Civics vs. Politics: Amendment 8 won’t go away

Amendment 8 is off the ballot. Using civics education to promote teaching creationism or to justify any other aspect of the ultra conservative ideology is still in play. The Tampa Tribune highlights civics education as a political issue in the Florida campaign for governor. It is not a surprise. Civics education was part of Amendment 8. It was not just a cover for the proposal to create a separate educational system for charter schools. It was part of a larger strategy to build support for privatizing our public schools.

Below find earlier posts on the civics issue in Florida. You can also get a preview of what to expect in the next legislative session by watching the video of the views of the two candidates for Florida’s governor.

https://lwveducation.com/politics-in-science-and-civics-curriculum/ What would be taught in a ‘new’ civics curriculum?

https://lwveducation.com/governor-graham-on-crc-education-amendment/ Civics education is a political ploy.

https://lwveducation.com/whats-going-on-with-civics-education/ College level civics test stalemate over how to define what will be covered in a new test.

Would you like to see and hear how the two Florida candidates for governor differ on education policy? Watch the video here.

Integrity Florida Nails the For-Profit Charter Industry

A newly released report by Integrity Florida underscores the Florida League of Women Voters concerns about charter school policy and its negative impact on public schools. Remember that charters are funded by public tax dollars but run by private companies. The report focuses on the abuse and negative impact of for-profit charters in Florida.

It’s all here.

KEY EXCERPTS

  1. Page 17-18. For-profit charters like Academica, CSUSA, Imagine and S.M.A.R.T. perform less well than similar students in traditional public schools.
  2. Page 19: For-profit charters hurt public schools…substantial share of public expenditure…extracted for personal or business financial gain.
  3. Page 21: Lease and management fees are largest income source of for-profit charters.
  4. Page 22: 373 charters have closed.
  5. Page 24: Corruption continues even after 2016 legislative reforms.
  6. Page 25: Charters cherry pick students to reduce costs and services for struggling students.
  7. Page 26: Charters use money and influence to affect policy outcomes. $2,651,639 was spent on committee and campaign contributions in 2016 alone. John Kirtley, who heads many of these committees also is chair of Step Up for Students which distributes a billion dollars in corporate tax credit scholarships to private schools. All Children Matters, run by Betsy DeVos, gave over $4 million to Florida political committees between 2004 and 2010. The Walton family gave over $7 million between 2008 and 2016 to Florida’s All Children Matter. Large contributions by the Waltons, John Kirtley, CSUSA, Academica, Gary Chartrand, and others were also made to the Florida Federation for Children. For profit charters have spent over $8 million in lobbying in Tallahassee.
  8. Page 35: Conflict of interest claims in the Florida legislature have been made against current and former legislators including Richard Corcoran, Manny Diaz, Anitere Flores, Michael Bileca, Eric Fresen, John Legg, Seth McKeel, Kelli Stargel, Ralph Arza, and Will Weatherford.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

There are a number of management practices recommended including the publication of charter contracts, prohibition of advertising for students, and increasing local school district oversight authority. Other specific recommendations include:

  1. Limit charter expansion.
  2. Report for-profit charter expenditures and profits by school.
  3. Fund public schools sufficiently to remove competition.
  4. Limit the amount of public funds for leases.
  5. Report number of charter student drop outs, withdrawals, and expulsions.

California has gone a step further. Last week the governor signed a bill to prohibit further expansion of for-profit charters.

Amendment 8 Behind the Scenes: Political ideology, religion, dark money, billionaires, and of course, the money trail

Florida’s 652 charters run the gamut from small ‘mom and pop’ charters to large chains organized by for-profit management companies. Some serve children and districts well. Many others tell different stories. They involve not only political ideology but also religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, self-interest.

The Erika Donalds version of the charter story starts simply. A small group of members seceded from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). Erika Donalds, a member of the Collier County school board and wife of Florida Representative Byron Donalds, fronts this coalition, but the political network behind it is extensive. It goes all the way to our nation’s capital.
About 14 of the 50 alternative school board association members have been publicly identified, including:

