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.

How many HB 7069 lawsuits are there?

There are three. All cases are yet to be decided.

Single Subject Case. Alachua et al vs. Corcoran. In a 4 to 3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court, citing the time sensitive nature of the case, referred the case back to the Leon County Circuit Court. This is the case that nine districts file that claimed HB 7069 violated the single subject rule. There is no way that HB 7069 pertains to a single subject. It was framed just before the end of the legislative session by rolling as many different bills into one as possible. It’s another one of those mega bills that had no committee hearings and public input. Even though the issue is time sensitive, the Court did not mandate, it suggested, that the case be heard quickly.

Local District Control. Palm Beach school district lawsuit over the constitutionality of the HB 7069 requirement to share low district facility revenue with charters will be heard in circuit court.

Multi Issue Lawsuit. Alachua et al v. Fl. DOE. This complaint, which is yet to be heard, includes 1) sharing local discretionary capital outlay funds with charters 2) Schools of Hope that operate outside of local district control 3) charter systems as their own LEA 4) standard charter contract with no local input 5) restrict district authority to allocate Title I funds and 6) restricts district authority to allocate funds to meet needs of certain schools with low performing students.

A Primer on Big Money

If you hear something often enough, you might start believing, it especially if it builds resentment. Take for example the charges that public schools are failing, teachers are ineffective, unions are evil. For all of these reasons and more, children are short changed. It is a powerful message, but is basically fake news. Yes, some schools struggle, but public education is not the cause, and private schools are not the answer. How does anyone counteract this argument? First, we all must understand the strategy behind the messaging. It includes a few basic points that we need to have at our fingertips.

Diane Ravitch’s reviews two books that describe the origins of the theory and strategy of privatization. Read the entire article, but here are a few key points:

  1. The privatization movement is based on the premise that there is no ‘public interest; rather there is a collection of private interests. It was originated by Friedman and others who sought to make government more efficient. Charles Koch, however, advocates for the end of the role of government in public education, Social Security, Medicare, U.S. Postal Service, minimum wage and on and on. He funded the Center for Public Choice, now at George Mason University, where the political strategies for privatization are articulated. It was founded by James Buchanan, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his public choice economic theories which basically argued for the preservation of wealth.

  2. Buchanan designed the strategy to divide the political coalition behind government programs by building resentments. For example, claim that social security is not viable thus, for many younger people, they have no stake in it. But, current recipients would not loose benefits. Then, propose raising retirement ages and increase payroll taxes so everyone is angry at the system. Similar strategies were used against Medicaid expansion etc.

  3. Build resentment against teachers unions by targeting other workers who have lost their unions. Unions need to be thwarted by the privatization movement because they are the only well funded, organized opposition to privatization in education. Extend the strategy to state that some students are locked into low performing schools in inner cities, thus, the entire education system is failing. Fear and resentment develops not only within central cities but also among those who are concerned about the need for funding and racial equity.

  4. The privatization movement has a legislative arm called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is funded by corporations and represents twenty five percent of all state legislators. They draft legislation that appears across the nation. Check the Center for Media nd Democracy website, ALECexposed.org, that tracks ALEC legislation.

  5. There is a billionaires’ club behind privatization. Keep abreast of the Koch brothers organization, Americans for Prosperity. They along with other billionaires such as the Walton family that owns Walmart, the DeVos family, and the Broad and Gates Foundation fund everything from pro choice expansion to local political races. The Jeb Bush Foundation in Florida is part of this group. You find can out more information by reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind thee Rise of the Radical Right.

Recognize these strategies for what they are. Watch for how they will unfold as time goes on. When the corporate interest replaces the public interest, we are likely to see the emergence of technology driven, data based systems that reduce the role of teaching in favor of ‘coaches’ who are less expensive. We will see the deterioration of funding for school facilities; they are expensive. We will see the further division of our communities into have and have not schools based upon the ability of specific groups to fund them. It is not a pretty sight.

Donalds files Another Textbook Bill

Who decides what children learn and which instructional materials they use? Some say the Florida school districts and Department of Education have that responsibility. Rep. Byron Donalds seeks to strengthen the law, HB 989, he co-sponsored in 2017 to give the community the right to review textbooks. This time, HB 827 would allow parents to suggest alternatives to books and instructional materials they do not like. School boards must then contact publishers and invite them to bid on purchases. The State Board of Education approves textbooks.

Texas experienced the same pressure from religious groups. Bill Moyers summarized their concerns including separation of church and state, censoring capitalism, lack of conservative spokespersons, social expectations, and others.

Quick fix solutions are merely demons in disguise

Do term limits get rid of a bureaucratic establishment and allow new people with great ideas to enter the scene? This is the argument put forth by CRC member Erika Donalds from Collier County’s school board. Her proposal to limit school board members to two terms passed the CRC education panel yesterday. She also argued for appointed superintendents. This is a term limit too in a sense. Appointed superintendents tend to last about three years and move on. An account of the arguments was reported by the News Service today. It made me go searching for an answer to the question: What really happens to the legislative process when term limits are introduced. The answer? Power shifts to consultants who wave the possibilities for future jobs at legislators.

I found a story about how power shifts told by a promoter of term limits, Gina Loudon, who had a front row seat in its impact. Here are her observations:

  1. Absolute power does not dissipate, it transfers…not to the young legislators but to those not elected i.e. the staff, consultants, and lobbyists.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of the political process is critical for effective legislating. Term limits eradicate that knowledge.
  3. Freshmen legislators now trade their votes for jobs they were promised when they were elected.
  4. Leadership in the legislature is controlled by lobbyists. Even individual staff members may be assigned to legislators by the leadership. Legislators spend their time jockeying for positions not on advocating for their constituents. Legislators are smart; they know where their bread is buttered.

The corruption is now more insidious, greedier, and more controlling, and there is nothing the voters can do about it. She says “You can’t defeat lobbyists, consultants and staffers in an election”. The answer to political corruption is not term limits. The answer is voter involvement. She concludes that citizen engagement matters more now than ever in American history.

How will this play out at the local school board level? Take a look at Los Angeles where pro charter forces banded together to promote candidates favorable to privatization. There’s a lot of money connected to education, and privatizers want access to it. School board races set a record for expenditures. The three candidates raised over $2 million and outside money reached $14.3 million.

The adversaries were The California Charter School Association Advocates and the Los Angeles teacher’s union. We know who the teachers are. Who backs the CCSAA is not so clear, but one investigator uncovered large donations from Doris Fisher of The Gap, Alice Walton from Walmart, Lauren Jobs from Apple, and Michael Bloomberg from Wall Street. Should they be controlling Los Angeles school board races?

We the voters will decide in November 2018 which amendments to the Florida constitution will pass. Remember that term limits, however appealing on the surface, shifts power from the voters to the corporate sector where money is king and the voters lose.

Federal Tax Bills Allow Vouchers

The tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate have curious twists. According to the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, 529 college savings accounts could be used for K12 private school tuition. Send your child to private school and get a tax break.

The U.S. Senate’s tax plan allows a tax deduction as a charitable contribution for private school tuition. A second provision creates tax credits for corporate and individual contributions to state non profits that offer tuition payments for low and middle income families.

The drive to get something passed in Congress, anything really, has resulted in a hodge podge of special interests that are certainly not in the public interest.