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.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, shares an article outlining the history of school privatization….and why it matters.

The history, written by Joanne Barkan, is well documented. It centers on the backlash from desegregation, and ties it to the increasing role of the federal government in education. For example, the first federal charter school legislation was signed by President Bill Clinton. Yet nearly twenty-five years later, support for charters and vouchers is waning. The reasons are spelled out in the discussion of the following topics:

*Sowing the seeds of market based reform
*Building a movement from the top down
*Anatomy of vouchers and charter schools
*Charter school performance
*A closer look at vouchers
*Corruption and segregation
*Shifting landscape

Even in a world where facts matter less, it is possible to help people become aware of what they can lose in the ‘world of choice’.

What are Parents’ Real Choices with Schools?

Do Floridians want one school system that is equitable or several, each with its own rules? In today’s Gainesville Sun, the League asks three critical questions to help parents decide which choice to make for their schools: Who pays?, Who is in control?, and What does it matter? In an expanded system of choice, local voters are asked to pay more than the State to compensate for less funding and cost inefficiency due to expanded choices. Go to a charter and pay more in hidden fees and transportation. Go private and select a cheap school or pay the difference in tuition. Go public and worry the funding may not fix the air conditioning.

The State and private education management companies take control away from locally elected school boards. Parents lose their voices in how choice schools are owned and managed. “Don’t like it, then leave” is the response to complaints.

All of this matters. Schools are becoming more segregated by income and student ability while our nation is becoming more diverse. Student achievement stays flat in our choice system. The reason is clear; students learn better when they learn together. Isolate poor children, and they feel they have no stake in the system. Isolate high income children, they don’t learn the real world skills needed to be successful. The kids in the middle disappear; no one is thinking about them.

Students who learn only in like minded groups will be ill prepared for the diverse world in which they will work. Learning to live together starts in schools. The real choice is whether we value the diverse world in which we live or try to escape it by creating mini school clusters of like minded people. You can read the article here. It comes out under our local president’s name.

CRC Drops Voucher Proposals for November 2018, Charter districts still there

The Constitutional Revision Commission dropped the two voucher proposals to amend the Florida constitution. Polling by Clearview Research resulted in a 41% favorable response to amendment 4 that would give state funding to private, religious schools. There must be a 60% favorable vote in November to pass. Erika Donalds withdrew her proposal number 45 to fund educational services to private schools.

This decision does not change the current status of Florida tax credit scholarships which are funded by corporate tax rebates.
What’s left?

P43 by Donalds to have a two term limit for school board members
P71 by Donalds changes school board oversight from all schools “within” the district to all schools “established by” the district. This would remove the authorization of charter schools by elected school boards.
P93 by Martinez would allow a school board or the voters to turn an entire district into a charter district. The schools would then be exempt from the K12 school code for facilities and personnel in the same way as charters now are exempt.

New House Give Away Program

Everything up to now in the Florida House has been a distraction. The real battle is money–where does it come from and where does it go. HB7087 creates a Sales Tax Credit Scholarship Program for private schools. Sales taxes are the real source of state money. The House wants to spend it to privatize our public schools. This is supposed to be unconstitutional, but tax credits are a work a round.

Of course, Florida already uses corporate tax credit rebates to fund scholarships to private schools. Corporations pay a flat 5.5% income tax to the State. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is estimated to cost about a billion dollars this coming year. It comes from that pot of money. Now, the House wants to add a sales tax credit program on top.

There is another major demand on school funding due to the Douglas High School shooting. The legislative response was estimated to cost about $400 million for school safety and mental health measures being proposed. This is funding not included in current budget estimates. It comes on top of reduced revenue estimates from corporate taxes of $167 million dollars.

The Governor’s long term strategy has been to eliminate the corporate tax on income. The legislature has resisted. Is shifting private school funding to sales taxes a ploy to win the Governor’s approval? It is all speculation at this point.

Where will the money come from and where will it go? It will be decided by March 9th when the session is scheduled to close.

