In Florida’s Tangled Mess of School Privatization, Students Rights Are Trampled, Tax Dollars Wasted

An old friend in Florida recently asked me why I haven’t been writing about the challenges posed by the explosion of marketplace school choice in Florida.  I’ll confess the reason: The problems have felt overwhelming to me—seemingly impossible for someone from outside the state to follow.

Here are just some of the headlines in the past three months: “Florida’s Charter-School Sector Is a Real Mess,” “Florida Really Is the Worst,” “Republicans Want to Turbocharge Privatization of Florida Public Schools,” Charter School Companies Feast at the Public Trough,” and “Why Florida Is Struggling to Fill More than 2,000 Teaching Positions.”

One must remind oneself of the purposes of public education as one considers what’s happening in Florida.

Public schools are established by law and democratically governed. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. While the public schools are certainly not perfect, these public institutions are the optimal way society can work to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

A year ago the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Network for Public Education published Making the Grade, a study of the extent of school privatization across the fifty states and the District of Columbia and the threat to public schools by the expansion of marketplace school choice. Tanya Clay House, a civil rights attorney, authored the report in which she reviews the benefits of our society’s system of public education: “The ability for every child, regardless of race, income, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristic, to obtain a free quality public education is a foundational principle in American society. This principle is based on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to learn—to allow an equal chance for achievement and success… Although the public school system… has continual room for improvement, it is still the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools….  The attack on public education is also an attack on equal opportunity and civil rights.  Although privatization advocates claim that private schools advance the quality of education, this is a tenuous argument to make in the face of the reality that too often there is little to no public accountability, fiscal transparency or maintenance of civil rights protections for students in privatized programs… The proliferation of privatization programs in the states and the redirecting of public resources for the benefit of a small percentage of the student population belies this principle of equality of opportunity for all students.  Privatization in public schools weakens our democracy and often sacrifices the rights and opportunities of the majority for the presumed advantage of a small percentage of students.”

The Making the Grade report ranks the states. A state could earn a possible 100 points, but the state’s grade was lowered for the ways its oversight of school privatization fails to protect the civil rights of students and for the ways the state’s expenditure of public dollars for privately owned or operated schools fails to protect the rights of communities and taxpayers. Overall, Florida earned only 35.5 points out of 100 possible points and received the second lowest rating in the country.  Only Arizona, with 31.25 possible points, fell lower.

Earlier this spring the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss compared the states’ investment of public tax dollars into various kinds of vouchers. Strauss’s data comes from EdChoice, the Indiana organization formerly known as the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  Strauss explains: “So which state spends the most on programs that use public money for private education?  As it turns out, it isn’t Michigan, the home state of billionaire (Betsy) DeVos… The state that spends the most is one in which she maintains a vacation home.  It’s Florida, which became a school choice pioneer under Jeb Bush when he was governor from 1999 to 2007… In its latest ranking, published in January, EdChoice said Florida spent $969.6 million on educational savings accounts, vouchers and tax credit programs in 2016, the latest available data.  That was 3.69 percent of the state’s combined program and public K-12 expenditures.  EdChoice used state public expenditure data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data report.”

Last November, Florida’s voters elected Ron DeSantis as governor, and a month later, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss assessed what DeSantis’s election would mean for the state’s public schools: “‘Rest in peace, public education,’ said a headline in the St. Augustine Record. DeSantis, a fervent supporter of President Trump and recipient of campaign donations from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, appointed Richard Corcoran, the former speaker of the Florida House, as state education secretary… Corcoran is seen by advocates for public education as being hostile to traditional public schools, using his legislative perch to advance the interests of charter schools—one of which was started by his wife in Pasco County.  He once called teacher unions ‘evil.’  Corcoran is part of the school ‘reform’ wing that includes DeVos and her ally, Jeb Bush (R), who was Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007.  He was a national pioneer in promoting the ‘school choice’ movement that seeks to expand charter schools… and programs that use public money to pay for private and religious education….. Bush retains some influence on education policy in Florida through his education foundation and connections to Republican legislators… Corcoran used his position as House speaker to pass legislation strongly favoring charters.  Last year, he pushed through… a measure creating a ‘Schools of Hope’ system that encourages charter schools to open near struggling traditional public schools. The legislation also made it harder for school systems to use federal funding to help students.  He also successfully passed legislation that requires school districts to share capital funding that they raise from local taxes with charters.”

