Call for Counselors

There is something we all can do right now. Contact the Florida Senate Education Committee. Let them know that their proposals in SB2508 to support struggling students and to fund a significant mental health program are worth fighting for. The House gives parents $400 and tells them to go shopping for help that may not be there.

There is no escape from the troubled neighbor’s child or the mentally ill family member, but there can be more help. We can build programs where it is safe for children to seek help and to alert others when a child needs help.

Contact Senator Dorothy Hukill and ask her to fight for our children. Don’t bargain away the educational services children need.

The BIG Questions: What Choice Really Means

The Florida House and Senate will negotiate over how school systems can be either publicly or privately run or a combination of the two. They call this ‘district flexibility’, and it raises four BIG questions.

In the House version, HB7055, public schools will be run by privately managed charter districts, if they so choose. In the Senate version, SB2508, school districts will continue to be overseen by elected school boards, but individual public schools may be converted to charters managed by district school boards.

This district flexibility is PHASE TWO of the movement to privatize public schools. The major components include changes in the quality control for buildings and staff, funding for services for struggling students, and control of curriculum. There will not be much more money for schools, but differences in how the two chambers pay for schools are important.

WILL THE LEGISLATURE CHOOSE:

  1. cheap school buildings for some? If the K12 School Code is revoked, as proposed, there will be no standard for school construction. It will be legal for all schools, not just charters or private schools, to be in strip malls, abandoned buildings or in palaces with superb labs and auditoriums for the lucky.

  2. lower qualifications for teachers and principals? In response to teacher shortages, the House revokes union contracts for salaries, benefits, or working conditions. In the Senate version, teachers are district employees, but their pay and hours are determined by principals. To fill vacancies, teacher certification allows individual schools to mentor and qualify teachers. The House bill introduced the term ‘manager’ instead of principal. Both houses allow one principal to supervise more than one school.

  3. schools that choose which students they wish to serve? Proposed House legislation gives funding for struggling students to parents, not schools, and it broadens eligibility for tax credit scholarships. All scholarship programs are consolidated under Step Up for Students, the private entity that now administers private school scholarships. The Senate proposals fund schools to support struggling children, and schools converted to charters must serve the neighborhood children.

  4. religious instruction in all schools? Current bills to allow districts to exceed curriculum standards and introduce religious beliefs and ideological economic theories into schools (SB966). Some charters already blur the distinction between secular and non secular schools. They are located in church facilities, or they advertise ‘Christian or other ethnic values’.

In November 2018, voters will vote on changes to Florida’s constitution to implement PHASE THREE. Will barriers be removed to direct funding of private schools and teaching religion in public schools? This what school choice is all about. Do companies and churches run schools and parents do the best they can to find a school that will accept their children? Do you relax standards in order to save money? The League position is clear; we support free, high quality public schools for all children, and these schools are run by locally elected school boards.

Did Miami-Dade Suggest a Better Choice?

Suppose high performing districts could turn themselves into charter districts. They would be governed by the elected school board and freed from most state regulation for curriculum, facilities, and staffing. The State Curriculum Standards and assessments would be in place, teachers would be certified and be part of the State system, and school facilities would vary according to need.

The suggestion from Superintendent Carvalho is part of the draft Florida Senate bill 2508 now circulating, and an amendment P93 by the Constitutional Revision Commission member, R. Martinez. A different version of the concept was filed in the House: PCB 18-01 Will there be unintended consequences? No doubt! Is it a better direction than privatizing our schools and taking away local control from elected school boards? Yes. Is it better than what we have now with a one size fits all set of regulations? Maybe.

None of this well correct the test driven instruction due to the school grading accountability system. It will not solve the funding problem for school operations, but it might reduce facility cost. Of course, less expensive facilities may also mean less space, quality, and a proliferation of small, inefficient and therefore costly schools. The problems associated with inequity due to housing patterns remain. Problems associated with teacher recruitment are not easily solved if salaries are not competitive and teachers’ expertise is not valued. Districts will have to have the expertise and ability to make good decisions. Nevertheless, it might be a step in the right direction.

There is a difference between the House and Senate versions of this concept. The Senate keeps these charter districts under school board control. The CRC proposal P93 is more like the one in the Senate version. Both bills include many other provisions that deserve careful scrutiny.

At least this year, the legislature is airing these proposals early and getting feedback. They are, however, still tying concepts worth considering to those more controversial and destructive all in the same bill.

New Train Bill Emerging in Florida House Tomorrow

A draft education bill is circulating. It has a temporary number PCB EDC 18-01, but it is already over 100 pages long. It is the Florida House compilation of the many bills currently filed to expand the privatization of our public schools. The ‘bullying bill’ is not there, but there are some new wrinkles. Tomorrow, Thursday Jan 24th, the House Education Committee will hear the bill. It may be worth listening at 10am to figure out what is in it. Here is my take:

PUBLIC DISTRICT SCHOOL PROPOSALS: Basically these provisions reduce district control and/or invite chaos depending on your point of view.

