Florida Pension Plan Shortfall

There are rumblings that the 2020 Florida Legislature may revise funding for the Florida Pension Plan.   There is no question that the retirement system revenue has declined; it has not been 100% funded since the 2008 recession. The current rate is about 84% of the cost if all people retired at one time. Of course that is an unlikely scenario, but there are now more people vested in the system than are contributing to it. One million public employees participate in the system, about half are teachers and the others are local and state government employees. As retirees increase and new participants decrease, covering costs becomes more problematic.

While there is no immediate crisis, the problems cannot be ignored in the longer run. There are four basic reasons why the funding has declined:

  1. Expectations that the stock market will do well are not always met. Average earnings across years are about 1% below expectations.
  2. The state is not making sufficient employer contributions to the retirement system.
  3. How the state calculates the value of promised retirement benefits increases risk and makes real debt larger.
  4. The switch to 401(k) accounts in 2017 did not require sufficient contributions from employees and employers to cover costs. It may benefit new teachers who leave the profession but not the profession as a whole.

Pensions are not the problem..The real question as always is whether funding pensions is mostly a political, not a financial issue.  The National Association of State Retirement Administrators cited a report stating that an 80% funding level is the federal benchmark for financial stability of state pension systems.  Florida’s level exceeds that benchmark. Nevertheless, there is a political divide over providing pensions, and it is closely tied to those supporting school privatization.  Florida charters and private schools typically do not contribute to retirement systems, and the resulting high teacher turnover keeps salaries lower.   Thus, there is more money available for management companies in the private sector.   This is not a recipe for a high quality educational system.

This issue may have a strong impact on the growing teacher shortage. Pensions help retain teachers.  Kentucky’s teachers’ complaints about pension revision strategies were partially responsible for the recent defeat of their governor.  Yet, there are those who advocate replacing teachers with technology.  The motivations of those who attack the teaching profession whether they are political or financial in origin, need to be considered.

Florida 2020 Education Legislation Priorities

The 2019 legislative session focused on moving money and managing guns. The laws that emerged funded Schools of Hope vouchers for private schools and shifted funds from public schools to charter school privately owned facilities.   A lawsuit against the Schools of Hope vouchers is expected.  Funding increases for teachers and students were minimal, but teachers were allowed to carry guns.

The Florida Educational Association (FEA) reached an agreement to end a lawsuit against the ‘Best and Brightest’ bonus system that discriminated against minority and older teachers.  A signature from a federal judge will provide compensation to some teachers.

Teacher Recruitment. The focus of the 2020 legislative session may shift to teacher recruitment  and what is taught. FEA reported 4,000 teacher vacancies in the fall of 2019, and months later 2,000 positions remain unfilled.  In response to significant teacher shortages, Governor DeSantis is calling for a higher starting salary for beginning teachers. The impact may be mixed. Teacher recruitment may improve, but teacher retention may decline. New teachers may earn more than many experienced teachers.  At least half of these teachers did not graduate from college level education programs and will need mentoring and professional development that typically is not a legislative priority.

Curriculum Standards.  The Governor also called for a revision to the Florida curriculum standards that determine what is taught at each grade level. Draft standards have been released, and a summary of the results of public comment has been released. There was relatively little support indicated for eliminating the Common Core elements that have been in effect for the past ten years. More concerns were reported about the age appropriate level of standards particularly for children in K-3 but also in grade nine mathematics. As content taught in higher grades is pushed down to lower grades, the expectations for reading and math readiness for six to nine year old students become inappropriate for many children.

Where these concerns will lead the legislature is uncertain. Politically, the Governor has promised to end the Common Core skills that confuse parents. Practically, yet another change in standards not only changes what skills teachers must focus on, it also mandates that the state tests, school grades, and teacher evaluations  adapt. Teachers’ frustration are due to more than inadequate salary levels.  What are the expectations they must meet?

Adding fuel to the fire is the release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and the SAT and ACT test results for college admission. Scores are down yet again. Achievement gaps between white and minority students are higher. Choice based on competition and test scores is not working within public schools or among public, charter, or private school voucher-type programs.

Parents from all walks of life are questioning the system that pressures students to enroll in advanced courses e.g. AP English, math and science in order to improve school grades or admission to college. For a few students, these courses are a good option. For most, it results in an unrelenting pressure to chase test scores. Once they enroll in college many retake the same course in part because the passing standard of ‘3’ is too low for success in subsequent courses. Some colleges, like the University of Florida, require a ‘4’ on AP exams to earn credit.

