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.

Step Up Funding

by Robin Jones

Have you seen Step Up’s annual report? Of course it is a PR piece for them but there are some nuggets in it. One is that by far the biggest and fastest growing tax contributed its the Alcoholic Beverage Excise Tax. (p. 14). Isn’t that ironic!

Another is that they have merged department to form a new one (PAPA…I wonder if they will create a MAMA dept.):

“Step Up’s Policy and Public Affairs Department (PAPA) had a significant year of growth when the former Family and Community Affairs Team was absorbed into PAPA,combining within one department the people who research and develop education policy with those who advocate for it, communicate about it, and build grassroots support for it. Together, the team works to keep the record straight in the public eye about the scholarship programs and to help garner support from parents, students,faith-based leaders, lawmakers and more to keep the program strong.” (p. 8)

So their efforts to “research and develop education policy” is combined with their PR and lobbying efforts. Not a surprise but an interesting move. I do not know if it is related but I do remember an earlier point being made that their budget showed more spending on legislative relations than on outreach to parents.

Just thought I would pass this on.

Robin

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.

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.

Popping the Balloon: D.C. Reform Fiasco

There is a lot of hot air about the impact of school choice on student achievement. Washington D.C. is often the example touted by unwitting journalists. John Merrow, retired PBS education reports on the ten year reign of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. The achievement gap has widened under their ‘test and punish’ administration. Merrow states: “The education establishment wants everyone to believe that D.C. is a success story. It is not. To the contrary, it is a story of wide spread failure and untold damage to human potential.”

NAEP eighth grade reading scores improved by one point, 232 to 233. Non low-income student scores climbed 31 points from 250 to 281. Similar small gains were observed for fourth grade low income students. The achievement gap widened from 26 to 62 percentage points.

A National Research Council report in 2015 said that most of the achievement gain in D.C. was most likely due to the influx of white affluent families moving into D.C. and sending their children to public schools.

How do D.C.’s charter schools fare in this report? They include 40% of the city’s schools. D.C. schools are intensely segregated by race and class in both the district and charter run schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charters were classified as ‘apartheid’ schools (less than 1% white). Voucher schools heightened the segregation.

So what are the recommended solutions? Orfield, one of the authors of the NRC report indicated that magnet schools learned something charters had not. You need recruitment across racial and ethnic lines, free transportation, strongly appealing and distinctive curriculum, admission to all groups of students, integrated faculties etc.

Federal housing policies have exacerbated residential segregation. Neighborhoods that are already diverse or all white support their local schools. Offering choice to everyone else has created a propaganda campaign but no significant improvement in schools. The challenge is to create a sense of opportunity for all students. To do this, housing patterns must become more diverse. Economic opportunity must be real for all racial/ethnic and income groups. Schools must symbolize this opportunity.

Federal Tax Bills Allow Vouchers

The tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate have curious twists. According to the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, 529 college savings accounts could be used for K12 private school tuition. Send your child to private school and get a tax break.

The U.S. Senate’s tax plan allows a tax deduction as a charitable contribution for private school tuition. A second provision creates tax credits for corporate and individual contributions to state non profits that offer tuition payments for low and middle income families.

The drive to get something passed in Congress, anything really, has resulted in a hodge podge of special interests that are certainly not in the public interest.

FTC Scholarship Program Under Review?

Today’s Sun Sentinel ran an article outlining needed improvements in the FTC program that provides tuition scholarships to private schools. There are about a billion dollars of corporate tax credits that the State of Florida diverts to this program. According the Sun Sentinel, a legislative committee is holding a hearing. Here’s why:

  1. Some school operators continue to receive scholarship money even though they have filed for bankruptcy.
  2. Eight schools hired staff with criminal records, and some people with criminal records start schools.
  3. Some schools falsify fire and health inspection records.
  4. Teachers without college degrees are employed.
  5. Students with disabilities are promised services that do not exist.
  6. Schools receive funding for students who are not enrolled.
  7. School facilities can be so substandard that they may be unsafe and in strip malls with unsavory neighbors.

The point of school choice is to limit regulation. Parents are supposed to ‘vote with their feet’ if a school is not what it seems. Unfortunately, these parents are in a ‘buyers beware’ market. Are there responsible, well-run private schools? Of course there are. Do parents know which are which?

Are rules and regulations only for schools with elected school boards and other charter and private schools are free to mismanage with few or no consequences? Who benefits in this system…children do not seem to. Districts are called bureaucratic as if standards and fairness in how they are implemented are the enemy. At the same time, however, the legislature heaps on more controls for public schools while they give more money and autonomy to private schools they support with public money.

There is just something fundamentally wrong with this divided educational system. There is a need to free our schools from so much top down management by the state while holding districts responsible for running schools well. What we don’t need is a system of extremes…no regulation vs. too much. There is one member of the Constitutional Revision Commission who is thinking along these lines. Watch for tomorrow’s post on district-run charter systems. It is the start of a better conversation.

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.

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.