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.

New Train Bill Emerging in Florida House Tomorrow

A draft education bill is circulating. It has a temporary number PCB EDC 18-01, but it is already over 100 pages long. It is the Florida House compilation of the many bills currently filed to expand the privatization of our public schools. The ‘bullying bill’ is not there, but there are some new wrinkles. Tomorrow, Thursday Jan 24th, the House Education Committee will hear the bill. It may be worth listening at 10am to figure out what is in it. Here is my take:

PUBLIC DISTRICT SCHOOL PROPOSALS: Basically these provisions reduce district control and/or invite chaos depending on your point of view.

  1. Revise district superintendents’ authority to organize schools. The bill provides that instructional personnel should be free from ‘burdensome regulations’. Provide a safety survey and emergency situation communication system.
  2. Give access to surplus district property to charter schools.
  3. Adding social studies content to ELA writing assessment prompts, and revising format to release FSA assessment questions and requiring paper assessments in ELA and mathematics is grades 3-8.
  4. Creating district-autonomous schools in which employers may be public or private. Public employees may participate in the Florida Retirement System.

CHARTER SCHOOL ORGANIZATION: These measures actually increase charter centralization, decrease termination criteria, and promote charter growth and expansion.

  1. Revising high performance charter school systems applications, weakening termination criteria by changing from ‘violations of law’ to ‘material violations of law’, changes district/charter dispute resolution to a final decision made by an administrative judge who will award cost payment to the prevailing party. Revising criteria for high-performing charter school status.
  2. Authorizing charters and management organizations in addition to districts and post secondary institutions to provide school leader programs, and renaming and expanding Principal Autonomy Pilot Program. Adds mandatory professional development for school leadership teams and provides a principal bonus of $10,000. Principals will be allowed to supervise multiple charter schools. School district or charter board members may not be employees of the school. Authorizing high performing charters to create two new charters per year.
  3. Funding and payment liability of independent school boards
  4. Exemption from laws of sections 1000-1013 Florida law allows schools that earn no less than a ‘B’ grade to continue exemption.

PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS: While some improvement is included to exclude people with criminal records from staffing private schools, a new scholarship program is proposed for students who score below a ‘3’ on the FSA reading test. It is funded by tax credits for new cars sold and is administered by Step Up for Children.
8. Deletes Florida Tax Credit qualifications for scholarships and includes any private school. Creates reading scholarship accounts which may be used for tuition, summer programs, tutoring and/or student services or to a college savings account. Expands requirements for private school web page information; requires Level 2 background checks and increased definition of ineligible employees with criminal records; provide independent financial audit for schools receiving more than $250,000 in state revenue. Provide DOE oversight
9. Private schools are not required to state whether they will reimburse dual enrollment costs to post secondary schools.
10. DOE oversight of education scholarship funds is increased.

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.

Step Up Funding

by Robin Jones

Have you seen Step Up’s annual report? Of course it is a PR piece for them but there are some nuggets in it. One is that by far the biggest and fastest growing tax contributed its the Alcoholic Beverage Excise Tax. (p. 14). Isn’t that ironic!

Another is that they have merged department to form a new one (PAPA…I wonder if they will create a MAMA dept.):

“Step Up’s Policy and Public Affairs Department (PAPA) had a significant year of growth when the former Family and Community Affairs Team was absorbed into PAPA,combining within one department the people who research and develop education policy with those who advocate for it, communicate about it, and build grassroots support for it. Together, the team works to keep the record straight in the public eye about the scholarship programs and to help garner support from parents, students,faith-based leaders, lawmakers and more to keep the program strong.” (p. 8)

So their efforts to “research and develop education policy” is combined with their PR and lobbying efforts. Not a surprise but an interesting move. I do not know if it is related but I do remember an earlier point being made that their budget showed more spending on legislative relations than on outreach to parents.

Just thought I would pass this on.

Robin

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.

FTC Private Schools: A Disturbing Trend

Over time, a higher percentage of FTC scholarship students are enrolling in private, high poverty schools. Their long term success rate decreases. FTC students in schools with more than 30% FTC students do less well than similar FTC students in private schools that enroll fewer FTC students. We can only speculate why this may be so. According to this report released by the Brookings Institute, differences could be related to teacher certification, length of the school year, or the type of curricula.

Perhaps even more troubling is over a third of FTC students return to public schools in one year; over half return in two years. Students who struggle academically are the most likely to leave private schools, and they are further behind than before they left public schools. Choice is creating churn, and churn hurts students.

