SETTING EXPECTATIONS: A LETTER TO THE LEAGUE

These are my remarks to the LWVF Statewide Education Group
Sue M. Legg
February 4, 2021

The pandemic is slowing. Where do we go from here? In order to think about what may be next, I looked at the trends in educational policy over the past five years. I started at the local level, expanded to the state and then to the nation. Some things may change, the question is how much. I will try to read the tea leaves.

i. In my local school district, equity issues have dominated, and the past election changed the composition of the school board to a 3/2 majority black members. There is a reason for this shift. In 2018, the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic Research released a sobering report on equity. Alachua County has the highest achievement gap in the state. It also has a higher proportion of minorities living below the poverty level, and the geographic segregation here is the worst it has been in the last 26 years. Some believe that school create inequities and are responsible for low achievement. How much can schools actually do is open to debate. The U.F. report underscored that Alachua County, like most counties, have a myriad of social and economic problems that are strongly related to student achievement issues. How did Alachua County respond to the report?

Alachua County Schools have implemented an equity plan that focuses on staff sensitivity training, student services, standardizing discipline policies, improving the graduation rates, and increasing salaries both for teachers and some workers. In the past two years, county voters passed a One Mill referendum for student support services and a one-half cent sales tax to build and refurbish school facilities, and a Children’s Trust initiative to fund preschool programs. The new school board was installed in November 2020, and it changed the superintendent in December. She was viewed as competent but was considered to be more pragmatic than proactive. Now we are facing district-wide rezoning. There are too many under enrolled and overenrolled schools which is directly related to segregation by race, economic level and housing development. Alachua County generally is considered to be a progressive county, but will citizens support more busing? Or, will busing lead to more privatization?

  1. At the state level, I wonder if the past is prologue. To help me answer this question, I looked at the 2021 budget projections and the legislative education priorities. Then I considered changes in Florida’s population and school privatization rates. Here is what I have found:

Budget: Governor De Santis’ budget for 2021 is 4.3 billion dollars more than this year even though a $1.6 billion shortfall in revenue is projected for each of the next two years. This year’s budget would increase education funding by $550 million. Priorities include teacher pay and career education. Funding will largely come from an increase in revenue from higher property values. Basically, this means that the state will not fund the increase, local communities will. This is no surprise. State revenue comes primarily from sales taxes, and Medicaid increased expenses will likely consume the majority of the revenue.

Population Trends: There is no appetite in Florida for a state income tax nor is there an overwhelming consensus on education policy. This is due in part to population demographics. Florida is still growing, but the growth is greater for those over 65 years. Florida’s senior population is expected to increase from 20% to 24% in the next decade. Florida’s average family income is ranked 39th in the country. This combination, along with a low corporate tax rate and no income tax, minimizes incentives to increase state funding for education. PolitiFact confirms that Florida ranks 45th in per student funding.

Florida’s population is diverse. It is 53% white, 26% Hispanic, and 15% black, and there are policy divisions within each group and each political party. For example, Democrats for Educational Reform (DFER) support school choice for low income black students. Diversity in Florida is increasing, but the challenge for public education is not only to provide equal access to a quality education, but it must also promote the value of diversity within schools. Academic achievement improves for all students when students are exposed to people of different backgrounds and abilities. Our task is to expand awareness of the importance of diversity within a school in order to lessen the achievement gap.

Privitization: Enrollment in charters and private schools has increased over the last five years. Charter school enrollment grew by 60,000 students to 11.5% of all PK12 students. Private school enrollment has been steady except for the 52,000 student increase due to state funded voucher programs. Combined, charters and private school enrollment is over 727,000 students or about one quarter of the Florida PreK 12 population.

The largest racial/ethnic group in both programs is Hispanics who are predominate in south Florida. But, Hispanics will clarify that there are important differences in ethnicity. Dade County has 20% of students enrolled in its charter schools and about 17% in private schools. Most of these students are of Cuban or Latin American descent. Many Hispanics from other countries are more recent immigrants and have lower family incomes.

Given that income and racial/ethnic background is correlated, enrollment within and across public and private schools often results in uneven quality. If SB48 passes, economic segregation may increase. More white families may use vouchers as partial tuition payments to private schools. Thus, there is even less priority on providing equal access to a high quality education. Florida’s charters and private schools are already more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools, as the Collins Institute has shown.

