Gutting Class Size Limits

The latest from the Bush foundation is to gut the class size limits. Yes, the legislature has been doing this for years by exempting almost all classes. Any ‘elective’ is exempt, like American literature, marine biology, AP classes…or any school choice magnet programs, so those classes are much larger. Basic reading, writing and math courses are still covered. Scott Maxwell describes the persistent effort by the Bush ‘Excellence? in Education’ foundation to equate excellence with cheap. It’s a hard case to make, but Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation is doing her best. Let’s hope it is not good enough to further erode the quality of our public schools.

Think about the impact of large class sizes for young children. Think about the impact of large classes we now have for children learning languages. You know more examples.

Levesque and Bobby Martinez, co-members of the Constitutional Revision Commission have filed an amendment to the Florida constitution. The voters have the final say at the November 2018 election. Read Scott Maxwell’s article and decide how you will vote.

Mass Turnout at Hillsborough School Board Meeting

Imagine a thousand people turning out for a school board meeting. People are stirred up. They have reason to be. Read League member Pat Hall’s testimony at the November 14th meeting.

by Pat Hall

Thirteen hundred teachers, children and others attended this meeting, more than ever in the history of Hillsborough County! Salary negotiations have broken down, promises made and not kept, the budget is strained and nerves are frayed. I spoke because four more charter schools were on the agenda for school board approval adding 4404 students in the next 5 years. We’ve asked for an estimate of FTE (full time equivalent) dollars; approximately $7,178 per student per school year that will fly to these four charters as well as PECO (public education capital outlay) dollars lost to traditional schools by the addition of four more charters.

My goal in this statement was to wake up parents and the public to this boondoggle. “The management company for SLAM (Sports Leadership Management Academy) – proposed to teach 2750 children in two buildings is Academica. Academica is under multiple year federal investigation the last I checked. Eric Fresen was Chair of the Education Committee of the Florida Legislature for 8 years. Fresen is the brother-in-law of Academica owner Fernando Zulueta. Fresen is now in jail for fraud and tax evasion. He did not file returns the 8 years he was in the Legislature. Newpoint Company (for-profit management charter co.) has been indicted in Escambia County on fraud charges including Pinellas, Duval and the closing of Newpoint High in Hillsborough County in 2013.

The charter friendly atmosphere here changed immediately after the firing of Mrs. Elia. Tom Gonzales and Jenna Hodgens (H.C. Director of Charter Schools) had a strong case against Kids Community Charter school in Brandon and it was dropped at the request of Mr. Eakins and the Board (chaired by Susan Valdes in 2015).

Statewide 2.7 million traditional students attend public schools. Hillsborough County has 215,000 students including 22,500 in charters. Charter schools represent 10 to 11 % of school aged children in Florida but have grabbed the lion’s share of PECO funds for years. Most for profit charters have been built in the last seven years. The average age of individual schools in Hillsborough County is fifty years. The dramatic shift to charter schools was orchestrated in the legislature by convicted felon Eric Fresen and his very wealthy pals –Jon Hage, owner Charter Schools USA and F. Zulueta, owner of Academica. Research done by Noah Pransky of WTSP, CBS Channel 10 in August, 2014 proved millions of dollars had been stuffed in the pockets of legislators to influence their votes. Governor Scott took $50,000 in 2014 from Hage. In 2014 and 2016 in election contributions we documented, at least three current school board members have taken money from numerous for profit charter school owners, developers and real estate affiliated companies.

One board member took a five day long trip to Miami to visit SLAM there at taxpayer expense of over $1,200. Why 5 days? Why no limits on school board travel when the budget is so tight? This board member collected $13,000 from charter school operators.

Large for profit managed charters receive millions of FTE dollars as do traditional schools based on enrollment. While 86% of traditional school money is spent on instruction, our investigation has proven that large for profit managed charters spend 45 to 48% of FTE on classroom instruction and teachers. The owners take 42-50% of our taxpayer dollars for management fees and real estate leases and rent fees.

When these schools close or go out of business –these buildings we have paid for remain the property of the charter school owners! In Hillsborough County we have authorized 123 schools since 1997 (under Jeb Bush, Governor). We now have 51 open-7 consolidated like Pepin Academy- but 65 never opened or have closed. What are taxpayers choices?

