Sue Legg was assessment and evaluation contractor for the Fl. DOE for twenty years while on the faculty at the University of Florida. She recently stepped down as Education Director of the Florida League of Women Voters.
This is the first of a series on the effects of school choice, which she wrote at my request.
Florida Twenty Years Later: Undermining Public Schools
Florida has a long track record in school privatization.
Consequently, I recently had the sobering charge to help Louisville citizens understand what lies ahead if their new charter school enabling law is funded. Florida has 655 charters enrolling nearly 300,000 students, the third largest number in the U.S., and it also spends over a billion dollars per year in tax credit scholarships to 2800 private schools. What does Florida have to show for it?
Privatizing schools was sold to the public as a money saving policy. Education, after all, is the second largest Florida state budget item.
Competition from the private sector, it was argued, would increase quality and save money. State assessment scores would grade students, schools and teachers to assure the public that the ever-increasing education standards were met. This competition myth imploded. Education became a battleground over funding, support for teachers, and the impact of parental choice on neighborhoods.
Twenty years later, Florida schools are nearing a fiscal and social crisis. Not only did the legislature cut funding in 2008, it reallocated money to charter and private schools and put a cap on local property tax revenue for public schools.
Student enrollment grew, and the Hispanic population doubled.
A forest of temporary buildings sprouted on playgrounds to add classrooms.
In my district alone, $168 million has been lost in facility funding. Some of our schools have buckets in classrooms to catch the rainfall and use sandbags to block water from entering hallways. Others are so crowded that lunch begins at 9:30 a.m. Many districts are asking for increases in local sales and property taxes to support schools; others already have. Opponents, however, want to prevent communities from increasing taxes.
Building maintenance is only part of the problem facing Florida’s schools. Its per student funding to support instruction is among the lowest in the nation. Its teacher attrition rate is high. The PTA reports that there were 1482 teaching positions still vacant in January 2018. Two thirds of teachers who leave are for reasons other than retirement. One clue is that the NEA ranks Florida 46th in average teacher salary. As a result, Florida now ranks first in the nation (25%) in inexperienced teachers.
Teaching and learning also have changed in many ways. ‘Test Prep’ begins in February for April state assessments. The districts’ versions of choice include magnet schools and student placement based on test scores within and across schools. The increasing lament is that there are ‘schools within schools’ where some students have access to high quality programs and teachers and others do not.
Choice fragments neighborhoods.
Think, for example, of the charter school in south Florida that opened across the street from an excellent public school, thus reducing its enrollment and funding but not its overhead expenses. An ‘A’ school became a ‘C’ school. Schools in south Pinellas County declined and were labeled ‘Failure Factories’ drawing national attention.
What changed? The choice movement adopted a ‘separate but equal’ philosophy undermining the integration reform from the 1970s through the 90s. Charter and private schools siphoned off the higher achieving students. Other parents who could, moved away leaving under-enrolled schools with insufficient funds to support needed equity programs for children in poverty.
Florida educators and parents are fighting back. Lawsuits reflect the issues: vouchers, school funding, tax credit scholarships, invalid teacher evaluation system, local district control over school funding and charter authorization, ‘union busting’, merit pay, third grade retention, students with disabilities, state take-over of local schools, teacher certification, and a proposed separate educational system for charters.
This is part 2.
Twenty Years Later: Impact of Charter and Private Sector Schools
With support from the state, charter and private schools enroll 22% of Florida’s three million children. Charters receive the same per student funding as regular public schools. Private schools receive tax credit scholarships to avoid Florida’s constitutional ban on vouchers funded directly by the legislature.
Nearly half of Florida’s 655 charters are run by for-profit management firms dominated by two firms: Academica and Charter Schools USA (CSUSA).
In 2016, In the Public Interest reported that Academica’s real estate arm controls more than $155 million in south Florida real estate. They essentially own the property for half of their schools and lease it to themselves through the non-profit charter boards they establish. Some of its charters pay exorbitant leases to the Catholic church or other religious entities. Using church facilities is not illegal if there is no religious instruction or other artifacts in classrooms.
