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.

Irreversible Damage to Public Schools

Nine school districts filed a constitutional challenge to the Florida Supreme Court over HB 7069. The suit claims ‘log rolling’ by the Florida legislature when it compiled multiple bills into a single bill the weekend before the last session of the legislature ended. The Florida constitution requires laws to be ‘single subjects’.

A quick decision by the Court is needed because districts are required to enter into contracts for charter school take overs of district schools in the Schools of Hope program included in the legislation. The bill also included a provision to share facility funding derived from local property taxes with privately owned charter schools. There were other provisions, including the allocation of federal Title I funds for disadvantaged children, that this bill changed.

Even more districts have filed lawsuits with circuit courts. The Palm Beach case claims that the HB 7069 requirement to share local capital outlay with charter schools is unconstitutional. Thirteen districts have


Class Size Manipulation: Voters May Decide

Editorials decry the latest assault on the class size amendment. How large classes are matters to children. How many small classes there are matters to politicians. Small classes cost more money. When the class size amendment was first passed by voters in 2002, districts had to meet limits of 18 students in preschool through grade 3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students for high school core courses by 2010.

There’s a very revealing chart on the Florida DOE website about the real issue. Small classes mean more teachers and more classrooms. The funding list from 2002 shows no facilities funding after 2007-8. This was the same time that the legislature cut the local millage for property tax support for school facilities by 25%. Funding for class size dropped significantly. It has never caught up to the 2007-8 level.

Patricia Levesque, head of the Jeb Bush Foundation for Florida’s Future joined with another member of the Constitutional Revision Commission Roberto Martinez, to file yet another assault on class size. Levesque and the Bush foundation have long been champions of school choice.

This latest amendment legalizes the preference charter schools already enjoy. Individual core classes could be smaller or larger as long as the school average by grade group met the required limits. Charter schools already have this option. In 2013, the legislature allowed district managed magnet schools or other choice programs to average class sizes, but not other schools.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. District managed schools have been struggling for years to meet class size limits, but funding levels just do not cover costs. Some districts preferred to pay fines for not meeting class sizes; it was less expensive than meeting the requirements.

The implementation of the class size requirement has become too complicated and unfair. The solution? The legislature cuts corners. The voters will have their say if this latest constitutional amendment is on the November 2018 ballot.

An Attorney Who Knows, Speaks on Bullying

I have represented quite a few students who have been victims of bullying. The largest target group for bullying is students with disabilities. While it is true that schools are rarely effective in addressing the bullying, making parents often desire to move their children to protect them, that ineffectiveness applies across the board to traditional public, charter and private schools. In Florida, public school students at least have a bullying law requiring that school districts create and follow an anti-bullying policy or risk losing funding. There is no legal protection for private school students (other than using tort law if there is substantial injury, and few personal injury attorneys are willing to take these cases because of statutory limits on liability). Charter school compliance is rarely enforced by districts, who find it easier to invite the student back to public schools than to get the charter schools to do something.

Also, simply moving students to new schools does not always stop the bullying. Students are often targeted for their differences, and I see a disproportionate number of students with weak social skills (due to Asperger’s, ADHD, or mental health conditions) get bullied over and over in different settings until someone looks at them and gets them the supports they need to interact more effectively with their peers. My son was one of those kids. Public schools have the resources and knowledge to evaluate and provide these supports; the privately-run schools usually do not.

What we need is to strengthen the existing law and to expand coverage to all schools. The current law does not give families a direct right to pursue action if the bullying investigation and follow-up are ineffective, so long as the district has a policy and follows the steps in the policy. Without this leverage, schools will not be fully invested in completely eliminating the problem. Additionally, Palm Beach County is working on creating academic standards for social competencies so that all kids (bullies and victims) learn better ways of interacting. We need to advocate to make this statewide.

I am happy to speak about my family’s experience with bullying and my clients’ struggles with bullying in charter and private schools. I can also ask some of the families to speak out. I know several who would love to help change the system.

Kimberley Spire-Oh is an attorney in Palm Beach and a member of the League of Women Voters.

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

• 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

• 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

• 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.

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.

Oh Goodness! Nothing is as it seems at Academica

Frank Biden, Joe Biden’s brother, was president and CEO of Mavericks, a for profit charter chain with multiple schools in Florida. They did not fare well. There were scandals. Frank Biden has turned up at Academica, Florida’s largest for-profit charter chain. Yes, this is the charter management firm that Erik Fresen’s sister and brother in law run. Fresen is going to jail now that he is no longer in the Florida House.

