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“.

Hidden Curriculum: Lost Children

The Huffington Post took on a Herculean task. It created a database of 8000 schools across 25 of the 27 states with private school choice programs. They check their religious affiliations and try to identify the curriculum.

Their results found 25% were non religious private schools. Of the 6000 religious schools, 29% were Catholic and 42% were Christian-non Catholic. There were a few other religions represented 2% Jewish and 1% Muslim faiths.

The reporters focused on the 2500 Christian non Catholic schools. They checked websites and/or contacted the schools to identify which curriculum was used. Many declined to respond to requests for textbook information. Of those who did respond, about one third of the Christian non Catholic schools used Abeka, Bob Jones or ACE textbooks for at least part of their curriculum. The article lists 1024 Florida private choice schools using these texts. The number raises questions.

While the database does list the names and locations of the schools, the numbers exceed the Florida private school list and the number of private Florida tax credit schools reported by the Department of Education. Florida reports 2663 private schools of which 1733 are private FTC schools. Two thirds or about 1154 of the FTC schools are religious. If about half of those are Christian, non Catholic, the actual number of private choice schools using those fundamentalist Christian texts would be closer to 385 than to the 1000 the article lists.

Do the numbers matter? What is really important are the children and whether the State of Florida should provide funding, directly or indirectly to private schools, most of which are religious. If you are interested in the ideology behind the fundamentalist Christian textbooks and the interviews with children who felt they had been deprived of an education, read the article. At one point I had several of these books to review. It will give you pause. The children matter.

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.

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.

Separation of Church and State Under Siege

Roberto Martinez filed P4 to end the ban on public funding for religious schools. In a 5-1 vote yesterday, the Constitutional Revision Commission sub committee on Declaration of Rights agreed. The provision in question, commonly known as the Blaine amendment, has been in the Florida Constitution for over a 100 years.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Martinez says he supports separation of church and state and public schools. He just thinks banning money from religious institutions is wrong.

This argument is as old as our country. The voters will have to decide once again. Florida’s Supreme Court supported the Blaine amendment is 2006. A ballot measure to allow private school funding was defeated in 2008, The voters rejected a subsequent to fund private schools in 2012.

Once again, it is time to stand up to the values in our Florida constitution. They have withstood the test of time. Some variation of this latest attack on the separation of church and state will appear on the November 2018 ballot. Voters once again will have to reinforce the distance between an impartial public school system and individual religious preferences.

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.

Schools Without Rules: Winners and Losers

Do children learn in unregulated private schools? If so, why have rules for any schools? These are billion dollar questions. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program now garners about a billion dollars in redirected corporate tax rebates and other beverage license fees to educate children in private schools. Bottom line response to the ‘Who learns?’ question is that eleven percent of the FTC students gain twenty percentage points on a nationally standardized test, and eleven percent lose twenty percentage points. Most FTC children do about the same as others.

Who are the winners and losers?

Stories like ‘Schools without Rules’ that focus on children who are being short changed are heart breaking. Supporters for the FTC program, however, push back with counter charges and citizens are faced with yet another obfuscated argument to unravel. The important questions are about the best way to help children learn. These are the questions that remain unanswered in the school choice debate.

What do we really know about the FTC program?

WHO ARE FTC SCHOLARSHIP CHILDREN? Most FTC children are Hispanic (38%) and (83%) attend religious schools. While the FTC scholarships were originally designed to offer low-income families a better alternative, the reality is quite different. They tend to come from high performing public schools. Only twenty-five percent were previously enrolled in a public school with ‘D’ or ‘F’ grade. The income level requirement continues to be raised thus redirecting the FTC scholarships to less needy families.

FTC participation drops off after third grade.

HOW ARE FTC SCHOOLS EVALUATED? The FTC children are not required to take state tests or follow state curriculum. They take a nationally normed test that cannot be compared to the Florida Standards Assessments.

HOW DO REQUIREMENTS DIFFER? Teachers and principals are not required to be certified. Required background checks are not adequately supervised. Facilities are not required to meet public school standards.

HOW DO STUDENTS FARE ACADEMICALLY? Eleven percent of students gain more than 20 percentage points and eleven percent lost more than twenty percentage points compared to the results on the national tests. Those who leave tend to be students who struggle the most. They tend to be further behind academically than before they left their public schools.

Students who stay in the FTC school four or more years are slightly more likely to enroll in community college, but not graduate, than students who were eligible for FTC scholarships but did not attend. Successful students tend to be enrolled in Catholic schools and/or are foreign born. The more successful schools are those that were in existence prior to 2002. Private schools with a high percentage of FTC students tend not to be successful.

It is important not to overgeneralize results of studies. Based on the reports from the private school sector, however, it would appear that FTC students, in general, have little to gain and much to loose by attending these small, religious schools. The public, however, may have the most to lose. When funds are siphoned off in unproductive ways, everyone loses.

