Political Maneuvers on HB 7055

Sometimes things are not what they seem. Politics versus policies take many forms. In the case of SB 7055, there was a dramatic shift in Senate education policy last week. The Senate version took a much more responsible approach to educational choice by including controls for charter school corporate profiteering and private school expansion. These measures are now gone and replaced by House priorities to expand private school scholarships and charters. Some measures, however, were just moved around.

The big shift was in the Senate version of SB7055 that included the mental health program. The Senate deleted the program and moved it to the gun safety bill SB 7026. SB 7026 passed the Senate yesterday and goes to the House next. Many oppose the firearms policies in the bill, but politics and horse trading go hand in hand. So, maybe the Senate collapse was a trade for a mental health program in schools?

IS THIS JUST A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN…You know trading away your soul?

If you do not like the horses being traded, or whom they carry, then it is time to get a new crop of horses and replace those in the saddles. Some of us are organizing to do just that.

Letter to Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican legislature is considering its first cbarter school bills. As part of a national coalition, I was asked to write a letter to the legislature. These are my views. The letter is not from the League.
………………………………………………………………………………………………… To: Members of the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico
From: Sue Legg, Ph.D., University of Florida, emerita
Re Senate Bill 825 and House Bill 14441

I write as an expert in Research, Measurement and Evaluation who has been actively involved in studies of school choice in Florida. For over thirty years, I was a major contractor for the Florida Department of Education in assessment and evaluation. More recently, I headed the statewide study of charter schools for the Florida League of Women Voters.

There are lessons to be learned from the Florida school choice experience. Not only did the U.S. Department of Education officially recognize (in 2014) the increased racial and economic segregation of schools in Florida due to charter expansion policies, the unregulated expansion of the industry also has resulted in unparalleled corruption.

Mismanagement of charters in Florida takes many forms. In the current Florida legislative session, the Senate has issued a proposal (CSB 7055) to prohibit financial enrichment by charter school owners and managers and their associated real estate companies. Charter school buildings that receive state funding for supplemental services must be transferred to a district, governmental entity, college or university if the charter closes. Charter closures due to poor academic achievement and management are the highest in the nation.

This legislation, if it passes, is long overdue. Millions upon millions of public dollars remain in the hands of the owners of privately run charter schools. Equally alarming are the number of legislators on key education committees with personal interests in charter schools e.g. the Speaker of the House.

The impact of unparalleled growth in the charter sector has contributed not only to the deterioration of neighborhoods as schools become more stratified by income and race, but also to the physical deterioration of facilities. Districts have joined together to file lawsuits due to their inability to maintain school buildings as funds are syphoned off. As the State reduces funding to pay the costs of charter and private school expansion, costs are shifted from the State to local communities. Local sales tax and property tax initiatives attempt to pick up the slack. Their ability to do so is dependent upon the wealth of the local community, and the specter of increased inequity increases.

There may be a need to offer school districts some flexibility in school management. The lack of oversight and strategic planning in a free market system based on competition for students, however, fails to serve students. Achievement gains in Florida are largely a myth fostered by well financed school choice advocates. NAEP scores have been flat for a decade. The highly touted growth in fourth grade reading scores reflects the high rate of third grade retention, not teaching and learning strategies.

This is a cautionary tale. There are social, political, and economic costs that must be weighed in this debate. Even the National Alliance for Charter Schools reported in 2016: “Despite consistent growth by charter schools in Florida, the schools have lagged on quality, diversity and innovation”.

I have watched and seen first hand what happens as schools open and close and children are shuffled around. It is not a pretty sight.

Compare the Policies: This is a real choice

The Florida House passed its version of HB7055. The Senate version has the same bill number but different content. It is moving forward. Compare the two versions.

Private School Expansion. Both legislative chambers would expand the corporate tax credit scholarships to students who could demonstrate they were bullied or otherwise harassed. Tax credits on new car sales would fund these private school scholarships, but the House would allow $105 per sale and the Senate would provide an option for buyers to donate $20 per sale. The Senate also proposes stronger fiscal audits and background checks for private schools and would raise standards for teachers who now are not required to have baccalaureate degrees from accredited colleges and universities.

Charter School Expansion. The House proposes converting public schools to privately managed charters and organizes charter school districts. These charters have governing boards appointed by private charter companies. The Senate proposes district-run charters that allow districts a more level playing field. Public school districts could be freed of stringent facility and staffing regulations, as charters currently are. Locally elected school boards, however, retain the responsibility of district-run charters.
In a long awaited move, the Senate bill takes aim at charter school profiteering. It prohibits financial enrichment by charter school owners and managers and their associated real estate companies. Charter school buildings that receive state funding for supplemental services must be transferred to a district, governmental entity, college or university if the charter closes.

Support for Low Performing Students. The House bill awards $400 per student who fails the third grade English Language Arts exam. Additional services would be funded by sales tax revenue. Families would be on their own to find a private tutor or other instructional materials. The Senate creates Hope Supplemental Services as part of current educational funding to school districts. These services provide $2000 per student for tutorial and after school programs as well as student and parent counseling and nutrition education. In addition, the Senate proposes an intensive mental health program be initiated in public schools.

Yes, the Senate threw a bone to the House by including a small amount of funding for the ‘bully bill’, but on balance, it is a much better bill. It gives districts control of charters that it decides to create. It puts meaningful control on charter profiteering. It supports struggling students in low performing public schools.

