no longer be ignored.  The proponents have gone far beyond the smoke screen of helping poor children.  Some would argue that now they are helping themselves to public money.  Look at the numbers; you decide.  Is the state giving these children the education they deserve?

 

 

 

 

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Drop Outs or Push Outs? Does anyone care?

Gaming the system, no matter which system, is a sport for some.  For others, it is a survival mechanism.  The Florida school accountability system is high stakes, and accusations of manipulating data occur frequently.  If you want a school to receive a high grade, then the easiest approach may be to ensure the school attracts the best students and discourages those who struggle.  So, what then happens to struggling students?

ProPublica has one example of what is done in Orlando, Florida.  The authors argue, and provide data, that at least one of the district’s public and for profit online alternative charter schools are in cahoots.  This may be a little strong, but the mutual advantage is clear.  It is also clear that the Florida accountability system is inadequate to track how students are ‘counseled in or out of schools’.

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Blended Learning: A Paradigm Shift?

by Krista Sobel

Krista argues that Florida was the first to launch into online learning in any significant way with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS).  This is true.  It is also true that Florida had significant growing pains. In 2013, enrollment in the virtual school dropped 32 percent and funding reductions caused serious layoffs.  It seems that FLVS was allowing students enrolled full time in public schools to take multiple online courses at the same time.  They made a lot of money using that policy.  The legislature stepped in.  There must have been a quality gap somewhere.

Quality gaps of other online companies reached national attention as well. 

FLVS filed a 2014 lawsuit and won against K12 Inc., the mega online course management company, over copyright infringement.  The State of Florida filed a suit against K12 Inc. for falsifying teachers who were assigned to courses.  Many local districts countered the practice by negotiating their own online academies taught by local teachers.  The districts also kept the records of student progress.  They might purchase rights to online course content, or they may develop their own courses, but they control the process.

Problems with for-profit online companies are everywhere.  Politico published a series on the academic failure and profiteering of the online charter schools.   They may advertise blended learning experiences, but the reality is too often a computer or two in a corner.  What is clear is that citizens have a duty to be wary but an obligation to recognize the opportunities new technologies can bring.   Read Krista’s vision for change.  This is her view; it does not represent LWV positions.

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Constructive Committee Discussion

The House Committee on PK12 Quality held a thoughtful meeting.

State Rep. Matt Willhite asked “Could we do without school grading?”  “When we have school grades with continuous failing grades, are we benefiting the child telling them they are in a failing school?

Sen. Jake Rayburn R. Lithia, stated that whether you give an F or not, you have to figure out what to do with low performing schools.

Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R. The Villages asked ‘If there is any benefit (from testing)?  He said that the most frequent complaint he heard was about the stress and time taken away from other academic efforts at the schools.

The State School Superintendents requested a return to paper and pencil testing which take much less time to administer than testing in limited space computer labs.  Removing test scores from teacher evaluations would allow districts to develop their own assessment strategies.

Of course we need to test to see how children are learning.  It is a matter of how much testing is needed and how scores are used.  Hitting teachers, students, and schools over the head with school grades just makes everyone frustrated and destroys neighborhoods.

Missing from the discussion was the growing evidence that over the last 15 years of school choice, many neighborhoods have gone into a downward spiral, much like in Gainesville where four low income area schools used to have grades with A, B, and Cs.  Now one school is closed and the three remaining post Ds and Fs.  Teachers and students leave.  Socio economic data show that charters in the area do not take or keep the difficult problems.  It is hard to swallow but giving parents choice has created more problems than it has solved. The charters here fail more often than the public schools.

The bottom line is that folks want to make things better, but the stronger the focus is on schools rather than kids, the bigger the problem is.  Bad problems get worse.  Everyone blames everyone else.  Grading schools and teachers highlight problems but do not fix them.

Making schools more equal could help depending upon how it was done.  Now, the three struggling schools receive $1.5 million in federal funding to support extra time and wrap around services.  The money helps but does not eliminate the failing stigma. It does nothing for similar students who are dispersed in schools across the district.   Once we had an extra hour and summer school, funded by the State, to help children who start school behind and stay behind.  Once we had high quality early Head Start.  Once we had teachers who loved their schools.  Gone, all gone.  But, at least people are talking.

League Forum on Schools of the Future


The League of Women Voters invites you to join us in Gainesville on March 4th. We are celebrating the Schools of the Future with Peggy Brookins, CEO of the National Professional Teachers Certification organization.  She is on the President’s Commission on Education.  Peggy was a teacher and innovator in Florida for many years before joining the National Board.

Following her presentation will be a panel of educators who will respond to audience questions.  Panelists include the Deputy Superintendent, Teacher of the Year, elementary and secondary curriculum specialists and the head of the Alachua County Council of PTAs.

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