Classical Academy in Trouble Again

Collier County’s Classical Academy is facing financial mismanagement charges by its former treasurer. He claims that the principal has created an environment “where fraud can occur without detection”. This is just one more crisis at this charter school founded by Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds. Donalds was the sponsor for Amendment 8 to create a separate charter system.

The treasurer and Erika Donalds have pulled their children from the school. Donalds has filed paper work to open her own Classical Academy. Her husband, Representative Byron Donalds is reportedly ‘mulling’ legislation to increase charter school accountability. According to the Naples Daily News, Donalds is considering requirements that charters post student and teacher turnover rates as well as a minimum of five board members. Erika and Byron Donalds were former board members of this charter school.

Parents are finding out the hard way that they have no voice in charter school management. The charter boards are hand picked. Elected public school boards can do nothing until the charter can no longer pay its bills or students are in danger. Representative Donalds says that reform of the charter system depends upon the November election. Be sure you know where your representatives stand on charter school management reform.

Here are stories of other complaints about this charter school. It is quite a history. Yet, the school remains open.

Story 1. Inflated loans
Story 2. Underware searches
Story 3. Sexual Assault

Bridging the Gap in Pinellas

In 2016, Pinellas County schools were in a crisis they made themselves. Five schools were labeled “Failure Factories”. They were the result of a 2007 school board decision to end busing and allow the resegregation of schools. Prior to 2007, Pinellas was under a federal school integration plan. When busing ended, south Pinellas schools became very segregated. In theory, these mostly minority schools were promised district support; in practice little support was given. As a result, they could not keep teachers or students and achievement levels plummeted. Of the 187 Florida schools whose students were from families as poor or poorer, only seven had lower achievement scores than the ‘Failure Factories’. The pattern of the increase in the achievement gap as schools became more segregated is a national problem.

In 2016, Pinellas school district launched a massive effort to turn around these five schools and to eliminate the achievement gap in all schools, by infusing data driven instruction, faculty training to change expectations for their students, teacher bonuses, and a host of other support programs for students and families. The report is out for the first year. Schools improved slightly on five measures: graduation rate, advanced coursework enrollment, ESE identification, minority hiring, and student discipline. On the sixth measure, closing the achievement gap between white and black students, there was no change. Approximately one-third of the black students earned a level 3 score, indicating proficiency or near proficiency levels in math and English language skills.

Pinellas set a ten-year goal to end the achievement gap. It is too early to predict how well students will fare. Some schools made more progress than others. Gains may be uneven from year-to-year. Why this is so matters. Is it a difference in attitude of students and the school community, a meaningful difference in the implementation of the plan in particular schools, or changes in socio-economic differences in student backgrounds within schools? Student enrollment within a school can change dramatically from year-to-year as families move around or enroll and then withdraw children in charters and tax credit supported private schools. These are the questions the district must address to give meaning to the data. Numbers do not tell the real story; they just shine a light on a problem.

It is short sighted to put fingers of blame on the districts alone. Elected school boards reflect community values. The entire community must be committed to providing equal access to a high quality education for all students. Finding ways to create equal access within and across schools is a challenge thwarted by the more segregated housing patterns that have evolved in the last twenty years.

Step by Step Guide to Uncovering Dark Money School Board Races

How do you really know who is funding a school board race? It matters. Even though the amount of money contributed does not guarantee victory, it does disclose who is behind a candidate. Are the supporters local? Or, are they organizations backed by billionaires or a particular ideology? Some candidates are stealth candidates. Their backers may not be obvious.

If you want to know more about your local candidates, here is a step by step process. It just takes a ‘will to know’. Once you do know, tell others.

Accountabaloney sends this guide to tracking donors:

Tomorrow I will post the process for tracking committee contributions, or you can go to the Accountabaloney website: Question the Source.

Florida 5th Worst State for Teachers

Florida has a teacher shortage; here are reasons why. According to an article in the Herald Tribune, only Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona and Hawaii are worse than Florida on a group of measures such as:

  1. salaries, pensions, income growth potential
  2. student-teacher ratios
  3. teacher turnover, union strength, teacher safety

Florida ranks 41st in per pupil spending. It takes an average of eleven years before Florida teachers can expect to earn $48,000. Unfortunately, a fifth of all teachers resign before the end of their first year. About one-half resign within five years. Which states, according to the financial analysis by WalletHub, are the best states in which to teach? New York, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

The news is not all bad. Across all 25 indicators used to rank states on overall school quality, not only on teaching conditions, Florida ranks 26th.