• Rebecca Negron, who has just been defeated for a seat on the Martin County school board even though her supporters raised over $250,000 to unsuccessfully attack her opponent. She is the wife of Senate President Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to give corporate taxes to private schools.
Some FCSBM members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups.
• Erika Donalds openly displays the Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group supported by the Koch brothers and others.
• In the March 29, 2018 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Speaker of the Florida House Richard Corcoran’s wife Ann, who operates her own charter school, is identified.
• Shawn Frost, who is Chair of the Indian River school board, is part of this coalition. He announced in the Indian River Guardian that he expects to be appointed to the Florida State Board of Education. Frost reported campaign contributions from Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education. In 2014, Frost received $20,000 in campaign contributions from the American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. Frost lives in Vero Beach, but maintains a room in his father’s house in Indian River to meet the residence requirements for being on the school board. He is also the head of MVP Strategy and Policy which specializes in consulting for school board races.
• A Duval School Board member Scott Shine has reportedly joined the FCSBM. He withdrew from his 2018 reelection campaign due to ‘personal attacks’.
• Sarasota school board members Erik Robinson, a former Republican Party Chairman and Bridgit Ziegler are listed members. Ziegler’s campaign reported $45,000 in donations from the out of state Phoenix Media LLC. According to the Herald Tribune, the money was funneled through a PAC run by fellow board member Erik Robinson, who is often called ‘The Prince of Dark Money’.

Some FCSBM members are collaborating to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charters. This isn’t just any group of charter schools. They are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College, located in Michigan, has a long religious/conservative/libertarian agenda. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundations fund the initiative. There are 17 of these charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and the newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Donalds and her husband have been active with the Mason Classical Academy in Collier County. Donalds is currently seeking to add a Classical Academy in Martin County where Rebecca Negron was running for school board.
Erika Donalds has more than running a charter school on her mind. She was appointed by the governor to the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) which is convened every twenty years to consider proposals to amend the constitution. Donalds is a strategist to divide the Florida public schools into two separate systems, one for ‘independent schools’ and one for public schools established by locally elected school boards. Essentially, it would allow one system for charters and private schools receiving tax credit scholarships and one for traditional public schools.

This year the CRC was plagued with ‘log rolling’. It is a technique to bundle dissimilar proposals into one law. There is a spate of these ‘logs’ projected to be on the November ballot. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against them, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the League of Women Voters was correct in its opposition to at least one. This proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida constitution must be withdrawn from the November ballot. How this amendment came to be is a story in itself.

Amendment 8 combines three separate proposals: school board term limits, civics literacy and a clause stating that school boards are only responsible for schools they create. This third proposal is the heart of the amendment. The title for the amendment, however, is: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools”. Voters might be in favor of one part of the combined proposals but opposed to another. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ strategy. The wording, even the title was intended to confuse voters. Term limits and civics education may seem innocuous, but they are not.

Erika Donalds is also the Florida sponsor for the US Term Limits organization. This group has a well-documented conservative political agenda that targets school boards to create more opportunities to influence policy. The Koch brothers founded the US Term Limits group. The civics course requirement proposed by CRC member Gaetz, the former President of the Florida Senate, made no sense. Civics was already required by the Florida Department of Education. Former Governor Bob Graham, long a champion of civics education, stated that not only is Amendment 8 a hodge podge, it is not even good for civics education. The CATO Institute has a major focus on civics education and provides free civics material to k12 schools. Its message is clear. According to the Huffington Post, the CATO group states: “The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Government assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty”.

The third component of Amendment 8 was to remove local school board control over the authorization of new charter schools. This too represented the national move to privatize our schools by creating charters and funding vouchers to private schools. In the proposed Amendment 8, however, the schools were called ‘independent’, not charter schools. Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart stated that removing local school board control over the establishment of charter schools goes too far. CRC member Patricia Levesque, CEO of Jeb Bush’s education foundation however, supported the amendment as did Marva Johnson, the President of the State Board of Education.

Erika Donalds formed a Political Action Committee called ‘8 is Great’ to sway voters to support Amendment 8. According to the Vero Communique, Howard Rich, a wealthy New York real estate investor, invested $100,000 in the ‘8 is Great’ PAC. Rich serves on the Board of the CATO institute which was founded by the Koch brothers. David Koch ran for Vice President of the U.S. in 1980 on a platform opposing social security, the FBI, the CIA and pubic schools. The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity organization. They are concentrating on Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Their presence takes many forms. Watch for everything from donations to school board races, charter and voucher expansion efforts and state election campaigns. John Kirtley, the founder of Step Up for Children was a major donor. Step Up is the agency that administers a billion dollars for the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and Duval School Board member Scott Shine have joined the PAC according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Recognizing that term limits and civics education are popular among many voters, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wells submitted a brief to the Florida League of Women Voters in which he stated: “This change from local county school board control…is hidden by packaging the change with what are thought to be attractive proposals for term limits and civics education.” These schools were planned to be charter schools but the word ‘independent’ was substituted for the word ‘charter’.

