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?

Segregation: Is the federal government to blame?

Did the federal government end segregation of schools while at the same time promote segregation? How could this be?

In this Education Votes article, Sabrina Holcomb presents Rothstein’s arguments that federal housing policy created the current educational policy crisis. In ‘The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America’, Richard Rothstein is provocative. It is worth a minute to read the Education Votes summary. It focuses our attention on what needs to change to reduce the inequities that our schools are supposed to overcome.

It is clear that attempts to overcome the housing segregation that occurred due to federal housing loan policies dominate our school systems. School choice is one of the most dramatic examples. Charters that siphon off and divide minority neighborhoods are a direct result of trying to find an inexpensive alternative for families to ‘escape’ the low income, educationally disadvantaged schools that federal policy created. They are also a way for some higher income parents in other neighborhoods to maintain their advantage. The emphasis on magnet programs to fill under enrolled schools is also related. Wholesale tracking of students into advanced and gifted programs is another unintended consequence. So, what can be done?

You can’t pick up and move homes. Moving children around is sometimes so time consuming and expensive that it creates as many problems as it solves. Some localities are experimenting with incentives to promote more economically diverse housing options. Others suggest that schools must solve the inequities that communities produce. Online education advocates promote packaged instruction that does not create the student engaged, project based interdisciplinary instruction that motivates students. We do need some sort of learning networks, however. What could these be like both within and across schools and community partners? How can entire communities pull together to support a positive learning environment for all kids? How can real estate developers, local governments, education and social service systems work toward common goals?

Isn’t this what we should be talking about? The first learning network that comes to my mind is one where those communities that are working toward a collaborative vision can learn from one another. Hmmmm, the Integrative Communities blog. Know of one? Surely some exist in the city planning world.

Facilities and Fresen: What a cozy arrangement

You know that former Florida Representative Erik Fresen is going to jail. In this Palm Beach Post article, some other facts about this champion of for-profit charter schools are revealed. Not only did he fail to file his income tax returns for his eight years in office, he:

  1. was a lobbyist for Academica, the for-profit charter chain that his sister and brother-in-law run.
  2. earned $150,000 a year as a consultant for Civica which is the land use company that builds charter schools for
    Academica.
  3. fast tracked the bill to force local districts to share the tax money they received with charters and then capped
    the amount of funding districts could raise.

The education crisis Florida faces that has resulted in a major lawsuit filed against State and is a direct result of the influence peddled by a man who now is going to jail. What remains to be seen is how the current legislature responds.

Charter School Moratorium Proposed

Some things make my eyes light up. Tighter controls or the elimination of for-profit charters is one. Another is a moratorium on the expansion of school choice. New York is ahead of Florida on these issues. The state eliminated the expansion of for-profit charter management several years ago. Now, three elected members of the Buffalo school district have asked for a moratorium on charter growth. It is the usual problem, as charters grow in number, resources dwindle for everyone.

The Buffalo charter sector wants to expand. Its response to the school board decision for a moratorium, however, might not be what you would expect. The spokesperson for the Northeast Charter Schools Network said: “We understand that charter schools are not perfect; they’re not the magic answer”. He went on to say that if parents want them, they should not be denied the choice.

There is a fundamental flaw in the argument that choice is more important than the common good. We all have to ask, How much is enough? I keep going back to the private sector competition model that creates 13 kinds of Cheerios and nearly 200 TV stations. We pay for those, but we don’t use them. Soon the private sector starts to cut corners to cut costs. If you are sensitive to consumer market surveys, you might have recognized that some brands of coffee are sold in 12 ounce packages, not the one pound packages we expect. The price is the same. There is some truth to the old adage that there can be too much of a good thing.

Marion County Denies For-Profit CSUSA School

CSUSA with drew from Alachua County. Now, their proposal to build ‘somewhere’ in Marion County was denied by the school board. No doubt CSUSA will appeal to the State Board of Education.

The Marion County Superintendent recommended the board deny the proposal. According to an article in the Gainesville Sun, she said: CSUSA do not “have the best interests of our students at heart.” “In fact, I believe the exact opposite…I believe they want to take advantage of our students to enhance their bottom line…”

It is clear that for-profit charter school management is under public scrutiny. Now, perhaps if the voices become loud enough, the legislator will take a closer look at which charters serve a useful purpose and do it well. Charters can survive by screening which students to admit to control their school grades. This policy does not improve education, it fragments communities.