There is more to come. Watch for the House Ways and Means bill HB7087. They will continue to try to get more money to the private sector. The bill creates the Florida Sales Tax Credit Program. This is all a prelude for the November 2018 election when the pro choice advocates will attack the Florida Constitution to allow vouchers.

PTA Candle Light Vigil Monday

Join your local PTA candlelight vigil for Douglas High School Students. The Alachua County vigil is Monday, February 19th from 7-8pm at the Alachua County School District Office. 620 E. University Ave. Gainesville. If you can wear Douglas school colors, maroon and silver, please do.

Doomsday or Glimmer of Hope?

I heard some things in Tallahassee. One legislator said “If HB7055 becomes law, it is the end of public education as we know it.” Another legislator said: ” I was taken for a ride last year on HB7069; it won’t happen again.” Nevertheless, HB7065 passed in the House today by 66 yeas to 43 nays on the third reading. There is no conforming bill in the Senate; the fate of our schools now depends upon the strategy the Senate uses to consider its bill, SB2508. To become law, the two chambers have to negotiate a common bill. Last night the Senate stripped the House bill of its HB 7055 language. It offered to consider individual proposals one at a time. The League has positions on this list of individual bills.

It’s clear that the House HB 7055 policies are all about privatizing our public schools. The Senate bill SB 2508 is much more supportive of public schools and responsible management. What will happen is tied not to policy, but to the budget process.

The budgets are now renumbered. The House budget is HB5001 and the Senate is SB2500. The House tied its policies to the budget. If their bill does not pass, it can prevent passage of any budget at all. The Senate budget is complex and its impact is not obvious. What happens depends upon understanding the money.

Here’s what I think might be at stake.

  1. The Florida Retirement System. One of the biggest groups supporting the retirement system is teachers. If you are an antigovernment politician, then that big pension system is a target. The fund is self supporting in Florida, but without teachers, it likely will not be.

HB7055 has a measure to decertify unions. Without retirement and health care benefits, there will be more and cheaper charter school teachers available! Almost no charters provide benefits, and it is difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers.

  1. Sales Tax Revenue for Private Schools.. Using sales taxes to fund private school vouchers is unconstitutional. If the House bill becomes law, it will set precedent for giving scholarship funding from sales taxes. It gives $400 to parents to families of kids who failed the FSA English Language Skills test. It is a ploy to set up a scholarship for public school parents to buy services on the private market. It is not about the kids. Those same children would fare much better in the Senate bill which allocates $2000 per child to public schools to provide those services.

The Senate has a much better policy bill, but it has different budget implications. The Senate provides more per student funding ($7,201 vs. $7,142) and slightly more money for student growth. Additional funding comes primarily from the required local effort in local property taxes. There is no millage rate increase, but revenue can once again fluctuate. If property values go up, the revenue to schools increases (and vice versa). The House budget only allows districts to gain income from new home sales, not from increases in property values for all homes and funds fewer new students.

The House version looks like it is lower cost, but it organizes the money differently. For example,
1. Money for the Hope low achieving children and mental health, shows in the Senate budget, but the House reading scholarships based on new car sales do not show in its.
2. The Senate includes money for the Best and Brightest teacher bonuses and the House funds it separately. The Senate includes the extra hour reading requirement but the House does not.
3. The Senate includes a funding compression allocation for districts whose revenue is below the state average but the House does not.

Moreover, facilities funding from PECO dollars derived from taxes on telephone lines etc. will generate $120 million for the 652 charter schools the House favors but only $50 million for the over 4,000 public schools. The allocates $25 million to charters and $75 million to district schools.

After all is said and done, in the Senate FEFP budget, the base allocation from the State general revenue is less than last year by $45.20 per student, and new money for programs comes from local property taxes. Perhaps the Senate can find a little more money from the State so that its share of funding for schools is equal to last year.

The House state base allocation increased this year, but of course it funds its new programs separately. Smoke and mirrors hiding real consequences not only to children, but to the future of our educational system.

We all know that most policy decisions are about who gets the money. This is your money. Who gets it? If ever there is a time to let your voices be heard, this is it. Do you want to set up a system to promote private schools? If not, say so.

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.

Games CRC Plays: It is dark behind doors, not sunny.

The CRC is making its own rules. According to CRC member Erika Donalds, the CRC operates like the legislature; it does not follow the Sunshine law. If they want to speak together secretly, they do so. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who sits on the CRC, stated that she personally does not engage in one-on-one talks with other commissioners.

Politico has taken an interest in the behind the scenes discussions about Erika Donalds proposals to amend the Florida constitution. Procedural issues continue plague the operation of the CRC which can invalidate the CRC proposals. Her proposals would end school board salaries, impose term limits, require appointed superintendents, and promote funding for private schools, and strip charter school authorization authority from local school boards.

Donalds is the Collier County School Board member who helped organize her own school board association, separate from the Florida School Boards Association. The membership of this alternative group has ties to a charter school chain operated by a private religious college in Michigan. She and her husband, Representative Byron Donalds, were founding board members of Mason Classical Academy charter in Collier County. Donalds has filed for a second charter. Shawn Frost, who is part of this group, has announced he will not seek reelection to the Indian River school board. It seems he expects to be appointed to the Florida State Board of Education.

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.