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.

HB 25 Threatens Florida Teachers Union

Are teachers targeted once again? This fight is not about unions or teachers; it is about the political campaign to privatize public schools. Unions are in the way; they have money to combat the well funded and organized movement to dismantle public education.

Representative Plakon (Longwood) and Senator Steube (Sarasota) are sponsoring bills to decertify unions whose membership does not reach 50% of dues paying members. The proposed law would apply to all public sector unions except for first responders i.e. law enforcement and firefighters.

Since Florida is a right-to-work state, employees are not required to join unions. Teachers, moreover, do not have tenure. After their first year, they have annual contracts. The unions bargain for salaries, benefits and working conditions, but they also support professional development and advocacy.

Most likely it is the union advocacy role that irritates some legislators. The union strongly supports public education, and it becomes a target for legislators who promote charter and private school funding. It is all about politics. The privatization movement has strong financial backing from the Bush Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.. Their publicity campaigns against public education are relentless. Teachers unions are the only well funded organized opposition to the take over of public schools. It is no surprise that unions are under attack. This is a ploy, not a problem.

The attack on teachers is having an impact. Teachers are retiring early and new teachers are in short supply. The notion that online technology offers a cheap alternative which can replace teachers is not a dream; it is a nightmare that some Connecticut parents have revolted against. Their district adopted the Summit Learning program built by Facebook. The district had to drop the program when parents complained that children were spending too much screen time in class. This is a real problem we all recognize.

Voters choose the people who set educational policy in the legislature. They need to question candidates for local and state offices about their views on the privatization of schools. If we want quality education for all children, we need a system that serves all children, not one where schools choose the children they wish to
serve. We certainly do not need a system where online learning dominates the classroom. Technology is a tool, not a teacher. Recognize attacks on teachers for what they are.

New Year’s Resolutions: Things to BE FOR

Here’s a list to frame the choices we will be called upon to make. It comes from several sources.

Lessons to apply re position messaging
1. Don’t just be AGAINST vouchers and charters, community fragmentation and high stakes testing….
2. Be for public education’s strengths:
• Be for the greatest good for the greatest number (vs. to each his own)
• Be for public school as a cornerstone of democracy and pluralism
• Be for school as the mortar of coherent and healthy communities
• Be for school/community collaboration
• Be for student achievement as determined by multiple assessments
• Be for student-centered learning (self-directed learning vs compliance, active vs passive learning, learning-by-doing vs sitting-and-receiving, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation).
• Be for teacher accountability and professionalism via Peer Assisted Review and teacher leadership
• Be for fiscal responsibility and transparency of and for taxpayers

A Primer on Big Money

If you hear something often enough, you might start believing, it especially if it builds resentment. Take for example the charges that public schools are failing, teachers are ineffective, unions are evil. For all of these reasons and more, children are short changed. It is a powerful message, but is basically fake news. Yes, some schools struggle, but public education is not the cause, and private schools are not the answer. How does anyone counteract this argument? First, we all must understand the strategy behind the messaging. It includes a few basic points that we need to have at our fingertips.

Diane Ravitch’s reviews two books that describe the origins of the theory and strategy of privatization. Read the entire article, but here are a few key points:

  1. The privatization movement is based on the premise that there is no ‘public interest; rather there is a collection of private interests. It was originated by Friedman and others who sought to make government more efficient. Charles Koch, however, advocates for the end of the role of government in public education, Social Security, Medicare, U.S. Postal Service, minimum wage and on and on. He funded the Center for Public Choice, now at George Mason University, where the political strategies for privatization are articulated. It was founded by James Buchanan, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his public choice economic theories which basically argued for the preservation of wealth.

  2. Buchanan designed the strategy to divide the political coalition behind government programs by building resentments. For example, claim that social security is not viable thus, for many younger people, they have no stake in it. But, current recipients would not loose benefits. Then, propose raising retirement ages and increase payroll taxes so everyone is angry at the system. Similar strategies were used against Medicaid expansion etc.

  3. Build resentment against teachers unions by targeting other workers who have lost their unions. Unions need to be thwarted by the privatization movement because they are the only well funded, organized opposition to privatization in education. Extend the strategy to state that some students are locked into low performing schools in inner cities, thus, the entire education system is failing. Fear and resentment develops not only within central cities but also among those who are concerned about the need for funding and racial equity.

  4. The privatization movement has a legislative arm called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is funded by corporations and represents twenty five percent of all state legislators. They draft legislation that appears across the nation. Check the Center for Media nd Democracy website, ALECexposed.org, that tracks ALEC legislation.

  5. There is a billionaires’ club behind privatization. Keep abreast of the Koch brothers organization, Americans for Prosperity. They along with other billionaires such as the Walton family that owns Walmart, the DeVos family, and the Broad and Gates Foundation fund everything from pro choice expansion to local political races. The Jeb Bush Foundation in Florida is part of this group. You find can out more information by reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind thee Rise of the Radical Right.

Recognize these strategies for what they are. Watch for how they will unfold as time goes on. When the corporate interest replaces the public interest, we are likely to see the emergence of technology driven, data based systems that reduce the role of teaching in favor of ‘coaches’ who are less expensive. We will see the deterioration of funding for school facilities; they are expensive. We will see the further division of our communities into have and have not schools based upon the ability of specific groups to fund them. It is not a pretty sight.

Is a Revolt Brewing Over 4 Day School Weeks?

Florida’s isn’t at the bottom of the state education funding ranking; it hovers around 42nd. At the bottom are states like Utah, Idaho and Oklahoma. What’s it like for schools there? Schools are trying to cut costs by holding school four days a week. It does save some transportation and food costs but not much else. The school days are longer; thus teacher salaries remain the same.

