From the Heart: Certainty

Jill Lewis-Spector is on the Board of Directors of the Florida League of Women Voters. She shares her thoughts on the value of public education.

One of the advantages of public schools is CERTAINTY:

  • There is certainty that a public school open one year will still be open the next. Public schools don’t close as many charters and private schools do, displacing all the children who attended them and causing anxiety for parents. Public schools are graded. If one is failing students, it has to develop an improvement plan.
  • There is certainty that students attending public schools who need extra help with some skills, e.g. reading, there are programs in place to give them that help.
  • There is certainty that the curriculum is based on high standards, unlike private schools that aren’t required to adhere to standards.
  • There is certainty that teachers meet at least the minimum criteria for teaching children and are routinely evaluated, unlike many charters and private schools that often rely on uncertified teachers and not held to high quality teaching requirements.
  • There is certainty that the children in the school share a common bond as neighbors; they can play together after school if they wish; they will see each other in the park or at the supermarket, unlike many charters and private school students who may come from far distances.
  • There is certainty that those with oversight for the school live in the community, unlike many charters and private schools that are managed by individuals who may not even live in the state, let alone the community.
  • There is certainty that tax dollars going to the public schools are being used for the public schools; there is a budget and there is oversight of that budget, unlike many charters and private schools whose accounting procedures are questionable and lack transparency.
  • There is certainty that tax dollars going to public schools are used for public schools; there is a budget and oversight unlike at many charter and private schools.

Separation of Church and State

The Florida League of Women Voters Lunch and Learn panel invited key education law professionals from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Ed Law plus some League members…including me…to share their views on the status of the separation of church and state in education. The Florida Constitution is clear. There are to be no funds from the state treasury given to private, religious schools. Florida, however, has the largest voucher program in the country. How can this be?

The panel presentation lasts an hour. My thoughts are presented first. The legal opinions follow. The Q & A has some good information as well. Watch the panel here .

Who’s Calling the Shots?

Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and Burr died broke and alone. Both men lost. Their dispute was both personal and political and lasted over two hundred years. Now It is playing not only on stages across the country, it also has entered K12 and postsecondary classrooms. The argument is over power–whether the few or the many should control the government. Alexander Hamilton was the Federalist party leader. He believed in political control by an elite, centralized government, and implied powers drawn from the constitution. His Federalist party viewed religion (usually Protestant belief) as a tool to build its sense of community. Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. They were anti federalists who supported state and local control and the separation of church and state. The Federalists collapsed as a political party by 1808, and new political alliances were formed on both sides. Nevertheless, the issues remained as we see today.

The debate over civics education in Florida is the latest political power play rooted in this old dispute. The strategy is subtle. Political conservatives are using money and political connections to alter Florida’s civics education. Behind the scenes is Hillsdale College, a religious college in Michigan that is defining what it means to be a patriotic citizen. The concept is akin to the idea of promoting ‘civil religion’ that evolved from the Federalist party’s celebration of patriotic ideas and events to build its base of support.

We need to not only understand these changes in civics education, but also the story behind Hillsdale College. The College was founded in 1844. Facing scandal and near collapse in 1999, the college selected its current president who saw an opportunity to promote its conservative Federalist ideology as a form of super patriotism and rebuild the school. It now has an endowment of over $800 million. It defines Federalism in its version of classical education called the 1776 Curriculum which is used in its classical charter schools. Read a critique here.

Supporters of the College include national and Florida-based politicians. Betsy DeVos, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Ginnie Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are examples. In Florida, they include Erika Donalds, wife of U.S. Representative Byron Donalds, who led the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative alternative school board association. She helped found the Florida Classical Academies (charter schools) sponsored by Hillsdale College. Florida politicians such as Governor DeSantis and Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran are identified with these charters. It is a close knit group with a history.

Erika Donalds sponsored Amendment 8 to the Florida Constitution in 2018. The amendment was thrown out by the courts, but its agenda to limit school boards’ authority, ban books, and require its version of civic literacy remain. Governor DeSantis has coopted it as he builds his candidacy for President. His legislative agenda prohibits teaching subjects that make students uncomfortable about past events (HB 7). HB 1467 bans controversial topics in textbooks. The new civics curriculum with its particular set of values will take effect in 2024.

It is difficult to believe that a small college in Michigan could impact Florida’s students at both the K12 and postsecondary levels, but they have. The Florida legislature has passed Governor DeSantis’ measures to revise the State Standards for Civics (HB 5), K12 Social Studies (SB 1108), and postsecondary requirements regarding diversity of opinions (HB 233). Teacher training workshops have been held to make the curriculum “more patriotic”. These changes were reviewed and modified by Michigan’s Hillsdale College. A new University of Florida Hamilton Institute was funded by Florida’s legislature and Hillsdale College to develop civics courses at the college level. Normally, the faculty at universities control the curriculum, and how these courses will be implemented is unclear. This week DeSantis has announced the creation of three community college civics career academies to train students to work in local government.

Florida politicians, like the president of Hillsdale College are opportunists. They thrive in times of turmoil. As in 1808, our political parties are again in disarray leaving room for new parties and power brokers to emerge. Will political parties reorganize to rebalance the power of money and influence? Hamilton took his shot at power and lost. The anti-federalist Jeffersonians held sway until their internal divisions split the party. New coalitions formed then and will again when voters insist. Our democracy depends upon it.