Popping the Balloon: D.C. Reform Fiasco

There is a lot of hot air about the impact of school choice on student achievement. Washington D.C. is often the example touted by unwitting journalists. John Merrow, retired PBS education reports on the ten year reign of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. The achievement gap has widened under their ‘test and punish’ administration. Merrow states: “The education establishment wants everyone to believe that D.C. is a success story. It is not. To the contrary, it is a story of wide spread failure and untold damage to human potential.”

NAEP eighth grade reading scores improved by one point, 232 to 233. Non low-income student scores climbed 31 points from 250 to 281. Similar small gains were observed for fourth grade low income students. The achievement gap widened from 26 to 62 percentage points.

A National Research Council report in 2015 said that most of the achievement gain in D.C. was most likely due to the influx of white affluent families moving into D.C. and sending their children to public schools.

How do D.C.’s charter schools fare in this report? They include 40% of the city’s schools. D.C. schools are intensely segregated by race and class in both the district and charter run schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charters were classified as ‘apartheid’ schools (less than 1% white). Voucher schools heightened the segregation.

So what are the recommended solutions? Orfield, one of the authors of the NRC report indicated that magnet schools learned something charters had not. You need recruitment across racial and ethnic lines, free transportation, strongly appealing and distinctive curriculum, admission to all groups of students, integrated faculties etc.

Federal housing policies have exacerbated residential segregation. Neighborhoods that are already diverse or all white support their local schools. Offering choice to everyone else has created a propaganda campaign but no significant improvement in schools. The challenge is to create a sense of opportunity for all students. To do this, housing patterns must become more diverse. Economic opportunity must be real for all racial/ethnic and income groups. Schools must symbolize this opportunity.

Class Size Manipulation: Voters May Decide

Editorials decry the latest assault on the class size amendment. How large classes are matters to children. How many small classes there are matters to politicians. Small classes cost more money. When the class size amendment was first passed by voters in 2002, districts had to meet limits of 18 students in preschool through grade 3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students for high school core courses by 2010.

There’s a very revealing chart on the Florida DOE website about the real issue. Small classes mean more teachers and more classrooms. The funding list from 2002 shows no facilities funding after 2007-8. This was the same time that the legislature cut the local millage for property tax support for school facilities by 25%. Funding for class size dropped significantly. It has never caught up to the 2007-8 level.

Patricia Levesque, head of the Jeb Bush Foundation for Florida’s Future joined with another member of the Constitutional Revision Commission Roberto Martinez, to file yet another assault on class size. Levesque and the Bush foundation have long been champions of school choice.

This latest amendment legalizes the preference charter schools already enjoy. Individual core classes could be smaller or larger as long as the school average by grade group met the required limits. Charter schools already have this option. In 2013, the legislature allowed district managed magnet schools or other choice programs to average class sizes, but not other schools.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. District managed schools have been struggling for years to meet class size limits, but funding levels just do not cover costs. Some districts preferred to pay fines for not meeting class sizes; it was less expensive than meeting the requirements.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. The solution? The legislature cuts corners. The voters will have their say if this latest constitutional amendment is on the November 2018 ballot.

An Attorney Who Knows, Speaks on Bullying

I have represented quite a few students who have been victims of bullying. The largest target group for bullying is students with disabilities. While it is true that schools are rarely effective in addressing the bullying, making parents often desire to move their children to protect them, that ineffectiveness applies across the board to traditional public, charter and private schools. In Florida, public school students at least have a bullying law requiring that school districts create and follow an anti-bullying policy or risk losing funding. There is no legal protection for private school students (other than using tort law if there is substantial injury, and few personal injury attorneys are willing to take these cases because of statutory limits on liability). Charter school compliance is rarely enforced by districts, who find it easier to invite the student back to public schools than to get the charter schools to do something.

Also, simply moving students to new schools does not always stop the bullying. Students are often targeted for their differences, and I see a disproportionate number of students with weak social skills (due to Asperger’s, ADHD, or mental health conditions) get bullied over and over in different settings until someone looks at them and gets them the supports they need to interact more effectively with their peers. My son was one of those kids. Public schools have the resources and knowledge to evaluate and provide these supports; the privately-run schools usually do not.