I was particularly interested in how WalletHub defined ‘school quality’. The measures that used included: performance, funding, safety, class size, and instructor credentials. It would seem from this study that Florida is a ‘middle of the road’ state educational system with a big problem attracting and keeping teachers.

Could it happen here, No Doubt About It? Consider Arizona

Arizona Superintendent of Schools Diane Douglas announced she will recommend the curriculum standards for Classical Academy charter schools. They are sponsored by Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan that has gone into the charter business. It had to do something a few years ago because it was scandal ridden due to the sexual exploits of its president resulting in his son’s wife’s suicide. It is also the charter chain that Erika Donalds, a Collier County Florida school board member, personally supports. She has filed a proposal to open another one in Martin County. It’s the same chain that won its appeal to Florida’s State Board of Education to open a Classical Academy in Tallahassee this past week.

Florida’s State Board of Education Chair is no supporter of public schools. Marva Johnson advocated that Florida’s constitution be changed to allow public funds to support private, religious schools. Johnson was voted by SBE members to succeed Gary Chartrand. He is one of the financial supporters of KIPP charters in Jacksonville. He is also one of the major contributors to school board races. His candidates support charter schools.

There is a lot of money to be made from Florida’s charter schools. Almost half of the 650 charters are run by for-profit management companies that are subcontractors with the charter boards they help to create. Want to know about the inside dealings of Academica, Florida’s richest charter firm? Read the Miami Herald report. This story ran before Erik Fresen, Zulueta’s brother-in-law and former Florida legislator was arrested for forgetting for eight years to file his income tax returns. He already had been cited for conflict of interest in his role at Academica.

Large non-profit charter management chains have their own way of making money. Eva Moskowitz, head of the NY based Success Academies, made over $782,000 in 2016 to run 46 schools. The Superintendent of Orange County, Florida public schools runs 191 schools, but her salary is less than half of what Moskowitz earns.

Until Florida citizens demand change, too many charters will syphon off public tax dollars for private gain. When the money goes to charters, it comes from your children’s schools.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Dark Money Must Be Disclosed

Trying to find out who and which groups are trying to secretly impact elections is discouraging. The Citizens United ruling in 2016 opened a Pandora’s box of attack ads against political opponents funded by secret donors. Today’s Supreme Court ruling requires full disclosure beginning now. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case referred from the Appellate Court.

The top organizations participating in the dark money ads include the Chamber of Commerce, the conservative Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers Americans for Prosperity, and the National Rifle Association. Organizations may continue to publish ads and fund campaigns. The difference is that now individuals and groups contributing to these organizations must reveal their identities. Read the report on the decision here.

Integrity Florida Nails the For-Profit Charter Industry

A newly released report by Integrity Florida underscores the Florida League of Women Voters concerns about charter school policy and its negative impact on public schools. Remember that charters are funded by public tax dollars but run by private companies. The report focuses on the abuse and negative impact of for-profit charters in Florida.

It’s all here.

KEY EXCERPTS

  1. Page 17-18. For-profit charters like Academica, CSUSA, Imagine and S.M.A.R.T. perform less well than similar students in traditional public schools.
  2. Page 19: For-profit charters hurt public schools…substantial share of public expenditure…extracted for personal or business financial gain.
  3. Page 21: Lease and management fees are largest income source of for-profit charters.
  4. Page 22: 373 charters have closed.
  5. Page 24: Corruption continues even after 2016 legislative reforms.
  6. Page 25: Charters cherry pick students to reduce costs and services for struggling students.
  7. Page 26: Charters use money and influence to affect policy outcomes. $2,651,639 was spent on committee and campaign contributions in 2016 alone. John Kirtley, who heads many of these committees also is chair of Step Up for Students which distributes a billion dollars in corporate tax credit scholarships to private schools. All Children Matters, run by Betsy DeVos, gave over $4 million to Florida political committees between 2004 and 2010. The Walton family gave over $7 million between 2008 and 2016 to Florida’s All Children Matter. Large contributions by the Waltons, John Kirtley, CSUSA, Academica, Gary Chartrand, and others were also made to the Florida Federation for Children. For profit charters have spent over $8 million in lobbying in Tallahassee.
  8. Page 35: Conflict of interest claims in the Florida legislature have been made against current and former legislators including Richard Corcoran, Manny Diaz, Anitere Flores, Michael Bileca, Eric Fresen, John Legg, Seth McKeel, Kelli Stargel, Ralph Arza, and Will Weatherford.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

There are a number of management practices recommended including the publication of charter contracts, prohibition of advertising for students, and increasing local school district oversight authority. Other specific recommendations include:

  1. Limit charter expansion.
  2. Report for-profit charter expenditures and profits by school.
  3. Fund public schools sufficiently to remove competition.
  4. Limit the amount of public funds for leases.
  5. Report number of charter student drop outs, withdrawals, and expulsions.