  1. Revise district superintendents’ authority to organize schools. The bill provides that instructional personnel should be free from ‘burdensome regulations’. Provide a safety survey and emergency situation communication system.
  2. Give access to surplus district property to charter schools.
  3. Adding social studies content to ELA writing assessment prompts, and revising format to release FSA assessment questions and requiring paper assessments in ELA and mathematics is grades 3-8.
  4. Creating district-autonomous schools in which employers may be public or private. Public employees may participate in the Florida Retirement System.

CHARTER SCHOOL ORGANIZATION: These measures actually increase charter centralization, decrease termination criteria, and promote charter growth and expansion.

  1. Revising high performance charter school systems applications, weakening termination criteria by changing from ‘violations of law’ to ‘material violations of law’, changes district/charter dispute resolution to a final decision made by an administrative judge who will award cost payment to the prevailing party. Revising criteria for high-performing charter school status.
  2. Authorizing charters and management organizations in addition to districts and post secondary institutions to provide school leader programs, and renaming and expanding Principal Autonomy Pilot Program. Adds mandatory professional development for school leadership teams and provides a principal bonus of $10,000. Principals will be allowed to supervise multiple charter schools. School district or charter board members may not be employees of the school. Authorizing high performing charters to create two new charters per year.
  3. Funding and payment liability of independent school boards
  4. Exemption from laws of sections 1000-1013 Florida law allows schools that earn no less than a ‘B’ grade to continue exemption.

PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS: While some improvement is included to exclude people with criminal records from staffing private schools, a new scholarship program is proposed for students who score below a ‘3’ on the FSA reading test. It is funded by tax credits for new cars sold and is administered by Step Up for Children.
8. Deletes Florida Tax Credit qualifications for scholarships and includes any private school. Creates reading scholarship accounts which may be used for tuition, summer programs, tutoring and/or student services or to a college savings account. Expands requirements for private school web page information; requires Level 2 background checks and increased definition of ineligible employees with criminal records; provide independent financial audit for schools receiving more than $250,000 in state revenue. Provide DOE oversight
9. Private schools are not required to state whether they will reimburse dual enrollment costs to post secondary schools.
10. DOE oversight of education scholarship funds is increased.

Good News Bills to Improve Florida Education

Some legislators are truly focused on improving the management and oversight of Florida’s schools. Three cheers to each of them. Here’s a brief description of bills related to charters, capital outlay funding, ethics, early childhood education and community schools.

CHARTERS
SB 1690 Farmer. Requires principals and chief financial officers of charters to have valid third party certification. Given the importance of principals in schools’ success, it is important that principals have knowledge of educational issues, instructional strategies, operations, funding, and management. Top Priority Support

SB 1672 Farmer. This bill gives districts the discretion to share local discretionary capital outlay funding with charters rather than requiring districts to do so. It also requires charter financing companies to have at least an A- rating, and the right of eminent domain does not apply to charters.
These provisions are important. The discretionary capital outlay issue is part of the lawsuit over the local control of districts to operate public schools. Millions of dollars of local funding will now go to privately owned charter schools. Florida’s charter closure rate is the highest in the nation with at least 300 closed. The buildings are retained by the private owners.

Charter bond ratings are at risk because many have low initial payments at high interest and large balloon payments at the end.

HB 6047 Charter Schools Newton, Berman. Repeals certain capital outlay funding for lab schools. Deletes provisions stating charter schools are eligible for capital outlay funding and that Schools of Hope are considered charter schools and may not use capital outlay for purchasing facilities. Top Priority Support

ETHICS
SB 1750 Rodriguez. Ethics. Prohibits public officials from voting on bills that inure financial gain to themselves and related others. The legislature had changed the ethics rules to allow members to vote on bills on which they could benefit if they disclosed their interest and if the bill affected a ‘class’ e.g. a group of people rather than the legislator alone. Top Priority Support

EARLY CHILDHOOD
HB 1297 Brown. The bill strengthens early childhood programs by terminating those with repeated citations. High Priority Support

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS
HB 4331 Community Partnership Schools. This is an appropriations bill to support the University of Central Florida’s community partnership schools for $2,930,570. UCF is the partner with the Children’s Home Society community schools that bring wrap around services, after school programs, and parental education programs to public schools it sponsors in collaboration with local agencies and businesses. There are nine schools statewide that are being expanded to 17 public schools. Additional information to track this bill is located here.

