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.

Politics in Science and Civics Curriculum

SB 966 Baxley. Adopts minimum curriculum standards. This ‘Controversial Theories’ bill allows districts to adopt more rigorous standards. If they do, they must include teaching controversial science theories and concepts in a factual, objective, and balanced manner. While creationism is not specifically mentioned in the bill, it would certainly qualify as a controversial theory.

This bill also specifies that civics education must strictly adhere to the founding values and principles of the United States as in s. 1003.42. See section 2a. It also requires that financial literacy include at least Keynesian and Hayekian economics. These theories differ in part over the role of the central government response to economic hardship i.e. increased spending vs. free market adjustments. This might be quite an intellectual load for seventh graders taking civics.

Senator Baxley, from Marion County, receives an A+ from the Koch Brothers advocacy group “Americans for Prosperity“.

Fight over funding looming

A critical tax issue faces the 2018 legislature. Will Richard Corcoran allow schools to receive more income as property values increase? The millage rate that schools can levy will stay the same, but as property values go up, the revenue for school operating costs goes up. Or, it should. Last year, the legislature rolled back school funding so they would receive no more money than the previous year.

According to the St. Augustine Record, Richard Corcoran is running for Governor, quietly for now. He has raised $4 million for his campaign. His motto…No New Taxes. There is no planned millage increase, but Corcoran’s motto should be…No More Money for Schools.

Governor Scott has again promised more funding for education, but he is depending upon the increase in property values to pay for most of it. Once again, he and Corcoran will have a stand off. Last year, Scott yielded in exchange for his corporate incentive funding. What will be the bargaining tool this year?

Schools are in a double bind. The legislature has not only limited operating costs, it now requires districts to show local millage for facilities with privately owned charter schools. In Gainesville, we have some schools that regularly flood. We have older schools that need repair. We have crowded schools with hundreds of portable classrooms. Other districts have the same challenges. The Court of Appeals in Florida has ruled that this is a political problem. The citizens of Florida have to fix it. Will we get out the vote in November 2018?

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.

Eva is Scary!

The latest article in the Atlantic depicts the ruthless character of the Success Academy charter founder, Eva Moskowitz and the Chair of the Success Academy board, billionaire Daniel Loeb. It is, however, more than a diatribe. Elizabeth Green, of Chalkbeat, describes the frustration with unions and bureaucratic tangles that led to Moskowitz’s charter chain. Green also outlines the future, perhaps not too distant, of the charter movement. Must give us pause.

Moskowitz decried union bonus rules that encouraged custodians to cut maintenance costs in order to save money for bonuses. The result, she alleges, was unhealthy, non private bathrooms. Teachers, Moskowitz claims, are hamstrung by conflicting regulations from the federal, state and local levels. Charters, free from all of these regulations, are free to concentrate on instruction.

Instruction, as Green documents, is not free from regulation in Moskowitz’s charters. Instead it is scripted and rigidly enforced by the charter chain. It is a sort of mind control for students and teachers. As a result, student and teacher attrition is very high. There is no apology. Success charters, in general, target lower income students. Then they sift out the students and teachers who cannot manage the ‘no excuses’ discipline. By the time students graduate, most have left long before. Those who survive do well on test scores. Publicity from those successes keep parents coming. Winning the lottery is compelling but by winning, most students have a hollow victory.

The future direction of the charter movement is toward charter networks like the 46 charters Moskowitz runs. Parents would choose between one or more charter chains and what remains of traditional public schools. Each chain would have its own philosophy and management style. Parents won’t really choose, they will enter into a lottery and take what they can get. Given that the private sector sets its own rules; parents either like the option or leave. Then what?

The best situation would be a weighted lottery that would attempt to balance racial/ethnic and economic groups within a school. The worst might result in schools that totally isolate all demographic and ability groups.

Green does not just imagine the spread of charter chains and districts. Florida has two of the largest for-profit charter chains in the U.S., Academica and CSUSA. Proposals to amend the Florida constitution to facilitate charter districts have been filed by CRC members Donalds and Martinez.

It will be up to Florida’s voters to decide how scary Florida’s educational system will be.

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.

How well do Florida students do….Really?

At the Florida House Innovation hearing a couple of weeks ago, Commissioner Stewart said that Florida ranked in the top ten in achievement scores. This is a stretch. Try 11th in fourth grade reading and 33nd in eighth grade reading. It worse in mathematics.

The comparisons of Florida on the National Achievement of Education Progress (NAEP) average scores are reported below along with the achievement gains in scores from 2003-2015.

AVERAGE SCORES

  1. Nationally Florida is 11th in grade four reading and 19th in math on NAEP, but it is one of the relatively few states that has mandatory third grade retention based on state assessment scores. Retention of third graders creates a temporary inflation in scores for fourth graders. Fourth grade NAEP scores diminish by eighth grade.

  2. Florida’s ranking in 8th grade reading drops to 33nd. Math is 43rd. nationwide.

Grade 4
Compare: Florida Nation Rank
Math……. 243… 200… 19
Reading.. 227… 221… 11

Grade 8
Math……. 275… 281… 43
Reading.. 263… 264… 33

COMPARISONS WITH LARGE ‘MEGA’ STATES

The Florida DOE does compare Florida’s NAEP scores to the nation and to other large states like California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Texas. Of these so-called mega states, only California, Ohio and Florida have mandatory third grade retention. Note the drop in Florida’s percentage of students scoring at or above proficient in achievement rankings between fourth and eighth grade. The gain in the percentages of students scoring at or above proficient between 2003-15 is included in the report.

  1. All of the mega states except California out perform Florida in 8th grade mathematics. In reading, California and Texas have lower scores than Florida, but Florida also has a below average percentage of students scoring at or above the proficiency level.

  2. Florida’s 8th grade achievement gains in reading were less than all other large states except New York. California and Pennsylvania had large reading gains. The only large state to have large achievement gains in mathematics was Texas. Florida had significantly lower gains than most large states.

Education Week reports Quality Indicators that combine a number of ratings. If the National Assessment score rankings in grade 4 and 8 are used, Florida’s quality indicator is a C-, according to the latest Education Week report.

The bottom line is:

  1. Large states with large minority and low income populations do not perform as well as other states.
  2. Eighth grade scores are better indicators of achievement than are fourth grade scores due to differences in states’ retention policies.
  3. Florida ranks near the bottom in achievement gains. Wish it were different. Florida cannot improve achievement if it does not even recognize the problem it has.

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.