Biden and Academica attorney Moskowitz gave presentations about a proposed new charter, Parkland, in Broward. Except it wasn’t for Parkland. Broward had no proposal for it. It did have one from Academica for Somerset Beach Academy charter school. Confused? The parents in Broward also were confused. One school was being described to parents while the proposal was for a very different school. This story is just plain strange. You should read it.

Hope Vouchers Move On in the Florida House

Anne Hartley, SPEAK for Collier County posted this report on HB 1 the “bullying bill”. House Innovation sub committee brief notes on each member’s comments and their votes follow. HB 1 is the ‘anti bullying’ bill that would send any child who felt harassed to a private school at tax payers’ expense. Yes, this is the bill that sales taxes on new cars would fund.

The League spoke at the meeting. You can listen on the Florida Channel. Go to: 1:28:30

The Hope Scholarship bills will move forward through the House. Vote followed the party line 9 up to 5 down, decided at this afternoon’s PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee meeting.

Speakers against (public school allies):
Rosanne Wood, past alternative school teacher and Leon County school board member 1:17:45
Hannah Willard, Equality Florida
Scott McCoy of SPLC
Mary Claire Leman of Common Ground
League of Women Voters 1:28:30
Lisa Robertson, principal of FL’s largest HS, public school advocate 1:35:50, Florida Education Association 1:37:43

Speakers for (school choice backers):
Cesar Grijales, Coalitions Director of the Libre Initiative spoke for the bill, affiliated with Americans for Prosperity. Cited 2011 FDH stats: 256,000 FL public HS students subjected to “experienced some form of bullying, teasing or name-calling,” 31% hispanics. Andrew Hossick, Americans for Prosperity, Foundation for Florida’s Future, Florida Virtual School waved in support.

Debate Notes 1:47:00

Santiago advocates for school choice – wants private schools held accountable. Voted yes.

Killigrew has many concerns, but if the bill doesn’t change, he’ll vote against. Voted yes.

Lee – sometimes when you go along, the real issue isn’t addressed. Don’t just deal with a part of this bill. What about 10,000s kids who won’t be able to get out? Need to fix situation. Situation will only get worse. Was victim of bullying. Need to find funds to stop bullying. Voted no.

Asencio – worked in public schools, concerned about unintended consequences of this bill. Transferring kids to go into another school that aren’t regulated, not accountable to legislature. Operate by own means. Can’t guarantee their safety. Liability too high. Voted no.

Sullivan – there are measures to prevent bullying on books, Russell knows bullying exists everything, but this bill gives victims the choice with transportation voucher. Don’t lose signt of victims. Voted yes.

**Abruzzo – major policy shift. Tax dollars of every Floridian could go into this program. This will not end here. Vouchers are the problem. Now corporations can contribute through the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This bill shifts it to auto fees, hitting every Floridian. 1:56:35 Voted no.

Massullo – Parents need to be in charge of their children’s education. He thinks it addresses the bullies as well. Will see bullies treated differently because they won’t want to lose students. Giving parents a choice. Voted yes.

Williams – have to move the bully, not the victim; not good to send public funds to private schools. Voted no.

Ponder – yes
Fischer – yes
Spano – yes
Russell – no
Latvala – yes
Leek – yes

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.

Reward and Punish Gone Amok?

Where you and with whom you eat is one school’s answer to improving its graduation rate. Florida’s top down, test driven education policy rewards those who succeed and punishes those who fail. Bonuses go to schools with high grades and teachers whose students have high test scores. If you are stuck in a low income neighborhood, the state provides a charter school so you can get away from ‘those’ kids who are struggling. Or, parents can send their children to a magnet school so they be in a program with kids ‘like’ them. It all sounds so logical. Children most definitely need to be challenged and have positive feedback for their accomplishments.

Hudson High School in Pasco County has taken this policy to extremes. Children who are not on track to graduate must eat in the school cafeteria. Children who are successful get wrist bands that allow them to leave campus during lunch. Take a picture in your mind of the two groups..one mostly poor and minority, with many children with disabilities, and the other the opposite.

Policies at the extremes have extreme consequences. We need a better balance.