Remember and tell everyone what the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says about Florida:

“despite consistent growth by charter schools in Florida, the schools have lagged on quality, diversity and innovation.” 2016

Incessant Testing Does More Harm Than Good

An Eastside High School teacher in Gainesville speaks her mind. Who benefits from all this testing? Certainly not the students How about the teachers? Some do and some equally proficient do not. For example, if you teach an AP course, you get a bonus. If you teach in a school that receives an ‘A’ grade two years in a row, you get a bonus. If the school gets an ‘A’ one year and a ‘B’ the next, you do not.

Teachers get frustrated. Many students cry or sleep through the test. What a waste of time and money. Read this teacher’s story.
http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20171n004/amanda-lacy-shitama-incessant-testing-does-more-harm-than-good?rssfeed=true

There are those who say testing is a good thing. Surely, these same people understand that there can be too much of a good thing.

Who Gets Rewarded and Why?

The State of Florida DOE released the names of schools that received bonus money for schools with good test scores. To be eligible, the school grade must be high and/or school achievement gains must be large. These bonuses are supposed to be incentive awards to work hard and produce results. Is it effective? Some argue that the whole concept is totally unfair and counterproductive. The bonus money which amounts to about $50,000 for a school with 500 students goes to teachers, school equipment or temporary support staff.

I am including a link to the schools in each district that were rewarded. I looked at Alachua to see which schools got money. Here’s what I found:

  1. Schools receiving an ‘A’ school grade for two consecutive years received a $100 bonus per child.
  2. Schools receiving a ‘B’ school grade (9 schools) or below for two consecutive years received no bonus.
  3. Schools that dropped a letter grade, even from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’ received no bonus.

School grades are correlated with the socio-economic status of the children’s families. Thus, fluctuations in grades have as much or more to do with which students are enrolled than with the quality of the instruction.

For a small school, the most direct way to improve a school grade is to enroll fewer students from struggling families and more from more stable and affluent families. District schools are not able to control enrollment, and school grades can fluctuate as families enter and leave the school. Charter schools are able to screen and dismiss schools more freely. They are often motivated to do so since they can be closed if they receive consecutive failing grades. If charter schools attract more students from stable families, when these students leave a district school, the district school grade is likely to decline. They then have a harder time attracting experienced teachers. A downward spiral often begins.

School grades can be improved by extra instructional time and high quality staff. These factors are important and costly, but are not sufficient approaches to a quality education. Children learn from one another, and schools that can enroll students from diverse backgrounds can create a school climate in which all students feel they have a chance to succeed. The trade off may be that an ‘A’ school becomes a ‘B’ school because some children from low income families are enrolled. The quality of instruction may be even better as a result, because those children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have rich experiences but lower test scores.

School grades are meant to be incentives to improve schools. Parents are supposed to vote with their feet to seek better schools. Too often, this shifting students from one school to another has the opposite effect. Districts may not be able to estimate enrollments, plan appropriate instructional programs, and know which types of teachers they need.

Bottom line? Bonus incentives can simply add insult to injury.

FTC Scholarships: Who Benefits? Who knows!

Yes, there is yet another study about Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. This one is funded in part by the Walton and Bush foundations. Don’t bother to read it you say? Not so fast. I found some useful tidbits.

The study looks for evidence that students who stay in the FTC program benefit by enrolling in college (community college) at a higher rate than similar students from public schools. Depending upon how you count, about five percent of the FTC program students are more likely to attend, but not graduate from, a community college. We can all celebrate students who succeed. We can also predict who they are likely to be.

What the report admits is that this study is not about student achievement. Florida private schools do not administer state tests, so comparisons cannot be made with public schools. In fact, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio studies demonstrated that participating in their FTC programs reduced student achievement on state tests. So, the researchers asked different questions.

Who enrolls in Florida FTC private schools? What happens to them?
1. The study supposedly matched public school and FTC private school students by income and race. The match had problems. The public school group included 4% more children from families below the poverty level. Data on FTC students in the reduced lunch category, which is about a $10,00 higher income level, was even more starkly different. Only 11% of the FTC students were in the reduced lunch group compared to 31% of public school students. This fact alone may explain the difference in the rate of college enrollment between the two groups.
2. The Florida DOE data show that 83% of FTC students attend a religious private school. FTC students who enrolled in a Catholic or a non Christian religious school were more likely to enroll in college, but few FTC students enroll in these schools.

Who benefited from the FTC program?
1. FTC students who are most likely to attend college are Hispanic students who were born outside the U.S.
2. FTC students enrolled in private schools that were in existence before the program began in 2003 are more likely to go to college.
3. As more FTC students enrolled in a school, the less likely the students enrolled in community college.