CSUSA operates in a similar manner. CSUSA has its own real estate company. We tracked the history of one such school and found that CSUSA had purchased a former ATT call center for about $1.2 million. They flipped the building several times to have the property reappraised, and invested $1.5 million in air conditioning etc. The final appraisal was for $9 million, and the CSUSA board signed an escalating lease for over a million dollars per year which would in time surpass the school budget. Teachers are paid from the remaining budget which seldom allows for retirement or health benefits. Thus, teacher turnover tends to be more than double the rate for traditional public schools.
In 2016, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General delineated the similarities between charter financing and the subprime loan crisis that wreaked havoc with the housing industry. Real estate loans have minimal annual payments with large balloon payments when the loan becomes due.
Independently run charters survive at first on start up funds from the state and federal government. Even though charters are exempt from the regulations governing the quality of school facilities, many complain they are underfunded. Some are housed in abandoned strip malls or former business locations that need remodeling.
The lack of regulation was supposed to spur innovation. Charters must meet local fire and safety codes, employ teachers who are certified within 18 months, and administer state assessments. Otherwise, they are exempt from operational district oversight and state school facilities codes. District school boards can only intervene if charters cannot pay their bills or they receive failing grades two years in a row on the state assessment tests. There is no limit on charter expansion, and the State Board of Education may overrule, and does, proposals that are not approved locally.
Where does this lack of regulation lead? The simple answer is profiteering, corruption and closures. The management of Newpoint charters is the current scandal. The company has been charged with racketeering involving 57 million dollars in the operation of its 15 schools. Investigative reporting by the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel, and Tampa Bay Times have documented many other scandals in which charters close without warning, funds are collected for unenrolled students,
Charters close at an alarming rate. At least 373 Florida charters closed in the last twenty years. They take the money with them. Even some proponents of charters are having doubts.
Parents are finding out the hard way that they have no voice in charter school management. Erika Donalds, a former school board member whose husband is a legislator, sponsored the doomed constitutional amendment 8 to create a separate charter system. She also co-founded one of the Classical Academies where she was a board member. The charter was based on ‘Christian values’, but had a principal who created an environment “where fraud can occur without detection”. Donalds withdrew her children. She has, however, formed an alliance with the wife of the 2017 Florida Senate president to open another Classical Academy.
Past attempts by some legislators to limit the ‘self-dealing’ and profiteering failed. In September 2018, Integrity-Florida released its latest report on needed reforms. Millions of tax payer dollars have been lost to both excessive profits and criminal misuse of funds. Legislation is needed to require a justification for opening a charter and improved regulation to prevent profiteering. At least now, the public is growing aware of the financial threats to our public schools. No longer is the problem ‘over there’. It is affecting everyone.
THIS IS PART 3
Twenty years later: Who Benefits, Not Schools!
Florida’s Constitution mandates that the state shall make ‘adequate provision for all students to access a uniform, safe, secure, efficient and high-quality system of free public schools.
The strategies on how to implement or circumvent these values result in constant lawsuits…at least five in the last two years alone. The arguments are not new: civil rights, funding, local vs. state control, and accountability. One might ask: Who benefits in a system that generates so much conflict? Politicians and profiteers, but not the public may well be the answer.
Political Cronyism and Conflict of Interest.
Charter supporters use money and influence to affect policy outcomes. According to Integrity Florida, $2,651,639 was spent on committee and campaign contributions in 2016 alone. Major donors include John Kirtley, who heads Florida Federation for Children and is also 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 (a member of the State Board of Education) and others were also made to Kirtley’s Florida Federation for Children. In addition, for profit charters have spent over $8 million in lobbying in Tallahassee. Former Governor Jeb Bush’s foundation ExcelinEd, supports the spread of pro-choice policies in 38 states.
Conflict of interest claims in the Florida legislature have been made against current and former legislators including Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran; legislators Manny Diaz, Eric Fresen (recently found guilty of tax evasion), Seth McKeel, House Education Chair Michael Bileca, Senators John Legg, Anitere Flores, Kelli Stargel, and Ralph Arza (who was forced to resign for other reasons). They have personal ties to the charter industry and held important education committee leadership roles.
The A.I.R. testing company received a six-year $220 million contract for the Florida state assessment exams. This contract does not include the mandatory End of Course exams required in high school subjects, the kindergarten readiness test, the English Language Learner test, or the 50 teacher certification tests and the principals’ leadership exam. Add to this cost was the technical debacle resulting from a law requiring all tests to be administered online. Districts did not have the bandwidth.
Private and Charter Schools Expansion.