The Florida House Innovation subcommittee on Education hearing December 6, 2017 agenda focused on needed regulations. Representatives from the McKay Scholarship program, the Florida DOE, Step Up for Students and the A.A.A. FTC distribution agencies testified. The theme was predictable; you can’t regulate your way to quality. Private schools do not want the testing and accountability system mandated for public schools. About one third of the private schools do not choose to participate in the FTC program in order to be free of regulation.

Nevertheless, at least the Catholic Diocese representative differentiated regulation from quality standards. He reported that Catholic schools in Florida require accreditation and teacher certification, unlike many other types of private schools accepting FTC scholarships. Catholic (15%) and religious non Christian school students (5% Jewish or Muslim) tend to enroll in a community college at a higher rate than similar students in district schools. FTC students in other private schools tend to do about the same or less well than similar public school students.

The hearing agenda was focused on needed regulation in the FTC program. The State, by law, visits few schools. Moreover, of the over 1700 FTC schools that enroll 98,889 students, only 681 schools that receive more than $250,000 must file financial reports.

Proposed regulations to stem the mismanagement of schools included more DOE site visits, better background checks for private school owners, improved information about schools for parents, and quarterly rather than annual financial reports.

Little will come of these regulations. The DOE would need an army to visit nearly 2,000 private schools. Better paperwork won’t create quality programs. Expanding FTC enrollment in private high poverty schools, however, will make a bad problem worse. The difference between public and private high poverty schools is that the lack of oversight and transparency keeps parents in the dark. There is a message in all of this…students in schools with high quality staff and mixed income families do better. How do families get that choice?

There was at least one bright spot. Representative Lee made the comment that too little was said about the many successes public schools have. He is right.

Separation of Church and State Under Siege

Roberto Martinez filed P4 to end the ban on public funding for religious schools. In a 5-1 vote yesterday, the Constitutional Revision Commission sub committee on Declaration of Rights agreed. The provision in question, commonly known as the Blaine amendment, has been in the Florida Constitution for over a 100 years.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Martinez says he supports separation of church and state and public schools. He just thinks banning money from religious institutions is wrong.

This argument is as old as our country. The voters will have to decide once again. Florida’s Supreme Court supported the Blaine amendment is 2006. A ballot measure to allow private school funding was defeated in 2008, The voters rejected a subsequent to fund private schools in 2012.

Once again, it is time to stand up to the values in our Florida constitution. They have withstood the test of time. Some variation of this latest attack on the separation of church and state will appear on the November 2018 ballot. Voters once again will have to reinforce the distance between an impartial public school system and individual religious preferences.

Popping the Balloon: D.C. Reform Fiasco

There is a lot of hot air about the impact of school choice on student achievement. Washington D.C. is often the example touted by unwitting journalists. John Merrow, retired PBS education reports on the ten year reign of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. The achievement gap has widened under their ‘test and punish’ administration. Merrow states: “The education establishment wants everyone to believe that D.C. is a success story. It is not. To the contrary, it is a story of wide spread failure and untold damage to human potential.”

NAEP eighth grade reading scores improved by one point, 232 to 233. Non low-income student scores climbed 31 points from 250 to 281. Similar small gains were observed for fourth grade low income students. The achievement gap widened from 26 to 62 percentage points.

A National Research Council report in 2015 said that most of the achievement gain in D.C. was most likely due to the influx of white affluent families moving into D.C. and sending their children to public schools.

How do D.C.’s charter schools fare in this report? They include 40% of the city’s schools. D.C. schools are intensely segregated by race and class in both the district and charter run schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charters were classified as ‘apartheid’ schools (less than 1% white). Voucher schools heightened the segregation.

So what are the recommended solutions? Orfield, one of the authors of the NRC report indicated that magnet schools learned something charters had not. You need recruitment across racial and ethnic lines, free transportation, strongly appealing and distinctive curriculum, admission to all groups of students, integrated faculties etc.

Federal housing policies have exacerbated residential segregation. Neighborhoods that are already diverse or all white support their local schools. Offering choice to everyone else has created a propaganda campaign but no significant improvement in schools. The challenge is to create a sense of opportunity for all students. To do this, housing patterns must become more diverse. Economic opportunity must be real for all racial/ethnic and income groups. Schools must symbolize this opportunity.

Federal Tax Bills Allow Vouchers

The tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate have curious twists. According to the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, 529 college savings accounts could be used for K12 private school tuition. Send your child to private school and get a tax break.

The U.S. Senate’s tax plan allows a tax deduction as a charitable contribution for private school tuition. A second provision creates tax credits for corporate and individual contributions to state non profits that offer tuition payments for low and middle income families.

The drive to get something passed in Congress, anything really, has resulted in a hodge podge of special interests that are certainly not in the public interest.