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.”

Drilling Down into the “Grading the States” Report on School Privatization

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I have been posting  reflections about what I learned at this important meeting.

One of the most fascinating workshops at the conference explored the complexity of researching the groundbreaking, June 2018 report, Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools, and the importance of the report, the first comprehensive effort to track and compare the growth of privatization and the characteristics of state vouchers and charters. The report, a collaboration of the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, defines its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers.  This is not an assessment of the overall quality of the public education system in the state—rather it is an analysis of the laws that support privatized alternatives to public schools.” (emphasis in the original)

The primary assumption of a report about the privatization of education but whose title incorporates these words, “a report card on our nation’s commitment to public schools,” is that the growth of several privatized education sectors at public expense—charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits and education savings accounts—reflects diminishing commitment to the inclusive mission of public education.  Sure enough, the report confirms that assumption, most clearly in the diversion of tax funds away from public schools: “Vouchers and charters do not decrease education costs, but instead divert tax dollars ordinarily directed to public schools thus limiting the capacity of public schools to educate the remaining students.”

Last weekend’s workshop featured three speakers: the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE), Dr. Carol Burris, who was one of the report’s researchers; Tanya Clay House, the report’s primary author and researcher—also an attorney and consultant who has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Public Policy Director at People for the American Way; and Derek Black, an attorney and professor of school finance law at the University of South Carolina.

At last weekend’s workshop, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris recounted the story of their plan nearly a year ago for a two or three months’ research project that grew and grew until more than half a year had passed.  Both are sophisticated researchers, and Clay House has connections within the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. They discovered, however, as they explored the enabling legislation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, that even in instances when requirements for transparency and record-keeping were clear in the laws states had passed, a number of states had not complied with their own rules requiring documentation. They also discovered that much of the state-by-state legislation enabling charters and vouchers does not require transparent, longitudinal record-keeping.

After looking at data kept by the National Conference of State Legislators and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, Clay House and Burris found some of the most comprehensive records kept by organizations whose mission is the expansion and promotion of school privatization, for example: the Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Charter Law Database; the (libertarian) Institute for Justice; the EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for School Choice) School Choice Constitutionality Database; EdChoice’s School Choice in America Dashboard; and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) School Choice in America: Interactive Map.  Take a look at the Appendix of the Grading the States report. When the report was released in June, I looked at its conclusions, but until I was directed there by Burris and Clay House, I had had not explored the implications of the extensive Appendix that describes the sources for the data.

As a participant in last weekend’s workshop, I was fascinated, as Burris and Clay House described the difficulties they faced as they tried to collect the most basic data about what is now nearly 20 years of expanding school privatization. The two women told of one data set they had assumed the report would cover only to be forced to omit that issue from the report because the the records had not been kept by enough states to make it possible to draw any comprehensive or meaningful conclusion.  What became clear to me as I listened is that the promoters of school privatization trusted their own ideological belief that the marketplace would provide its own accountability. They assumed that as parents voted with their feet, parents themselves would identify high quality schools and seek them out; then schools of poor quality would not be marketable. Of course we know from research in Chicago and New Orleans  and elsewhere that parents choose schools for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with school quality—a site near home or work, the presence of a childcare or after-school program, the reputation of the football team, the advertising on the side of the bus, the incentive of the gift of a computer upon enrollment.  Several years ago, Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO),  shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

The third presenter in the NPE workshop was Derek Black, a civil rights attorney and school finance professor who explored what he believes is the overall significance of the Grading the States report. I was unable to capture verbatim Derek Black’s comments at the workshop, but in a blog post when the Grading the States report was published in June, Black made the same points in eloquent detail: “The report is, in many respects, the one I have been waiting for.  It fills in key facts that have been missing from the public debate and will help move it in a more positive direction.  In my forthcoming article, Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits, I also attempt to reframe the analysis of charter schools and vouchers, arguing that there are a handful of categorical ways in which states have actually created statutory preferences for charters and vouchers in relation to traditional public schools.  I explain why a statutory preference for these choice programs contradicts states’ constitutional obligations in regard to education… My research, however, analyzes the issues from a relatively high level of abstraction, highlighting problematic examples in particular states and districts and synthesizing constitutional principles from various states. This new report drills down into the facts in a way I have never seen before.  It systematically examines charter and voucher laws in each state with a standardized methodology aimed at identifying the extent to which each state’s laws represent a de-commitment to public education.”

Black continues: “Each year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) releases a report detailing charter school laws, with the frame of reference being the extent to which states have laws that promote the expansion of charters. The report normatively assumes that charter schools are good and state laws that overly restrict them are bad… Because there hasn’t been any systemic response to NAPCS’s reports, it has been able to skew the conversation.  This new report brings balance.”

When the Grading the States report was released in June, this blog summarized its conclusions. Needless to say, I came home from last weekend’s conference in Indianapolis and explored the report in more depth.  Here is what jumps out at me as an Ohio citizen this fall, after I’ve been watching the fallout across Ohio all year since the state’s final closure of the giant online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after it ripped off Ohio taxpayers and students for 17 years. The report examines charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to permit charter schools. Of those 38, including my state, earned F grades. The report explains they are “states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.” “Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools… Thirty-eight of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers… Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services. Twenty-two states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.”  The details on the various voucher programs are equally alarming.

Thank you to the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Tanya Clay House and Carol Burris for digging up and reporting the alarming realities of school privatization. We must hope Derek Black and other legal scholars and litigators will be able to frame winning legal strategies to bring it all under control.