Scott Signs Early Learning Bill

The legislature passed a comprehensive Early Learning Program bill (HB 1091). The Office of Early Learning will administer grants to develop observation based child assessments and program assessments. $6 million have been allocated. Quality improvement strategies and community needs assessments are to be reported by the Early Learning Coalitions.

The bill supports recognizes needs of the most at risk children and provides financial incentives for program improvement.

Yet another plot against public schools

The Gainesville Sun editor, Nathan Crabbe, reports harassment by the Florida legislature. Buried in HB/SB 7087 is language requiring districts who place sales tax or property tax proposals on the ballot, have an OPPAGA approved audit. Districts are already required to have audits and get approval for new facilities. This measure impacts districts, like Alachua County that has a proposed facilities one-half cent sales tax. The chair of the sales tax campaign, an insurance agent, smells a conspiracy.

Other counties also will be affected. Alachua will move forward; they cannot do much else. The schools are over crowded and the facilities need repair. The constant cuts in school district funding for schools has created a crisis. Curious that the attorneys representing the State in the Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit argued that if districts needed money, they could raise it locally. Then, the legislature makes even that more difficult. Will the State approve the request before the measure is put on the ballot?

Newpoint Charter Owner Guilty

An Ohio businessman, Steven Kunkemoeller, and the owner of Florida’s Newpoint charter school chain conspired to get kick backs and were accused of organized fraud in the management of 15 Florida charters. Kunkemoeller was found guilty today and faces up to 60 years in prison. Marcus May, the Newpoint charter owner, will face trial soon. You can read the story here.

This type of criminal activity is not unusual in the charter sector. It is a function, in part, of the privatization movement in which oversight and regulation are viewed as stifling innovation. Clearly, these innovative business practices can lead to jail time. The Florida legislature failed once again this year to pass proposed legislation to curb charter profiteering. The Senate had inserted a measure in SB7055 to control real estate and other purchasing self interest machinations, but the House deleted it. How bad does it have to get before the children’s interest replaces charter management self interest?

Political Maneuvers on HB 7055

Sometimes things are not what they seem. Politics versus policies take many forms. In the case of SB 7055, there was a dramatic shift in Senate education policy last week. The Senate version took a much more responsible approach to educational choice by including controls for charter school corporate profiteering and private school expansion. These measures are now gone and replaced by House priorities to expand private school scholarships and charters. Some measures, however, were just moved around.

The big shift was in the Senate version of SB7055 that included the mental health program. The Senate deleted the program and moved it to the gun safety bill SB 7026. SB 7026 passed the Senate yesterday and goes to the House next. Many oppose the firearms policies in the bill, but politics and horse trading go hand in hand. So, maybe the Senate collapse was a trade for a mental health program in schools?

IS THIS JUST A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN…You know trading away your soul?

If you do not like the horses being traded, or whom they carry, then it is time to get a new crop of horses and replace those in the saddles. Some of us are organizing to do just that.

New House Give Away Program

Everything up to now in the Florida House has been a distraction. The real battle is money–where does it come from and where does it go. HB7087 creates a Sales Tax Credit Scholarship Program for private schools. Sales taxes are the real source of state money. The House wants to spend it to privatize our public schools. This is supposed to be unconstitutional, but tax credits are a work a round.

Of course, Florida already uses corporate tax credit rebates to fund scholarships to private schools. Corporations pay a flat 5.5% income tax to the State. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is estimated to cost about a billion dollars this coming year. It comes from that pot of money. Now, the House wants to add a sales tax credit program on top.

There is another major demand on school funding due to the Douglas High School shooting. The legislative response was estimated to cost about $400 million for school safety and mental health measures being proposed. This is funding not included in current budget estimates. It comes on top of reduced revenue estimates from corporate taxes of $167 million dollars.

The Governor’s long term strategy has been to eliminate the corporate tax on income. The legislature has resisted. Is shifting private school funding to sales taxes a ploy to win the Governor’s approval? It is all speculation at this point.

Where will the money come from and where will it go? It will be decided by March 9th when the session is scheduled to close.

Florida’s constitution prohibits state funding to private schools. These tax credit programs are work a rounds. The Constitutional Revision Commission has filed proposals to amend the constitution to allow direct voucher payments so the hypocrisy of tax credits is eliminated. The voters will have their say on changes to the constitution, but if they allow more tax credits, private schools will get their billion dollars or more.

The legislative train is going down hill. Will it gather speed and crush our schools? Who will stop the train?

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.