No matter how the numbers are manipulated, private schools are no answer to improving student achievement. The students who succeed attend selective, well established private schools that will only enroll a few scholarship students. No doubt these children were carefully screened for admission.

The State can no longer even say that the tax credit scholarships save money. The legislature increased the stipend for tuition. The legislature must turn its attention to improving the quality of schools. Simply moving children around from place to place harms kids. Even this study mentions this disruption.

Resegregation of Florida Schools: Problem or Solution?

We came to Florida in 1966. Florida was the ‘New South’ thanks to Governor LeRoy Collins. It was to be a model of positive change, and for many years, it was. Florida led the nation in desegregation. Then in the 90’s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions repealed desegregation mandates. The ‘Separate but Equal’ era reasserted itself. Districts–communities–ended bussing and suburban sprawl was the norm. Large, mostly urban pockets of very low performing schools developed due to racially and economically segregated housing patterns.

In a just released study of Florida public education, the bottom line for children is that with whom they attend school matters. The report states: “White, middle-class student enrollment is especially important since these students have access to more challenging courses, peer groups and support systems in strong schools. These educational advantages benefit disadvantaged students in ways that enrollment in predominately minority schools do not.”

Reaching the goal of racially and economically diverse schools is a challenge. Florida’s population has become more diverse and less affluent. The percentage of white/Asian students fell from 60% to 43%. While the percentage of black students in public schools remains about 20%, the percentage of Hispanics doubled to 31%. Are the public schools more diverse? Well yes, on average. We have more multi racial schools– 1/5 in 1994 to 1/3 in 2014. The diversity, however, is not uniformly spread among schools. The percentage of schools that are 90-100% minority has doubled from 10% in 1994 to 20% in 2014.

While exposure to other races and ethnicities has increased over time, the typical student in each group tends to go to schools where the majority of students are like themselves. This is especially true for white students. They attend schools with about one-third minority enrollment, whereas black and Hispanic students are typically in schools where they represent two-thirds of the school’s enrollment. Given the economic differences among racial/ethnic groups on average and the correlation between income and achievement, it is predictable that concentrations of low performing schools are found in low-income areas.

Under the school choice policies initiated by Governor Jeb Bush in the 2000s, parents are offered choices to escape the problems associated with concentrated poverty. Resegregation, as a result, increased. One in four black students attends an intensely segregated charter school. Hispanic students in charters are even more likely to attend a charter school with a predominately Hispanic student body. In Florida, Hispanic students are the largest group attending charter schools. Given that charter schools are counted as public schools, the conclusion that public schools are becoming more segregated is no surprise.

The obvious problem is what can be done that encourages a better cross section of students who can learn from one another. In Governor Collins’ era, the State supported research to design desegregation plans. Florida does have a controlled enrollment option for districts. Lee and St. Lucie counties have implemented this approach to school assignment in order to better integrate its schools. Okaloosa County has voted to go in this direction. Nevertheless, the report concludes that Florida has come a long way since the era of LeRoy Collins, but the integration of public schools is not one of them.

HB 7069 Lawsuit: Local Control is the Real Issue

Politics is a see saw. Currently, Republicans are in control in a majority of states. There is a very organized movement to seize control from local communities, and the source of the movement is political and has a name ‘ALEC‘. According to the New York Times July 17, article, many cities are ‘blue’ while the state legislature may be ‘red’…read Democratic vs. Republican. States with conservative Republican party majorities have targeted local cities’ ability to make their own rules and regulations. By using pre emption laws, state legislatures are blocking local ordinances against everything from fracking in Texas to the use of plastic bags in Michigan. Some state legislatures have banned the ability of their cities to enact local minimum wage laws, paid sick leaves, sanctuary cities and protect gender rights.

It is no surprise that cities and school districts are fighting back. Even though some district school boards continue to ponder, most large districts have voted to join together to sue the State of Florida over the local control of their schools that was usurped by HB 7069. What is at stake is more than money. It is who decides, the local community or the state, how local funding for schools will be spent, and who decides which schools will be locally managed. The Florida constitution states that local school boards decide. It will be very important to track the Constitutional Revision Commission proposed amendments to the Florida constitution that make it to the November 2018 ballot. Perhaps the pendulum will begin to swing back as those who support the public interest become as organized as those who support private interest. The November 2018 election results will be a bell weather.

Here’s the latest tally, according to news reports, of school districts that have voted to join the lawsuit and those who have not:

JOIN

Alachua
Bay
Broward
Clay
Duval
Hamilton
Lee
Martin
Miami-Dade
Orange
Palm Beach
Pinellas
Polk
St Lucie
Volusia

NOT JOIN
Manatee
Sarasota