In a recent post, Pennsylvania education blogger and Forbes Magazine commentator, Peter Greene describes some of the ways Florida has promoted privatization at the expense of the state’s public schools: “The latest nail in the coffin is Senate Bill 7070, a bill that adds yet another school choice program to the Florida portfolio of choiceness… The bill offers up vouchers that can be used for private schools, including the religion-based ones… The vouchers will be one more drain on the public tax dollars intended to fund public education… But the most important team members for this play are the three new state supreme court justices that DeSantis installed.  In 2006, Jeb Bush tried a similar move (expanding vouchers including vouchers for religious schools), and the court recognized the obvious—that the law violated the state constitution… DeSantis is expecting friendlier judges to see things his way.”

Greene continues, criticizing Florida’s continuing reliance on one-time bonuses for teachers deemed successful, rather than a stable salary schedule: “Meanwhile, Florida has fallen to 46th place in rankings for teacher pay…. (T)he same bill that added vouchers also tweaked Florida’s boneheaded teacher bonus program…. (W)e’re back to the old student test score baloney… What’s key… it’s a bonus.  It doesn’t help you build a pension or buy a house, and you can’t count on it to feed your family in the future.”

Last month, Florida’s legislature also passed HB 7123,  a law which, after July 1, will require local school districts to share local tax levies, even those passed to support raises for school teachers’ salaries, with charter schools.

And Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Corcoran are now ramping up the “Schools of Hope” program pushed through the legislature when Corcoran was House Speaker back in 2017.  In a May 2019 update, the Tampa Bay TimesMarlene Sokol explains: “A school of hope must operate within five miles of district schools with poor records.” Corcoran’s 2017 law speeds up approval for national charter school chains to locate new charter schools in the neighborhoods of struggling public schools. The theory is that competition will improve the public schools despite that in places like Chicago where this practice has been tried, what happened instead was that the neighborhood public schools were shut down as intensive advertising by charter schools lured away families. Sokol adds: “Passage of the law, known as House Bill 7069, led to a legal challenge that is still ongoing. School boards that sued contend it is unconstitutional because it intrudes on the decision-making powers of local school districts and creates a public school system that is not uniform.”  Even while the court challenge proceeds, two charter organizations have prepared for rapid expansion. Plans are under way for KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) to open a school that could accommodate 1,500 students in Miami, and the Texas charter school chain, IDEA Schools, is ready to open a school for 1,500 students in Tampa.

An Orlando Sentinal commentary published last week is a reminder that civil rights violations are a central component of Florida’s burgeoning sector of privatized schools paid for with public dollars. Scott Maxwell explains: “At one of Florida’s approved voucher schools in Brevard County… being gay is actually the only expellable offense listed in the school’s ‘ethics’ policy… At Trinity Christian Academy in Volusia County, the school provides a list of sentences students are not allowed to utter. ‘I am gay’ is one of them. ‘I am homosexual/transgender’ is another. Saying either one aloud is ‘basis for dismissal.’… Trinity receives more than $1 million a year in public voucher money. And at Orlando’s Calvary City Christian Academy, the school’s ‘lifestyle policy’ explains to parents that homosexuality is a ‘sexual immorality’ punishable by expulsion. (Gov.) DeSantis visited Calvary earlier this year to tout this school—which has a policy against letting gay students walk its halls—as the future of Florida’s school-choice movement. To be clear: Many churches and faith-based schools aren’t obsessed with homosexuality and don’t embrace discrimination…  Also to be clear: Any church or individual is, of course, free to think LGBT citizens are sinners unfit to walk or learn alongside them. But government shouldn’t fund such discrimination. Yet Florida does.”