There is a watchdog coalition of about 20 public interest groups, headed by the League, to follow and evaluate CRC proposed amendments. Amendment 8 was identified early by the coalition as part of a package of amendments intended to seize local control from city and county governments. The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined forces to file a lawsuit against Amendment 8 asking that Amendment 8 be removed from the November ballot. The suit claimed that the amendment was deliberately vague and intended to confuse the public. The circuit court in Tallahassee agreed. The State filed an appeal.

The Appellate Court immediately referred the case to the Florida Supreme Court saying, “The case involves a question of great public importance and requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court”. The vagueness of the amendment language and its misleading title: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” was the basis for the justices’ 4 to 3 ruling. The decision puts a roadblock in the effort to create an alternative charter school system. Some legislators will no doubt continue to push proposals to remove any local school board control of charter schools. In reality, local public schools have very limited responsibility to oversee charters, but they and the local press can shine a spotlight on what is at stake.

After sixteen years of choice, it is clear that choice divides communities, segregates children, and dissipates funding without making any appreciable improvement in student achievement. The Supreme Court has another case before it now ‘Citizens for Strong Schools’ that contends that Florida’s choice policy has failed to support the quality education for all children that the Florida constitution requires. The hearing is set. The future of our public school system will depend on the ruling from the bench.

Citizens for Strong Schools Hearing Set

On November 8,2018 the Florida Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether Florida is meeting its “paramount duty” to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.” The constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 1998 assigned this responsibility to the state. Has Florida met its obligation to the children of Florida?

Two lower courts have ruled in Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education that the question is not one for the courts to decide, and that it is instead up to the Florida Legislature. The plaintiffs disagree.

“At the heart of this case is really whether the Florida Constitution has any meaning at all in the eyes of our courts,” said Jodi Siegel, the executive director of Southern Legal Counsel, a Gainesville-based, statewide nonprofit law firm representing the parents and advocacy groups that filed original case and have appealed it to the state’s highest court.

“The lower courts have basically said that only two of the three branches of our government have any responsibility for enforcing an amendment that clearly expresses the will of the people when it comes to one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government – educating the state’s children,” Siegel said. “We believe the Florida Supreme Court will recognize that the courts not only have that authority, but in fact that it is their sworn duty to uphold the Florida Constitution – and not just select parts of it, but all of it.”

Southern Legal Counsel filed the case in 2009, and it has been working its way through the courts until now. If successful, the parents and advocacy groups are requesting that the Court remand the case back to the trial court with instructions on how to interpret and apply the education clause. They contend that, when viewed under the proper legal standards, the evidence presented at trial shows clear disparities in the opportunity provided to children to receive a high quality education. For example, the evidence presented showed that more than 40 percent of Florida students are not passing statewide assessments in reading and math.

The Florida League of Women Voters strongly supports the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

WHOOP! Judge Agrees with the League

Amendment 8 to the Florida Constitution is off the November ballot. The Tallahassee judge ruled today that the League was correct in its claim that Amendment 8 was misleading to voters. The amendment did not specify that local school boards would lose the right to authorize charter schools. It also bundled that proposal with two others…term limits for school boards and a civics requirement for students. Civics is already required for students; it just is not in the constitution.

Amendment 8 was championed by Erica Donalds, a school board member from Collier County who started her own separate school board association. Her backers include a number of prominent conservatives who support school privatization. The League of Women Voters filed the complaint against Amendment 8. Here is the ruling.

No doubt there will be an appeal.

Governor Graham on CRC Education Amendment

For years, former Governor Graham was a strong advocate for civics education. He does not support the Constitutional Revision Commission’s proposal to lump together civics, school board term limits and charters not approved by school boards in a proposal for voter approval in November.

Graham makes the case that not only is the amendment a hodge podge, it is not even good for civics education. Florida already requires students to learn a whole host of information about our governments’ policies and practices. Read Governor Graham’s comment in the Sun Sentinel and the Herald Tribune that he will not support this amendment.

I received an email message today from Chris Hand, Governor Graham’s long term associate. He does not support the education amendment either.

Advocates for this amendment claim it has a common theme. There may well be one….from groups like the Florida version of conservative Freedom Caucus. Senator Baxley from Marion County had a civics bill in the last legislative session that died.