Skullduggery Afoot With Charter Authorization

The original proposal, P.71, to amend the Florida constitution (by Erika Donalds) was to provide alternative ways to authorize charter schools in addition to local school boards. Now, Donalds has deleted the wording in her proposal P 71 and inserted the following:

The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district…except for those authorized by the state charter school authorizing board, municipalities, charter counties, Florida college system and public universities as provided by law.

What state charter school authorizing board you ask? There is no such thing now. Charter counties?? They do not exist either, but the CRC proposal P. 93 by Martinez would create them.

All of this requires voters to amend article IX of the Florida constitution in November 2018. Our constitution specifies that Florida has a ‘unified system of free public schools’. Donalds, Levesque and Martinez would change that.

It is interesting that Patricia Levesque filed an amendment to P. 71 an hour after Donalds filed one. Levesque’s wording was more subtle. She eliminated the words ‘charter school’ and inserted ‘public schools’ in line 29 of the original proposal to amend the constitution. Basically, Levesque wants nothing to prohibit alternative public school authorization. Since charters are public schools, perhaps Levesque believes that voters will not notice that the amendment would strip local districts’ authority to authorize charter schools. After all, in theory and in law, charters are public schools. They are funded by the public and just happen to be owned and operated by private entities.

Judge Denies Injunction Against HB 7069

Palm Beach County requested an injunction against paying $9 million to its charter schools. Charter schools are almost always privately owned facilities which remain with the owner if schools are closed.

The district wanted to wait until its lawsuit was heard in court. The lawsuit against the HB 7069 provision that requires districts to share locally raised revenue from the 1.5 mill property tax they are allowed to assess for school facilities. The Florida constitution reserves the right to allocate this money to local districts. Circuit judge Shelfer denied the injunction, and the district will have a month to pay.

If the district eventually wins the lawsuit, the money likely will all be gone.

Splinters in Florida School Boards Have Sharp Points

This is not just a Florida charter school story. It is one about local politicians, religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, the money trail. It starts simply. Two small splinter groups have formed from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA). I was curious to see who was behind these groups and why. The political network itself is instructive. The implications for the CRC amendments to the Florida Constitution are part of this picture as well as bills filed in the Florida legislature. Then, the story leads to our nations’ capital.

FSBA has been a force for over 80 years. Its elected members represent the interest of local districts and their children. When they speak, they speak for local communities, but sometimes the legislature does not like what it hears. The FSBA participated in a lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. In retaliation, some speculate that the legislature passed a law to allow individual school board members to pay dues to another newly formed association.

A small group of members seceded from the FSBA in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). There appears to be a financial collaboration among some members to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charter Schools. Some members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups. About 14 of the 50 members have been identified, including Rebecca Negron, Martin County. She is the wife of Senator Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Those school board members for whom outside funding connections are identified are in bold letters.

Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds, Collier County, are founders of Mason Classical Academy Charter school. Mason has had a troubled history including a DCF investigation according to the Naples Daily News. Lichter is reported in Collier County School Board Watch as starting a charter school consulting firm. Naples News reports a recording re her ties to Hilldale College. Donalds has filed for a new firm, the Alpha Classical Academy.

Shawn Frost, Indian River County, is a founding member of FCSBM and has additional ties to Erika Donalds through the Classical Charter Schools. Also, in 2014 Frost received $20,000 campaign contributions from American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. He unseated the FSBA president. https://www.bizapedia.com/people/shawn-frost.html One of these is listed as the Indian River County Leasing Corporation. He is associated with at least 13 businesses, several inactive, and resides in Vero Beach. He maintains a room at his father’s home to establish residence in Indian River.

In addition, the Alpha Classical Academy is registered at 3340 Se Federal Highway #303 Stuart, Florida along with 39 other companies with the same address. It is not clear what the association among these companies may be. Linda Daniels and Shawn Frost are listed as of December 2017 as Directors and Erika Donalds as the Chair of the Alpha Classical Academy.

Classical Academies are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College is located in Michigan and has a long religious/conservative/libertarian tradition. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundation fund the initiative. According to Salon, the brothers are also contributors. There are 17 charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Alpha is not listed as a charter but as a non profit organization.

Erika Donalds, wife of Representative Byron Donalds displays the Koch brothers supported Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group. Erika Donalds is on the Constitutional Revision Commission where she filed, among others, the amendment to have term limits for school boards. She is the Florida sponsor of the U.S. Term Limits group.

Erik Robinson and Bridget Ziegler, Sarasota County have an extensive funding network. Robinson has 50 Political Action Committees to fund the conservative political agenda all across the state. Here are two comprehensive funding and campaign contribution lists reported by the Sarasota Phoenix:
Part I: The Jacksonville Sarasota Connection:
Part II: How Robinson Funnels Pac Money:
Additional articles appeared in the Herald Tribune in 2016 which delineates the names of contributors and the political races they have targeted.
Robinson and Dark Money

Erik Robinson Beyond Dark Money

The money trail is extensive and no doubt needs to be updated. It is not clear whether any of other FCSBM members identified below have a connection to the Classical Charters or dark money. More work needs to be done.