Florida Must Take A Closer Look At Charter Schools

In today’s Sun Sentinel, see the League’s opinion piece on Gulen for-profit charter schools. This is a unique chain. The profits go to support an international religious movement. The article explains how profits are generated in an example from River City Science Academy in Jacksonville.

Gulen is a Turkish Imam who had a falling-out with the Turkish President Erdogan. He moved to Pennsylvania and is the head of a movement that has 170 charter schools in the U.S., twelve in Florida. The leaders bring in Turkish nationals under ‘specialty occupation’ visas for positions that are questioned as a violation of the intent of the visa program. In Florida, 195 visas were given for Turkish men to work in Gulen schools, even if their mastery of English was very limited. Their business practices in Georgia resulted in their expulsion.

The for-profit charter industry has a complex web of real estate dealings that make millions for the management company at the expense of tax payers. The Gulen schools, managed in Florida as Charter Educational Services and Resources, have cover names. In Jacksonville, they are River City schools. In other areas they are often tied to names like math and science academies. Gainesville had two Gulen schools–Sweetwater Branch–that closed for poor academic performance and low enrollment. Their teacher salaries on average were lower than the beginning salary for new teachers in the district. I happened to speak, the other day, with a former teacher at a local Gulen school. She was dismayed at the way the school had been operated. They never knew from day to day which teachers would show up; the leadership was disorganized and disinterested. At least it closed, but not before it became profitable.

The League has long recognized Florida’s lax oversight of charter school management practices. The legislature must respond.

CRC: Nothing Subtle About This

The first Commission on the Constitutional Revision Committee has filed his proposals to amend the Florida Constitution. The one that struck me immediately was P0004 filed by Roberto Martinez. He simply struck the language prohibiting taking money from the State or political subdivisions or agency from the public treasury and giving it to religious denomination, church or sect.

Basically, this would enable vouchers to private schools which the Florida Constitution now prohibits

The voters would have to approve this amendment.

Catching Up: Which bills are signed? Another look at the Court

Schoolhouse Consulting Group brings us up to date with federal and state education actions. Their take on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is less certain than the NEA’s. No doubt there are members of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission who will use this decision to attack the Blaine Amendment. Voters will have to decide if they want public money to cover vouchers to private schools. Of course it indirectly does now through the tax credit scholarships. At some point citizens have to decide if all those standards and tests required for public schools should be required for private schools. What’s the expression? Isn’t it ‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander’?

Here’s the summary from Schoolhouse:

Federal
 
The U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a Missouri law that could have ramifications for Florida’s Constitutional prohibition of state or local funds being used directly or indirectly in the aid of any church, religious denomination or sectarian institution, the so-called “Blaine Amendment.”
 
The 7-2 ruling case involves denial of state funds to a church as a grant to use shredded scrap material from tires for its playground. The high court ruled the Missouri Blaine Amendment language violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling can be viewed here.
 
In Florida, efforts to create scholarships or vouchers for students to attend sectarian schools began in 1999 with passage of the A+ Plan. A 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision ruled “opportunity scholarships” unconstitutional, but not based on Article 1, section 3. In 2012, voters defeated (44.5 “yes” vote with 60% needed to be adopted) Amendment 8 that read: (Article 1, Section 3) There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety. No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution. Underlined wording was new and strike-though language would have been removed.
 
Both U.S. Education Secretary Betsy deVos and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were quick to hail the ruling. For Florida, it will likely lend support to a renewed effort to put something similar to Amendment 8 on the 2018 ballot, either through the Legislature or Constitutional Revision Commission. It may also spur some in Congress to re-open Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and seek a scholarship/voucher-like program in the coming months. In addition to Florida and Missouri, 37 other states have similar constitutional language.
 
State
 
Governor Rick Scott has now signed nearly all education bills that passed the regular and special sessions. Today, of note, he signed HB3A which is the special session bill appropriating an additional $100/students in the Florida Education Finance program. He also signed:
 
HB 0015 Relating to Educational Options (Sullivan) – expanded Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit scholarships
HB 0781 Relating to Designation of School Grades (Porter) – defined how school centers having grades K-3 will be graded
HB 0899 Relating to Comprehensive Transitional Education Programs (Stevenson) – Authorizes Agency for Persons with Disabilities to petition for appointment of receiver for comprehensive transitional education program
HB 0989 Relating to Instructional Materials (Donalds) – clarifies right of parents and residents to provide input to district selection/adoption of instructional materials and sets appeals process to be conducted by a hearing officer
HB 1079 Relating to Pub. Rec. and Meetings/Campus Emergency Response for Public Postsecondary Educational Institutions (Rommel) – Provides exemption from public records requirements for specified portions of campus emergency response for public postsecondary educational institutions;
HB 1109 Relating to Private School Student Participation in Extracurricular Activities (Antone) – allows students at non-FHSAA schools to be eligible to play for local FHSAA schools
HB 1239 Relating to School Bus Safety (Eagle) -Provides for mandatory noncriminal penalties, fine, driver license suspension, & driver license points for certain violations resulting in serious bodily injury to/death of another person.