It is a conundrum. Students need challenging courses that stimulate their interests, and Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of students who take and pass an AP exam. Yet, less than half of Florida students who take AP pass the exam with a score of ‘3’ or higher. This score represents a ‘C’ grade at the college level. The University of Florida requires at least a ‘4’ in many subjects in order to earn college credit.  Many students would prefer advanced courses geared toward alternative career options rather than the basic college track.

How will the Florida Legislature respond to the stalemate in student achievement? More of the same test-driven competition for scores does not work. Dividing funding among public, charter, and private schools is neither less expensive nor more effective.  Teacher recruitment and retention and quality facilities are an even bigger problem for charters and most private schools.

2020 legislative priorities for professional education associations are listed below.

Florida School Board Association.

Florida Association of School Administrators.

Florida Education Association.

“An incisive and devastating critique of the Bush A+ Plan”

You have to tell it like it is, especially when so many people have so much money invested in a failing education reform policy. Read the summary of the report: Twenty Years Later: Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan fails Florida’s Children posted by Diane Ravitch. Find out the hard truth about the impact of the A+ Plan on student achievement, school grades, teaching, and communities. Insist on an end to policies that seek to destroy public schools and rob children of a high quality education.

New Voucher Bully Bill Filed

Senator Diaz wants more victims of bullying to go to private schools. Last year, only 126 of 212 applications were approved. The new bill, SB 1410 allows parents to go to Step Up for Students and file a claim. No verification of the claim by the school district would be necessary.  The bill also provides for a transportation scholarship.

These are the 2018 Hope scholarships that sales taxes from new car sales fund. Of course the other voucher bill that Governor DeSantis proposed allows anyone to get a voucher whose family income is under 260% of the federal poverty level….let’s see, that’s any family of four earning less than about $63,000 dollars.  No pretense for serving the poor any longer.  The Florida constitution does not matter much either evidently.

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.

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!

Assault on Separation of Church and State

An organized group of ultra conservative legislators have filed a bill to teach religion in schools. The group called ‘Florida Citizens Alliance’ does not like climate change either. FCA is a group Erika Donalds and her husband, who is in the legislature, have formed with support from others like former Senator Joe Negron’s wife Rebecca and Richard Corcoran’s wife Anne. The group is the same coalition of politicians and wealthy donors who unsuccessfully pushed Amendment 8 to create a separate charter ‘independent’ school system. Last year they got a bill passed to enable citizens to review textbooks for content they oppose.

Bill 330 by Senator Baxley from Ocala requires the Florida Curriculum Standards be revised to be minimum standards. Additional standards could be added to them. This revision is to add controversial science and economic theories to the curriculum. A similar bill was filed last year but did not pass.

What is really at stake is Florida’s Blaine Amendment in the constitution. It specifically addresses the issue of teaching a religion, not just teaching about religion. This becomes a blurry line in practice. Senator Baxley’s bill would require that schools teach about controversial topics. It is one of those tactics to infiltrate policy that keeps such topics separate from school curricula.

For a legal analysis of the Blaine amendment, see the explanation in the Stetson Law Review. I would expect the legislature to consider an amendment to the Florida constitution to overturn the Blaine amendment. Keep watching.

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

DeSantis Appoints Education Transition Team

Read the goals and see the list of advisors in the article here.

I looked at the list of appointees for the governor’s new education transition team. It is pretty obvious to whom he intends to listen. He won’t have to hear much about public schools, only three districts are represented. Higher education does better, and prochoice advocates do best of all. Missing is a voice for teaching and learning.

Politicians: Bob Cortes, Don Gaetz, Governor Scott Chief of Staff
Ed Related Companies: New Teacher Center
Higher Ed Representatives: FIU, Higher Learning Advocates, Polk State College, Broward College, Pensacola College, University of Florida Trustees, Tallahassee CC Board of Trustees, Independent Colleges and Universities,
FSU, State Board of Education,
K12 Groups: Walton County Superintendent, Hillsborough schools govt relations, Miami-Dade school board,
Political Commentator: Annenberg School lecturer Felzenburg
Pro Choice Advocacy Groups: Home Education Foundation, Erika Donalds alternative school board group, Florida Citizens Alliance (2), Florida Consortium of Charter Schools, CSUSA, Lake Highland Prep, Teach Florida, Step Up for Students, lift Academy, Charter School Alliance, Academica
Business: First Coast Energy, Career Source, Physicians Dialysis, Bags, inc., Vestcor, Apple.
Community Group: Urban League