The Koch brothers have invested millions of dollars in free social studies curriculum that has been distributed widely. This is revisionist history at best. Read about it here.

The original drafters of this amendment e.g. Erika Donalds and Gaetz, when it was divided into separate proposals, represent the conservative caucus in Florida.

Recognize this amendment for what it is…a political statement that does not belong in the Florida constitution.

Leon County: Latest Charter Battleground

Some things are just inane. Leon County schools are over enrolled, but the State will not approve a new school. It is all about how space is now counted by the legislature. Should a gym count as a classroom??

What is so disgusting is that the State would allow two new charter schools in the area that the Leon County schools do not want. The reason is clear. Charters syphon off funding and hurt existing schools. Read Roseanne Wood’s op ed here. It is time to stop this. There is not enough money to support private, charter, and public schools. Our constitution says “a unified system of free public schools’. This is anything but unified and for many, not even free.

What are Parents’ Real Choices with Schools?

Do Floridians want one school system that is equitable or several, each with its own rules? In today’s Gainesville Sun, the League asks three critical questions to help parents decide which choice to make for their schools: Who pays?, Who is in control?, and What does it matter? In an expanded system of choice, local voters are asked to pay more than the State to compensate for less funding and cost inefficiency due to expanded choices. Go to a charter and pay more in hidden fees and transportation. Go private and select a cheap school or pay the difference in tuition. Go public and worry the funding may not fix the air conditioning.

The State and private education management companies take control away from locally elected school boards. Parents lose their voices in how choice schools are owned and managed. “Don’t like it, then leave” is the response to complaints.

All of this matters. Schools are becoming more segregated by income and student ability while our nation is becoming more diverse. Student achievement stays flat in our choice system. The reason is clear; students learn better when they learn together. Isolate poor children, and they feel they have no stake in the system. Isolate high income children, they don’t learn the real world skills needed to be successful. The kids in the middle disappear; no one is thinking about them.

Students who learn only in like minded groups will be ill prepared for the diverse world in which they will work. Learning to live together starts in schools. The real choice is whether we value the diverse world in which we live or try to escape it by creating mini school clusters of like minded people. You can read the article here. It comes out under our local president’s name.

Judge Dismisses One HB 7069 Lawsuit

The Broward County lawsuit over HB 7069 and Schools of Hope was dismissed by Judge Cooper in the Leon County Court. No written decision is yet available. Judge Cooper, according to the Miami Herald, ruled that districts did not have the constitutional authority to direct facility funding that is locally generated. Thus, charters could share in locally generated funding. In addition, the law allows charter systems to be their own Local Education Agency which makes them independent from local school boards. Schools of Hope which are charter take overs of low performing public schools were ruled to be outside local district control. The bill also includes a state designated standard charter contract that has no locally inserted provisions. Districts cannot amend the contract to designate local needs be observed. Finally, some changes in local district control of federal funds for disadvantaged students remain.

While Judge Cooper seemed sympathetic to the school districts’ case, he said his court did not have jurisdiction to overturn the law passed by the legislature, even if, as a local observer reported, the law was “stupid”. The expectation is that the case will be appealed to a higher court.

For a brief review of the HB 7069 lawsuits see: How many HB 7069 lawsuits are there?.

CRC Home Stretch on Education Amendment Proposals: Beware!

It looks like there will be two constitutional amendments affecting K12 education. Three previous proposals are grouped into one amendment and another proposal stands alone. Both amendments expand charter schools and lead to greater state control of local schools.

  1. One amendment ties P10 civics education to P 71 the expansion of the authorization of charter schools, and P43 limits of terms of school board members. Schools already require civics education in statute. Expanding the authorization of charter schools beyond school districts is a fight that has been going on in the legislature for several years. This is a local control issue that if successful, would allow a state agency or other designee to authorize charters anywhere. Limiting terms for school board members to eight years would allow more turnover, but it could also lower the level of expertise of boards.

  2. A second amendment P93 would stand on its own on the ballot. This amendment allows innovative or high performing districts to turn themselves into charter districts. They would be exempt from the facility and personnel regulations in the K12 school code that other public schools must follow. The consequences for the creation of charter districts for ‘high performing’ school districts are a mixed blessing. Yes, districts would have flexibility, but issues of funding equity, staffing, and quality of facilities all could become more contentious. Of course there is the irony that most high performing districts are ‘high performing’ because they have more schools whose populations are more affluent. Thus, rural and lower income areas would have more regulation and more expensive facilities etc.