Online schools both public and private are also increasing. In April 2020, the Florida Board of Education approved a FLVS request to spend $4.3 million to hire 320 new instructors and buy new servers. There are 4,905 fulltime students in online charters and 5,104 in district online programs. The Florida Virtual School has 5,770 full time students.

  1. National trends
    Change in Leadership. President Biden’s educational platform opposes for-profit charter schools and strongly supports public school teachers. He has promised to at least triple Title I funding to aid students from lower income families. He supports universal preK for three and four-year olds. He has not, however, made any commitment to change annual testing requirements for federal funding. His appointments to the US Department of Education are a welcome change. Miguel Cordona is a well-regarded educator who strongly supports public education, but he has not made any statements about his views on charter schools. He supports testing. Cindy Marten, the nominee for Deputy Secretary, however, is an educator who strongly opposes charters and privatization generally.

Changes in Funding and Regulation. There is pressure to abolish the Charter School Program startup funds. Staff at the Network for Public Education is exposing charter school fraud and abuse across the country. Florida, for example, received federal Charter School Program grants. 503 opened and 186 closed for a loss of $34 million. In Florida, 125 charter schools received $50 million Paycheck Protection Plan loans, even though they operate with state funding. Questionable real estate transactions continue. Academica sold four charters to the Mater Academy Board for $47 million dollars even though Academica founded Mater Academy schools. Paramount charters in Titusville and Ft. Myers have been charged with embezzlement of federal funds. These issues have been ignored until now. These are only two of many such examples.

  1. The Path Forward: Now for the tea leaves.

Instructional Changes. In my district, placement of students in programs on the basis of test scores has come under fire. Magnet programs designed to fill under enrolled schools are criticized because they create a climate of exclusion. The value of student team-work vs. competition to promote learning has once again become a topic of discussion, but the required time for teacher collaboration to implement these programs is underfunded. Nevertheless, Sarasota has received community funds to implement group learning strategies in their middle schools.

School Management. Teacher shortages, student discipline and absenteeism rates plague schools. In January 2020, the Florida Department of Education reported that there were still 2,440 teacher vacancies. Teacher salaries are gradually improving.

Values and Policies. For the next few years, Florida is not likely to change its educational policies. Where should the League direct its energies? I have been focusing on local schools. I joined the District Advisory Council, the Half Cent Oversight Committee, the Equity Committee and the Discipline Committee. I understand what we value. We want our children to be competitive in a changing world. We understand that standards for what children should know and be able to do are needed, but we don’t agree on what they should be. Will the next experiment be tracking for vocational education? We know that testing to determine whether students meet standards has produced as many problems as it has solved. We do not know, however, how else to effectively evaluate the quality of our schools, and we think we must. Will we continue to rely on school grades? We have learned in the pandemic that technology does not replace teaching, and the allure of a seemingly simple way to use technology to fill teacher shortages is very complicated. Many of our students, for example, lack access to the Internet. Others sign into online classes but turn off their cameras. Some simply disappear from the roles.

I have come to believe that we know what we do not want, but we are having difficulty articulating what we do want. Or maybe there is no consensus on working for the greater good. If not, there is more turmoil ahead. For now, I plan to pay attention to equity issues, teaching and learning strategies, and assessment and accountability. I will follow the money. As much as I am able, I will let others know what I discover. I know you will do the same.

Run for Cover or Stand Up for Public Education?

The direction of the Florida Senate is clear….vouchers will expand if Senator Manny Diaz Jr. has his way. His bill SB48 is, however, not just about vouchers. Yes, he would consolidate the scholarships for children with disabilities into the McKay-Gardner scholarship. Then, he would consolidate the Hope, Florida Tax Credit, and Family Empowerment Scholarship into one program. Step Up for Children, which administers the voucher programs, will only have to account for the money every three years instead of every year.

It may sound like just a bureaucratic maneuver, but the devil is in the details. Educational Savings Accounts, previously restricted to students with severe disabilities, are now to cover other students. These accounts give parents tax credits to use for services like private school tuition, tutoring, after school programs, micro schools etc. I listened to a Step Up for Students podcast where the opportunities for many new small business were being extolled. There is mention of programs for three and four-year-old children as well, and I am not certain if the qualifications for programs have been relaxed. Maybe one of you can help me out there.