Additional FCSBM members include:

• Tina Descovich and Matthew Susin, Brevard County. Descovich was a parent volunteer at Indialantic school and a writing coach at Viera Charter. She organized OPT OUT Brevard. In 2016, Susin joined three others to form the National Alliance for Innovation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is a K12 instructional materials company. His Facebook page lists him as a former history teacher and currently as a marketing agent for an insurance company.

• Amy Lockhart, Seminole County has filed to run for the County Commission in 2018.
• Jeff Bergosh, Escambia was a former school board member and elected to the County Commission in 2016.
• Nancy Stacy, Marion County was the only vote for a CSUSA proposal for Marion County in 2017. She is listed as the owner of City Slickers Ranch.

A third School Board Association called the Florida Conservative School Board (FCSBMA) has now been formed by Escambia School Board member, Kevin Adams. He was appointed to fill Jeff Bergosh’s seat and is seeking a full term in 2018. The FCSBMA web page mission statement supports local control of schools, public education and school choice. Its policy to have all public education follow the same state statutes and regulations with oversight by elected school boards differs from many choice groups. The adherence to conservative principles is not clarified, but there is no obvious preference for charter schools.

There may be more to this story.

HB 25 Threatens Florida Teachers Union

Are teachers targeted once again? This fight is not about unions or teachers; it is about the political campaign to privatize public schools. Unions are in the way; they have money to combat the well funded and organized movement to dismantle public education.

Representative Plakon (Longwood) and Senator Steube (Sarasota) are sponsoring bills to decertify unions whose membership does not reach 50% of dues paying members. The proposed law would apply to all public sector unions except for first responders i.e. law enforcement and firefighters.

Since Florida is a right-to-work state, employees are not required to join unions. Teachers, moreover, do not have tenure. After their first year, they have annual contracts. The unions bargain for salaries, benefits and working conditions, but they also support professional development and advocacy.

Most likely it is the union advocacy role that irritates some legislators. The union strongly supports public education, and it becomes a target for legislators who promote charter and private school funding. It is all about politics. The privatization movement has strong financial backing from the Bush Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.. Their publicity campaigns against public education are relentless. Teachers unions are the only well funded organized opposition to the take over of public schools. It is no surprise that unions are under attack. This is a ploy, not a problem.

The attack on teachers is having an impact. Teachers are retiring early and new teachers are in short supply. The notion that online technology offers a cheap alternative which can replace teachers is not a dream; it is a nightmare that some Connecticut parents have revolted against. Their district adopted the Summit Learning program built by Facebook. The district had to drop the program when parents complained that children were spending too much screen time in class. This is a real problem we all recognize.

Voters choose the people who set educational policy in the legislature. They need to question candidates for local and state offices about their views on the privatization of schools. If we want quality education for all children, we need a system that serves all children, not one where schools choose the children they wish to
serve. We certainly do not need a system where online learning dominates the classroom. Technology is a tool, not a teacher. Recognize attacks on teachers for what they are.

Feds Slap Florida DOE Wrist

Remember Florida’s exceptions to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? They were denied by the U.S. Department of Education. Florida must respond to correct omissions to its ESSA plan. Florida exempted:

  1. Certain 8th grade students taking more advanced math courses would be exempt from the 8th grade FSA.
  2. FSA exams would not be available in languages other than English.
  3. School grades calculations by each demographic group; they would include gains by lowest 25th percentile instead.
  4. Baseline data to measure achievement gains and graduation rates by demographic groups are missing.
  5. FSA passing level is indicated by a score of ‘3’, but this is not defined as grade level achievement. Thus, there is no rational for raising or lowering a passing level.
  6. ESSA requires states to report progress on English Language Proficiency. Florida only reports scores for students enrolled in ESOL classes, not for all second language learners.

Several of these omissions were intended to reduce double testing e.g. 8th grade mathematics where students may be required to take the FSA and an End of Course exam. In some cases, such as measuring achievement gains for particular groups, the omissions may have stemmed from attempts to reduce the data processing load. Measuring gains by particular groups requires careful analysis and baseline measures.

These are valid concerns. If the nation is going to measure progress, all states should follow the same rules. What is even more important, however, is whether all of this testing and reporting is necessary and productive every year. Any parent who marks his child’s height on the wall each year sees that some years kids grow more than others.

What happens over time is what matters. Force feeding facts to giant data sets every year doesn’t change growth rates. Some companies may get fat, but the kids starve for the lack of real world learning.