California has gone a step further. Last week the governor signed a bill to prohibit further expansion of for-profit charters.

Amendment 8 Behind the Scenes: Political ideology, religion, dark money, billionaires, and of course, the money trail

Florida’s 652 charters run the gamut from small ‘mom and pop’ charters to large chains organized by for-profit management companies. Some serve children and districts well. Many others tell different stories. They involve not only political ideology but also religion, dark money networks, billionaires, and of course, self-interest.

The Erika Donalds version of the charter story starts simply. A small group of members seceded from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) in 2015 to form the Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM). Erika Donalds, a member of the Collier County school board and wife of Florida Representative Byron Donalds, fronts this coalition, but the political network behind it is extensive. It goes all the way to our nation’s capital.
About 14 of the 50 alternative school board association members have been publicly identified, including:

• Rebecca Negron, who has just been defeated for a seat on the Martin County school board even though her supporters raised over $250,000 to unsuccessfully attack her opponent. She is the wife of Senate President Joe Negron. Senator Negron wrote the initial legislation for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to give corporate taxes to private schools.
Some FCSBM members also have strong dark money ties to national conservative political advocacy groups.
• Erika Donalds openly displays the Americans for Prosperity logo on her Collier 912 Freedom Council website. This is a tea party group supported by the Koch brothers and others.
• In the March 29, 2018 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Speaker of the Florida House Richard Corcoran’s wife Ann, who operates her own charter school, is identified.
• Shawn Frost, who is Chair of the Indian River school board, is part of this coalition. He announced in the Indian River Guardian that he expects to be appointed to the Florida State Board of Education. Frost reported campaign contributions from Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education. In 2014, Frost received $20,000 in campaign contributions from the American Federation of Children run by Betsy DeVos. Frost lives in Vero Beach, but maintains a room in his father’s house in Indian River to meet the residence requirements for being on the school board. He is also the head of MVP Strategy and Policy which specializes in consulting for school board races.
• A Duval School Board member Scott Shine has reportedly joined the FCSBM. He withdrew from his 2018 reelection campaign due to ‘personal attacks’.
• Sarasota school board members Erik Robinson, a former Republican Party Chairman and Bridgit Ziegler are listed members. Ziegler’s campaign reported $45,000 in donations from the out of state Phoenix Media LLC. According to the Herald Tribune, the money was funneled through a PAC run by fellow board member Erik Robinson, who is often called ‘The Prince of Dark Money’.

Some FCSBM members are collaborating to build a Florida chain of Classical Academy Charters. This isn’t just any group of charter schools. They are sponsored by the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. The College, located in Michigan, has a long religious/conservative/libertarian agenda. The DeVos immediate family and close business associates have several Hillsdale graduates. The Barney (SmithBarney) and Stanton Foundations fund the initiative. There are 17 of these charters nationwide. In Florida, there are four: Mason in Naples, Pineapple Cove in Palm Bay, St. Johns in Fleming Island, and the newly formed Pineapple Cove in West Melbourne. Donalds and her husband have been active with the Mason Classical Academy in Collier County. Donalds is currently seeking to add a Classical Academy in Martin County where Rebecca Negron was running for school board.
Erika Donalds has more than running a charter school on her mind. She was appointed by the governor to the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) which is convened every twenty years to consider proposals to amend the constitution. Donalds is a strategist to divide the Florida public schools into two separate systems, one for ‘independent schools’ and one for public schools established by locally elected school boards. Essentially, it would allow one system for charters and private schools receiving tax credit scholarships and one for traditional public schools.

This year the CRC was plagued with ‘log rolling’. It is a technique to bundle dissimilar proposals into one law. There is a spate of these ‘logs’ projected to be on the November ballot. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against them, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the League of Women Voters was correct in its opposition to at least one. This proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida constitution must be withdrawn from the November ballot. How this amendment came to be is a story in itself.

Amendment 8 combines three separate proposals: school board term limits, civics literacy and a clause stating that school boards are only responsible for schools they create. This third proposal is the heart of the amendment. The title for the amendment, however, is: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools”. Voters might be in favor of one part of the combined proposals but opposed to another. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ strategy. The wording, even the title was intended to confuse voters. Term limits and civics education may seem innocuous, but they are not.

