Friday, March 31, 2017

FL: Burning Down the Schoolhouse

Florida (Motto: If you can't make a buck from it, what's the point?) is taking steps to bring its public school system into the final stages of Death by Charter. It's time to spread some more gasoline and light yet another match.

Because this is a purely political move, it has to have a ridiculously cynical name. So the Florida legislature is working on a bill to move students to "Schools of Hope." Actually, the bill used to call them "Schools of Success," but somebody probably figured that was promising waaaaaay too much, so "Schools of Hope" it is.

The bill, which just passed out of the House Education Committee, commits $200 million to opening charter schools in the same neighborhoods as schools with low grades on Florida's A-F scale.

Here's the idea. Say your school cafeteria is having trouble. Many of the students it serves are malnourished and come to school hungry. The facility is underfunded and in disrepair, and the budget doesn't allow you to get the very best of food (in fact, you have reason to believe that some the funding for your cafeteria that serves mostly black students has been shifted cross town to a mostly-white cafeteria). Students often can't afford to buy full meals in your cafeteria. The state judges your effectiveness on how much the students weigh. You beg for help, but instead the legislature adds an ever-increasing number of hurdles to getting your work done and berates you for thinking that they can just throw money at the problem.

And then, one day, they decide that the solution is to offer a multi-million-dollar grant to any McDonald's that will build a restaurant across the street from the school.

Or maybe you live in a house that's been in your family for decades, and the state comes and sets fire to it, and then refuses to send a fire department. But they do offer multi-million dollar grants to any hotels that want to build a place across the street.

That's the proposal. Let's see if we can put the final touch on killing these public schools and moving all the students into charters. 

Of course, the legislators are totally doing it For The Children.

Here's House Speaker Richard Corcoran, one of the leaders of this initiative. "No longer will we rob children of dignity and hope. Now every single child will be afforded an opportunity of a world class education." Because nothing is more dignified and hopeful than being used as a profit-generating pawn.

"We have tried everything else," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. "It is our moral responsibility to make this move and provide an option for our kids." Well, almost everything. Not actually investing in and providing resources for public schools. But that would be crazy. And Diaz must know what he's talking about, because helps run Doral College, a fake college that lets students at some charter schools pretend they're taking college courses.

And the legislature wasn't flying blind-- they did talk to some experts to help craft the bill, according to Gary Fineout, an AP reporter who has covered many Florida crazy-pants education stories:

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

Cathy Boehme of the Florida Education Association pointed out the obvious:

You are saying funding matters. You're saying good strategies matter. And then you turn around and keep those strategies from schools that you could save from these turnaround options.

But wait-- there's more!

This new bill is on top of a bill that has been kicking around for a few years. This bill would require public schools to share property tax revenue with charter schools-- and it would limit districts' ability to spend on construction. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Diaz and Rep. Erik Fresen, and Fresen should know about these things because he works as a $150,000-a-year consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that specializes in charter school buildings. Oh-- and Academica, the 800-poung gorillas of Florida charter management, employs his sister and brother-in-law as executives. And Academica is also the group that sends its students to Diaz's fake college! So it's all one big happy family down there.

But if you want to see end-stage Death by Charter, travel up to the panhandle of Florida and little Jefferson County, the only Florida county that touches both Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico. The county has fewer than 15,000 residents and 700 school students. And come this fall, they might be the first district in the state to become all-charter.

The district has had problems with test scores, growth scores, and teacher retention. It has consolidated its schools under one K-12 roof to save money. But Grand High Education Poohbah Pam Stewart delivered an ultimatum back in January-- the district had to close its doors or hand the keys to somebody else. The district could not get an outside operator to come run the district, and other turnaround plans were rejected by the state. So the board has now voted to convert to charter, to basically shut down the district and let a charter take over.

“I know change needs to occur for our children and I’m all for that. But here we go again rushing into something and we’re not even sure if we can get a charter company to take our school. And I can’t wait until July for them to tell me I have a job or I don’t have a job," says Jefferson teacher Terri Clark. She says the district has never followed through on what it approves. And she’s not confident it will happen now.

There are many interesting new problems that come with such a decision (stay in the retirement system? keep the old staff?) but the first big challenge is to get a charter operator to come in. Because here's the thing-- charters schools are not public schools and they don't have to serve anyone they don't want to serve. Jefferson is staring straight into the face of the biggest issue with states like Florida that are determined to set their public schools on fire so that people will abandon them and become charter customers--

What do you do if you burn down your public schools, chase all the students out, and then no charter wants them? The worst possible outcome of Death by Charter is not an all charter system. It's not even a bad all-charter system. The worst possible outcome is a whole community with no schools at all.

Jefferson is facing the Big Lie of school choice. The students and their families don't get to choose schools-- the schools get to choose them. Florida's self-serving legislators can make mouth-noises all day about how students deserve super-duper awesome school systems and they can keep chopping their public system off at the knees (and hips and shoulders and neck), but it's up to them to make sure that all their students have what they need-- not just the ones that live in profitable market shares. Florida has spent over a decade setting itself up as the vanguard of choice and charters and all things reformy, and they are well on track to show us how horribly wrong it can all go, how a state could end up with a pile of ashes. And it won't be good For The Children.


  1. Great analogies. Except, of course, that we have to add that the McDonald's and the hotels are owned by legislators.