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.

Community Schools: We all can help

What can be done when communities experience more income and racial segregation? It impacts school culture and the sense of equity and access to the wider world. The Florida legislature has mandated charter takeovers. Community schools are the public school answer to those takeovers. They are emerging as an effective strategy to counter the isolation. Florida has twelve. The first, Evans High School sponsored by the Children’s Home Society, is a marvel. Read about how Evans went from an ‘F’ rated school to a ‘B’ rated school and grew enrollment from 1600 students to over 2400. Its graduation rate went up from 50% to 80%.

What exactly is a community school? There is a report out that describes four essential qualities. We need to track these schools. We can also help these schools. Here in Alachua County we are meeting with our community school leaders to find ways to support their after school programs. You might find a way to help one of your schools.

Community schools have strong connections between educators and local resources, supports and people. Meaningful learning and well-rounded development is everyone’s top priority. This learning strategy is not about regurgitating facts. It is about tackling real world complex problems using collaboration to create deeper learning. Too aspirational you might say? Not so! Low expectations send a message to children. Helping children tackle real-world problems engages them.

Here’s what to look for:

  1. Student support services are integrated into the school and coordinated by a school staff member.
  2. After school, weekend and summer programs provide additional academic instruction and enrichment activities.
  3. Schools become a neighborhood hub where parents’ educational or other civic needs can be met e.g. specialty classes.
  4. Collaborative leadership and practice through teacher/leadership teams, teacher learning communities, and a community school coordinator.

Here’s where to look for other community schools in Florida.

Fla. Appeals Court Supports State Education Policy

No surprise, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling against Citizens for Strong Schools. Basically, the Court held that the “high quality” and “efficient”, language from Article IX of the Florida constitution, were political judgments. The school choice, and testing and accountability policies were political decisions not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts. If it is truly political, then the voters have to change what is.

In an additional ruling, the court decided that vouchers for the McKay scholarships for children with some form of disability did not violate the uniform system of free public schools provision in the constitution.

Southern Legal Counsel, which filed the case, now must decide how to go forward. The case can be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. You can read about the case on their website.

Education funding and fairness lawsuits occur across the country. For an overview of other cases see the Education Law Center.

This case has gone on for years. It will continue the fight. Floridians must also continue the fight for high quality, fair and efficient schools.

FTC Private Schools: A Disturbing Trend

Over time, a higher percentage of FTC scholarship students are enrolling in private, high poverty schools. Their long term success rate decreases. FTC students in schools with more than 30% FTC students do less well than similar FTC students in private schools that enroll fewer FTC students. We can only speculate why this may be so. According to this report released by the Brookings Institute, differences could be related to teacher certification, length of the school year, or the type of curricula.

Perhaps even more troubling is over a third of FTC students return to public schools in one year; over half return in two years. Students who struggle academically are the most likely to leave private schools, and they are further behind than before they left public schools. Choice is creating churn, and churn hurts students.

The Florida House Innovation subcommittee on Education hearing December 6, 2017 agenda focused on needed regulations. Representatives from the McKay Scholarship program, the Florida DOE, Step Up for Students and the A.A.A. FTC distribution agencies testified. The theme was predictable; you can’t regulate your way to quality. Private schools do not want the testing and accountability system mandated for public schools. About one third of the private schools do not choose to participate in the FTC program in order to be free of regulation.

Nevertheless, at least the Catholic Diocese representative differentiated regulation from quality standards. He reported that Catholic schools in Florida require accreditation and teacher certification, unlike many other types of private schools accepting FTC scholarships. Catholic (15%) and religious non Christian school students (5% Jewish or Muslim) tend to enroll in a community college at a higher rate than similar students in district schools. FTC students in other private schools tend to do about the same or less well than similar public school students.

The hearing agenda was focused on needed regulation in the FTC program. The State, by law, visits few schools. Moreover, of the over 1700 FTC schools that enroll 98,889 students, only 681 schools that receive more than $250,000 must file financial reports.

Proposed regulations to stem the mismanagement of schools included more DOE site visits, better background checks for private school owners, improved information about schools for parents, and quarterly rather than annual financial reports.

Little will come of these regulations. The DOE would need an army to visit nearly 2,000 private schools. Better paperwork won’t create quality programs. Expanding FTC enrollment in private high poverty schools, however, will make a bad problem worse. The difference between public and private high poverty schools is that the lack of oversight and transparency keeps parents in the dark. There is a message in all of this…students in schools with high quality staff and mixed income families do better. How do families get that choice?

There was at least one bright spot. Representative Lee made the comment that too little was said about the many successes public schools have. He is right.

Something is Happening in Chicago

Chicago’s children, all children, show dramatic gains in test scores, according to a Stanford University study.

Their achievement gain from third to eighth grade was six grade levels compared to five levels nationally. Third graders also had higher scores in recent years. Chicago test scores are still about 1 to 1 1/5 below the national average, and the achievement gaps remain even though Hispanic achievement grew faster than white students.