US House Appropriations Chair: Blistering Reproach to Opponents of For-Profit Charter School Regulations

by Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, issued a blistering reproach of how “the national trade organization representing for-profit EMO’s is running a well-funded misinformation campaign” to stop the proposed regulations of the U.S. Department of Education to provide more accountability and transparency in the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP).

Although Chairwoman DeLauro does not mention the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) by name, that organization has been leading the campaign telling President Biden and Secretary Cardona to #backoff. “In 2019, the NACPS Hall of Fame winner was Fernando Zulueta, the founder and owner of the largest for-profit chain in the United States, Academica. Zulueta served on their board for years,” according to Carol Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education. NPE issued a report last year on the for-profit charter industry, entitled “Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain.”

Burris continues, “The campaign of misinformation waged by NACPS at defeating sensible reforms in CSP regulations has been relentless. Wild and untruthful claims made include that the Department does not believe rural charter schools and culturally affirming charter schools should exist, that public school districts would need to approve new charter schools, and that the regulations would override state law. Each of these outrageous false claims are intended to do one thing–frighten parents who send their children to charter schools to oppose the regulations in order to ensure that for-profit run charters and white flight charters can still get CSP funding.”

According to the Chair’s press release, which you can find here, this is not the first time that the same organization has used misinformation in order to protect the for-profit charter industry. The “trade organization” , presumably the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, led a similar campaign of misinformation last summer, according to Chair DeLauro.

Finally, Reasonable Federal Regulations for Charter Schools Management!

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed regulations to curb charter school management problems. The regulations are tied to federal funding. This is great news! They tackle for-profit charter schools and require community impact studies of charter schools. The Department wants your feedback. Please submit your comments here.

Below I have summarized my comments about the proposed regulations.The Department needs to hear from you. Please stand up and be counted.

I am writing in response to the invitation to submit comments regarding “Proposed Priorities, Requirements, Definitions, and Selection Criteria-Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program (CSP)-Grants to State Entities (SE Grants)

I strongly support the Department’s attempt to ensure that charter schools operated by for-profit management corporations do not receive CSP grants. As a resident of Florida, I can attest to the problems created by for-profits running schools. In my state, over 50% of our charter schools are run by for-profit management companies.

I strongly support the proposed regulations that seek to bring greater transparency and assess the impact of a new charter school on the community. I especially support the inclusion of a community impact analysis “to inform the need, number, and types of charter schools to be created in a given community.”

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to submit comments. And thank you for proposing much needed reforms.

Sue Legg

Florida Files State Test Waiver Request

Governor DeSantis filed a request to waive federal requirements for state testing in 2021.  If approved, state tests would not be administered.  Specific federal waivers include:

  1. Implement and report the results of the state’s accountability system;
  2. Calculate progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators;
  3. Meaningfully differentiate among public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year;
  4. Account for an assessment participation rate below 95 percent; and
  5. Identify schools for comprehensive support and improvement, targeted support and improvement, and additional targeted support and improvement based on data from the 2020-2021 school year.

Florida would still be required to:

  1. Continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year;
  2. Resume school identification in the fall of 2022; and
  3. Publically report the percentage of students, by subgroup, not assessed and the percentage chronically absent.
  4. The waiver application does not exempt Florida from state accountability requirements. The results of state assessments are crucial to help identify students who need specialized supports, help teachers tailor their instructional delivery to support individual student needs, and ensure equity in opportunity and closing achievement gaps for millions of Florida’s at-risk students.

For the most up-to-date data, FDOE will report school performance data, disaggregated by student subgroups, at www.knowyourschoolsfl.org.

Florida has its own requirements based on state test scores.  DeSantis’ emergency order will allow districts to opt out of reporting school grades, school improvement ratings, and learning gains associated with teacher evaluations.  Districts will be allowed to determine if students should be promoted or should graduate from high school.

These waivers are only for one year.  It is a good time to reevaluate the entire testing and accountability system.  There is no good reason to require expensive annual testing at every grade level.  The way Florida uses those scores to rank schools needs to be rethought.

Vouchers are Big Business in Florida

For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature. It is essentially a money management/marketing firm operating as a non-profit charity.

The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama. According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets.

Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into general revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida has just released an investigative report that details the history, financial dealings, political connections, and audit findings for Step Up for Students. The full report is available here.

Chartered For-Profit: NPE’s New Report

It is time to end Chartered4Profit to ensure that children, not corporations, profit from our tax dollars. Read NPE’s new report which exposes the for profit sector. Over one-half of Florida’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies. Against the law you say?? Well yes, it is. Florida law makers and charter school companies have found away around that issue. The charters are granted to non-profit organizations which then subcontract to for-profit management firms. These firms hire the teachers, manage the books, and control the curriculum. In most cases, the management companies select the charter school board members in the first place. It is a cozy arrangement.

Why is running a charter school so attractive to businessmen and many politicians? There is money to be made particularly in real estate, fees, and side organizations that provide services. Lots of money–your tax money!

The Network for Public Education has done a deep dive into these organizational structures. You can see for yourself how they work. The report focuses on the four largest chains: National Heritage Academies, The Leona Group, Charter Schools USA, and Academica. Two of these were launched in Florida.

When states take action to privatize schools through school choice, they are choosing to take your money to make money. President Biden was quoted in May 2019 saying “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period!” Let’s see if he means it.

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.