The Florida tax credit scholarships (FTC) to private schools no longer serves only low-income families. Income eligibility has risen to $63,000 for partial stipends. Funding is increased by 25% per year, but the corporate tax revenue to support them runs afoul of the governor’s agenda to reduce taxes. As a compromise, in 2018 a sales tax ‘donation’ to private schools for new car owners was approved for students with approved claims of being bullied. Students with disabilities may qualify for MacKay scholarships to private schools which may have no qualified teachers to serve them. Parents whose children have severe disabilities are given a stipend and search on their own for assistance.
This is Part 4
Twenty Years Later: The SociaI Impact of Privatization
Privatization of schools in Florida is about more than money. It reflects the ebb and flow of the common school movement originating in the 1830s which promoted a free public education system to assimilate the millions of immigrants arriving in the United States. Resistance came from political, religious, and social divisions, elements of which persist even now. Florida, now the third largest state must assimilate its growing immigrant population. The public schools include 2.8 million students who are 38% white, 33% Hispanic, and 22% black. Ten percent are English Language Learners. These demographics may well change Florida’s politics. There is a majority of younger and ethnically diverse people many of whom tend to register to vote as independents.
Charters and private schools represent 22% of the Florida student enrollment. Charter enrollments are 42% Hispanic and 20% African-American. The tax credit scholarship program enrolls 38% Hispanic and 30% African-American. Numerous research reports e.g. Brookings, CREDO Urban Study, and Florida Department of Education raise concerns about the academic benefit of choice programs. Few examples exist where charters outperform similar public schools and proportionately more charters do less well. The social consequences of choice are even more serious as documented in the 2017 Florida State University Collins Institute’s Report on Patterns of Resegregation in Florida Schools. The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine adopted by Governor Jeb Bush in 1999 has undermined diversity in schools. Schools with low income and high minority status tend to receive ‘D’ or F’ school grades, for which they were blamed, sanctioned, and made targets of charter school takeover programs.
The major findings of the Collins Institute report document the social impact of choice. The economic and racial segregation documented in regular public schools is even more severe in charters.
• About one third of black and Hispanic students attend intensely segregated schools (90% single race).
• Sixty percent of Florida’s children qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL). Black and Hispanic students are 1.5 times more likely to experience double segregation by race and economic status.
• Charter schools over enroll Hispanic students (42%), and these students typically have from 10-20% fewer white students than in public schools.
• Black students are more likely to go to extremely segregated schools than Hispanics.
• Only in 8 districts did charters enroll at least 60% of FRL students.
• Most districts enrolled higher percentages of students with disabilities and English as a second language than their charter schools.
Accountability: Florida is masterful at self-promotion.
In April 2018, the headline for Governor Scott’s press report on NAEP results was: Florida Students Lead the Nation in Reading and Mathematics. While Florida’s schools fourth grade NAEP reading scores ranked 6th nationwide, they fell to 26th on the eighth grade. It may be no coincidence that the spectacular rise in fourth grade NAEP scores coincided with the implementation of third grade mandatory retention for students who are not proficient on the state assessment. A contributing factor to the drop in eighth grade scores is that about one half of the children on private school scholarships return to public schools after third grade. The high school graduation rank is 38th which may in part be due to requirements that students pass an algebra I exam and an English Language Skills test to graduate.
Florida also touts the improvement rate of ‘failing public schools’. Of over 4000 public schools, 35 received a failing grade in 2018. Yet, the legislature passed a law mandating a state takeover of failing schools by designated by charter management firms. The 2018 failure rate for Florida charters is much higher (30/365 schools).
Resistance to the Impact of Choice is Growing.
Progress through the courts is slow but necessary to make change possible. The Florida League of Women Voters won a Supreme Court decision in 2016 to redraw legislative districts. It won again in 2018 to allow early voting on college campuses, to block a confusing proposal to create a separate statewide independent (charter) school system, and to prevent the current governor from naming new members of the Supreme Court on his last day in office. The Citizens for Strong Schools’ Supreme Court hearing on school funding and quality is November 8th.
The court of public opinion looms even larger. The common school movement arose out of the need to address inequities due to immigration, religion, and school funding. Free public schools were seen as the best way to build a sense of the civic responsibility needed to support our new democracy. Will the voters, not only in Florida, once again recognize the value of the public interest over self interest in our public schools when it matters most?