According to former Republican Governor Keating, parents are rebelling. They view the legislature as dysfunctional. They are voting out those they blame. The Atlantic calls it ‘The Red State Revolt‘. It is over the constant cuts in education that have resulted in teacher shortages and larger class sizes. In Oklahoma, one-fourth of the schools are open only four days. Maybe there is a point where parents say enough is enough to cuts in education spending. Will Florida’s legislature listen? It has not yet restored funding at pre recession levels.

Can Florida afford to do any better for its children? A new report by the Education Law Center says ‘Yes’. The 2017 ELC report ranks state by funding level, how funds are distributed based on student need, effort related to economic capacity, and fairness based on percentage of students in public vs. private schools. These ratings are very revealing for Florida.

“California and Florida are positioned very poorly on all four fairness measures, receiving an “F” in Funding Effort” and a “C” in Funding Distribution”. On all other indicators, Florida ranks between 40th and 50th in the nation. The data show that Florida can afford to do better for its public schools. It also shows the growing emphasis on sending children to private schools which are becoming increasingly dependent upon public funding through tax credits and vouchers.

The choices that Florida’s legislators are making may well run into the same wall of rebellion by the citizens of Florida who want more for their children. The State can afford to do more, but it is choosing not to. Our funding levels are just above Oklahoma, and current attacks on public school funding due to HB 7069 will only make things worse. The ‘choice’ bubble in Florida may well burst as it appears to be in Oklahoma.

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.

League Remarks at Education Innovation Committee

Sally Butzin spoke on the League’s behalf on the committee meeting about the bullying bill that would give vouchers to students claiming harassment. Her impressions of this very intense meeting are informative. Take a look.

House Education Innovation Subcommittee
November 8, 2017
Report from Dr. Sally Butzin

The committee was considering HB1 regarding expanding the Hope Tax Credit Scholarship Program. I gave testimony on behalf of the League. The League opposes this bill. Marty Monroe waived in opposition as well.

My remark notes are attached.

Sue Legg has posted a summary of the hearing and the final vote. The bill passed along party lines.

My impressions:

This is clearly a voucher expansion bill cleverly disguised as an anti-bullying bill. The sponsor of the bill had no research or data to support the bill, and answered all questions with the stock answer of “parent choice.” He defended the bill on anecdotes he had heard from a couple of parents. The proponents of the bill also harkened back to “parent choice” as their reason for supporting the bill.

I was especially disappointed in how the chair handled the meeting. He kept public comment to 1 minute, and cut opponents off. However, when proponents of the bill spoke, they were allowed to continue with their anecdotal stories relating to their own children, including the speaker from James Madison Institute. Very disheartening to see legislation crafted by personal preference, with little regard to the thousands of children in our public schools who do not have parent advocates with the inclination, time or resources to move their children to private schools. And with no accountability, there is no evidence that a private school provides a better education or safety from bullying and harassment.

Remarks before House Education Innovation Subcommittee
November 8, 2017
Dr. Sally Butzin, representing the League of Women Voters
Speaking against HB1, The Hope Scholarship Program

Introduction
• Retired educator
• Taught in public, charter and private schools, and university level
• Founder and director of the Institute for School Innovation – technology & hands-on learning through Project CHILD
• In partnership, ISI founded and supported nearly a dozen charter schools
• Currently a Trustee with the International Alliance for Invitational Education, worldwide organization promoting inviting schools where children learn better and behave better
• Author, new book coming in January, “Creating Joyful Classrooms”

Kudos – being concerned about protecting children from bullying and harassment

LWV Main concerns
• Unintended consequences
• Lack of accountability
• Redirecting public funds to private schools, including religious schools
• Using public funds for marketing the scholarships to private schools

Unintended consequences
• What about the children being left behind? – eg. Jefferson County, 12 full time security guards
• Re-segregation – eg. Leon County Schools
• Bogus “bullying” claims to get transfers for athletes
o – bill requires only “an incident”
• School staff time to investigate claims

Accountability
• Where is evidence to show Hope Scholarships are working to improve teaching and learning?
o – no comparative testing required for private schools, no comparative discipline data
• Does bullying stop when a child transfers?
o – no reports required unless 51% of students are Hope Scholarship students

Redirecting funds through expanded car tax credits – $34-$40M
• Less funds for counselors, teacher training on dealing with hard to reach children and bullying
o Ironically, bill requires districts to “establish procedures for referring victims and perpetrators to counseling.”

Marketing for one side and not the other
• Bill creates SFO’s (Scholarship Funding Organizations) @ 3% of contributions
• How much have they received, and what proportion used for marketing?
o Television ads and rallies in Tally

Closing
• All children deserve a high quality education in a safe and inviting school
• State must especially protect highly vulnerable children lacking “parent choice”, foster kids, abused kids, etc.
• Our established public community schools need increased support, not less
• Our traditional community schools serve a community purpose that others don’t,
o For example Hurricane shelters
• Hope Scholarships leave our community schools with less Hope.

Douglas County Defeats Dark Money for Vouchers

Douglas County, next to Denver, Colorado school board races are national news and funded nationally. Why? It is a target area for school privatization. So much money is involved that candidates form coalitions. The pro choice/voucher group is called ELEVATE. The anti voucher group is called Community Matters. Evidently, community does matter in Denver. The four anti voucher school board candidates won by 60%.

The district began a voucher program in 2011, but it has been stalled in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court told the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that vouchers in Colorado were unconstitutional. The decision by the voters is likely to slow privatization of schools in Denver.

The race was touted as a test case for school vouchers. Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative Koch Brothers faced off against the teachers union. Politico estimated that the race cost over $800,000 dollars. Democracy is getting very expensive with all that dark money pouring in from billionaires. This time, the citizens won.