Splinters in Florida School Boards Have Sharp Points

This is not just a Florida charter school story. It is one about local politicians, religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, the money trail. It starts simply. Two small splinter groups have formed from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA). I was curious to see who was behind these groups and why. The political network itself is instructive. The implications for the CRC amendments to the Florida Constitution are part of this picture as well as bills filed in the Florida legislature. Then, the story leads to our nations’ capital.

FSBA has been a force for over 80 years. Its elected members represent the interest of local districts and their children. When they speak, they speak for local communities, but sometimes the legislature does not like what it hears. The FSBA participated in a lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. In retaliation, some speculate that the legislature passed a law to allow individual school board members to pay dues to another newly formed association.

A small group of members seceded from the FSBA in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). There appears to be a financial collaboration among some members to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charter Schools. Some members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups. About 14 of the 50 members have been identified, including Rebecca Negron, Martin County. She is the wife of Senator Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Those school board members for whom outside funding connections are identified are in bold letters.

Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds, Collier County, are founders of Mason Classical Academy Charter school. Mason has had a troubled history including a DCF investigation according to the Naples Daily News. Lichter is reported in Collier County School Board Watch as starting a charter school consulting firm. Naples News reports a recording re her ties to Hilldale College. Donalds has filed for a new firm, the Alpha Classical Academy.

Shawn Frost, Indian River County, is a founding member of FCSBM and has additional ties to Erika Donalds through the Classical Charter Schools. Also, in 2014 Frost received $20,000 campaign contributions from American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. He unseated the FSBA president. https://www.bizapedia.com/people/shawn-frost.html One of these is listed as the Indian River County Leasing Corporation. He is associated with at least 13 businesses, several inactive, and resides in Vero Beach. He maintains a room at his father’s home to establish residence in Indian River.

In addition, the Alpha Classical Academy is registered at 3340 Se Federal Highway #303 Stuart, Florida along with 39 other companies with the same address. It is not clear what the association among these companies may be. Linda Daniels and Shawn Frost are listed as of December 2017 as Directors and Erika Donalds as the Chair of the Alpha Classical Academy.

Classical Academies are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College is located in Michigan and has a long religious/conservative/libertarian tradition. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundation fund the initiative. According to Salon, the brothers are also contributors. There are 17 charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Alpha is not listed as a charter but as a non profit organization.

Erika Donalds, wife of Representative Byron Donalds displays the Koch brothers supported Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group. Erika Donalds is on the Constitutional Revision Commission where she filed, among others, the amendment to have term limits for school boards. She is the Florida sponsor of the U.S. Term Limits group.

Erik Robinson and Bridget Ziegler, Sarasota County have an extensive funding network. Robinson has 50 Political Action Committees to fund the conservative political agenda all across the state. Here are two comprehensive funding and campaign contribution lists reported by the Sarasota Phoenix:
Part I: The Jacksonville Sarasota Connection:
Part II: How Robinson Funnels Pac Money:
Additional articles appeared in the Herald Tribune in 2016 which delineates the names of contributors and the political races they have targeted.
Robinson and Dark Money

Erik Robinson Beyond Dark Money

The money trail is extensive and no doubt needs to be updated. It is not clear whether any of other FCSBM members identified below have a connection to the Classical Charters or dark money. More work needs to be done.

Additional FCSBM members include:

• Tina Descovich and Matthew Susin, Brevard County. Descovich was a parent volunteer at Indialantic school and a writing coach at Viera Charter. She organized OPT OUT Brevard. In 2016, Susin joined three others to form the National Alliance for Innovation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is a K12 instructional materials company. His Facebook page lists him as a former history teacher and currently as a marketing agent for an insurance company.

• Amy Lockhart, Seminole County has filed to run for the County Commission in 2018.
• Jeff Bergosh, Escambia was a former school board member and elected to the County Commission in 2016.
• Nancy Stacy, Marion County was the only vote for a CSUSA proposal for Marion County in 2017. She is listed as the owner of City Slickers Ranch.

A third School Board Association called the Florida Conservative School Board (FCSBMA) has now been formed by Escambia School Board member, Kevin Adams. He was appointed to fill Jeff Bergosh’s seat and is seeking a full term in 2018. The FCSBMA web page mission statement supports local control of schools, public education and school choice. Its policy to have all public education follow the same state statutes and regulations with oversight by elected school boards differs from many choice groups. The adherence to conservative principles is not clarified, but there is no obvious preference for charter schools.

There may be more to this story.

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.

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.

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Says It All

Take a look at this editorial. It cites HB 7069 as ‘gross audaciousness’ by the legislature. Heading the list are the provisions to expand charter schools, ‘religious liberty provision’, text book review, and most of all: USURPING LOCAL CONTROL OF OUR SCHOOLS.

Memorize these talking points. Say them loudly and often. Take back our schools.

http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-floridas-micromanaging-of-public-schools/2330479

It is Time to Talk about ESSA

child speakingThere is the law, and then there are the regulations to implement the law.  Some say the new federal Department of Education proposed regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) overstep the intention of the law.  They create more stringent rules about testing and accountability than the ESSA intended.  The Florida Department of Education has put out a call for your input about the regulations. You have until July 22, 2016 to respond.  Responding in a meaningful way takes some thought.

 

 

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Florida Gets an ‘F’ Again

FAILED1Which states get it right?  Not Florida.  It was one of eight states that received an overall grade of ‘F’ when its grades were averaged across the categories studied.   The Network for Public Education rated states based on six criteria.

For each category, I combined the percentages of A, B and C grades received across states.  I was surprised at the results.  Relatively few states (11) use test scores to punish students and teachers, but Florida is one of those that do.  You can see the combined percentages (think of them as passing scores) at the end of each of the criteria.

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Charter School Bubble to Burst?

hands-982121_1280Are charter schools an emotional response by inner city low income families to long standing state funding inequities?  A University of Virginia Law Review article  addresses concerns that school funding inequities in Black urban areas lead to a tolerance of unfettered growth in charter schools. 

The federal government support for charters also feeds the expansion without sufficient regulation.  The net result may be a bubble and crash much like the recent financial crisis.  What should be done to avoid a cataclysmic fall that could destroy communities?

Mother Jones summarizes the three practices that lead to serious mismanagement.  I add a summary of the status Florida’s legislation to address these concerns.

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Schools Reflect Our Values

directory-281476_1280Poverty, race, and educational opportunity are intertwined. In a report by the National Educational Policy Center, housing is added to the mix.  The authors explain the interaction between where we live and the opportunities available to us.

Divided communities have greater inequities in access to quality education and employment.  Perceptions of the quality of schools based on the neighborhood income level become the reality.  The more divided our communities, the greater the problems become.  What can be done to reduce the inequities?

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