Erika Donalds is also the Florida sponsor for the US Term Limits organization. This group has a well-documented conservative political agenda that targets school boards to create more opportunities to influence policy. The Koch brothers founded the US Term Limits group. The civics course requirement proposed by CRC member Gaetz, the former President of the Florida Senate, made no sense. Civics was already required by the Florida Department of Education. Former Governor Bob Graham, long a champion of civics education, stated that not only is Amendment 8 a hodge podge, it is not even good for civics education. The CATO Institute has a major focus on civics education and provides free civics material to k12 schools. Its message is clear. According to the Huffington Post, the CATO group states: “The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Government assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty”.

The third component of Amendment 8 was to remove local school board control over the authorization of new charter schools. This too represented the national move to privatize our schools by creating charters and funding vouchers to private schools. In the proposed Amendment 8, however, the schools were called ‘independent’, not charter schools. Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart stated that removing local school board control over the establishment of charter schools goes too far. CRC member Patricia Levesque, CEO of Jeb Bush’s education foundation however, supported the amendment as did Marva Johnson, the President of the State Board of Education.

Erika Donalds formed a Political Action Committee called ‘8 is Great’ to sway voters to support Amendment 8. According to the Vero Communique, Howard Rich, a wealthy New York real estate investor, invested $100,000 in the ‘8 is Great’ PAC. Rich serves on the Board of the CATO institute which was founded by the Koch brothers. David Koch ran for Vice President of the U.S. in 1980 on a platform opposing social security, the FBI, the CIA and pubic schools. The billionaire Koch brothers have a long and intensive interest in promoting school choice through their Americans for Prosperity organization. They are concentrating on Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Their presence takes many forms. Watch for everything from donations to school board races, charter and voucher expansion efforts and state election campaigns. John Kirtley, the founder of Step Up for Children was a major donor. Step Up is the agency that administers a billion dollars for the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and Duval School Board member Scott Shine have joined the PAC according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Recognizing that term limits and civics education are popular among many voters, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wells submitted a brief to the Florida League of Women Voters in which he stated: “This change from local county school board control…is hidden by packaging the change with what are thought to be attractive proposals for term limits and civics education.” These schools were planned to be charter schools but the word ‘independent’ was substituted for the word ‘charter’.

There is a watchdog coalition of about 20 public interest groups, headed by the League, to follow and evaluate CRC proposed amendments. Amendment 8 was identified early by the coalition as part of a package of amendments intended to seize local control from city and county governments. The League of Women Voters and the Southern Poverty Law Center joined forces to file a lawsuit against Amendment 8 asking that Amendment 8 be removed from the November ballot. The suit claimed that the amendment was deliberately vague and intended to confuse the public. The circuit court in Tallahassee agreed. The State filed an appeal.

The Appellate Court immediately referred the case to the Florida Supreme Court saying, “The case involves a question of great public importance and requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court”. The vagueness of the amendment language and its misleading title: “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” was the basis for the justices’ 4 to 3 ruling. The decision puts a roadblock in the effort to create an alternative charter school system. Some legislators will no doubt continue to push proposals to remove any local school board control of charter schools. In reality, local public schools have very limited responsibility to oversee charters, but they and the local press can shine a spotlight on what is at stake.

After sixteen years of choice, it is clear that choice divides communities, segregates children, and dissipates funding without making any appreciable improvement in student achievement. The Supreme Court has another case before it now ‘Citizens for Strong Schools’ that contends that Florida’s choice policy has failed to support the quality education for all children that the Florida constitution requires. The hearing is set. The future of our public school system will depend on the ruling from the bench.

Who Is Behind School Board Candidate Funding?

Here is a primer on how to follow the money. AccountBaloney tracked the money behind Rebeca Negron’s failed campaign for the Martin County School Board. Rebeca Negron is part of the Erika Donald’s group that formed its own school board association. Remember Donalds is behind Amendment 8 that would set up a separate state association for charter schools. She is also seeking approval for a charter school in Martin County, Florida that is affiliated with a Christian college in Michigan.

This post shows you exactly how to track campaign funding. Officially Negron raised less money than her opponent. If you look at the Political Action Committee (PAC) funding behind her, however, approximately $250,000 was spent on attack ads against her opponent. The PACs include one run by John Kirtley, the founder of Step Up for Children. Step Up is the agency that administers the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. This fund has grown to nearly one billion dollars that corporations donate instead of paying their state taxes.

With so much dark money circulating these days, understanding how to track where the money comes from is critical. Check out the process here. It takes some digging, but it is worth the effort.