How well this expanded voucher program will be funded is yet to be determined. The bill raises the cap for corporate tax credits from 50% of taxes owed to 100% for those businesses that contribute. The amount of those donations has been declining, so one might assume that the General Fund will be tapped even more. The General Fund provides money to public schools which of course means there will be less money available.

The vision of mini schools and a cafeteria of services which parents must navigate in this new vision of education is daunting. I see car pools galore, micro schools ‘not open today’, fees added on to voucher payments to make programs ‘better’ or to make them unavailable for the less well-to-do. I see parents realizing too late that the quality of a program is not what is advertised. It makes me remember a saying from my childhood: “Watch out what you wish for!”

It is curious that the Florida Constitution prohibits public funding for private schools. The Florida Supreme Court upheld this prohibition in 1996. The Florida public rejected vouchers at the ballot. But, here they are again. Let your legislators know what you think!

Slippery Slope or Steady Course for a Better Future?

President-elect Biden has kept his promise to hire an educator. He found a good one in Miguel Cordona. Cordona was Connecticut’s Principal of the Year in 2012. His career path has been meteoric. He went from being an assistant superintendent of a small school district to state superintendent within two years. Cordona has not entered the wars over the privatization of public schools. He is, however, a strong public school supporter. He has opposed tying teacher evaluations to test scores. He fits Biden’s image as one who governs from the middle. Where will this lead?

All we know now is that federal K12 education funding goes primarily to the Title I program to support underserved students. Biden has stated that this funding will increase substantially. How states must account for these funds has yet to be determined. This matters. Education policy has been driven by a focus on test scores. Turning children into numbers has not improved learning. It has prompted many educators to leave the classroom. It has also fueled ineffective charter and school voucher programs that divide people and resources.

Education has been asked to solve the problems of poverty and inequity. There are no easy answers, but how this issue is approached is the test for Biden’s administration. Will accountability for federal dollars prompt state leaders to think about where and how children learn best? Or, will it keep children glued to computer screens that the pandemic has shown to be problematic?

Who will replace Betsy DeVos?

President-elect Biden has narrowed his choices for Secretary of Education. There are two finalists. Both are strong advocates for public education. One, Leslie Fenwick, has publically focused on the need to keep public schools public. You can help influence this choice. Read about the former dean of Howard University Leslie Fenwick. The other choice is Miguel Cordona, the Connecticut Secretary of Education. Take action:

Big Debate on Racial Disparity in Gainesville

 I wrote this post for this blog in June of 2016.  When I took the data to the district staff, they confirmed that the gap was not limited to specific schools or grade levels.  It was a district-wide problem.  We did not have an explanation, but the income-gap may have been an indicator. Gainesville had the fifth highest income gap in the nation.

In 2018, the U.F. Bureau of Economic and Business Research published a study of racial inequity in Alachua County.  They reported that Alachua County African Americans fared worse than in other areas of the state and nation.  Specifically, they have lower economic well being, educational performance and attainment, and more involvement in the justice system.  These factors are correlated.  Children from low-income families struggle.

In 2016, many explained the achievement gap in Alachua County by pointing to the fact that Gainesville is a college town.  Its people value education.  The district has national awards in math, AP, and culinary arts among other areas.  How could there be a problem?  Yet, there are the same achievement gap problems in Alachua County schools as there are across the nation.  Some say that the problems are worse, and implicit racism in schools is the culprit.  There may be other explanations.

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Who IS Carlee Simon: Alachua County Acting Superintendent?

The new majority on the Alachua County School Board acted quickly to change the Superintendent. Dr. Carlee Simon was named Interim Superintendent today. Karen Clarke has been replaced. Clarke has been called an excellent manager but not a visionary. The School Board will launch a search for a new Superintendent. Some speculate that they will search for someone they already know i.e. Carlee Simon.