What we need is to strengthen the existing law and to expand coverage to all schools. The current law does not give families a direct right to pursue action if the bullying investigation and follow-up are ineffective, so long as the district has a policy and follows the steps in the policy. Without this leverage, schools will not be fully invested in completely eliminating the problem. Additionally, Palm Beach County is working on creating academic standards for social competencies so that all kids (bullies and victims) learn better ways of interacting. We need to advocate to make this statewide.

I am happy to speak about my family’s experience with bullying and my clients’ struggles with bullying in charter and private schools. I can also ask some of the families to speak out. I know several who would love to help change the system.

Kimberley Spire-Oh is an attorney in Palm Beach and a member of the League of Women Voters.

League Remarks at Education Innovation Committee

Sally Butzin spoke on the League’s behalf on the committee meeting about the bullying bill that would give vouchers to students claiming harassment. Her impressions of this very intense meeting are informative. Take a look.

House Education Innovation Subcommittee
November 8, 2017
Report from Dr. Sally Butzin

The committee was considering HB1 regarding expanding the Hope Tax Credit Scholarship Program. I gave testimony on behalf of the League. The League opposes this bill. Marty Monroe waived in opposition as well.

My remark notes are attached.

Sue Legg has posted a summary of the hearing and the final vote. The bill passed along party lines.

My impressions:

This is clearly a voucher expansion bill cleverly disguised as an anti-bullying bill. The sponsor of the bill had no research or data to support the bill, and answered all questions with the stock answer of “parent choice.” He defended the bill on anecdotes he had heard from a couple of parents. The proponents of the bill also harkened back to “parent choice” as their reason for supporting the bill.

I was especially disappointed in how the chair handled the meeting. He kept public comment to 1 minute, and cut opponents off. However, when proponents of the bill spoke, they were allowed to continue with their anecdotal stories relating to their own children, including the speaker from James Madison Institute. Very disheartening to see legislation crafted by personal preference, with little regard to the thousands of children in our public schools who do not have parent advocates with the inclination, time or resources to move their children to private schools. And with no accountability, there is no evidence that a private school provides a better education or safety from bullying and harassment.

Remarks before House Education Innovation Subcommittee
November 8, 2017
Dr. Sally Butzin, representing the League of Women Voters
Speaking against HB1, The Hope Scholarship Program

Introduction
• Retired educator
• Taught in public, charter and private schools, and university level
• Founder and director of the Institute for School Innovation – technology & hands-on learning through Project CHILD
• In partnership, ISI founded and supported nearly a dozen charter schools
• Currently a Trustee with the International Alliance for Invitational Education, worldwide organization promoting inviting schools where children learn better and behave better
• Author, new book coming in January, “Creating Joyful Classrooms”

Kudos – being concerned about protecting children from bullying and harassment

LWV Main concerns
• Unintended consequences
• Lack of accountability
• Redirecting public funds to private schools, including religious schools
• Using public funds for marketing the scholarships to private schools

Unintended consequences
• What about the children being left behind? – eg. Jefferson County, 12 full time security guards
• Re-segregation – eg. Leon County Schools
• Bogus “bullying” claims to get transfers for athletes
o – bill requires only “an incident”
• School staff time to investigate claims

Accountability
• Where is evidence to show Hope Scholarships are working to improve teaching and learning?
o – no comparative testing required for private schools, no comparative discipline data
• Does bullying stop when a child transfers?
o – no reports required unless 51% of students are Hope Scholarship students

Redirecting funds through expanded car tax credits – $34-$40M
• Less funds for counselors, teacher training on dealing with hard to reach children and bullying
o Ironically, bill requires districts to “establish procedures for referring victims and perpetrators to counseling.”

Marketing for one side and not the other
• Bill creates SFO’s (Scholarship Funding Organizations) @ 3% of contributions
• How much have they received, and what proportion used for marketing?
o Television ads and rallies in Tally

Closing
• All children deserve a high quality education in a safe and inviting school
• State must especially protect highly vulnerable children lacking “parent choice”, foster kids, abused kids, etc.
• Our established public community schools need increased support, not less
• Our traditional community schools serve a community purpose that others don’t,
o For example Hurricane shelters
• Hope Scholarships leave our community schools with less Hope.

