Voucher Supporters and Opponents Coming Forward

Interesting to see how the religious communities view vouchers. The Catholic church supports them. The Florida Council of Churches is opposed. Reverend Russell Meyer was quoted in a Florida Phoenix article. He stated that there should be the same accountability standard for all schools. Teachers should be certified. He further said that there should be one standard of accountability for all schools supported by public money. I could not agree more. See the article here.

The Ban the Book Brigade

Florida Citizen’s Alliance has an agenda to censor textbooks. Which books?
1. Anything with sexually explicit text e.g. Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’; LBGTBQ transgender themes e.g. ‘Being Homosexual’ by Richard Isay
2. U.S. History texts, World History, Understanding Economics and other books that are charged with issues such as having a ‘left bias, opposition to right to bear arms, failure to emphasize federalist vs. anti federalist conflicts, bias against supply side economics, and stating evolution as a settled fact.
3. Religious indoctrination e.g. books about Islam
4. Science e.g. books about environmental dangers such as global warming; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that do not explicitly say that these are ‘theories, not facts’.
5. Common Core Math critical thinking, problem solving methods

The FCA is headed by Keith Flaugh who is part of the coalition centered around Erika and Byron Donalds and others who support the Christian conservative charter schools known as Classical Academies. They typically challenge text book adoptions at local school boards in Florida. They are included in the DeSantis education transition task force.

Florida Gets an ‘F’ on Support for Public Education

Public education is about the value and necessity of providing equal access to high quality education. As public funds get diverted to private schools and entrepreneurs, the public school system gets more and more fractured. There is less money as cost inefficiencies mount. More communities are fractured by race, income, and academic programs. In areas where privatization is dominant, parents must search for a school to accept their children. If transportation is a problem, as it often is, they may not have good choices because available schools may be segregated racially, economically and/or by achievement levels. They may not even have a way to evaluate the quality of the available options.

By design, no one really knows much about where the money is spent and what is happening in privately operated schools. Parents who question are invited to withdraw their children. Children who do not ‘fit in’ are invited to leave. There are people in leadership positions for whom children can be ploys in policies to implement a political and/or religious agenda. Proponents celebrate their successes without regard for the children they exclude, dismiss or serve poorly. Parents learn this the hard way.

Most private schools are openly religious. Many charters are covertly supporting particular religious orientations e.g. those housed in religious facilities or that espouse a particular set of ‘Christian or other values’.

Many charters and private schools do not support children with special needs or who are learning English as a second language.

The Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education analyzed data to assess support for public education in each state. Overall, Florida received an ‘F’. You can see state-by-state results here.
The criteria include:
1. Types and extent of school privatization
2. Civil rights protection of students in private school voucher and charter programs
3. Accountability, regulations and oversight
4. Transparency of voucher and charter programs
5. Other charter school accountability issues

Florida’s low grade is due several factors:
1. It has the most school privatization of all states.
2. Students receiving vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are not required to participate in the state testing or teacher certification programs. Private schools are not required to be accredited. Thus, most are small religious schools of unknown quality. Private schools are also exempt from federal civil rights protection. Children can be denied admission or expelled for any reason.

What would improve accountability?
1. Comparable pubic and private school student achievement measures.
2. Transparency in how money is spent for charter and voucher ESE students by individual schools.
3. Comparable attrition and discipline measures for public, charter and private schools.
4. Public accountability of spending by charter management firms.
5. Stronger provisions to avoid conflict of interest between charter board members and management companies.
6. Return school facilities to the public if charters close.

The BIG Questions: What Choice Really Means

The Florida House and Senate will negotiate over how school systems can be either publicly or privately run or a combination of the two. They call this ‘district flexibility’, and it raises four BIG questions.

In the House version, HB7055, public schools will be run by privately managed charter districts, if they so choose. In the Senate version, SB2508, school districts will continue to be overseen by elected school boards, but individual public schools may be converted to charters managed by district school boards.

This district flexibility is PHASE TWO of the movement to privatize public schools. The major components include changes in the quality control for buildings and staff, funding for services for struggling students, and control of curriculum. There will not be much more money for schools, but differences in how the two chambers pay for schools are important.

WILL THE LEGISLATURE CHOOSE:

  1. cheap school buildings for some? If the K12 School Code is revoked, as proposed, there will be no standard for school construction. It will be legal for all schools, not just charters or private schools, to be in strip malls, abandoned buildings or in palaces with superb labs and auditoriums for the lucky.

  2. lower qualifications for teachers and principals? In response to teacher shortages, the House revokes union contracts for salaries, benefits, or working conditions. In the Senate version, teachers are district employees, but their pay and hours are determined by principals. To fill vacancies, teacher certification allows individual schools to mentor and qualify teachers. The House bill introduced the term ‘manager’ instead of principal. Both houses allow one principal to supervise more than one school.

  3. schools that choose which students they wish to serve? Proposed House legislation gives funding for struggling students to parents, not schools, and it broadens eligibility for tax credit scholarships. All scholarship programs are consolidated under Step Up for Students, the private entity that now administers private school scholarships. The Senate proposals fund schools to support struggling children, and schools converted to charters must serve the neighborhood children.

  4. religious instruction in all schools? Current bills to allow districts to exceed curriculum standards and introduce religious beliefs and ideological economic theories into schools (SB966). Some charters already blur the distinction between secular and non secular schools. They are located in church facilities, or they advertise ‘Christian or other ethnic values’.

In November 2018, voters will vote on changes to Florida’s constitution to implement PHASE THREE. Will barriers be removed to direct funding of private schools and teaching religion in public schools? This what school choice is all about. Do companies and churches run schools and parents do the best they can to find a school that will accept their children? Do you relax standards in order to save money? The League position is clear; we support free, high quality public schools for all children, and these schools are run by locally elected school boards.

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.