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.

Voucher Supporters and Opponents Coming Forward

Interesting to see how the religious communities view vouchers. The Catholic church supports them. The Florida Council of Churches is opposed. Reverend Russell Meyer was quoted in a Florida Phoenix article. He stated that there should be the same accountability standard for all schools. Teachers should be certified. He further said that there should be one standard of accountability for all schools supported by public money. I could not agree more. See the article here.

The Ban the Book Brigade

Florida Citizen’s Alliance has an agenda to censor textbooks. Which books?
1. Anything with sexually explicit text e.g. Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’; LBGTBQ transgender themes e.g. ‘Being Homosexual’ by Richard Isay
2. U.S. History texts, World History, Understanding Economics and other books that are charged with issues such as having a ‘left bias, opposition to right to bear arms, failure to emphasize federalist vs. anti federalist conflicts, bias against supply side economics, and stating evolution as a settled fact.
3. Religious indoctrination e.g. books about Islam
4. Science e.g. books about environmental dangers such as global warming; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that do not explicitly say that these are ‘theories, not facts’.
5. Common Core Math critical thinking, problem solving methods

The FCA is headed by Keith Flaugh who is part of the coalition centered around Erika and Byron Donalds and others who support the Christian conservative charter schools known as Classical Academies. They typically challenge text book adoptions at local school boards in Florida. They are included in the DeSantis education transition task force.

Florida Gets an ‘F’ on Support for Public Education

Public education is about the value and necessity of providing equal access to high quality education. As public funds get diverted to private schools and entrepreneurs, the public school system gets more and more fractured. There is less money as cost inefficiencies mount. More communities are fractured by race, income, and academic programs. In areas where privatization is dominant, parents must search for a school to accept their children. If transportation is a problem, as it often is, they may not have good choices because available schools may be segregated racially, economically and/or by achievement levels. They may not even have a way to evaluate the quality of the available options.

By design, no one really knows much about where the money is spent and what is happening in privately operated schools. Parents who question are invited to withdraw their children. Children who do not ‘fit in’ are invited to leave. There are people in leadership positions for whom children can be ploys in policies to implement a political and/or religious agenda. Proponents celebrate their successes without regard for the children they exclude, dismiss or serve poorly. Parents learn this the hard way.

Most private schools are openly religious. Many charters are covertly supporting particular religious orientations e.g. those housed in religious facilities or that espouse a particular set of ‘Christian or other values’.

Many charters and private schools do not support children with special needs or who are learning English as a second language.

The Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education analyzed data to assess support for public education in each state. Overall, Florida received an ‘F’. You can see state-by-state results here.
The criteria include:
1. Types and extent of school privatization
2. Civil rights protection of students in private school voucher and charter programs
3. Accountability, regulations and oversight
4. Transparency of voucher and charter programs
5. Other charter school accountability issues

Florida’s low grade is due several factors:
1. It has the most school privatization of all states.
2. Students receiving vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are not required to participate in the state testing or teacher certification programs. Private schools are not required to be accredited. Thus, most are small religious schools of unknown quality. Private schools are also exempt from federal civil rights protection. Children can be denied admission or expelled for any reason.

What would improve accountability?
1. Comparable pubic and private school student achievement measures.
2. Transparency in how money is spent for charter and voucher ESE students by individual schools.
3. Comparable attrition and discipline measures for public, charter and private schools.
4. Public accountability of spending by charter management firms.
5. Stronger provisions to avoid conflict of interest between charter board members and management companies.
6. Return school facilities to the public if charters close.

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.

Politics in Science and Civics Curriculum

SB 966 Baxley. Adopts minimum curriculum standards. This ‘Controversial Theories’ bill allows districts to adopt more rigorous standards. If they do, they must include teaching controversial science theories and concepts in a factual, objective, and balanced manner. While creationism is not specifically mentioned in the bill, it would certainly qualify as a controversial theory.

This bill also specifies that civics education must strictly adhere to the founding values and principles of the United States as in s. 1003.42. See section 2a. It also requires that financial literacy include at least Keynesian and Hayekian economics. These theories differ in part over the role of the central government response to economic hardship i.e. increased spending vs. free market adjustments. This might be quite an intellectual load for seventh graders taking civics.

Senator Baxley, from Marion County, receives an A+ from the Koch Brothers advocacy group “Americans for Prosperity“.

Hidden Curriculum: Lost Children

The Huffington Post took on a Herculean task. It created a database of 8000 schools across 25 of the 27 states with private school choice programs. They check their religious affiliations and try to identify the curriculum.

Their results found 25% were non religious private schools. Of the 6000 religious schools, 29% were Catholic and 42% were Christian-non Catholic. There were a few other religions represented 2% Jewish and 1% Muslim faiths.

The reporters focused on the 2500 Christian non Catholic schools. They checked websites and/or contacted the schools to identify which curriculum was used. Many declined to respond to requests for textbook information. Of those who did respond, about one third of the Christian non Catholic schools used Abeka, Bob Jones or ACE textbooks for at least part of their curriculum. The article lists 1024 Florida private choice schools using these texts. The number raises questions.

While the database does list the names and locations of the schools, the numbers exceed the Florida private school list and the number of private Florida tax credit schools reported by the Department of Education. Florida reports 2663 private schools of which 1733 are private FTC schools. Two thirds or about 1154 of the FTC schools are religious. If about half of those are Christian, non Catholic, the actual number of private choice schools using those fundamentalist Christian texts would be closer to 385 than to the 1000 the article lists.

Do the numbers matter? What is really important are the children and whether the State of Florida should provide funding, directly or indirectly to private schools, most of which are religious. If you are interested in the ideology behind the fundamentalist Christian textbooks and the interviews with children who felt they had been deprived of an education, read the article. At one point I had several of these books to review. It will give you pause. The children matter.