Douglas County Defeats Dark Money for Vouchers

Douglas County, next to Denver, Colorado school board races are national news and funded nationally. Why? It is a target area for school privatization. So much money is involved that candidates form coalitions. The pro choice/voucher group is called ELEVATE. The anti voucher group is called Community Matters. Evidently, community does matter in Denver. The four anti voucher school board candidates won by 60%.

The district began a voucher program in 2011, but it has been stalled in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court told the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that vouchers in Colorado were unconstitutional. The decision by the voters is likely to slow privatization of schools in Denver.

The race was touted as a test case for school vouchers. Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative Koch Brothers faced off against the teachers union. Politico estimated that the race cost over $800,000 dollars. Democracy is getting very expensive with all that dark money pouring in from billionaires. This time, the citizens won.

Buy a Car–Send a child to private school??

If a child is unhappy at school, should the state pay tuition to a private school? HB 1 filed by Representative Donalds would do just that. The bill would support the transfer to another school, public or private, for students claiming harassment or other threats or intimidations. Tuition payments would be paid for by sales taxes collected on motor vehicles!

Interesting that Representative Donalds is the spouse of Erika Donalds, the Collier County School Board member is sits on the Constitutional Revision Commission. She has filed several amendments to restrict local school board control and to support school choice.

CRC Education Amendments ATTACK K12 Public Schools

The Constitutional Revision Commission members are filing amendments to the Florida Constitution. Four general categories include:

Remove local control of school boards CRC Member Erika Donalds, a pro choice Collier County School Board member, would remove these local options that districts now have by:
1. P43: Requiring term limits for school board members
2. P33: Requiring appointed superintendents
3. P32: Preventing salaries for local and state school board members

Privatization of Public Schools
1. P45 Donalds: Cannot limit the legislature from providing other educational services in addition to the system of free public schools

Remove restriction on Separation of Church and State
1. P59 Johnson: Article IX Section I that prohibits state funds for religious schools would be amended to eliminate restrictions on public funding for educational services at religious entities.
2. P4 Martinez: This ‘Declaration of Rights’ amendment removes prohibition in Article I Section 3 on funding for church, sect, religious denomination or sectarian institution

Expand Charter Schools
P.71 Donalds: Charter Schools Authorization. The amendment gives the legislature free rein to increase or otherwise change current authorization of charter schools to other entities than school districts, municipalities, businesses, colleges/universities

School Operation
P. 10 Gaetz: Require Civics literacy
P. 82 Heuchan: Require schools cannot open before seven days before Labor Day.

State University System
P. 25 Plymale: Establish Community College System
P. 44 Washington: Require minimum vote threshold for tuition and fee increases.
P. 70 Keiser: Tuition and fee waivers for certain members of the military and/or spouse and children
P. 60 Johnson: Bright Futures scholarship and Public Student Assistance Grant funding mandates and qualifications
P. 57 and P. 49, P. 16 Kruppenbacher and Gainey: Death benefits for survivors of first responders etc. that equal tuition and fee costs for post secondary education.

I will provide an analysis of the implications of the PK12 amendments in the weeks ahead.

Beware of Koch Messengers Bearing Gifts in Florida

The Koch brothers latest strategy is to target Hispanic families, according to Politico. They call it the Libre Initiative, and they were recently in Collier County. Hispanic families in south Florida have the largest percentage of students in charters and tax credit scholarship programs.

The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity. 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. In Florida, the November 2018 constitutional amendments already filed to attack school boards and eliminate the Article IX provision for a unified school system have already been filed by Erika Donalds, a CRC member from Collier County. She openly supports choice while serving on the Collier County school board.

Americans for Prosperity hosted House Speaker Richard Corcoran in Collier County as part of Corcoran’s Blueprint for Freedom tour of Florida. This is a well organized effort, both the targeting to families and the showcase events are slick.

There is something about billionaires trying to control public schools that just does not compute. Yet, the influence of money can suffocate reason if we are not alert. Are you holding local events to send a more constructive message to support the public interest?