Florida’s constitution prohibits state funding to private schools. These tax credit programs are work a rounds. The Constitutional Revision Commission has filed proposals to amend the constitution to allow direct voucher payments so the hypocrisy of tax credits is eliminated. The voters will have their say on changes to the constitution, but if they allow more tax credits, private schools will get their billion dollars or more.

The legislative train is going down hill. Will it gather speed and crush our schools? Who will stop the train?

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.

KOCH Network $400 Million Strategy to Disrupt Education

The agenda for the conservative Americans for Prosperity and other education reform minded groups was outlined at their donor seminar. Ground zero for reform is Arizona, but the measures are appearing in the Florida Constitutional Reform Commission proposals and the Florida legislature. They include:

Expanded educational savings accounts. Florida has the Gardiner Scholarships now for children with severe disabilities. The Florida House is proposing similar personal scholarships for low performing third graders in public schools. In these programs, parents choose private tutors and classes: create their own micro schools. They are called Personal Reading Scholarships that will be funded for parents to choose private tutors or other services outside the public school system.

These Reading Scholarships are for public school students, to be used outside the school system, and they will be administered by the private agency that administers the Florida Tax Credit scholarships and the Gardiner and McKay vouchers.

Read the article.

New Train Bill Emerging in Florida House Tomorrow

A draft education bill is circulating. It has a temporary number PCB EDC 18-01, but it is already over 100 pages long. It is the Florida House compilation of the many bills currently filed to expand the privatization of our public schools. The ‘bullying bill’ is not there, but there are some new wrinkles. Tomorrow, Thursday Jan 24th, the House Education Committee will hear the bill. It may be worth listening at 10am to figure out what is in it. Here is my take:

PUBLIC DISTRICT SCHOOL PROPOSALS: Basically these provisions reduce district control and/or invite chaos depending on your point of view.

  1. Revise district superintendents’ authority to organize schools. The bill provides that instructional personnel should be free from ‘burdensome regulations’. Provide a safety survey and emergency situation communication system.
  2. Give access to surplus district property to charter schools.
  3. Adding social studies content to ELA writing assessment prompts, and revising format to release FSA assessment questions and requiring paper assessments in ELA and mathematics is grades 3-8.
  4. Creating district-autonomous schools in which employers may be public or private. Public employees may participate in the Florida Retirement System.

CHARTER SCHOOL ORGANIZATION: These measures actually increase charter centralization, decrease termination criteria, and promote charter growth and expansion.

  1. Revising high performance charter school systems applications, weakening termination criteria by changing from ‘violations of law’ to ‘material violations of law’, changes district/charter dispute resolution to a final decision made by an administrative judge who will award cost payment to the prevailing party. Revising criteria for high-performing charter school status.
  2. Authorizing charters and management organizations in addition to districts and post secondary institutions to provide school leader programs, and renaming and expanding Principal Autonomy Pilot Program. Adds mandatory professional development for school leadership teams and provides a principal bonus of $10,000. Principals will be allowed to supervise multiple charter schools. School district or charter board members may not be employees of the school. Authorizing high performing charters to create two new charters per year.
  3. Funding and payment liability of independent school boards
  4. Exemption from laws of sections 1000-1013 Florida law allows schools that earn no less than a ‘B’ grade to continue exemption.

PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS: While some improvement is included to exclude people with criminal records from staffing private schools, a new scholarship program is proposed for students who score below a ‘3’ on the FSA reading test. It is funded by tax credits for new cars sold and is administered by Step Up for Children.
8. Deletes Florida Tax Credit qualifications for scholarships and includes any private school. Creates reading scholarship accounts which may be used for tuition, summer programs, tutoring and/or student services or to a college savings account. Expands requirements for private school web page information; requires Level 2 background checks and increased definition of ineligible employees with criminal records; provide independent financial audit for schools receiving more than $250,000 in state revenue. Provide DOE oversight
9. Private schools are not required to state whether they will reimburse dual enrollment costs to post secondary schools.
10. DOE oversight of education scholarship funds is increased.

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.