About 49% (415) of Chicago’s schools remain zoned neighborhood schools, and most of these are elementary schools in affluent areas. Three fourths of high school students do not attend neighborhood schools. There are 265 no zone elementary schools of which 130 are charter schools. A Chicago Tribune article described the impact on neighborhoods. Choice made public schools less bureaucratic but now it is overkill; we are just competing with one another. To improve enrollment, some district schools are becoming community schools like one that includes the IB program. It now stays open on Saturdays and evenings and holds classes of interest to parents.

Some schools develop new STEM or other specialized programs to attract parents, but the effect is that other schools have a high percentage of students who struggle academically and have disabilities. An administrator asks: What is the cost for the neighborhood and for the kids who stay behind? There is a loss of social networks because children in the same area go to so many different schools. The schools they attend may not be much different from the one they left, but parents do not know. They don’t connect with one another. What they do know is that those zoned schools in affluent areas have no room for them.

The expected explanations e.g. declining population and high student retention (14%) do not account for the achievement gains, at least on the surface. Improvement happens in all socio-economic groups. The Stanford researchers call for a deeper dive into the migration of students into and out of the city. The percentage of minority groups remains the same, but are they somehow different? Do the children who struggle the most leave Chicago, thus the children who stay have, on average, higher scores? Do school choice policies have an impact? The study calls for more studies.

A lot is happening in Chicago, but we cannot explain it. Let’s hope that there will be a deeper dive into the schools. Are the children who were pulling down the scores leaving at a higher rate than others? Does leaving behind the students who struggle the most actually improve the school climate? It does not seem like this is the explanation simply because schools in affluent areas have not been impacted by poverty, and their scores are also improving.

Is a Revolt Brewing Over 4 Day School Weeks?

Florida’s isn’t at the bottom of the state education funding ranking; it hovers around 42nd. At the bottom are states like Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma. What’s it like for schools there? Schools are trying to cut costs by holding school four days a week. It does save some transportation and food costs but not much else. The school days are longer; thus teacher salaries remain the same.

According to former Republican Governor Keating, parents are rebelling. They view the legislature as dysfunctional. They are voting out those they blame. The Atlantic calls it ‘The Red State Revolt‘. It is over the constant cuts in education that have resulted in teacher shortages and larger class sizes. In Oklahoma, one-fourth of the schools are open only four days. Maybe there is a point where parents say enough is enough to cuts in education spending. Will Florida’s legislature listen? It has not yet restored funding at pre recession levels.

Can Florida afford to do any better for its children? A new report by the Education Law Center says ‘Yes’. The 2017 ELC report ranks state by funding level, how funds are distributed based on student need, effort related to economic capacity, and fairness based on percentage of students in public vs. private schools. These ratings are very revealing for Florida.

“California and Florida are positioned very poorly on all four fairness measures, receiving an “F” in Funding Effort” and a “C” in Funding Distribution”. On all other indicators, Florida ranks between 40th and 50th in the nation. The data show that Florida can afford to do better for its public schools. It also shows the growing emphasis on sending children to private schools which are becoming increasingly dependent upon public funding through tax credits and vouchers.

The choices that Florida’s legislators are making may well run into the same wall of rebellion by the citizens of Florida who want more for their children. The State can afford to do more, but it is choosing not to. Our funding levels are just above Oklahoma, and current attacks on public school funding due to HB 7069 will only make things worse. The ‘choice’ bubble in Florida may well burst as it appears to be in Oklahoma.

The CRC Wrecking Crew

In 1998, the Constitutional Revision Commission strengthened Florida’s education system. Twenty years later, the current CRC is called a wrecking crew in the Orlando Sentinel editorial.

What is at stake?

Martinez proposes to end the separation of church and state. Can you believe this: The Chair of the State Board of Education, Marva Johnson, is proposing to abolish the prohibition to fund private schools with public money. Other CRC members would allow public funds to be used for services in private schools. Even more unbelievable is the proposal by a member of the Collier County school board, Erika Donalds, to allow charters without having school board approval. And then, Martinez would totally get rid of the provision for a uniform system by creating charter school districts.

There’s more. The only hopeful thing is that Florida’s voters have rejected many of these same ideas before, more than once. Voters will have to turn out in droves in November 2018 to say once more that all children must have access to a free, high quality education.

New Tallahassee Community School

What’s a community school, you ask? It’s one where whole families can congregate. The best example in Florida is Evans High School in Orlando. It went from a ‘D’ to a ‘B’ school by engaging families, not dismissing them. The concept is sponsored by Children’s Home Society (CHS). They provide a director, and three staff for coordinating health, parent engagement and after school care.

At Evans, there is a health clinic that serves the school staff and the families. There is onsite counseling and food pantries. There is a Parent Resource center and after school programs. CHS has launched nine of these community schools, and it is a partnership. The legislature provides some funding, but local businesses and universities pitch in to support the staffing.

The CHS staff coordinate services; the principal is in charge of academics. They all work together. Now, Tallahassee will have a community school. It is a practical, impactful approach to supporting children’s needs.

Check out their website. When CHS came to Gainesville, at Howard Bishop Middle School, the League celebrated. It is not easy to pull all the resources together, but it is a worthwhile effort. We are doing what we can to spread the word and build support.

It’s a concept to build, not divide, communities.

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.