Simon has been involved with the community activists associated with GNV4All’s education committee. The committee is chaired by Nathan Crabbe, the Opinion Editor of the Gainesville Sun. According to the Gainesville Sun, the signature project for GNV4All is to create a community health and social service center to be located at Metcalfe Elementary School in east Gainesville. The Center will provide prenatal care along with educational and wrap around services for families with children up to age four. The estimated cost is $350,000 a year.

Funding for the Metcalfe pre-school must come from the community and would need an organizational home. GNV4All has just filed as a nonprofit organization which could receive funds. One might suppose that it would submit a proposal to the Alachua County Children’s Trust for funds from the local tax initiative passed in 2018. Tina Certain, a member of the School Board who participates in GNV4All is also a member of the board of the Children’s Trust.

Carlee Simon faces a big challenge. She has background knowledge in educational policy but limited administrative experience. She was a classroom teacher for five years and earned a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2010. She was Assistant Professor for eight years at the University of Cincinnati. She returned to Gainesville and is currently enrolled in a graduate program in Urban Planning. Simon is more than a student. She teaches a course as an Adjunct at the University of North Florida and manages her own real estate business.

Running the Alachua County Schools is a complex, challenging job. Simon will have a steep learning curve. Her priorities are clear. She has a vision for equity. Her skills at implementing that vision, however, will be tested. The school system budget is over $537,000,000 but shortfalls in funding are expected due to the pandemic. This is a time of conflicting educational and vocational program needs. We have major school construction projects and difficult school rezoning issues. Some schools are under enrolled and others over enrolled.

Simon will be walking a tight rope as she attempts to build a consensus on how to address the problems. If she falls, Alachua County will need yet another superintendent in June. The School Board will lose face, and GNV4All’s equity goals may be thwarted. We have to be hopeful and vigilant.

There is Hope for a more rational charter school policy!

President-elect Biden’s national policy director released a position on charter schools. Biden would ban for-profit schools and level the playing field on transparency and accountability for charters operated by non-profit management firms. There is even more. Read on:

“As President, Biden will ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal funding because he just fundamentally believes that if they aren’t doing right by their students, no one should be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids. He will also, for nonprofit charters, Biden will make sure that we stop funding for charter schools that don’t provide results. Biden believes we shouldn’t be wasting the scarce resources that our public schools need so badly. And we’ll require every charter school, including online schools, to be authorized and held accountable by democratically-elected bodies like school boards and also hold to the same standards of transparency and accountability as all public schools. That means things like regular public board meetings and meeting all the same civil rights, employment, health, labor, safety and educator requirements that public schools must. That’s the fundamental premise of the vice president’s belief that every child, regardless of zip code or parent’s income, race or disability, should have equal access to a high-quality public neighborhood education in their school.”

[Asked to define what “results” charters would need to demonstrate, Feldman said “that would be an important priority for a Biden/Harris Department of Education at the beginning of an administration to figure out some rules to set standards that would measure that.”]

“Vice President Biden doesn’t think that we need to do away with all charter schools. He absolutely wants to support our traditional public schools. But … he feels that the way in which he has designed his policy will allow for charter schools that are delivering results to continue, while also making sure that our funding is focused on our traditional neighborhood public schools.”

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Proposed Education Budgets May Force Cost Cutting Again

Once again what looks like more money is not. The House and Senate 2020-21 budgets provide Alachua County with $50 or $40 more per student. The mandated increased cost for the Florida Retirement System is $80 more per student (in Alachua County). The districts must also pay for new students and the Teacher Salary Supplement. The district must cut its budget for 2020-21. The total reduction for Alachua County in the House bill is $3,487,197 and the Senate total is $2,564,352

The House (HB 5001) and Senate (SB 2500) budgets differ in priorities. The House budget includes more funding for teacher salary supplements but less than the Senate’s allocation for turnaround schools, students with disabilities, digital technology, and support for poorer districts. Both chambers include the mandate for districts to fund increased costs for the Florida Retirement System (FRS). The two bills must be reconciled in a joint conference.

The FRS increased cost is due to an auditor’s analysis that the FRS estimated rate of return on its investments should be lowered. While the current income on investments exceeds expectations, it has not completely recovered from the 2007 recession, see kic restoration. The FRS includes 643,00 state, local, and school district employees. Their contributions support pensions for 416,000 retirees. Teachers and other district employees are nearly one-half of all participants.