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.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and comprehensive look at public education here in Florida. Our district is facing very similar problems and I believe any solutions elude us.

  2. thank you–it’s a pleasure to see your focus at work. We need to decide on what we do want. Let’s start with better salaries and less emphasis on higher graduation rates One of my friends teaches in the wealthiest county in the state and her school’s policy is to give the failing students Cs– even if they turn in nothing during the school term. Teachers need to know that tier teaching and their expertise is valued.

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