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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Democracy says NO to the Republican's anti-labor and teacher harming agenda

From the Nation

by John Nichols

Opponents of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s push to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights—as part of a national push by newly elected Republican governors to silence opposition to their cuts in funding for public education and services — needed to collect 231,000 valid signatures to force a referendum that would override anti-labor legislation enacted by Kasich and his allies.

With petitions carrying 1,298,301 signatures packed in 1,500 boxes carried by a semi-truck, organizers of the We Are Ohio campaign and thousands of their allies marched to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office in Columbus Wednesday—one day before the deadline—to file the paperwork necessary to force a November vote on overturning Ohio Senate Bill 5 and Kasich’s attack on labor rights.

“We stood at the Statehouse today where thousands of hardworking Ohioans stood earlier this year protesting SB 5,” declared We Are Ohio’s Melissa. “While their voices were drowned out by the extreme politicians who decided to pass SB 5, today We Are Ohio wants [to] let them know their voices will be heard.”

Wednesday’s festive Million Signature March—complete with bagpipes, drum lines and antique fire truck blaring their sirens offered a taste of what is to come in a referendum campaign that labor leaders say will be the most energetic the state has seen in decades—perhaps since the famous 1958 referendum in which historically Republican Ohio rejected an anti-labor “right-to-work” law and swept Democrats into the governorship and other state posts.

If this fall’s referendum passes, as polls suggest it will, the actions of Kasich and the legislature will be voided and collective bargaining rights will be restored for state, county and municipal employees and teachers.

The stunning success of the Ohio petition drive parallels the pushback in states across the country, where citizens have refused to accept the assaults on labor rights, public services and public education proposed by newly elected Republican governors and their legislative allies.

After last November’s election victories for Republicans in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Maine, new governors and legislative majorities moved quickly to enact a dramatically more extreme agenda than they ran on during the 2010 campaign. At the heart of that agenda has been an attack on labor rights and labor organizations—with an eye toward silencing unions in the workplace and the political sphere, where they remain the strongest defenders of public education and public services.

The Republicans moved quickly because they wanted to use the element of surprise against a battered opposition—and because they wanted to weaken labor in battleground states before the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections.

But the anti-labor push met with fierce opposition, first in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s proposed legislation drew mass demonstrations of as many as 150,000 people outside the state capitol in Madison. The demonstrations in Lansing, Indianapolis, Columbus and other capital cities quickly grew in size. But so, too, did the recognition that electoral strategies would need to be coupled with the protests.

In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of signatures were gathered in petition drives that have forced recall elections against six Republican senators who backed Walker’s agenda. Primary elections associated with those recalls will begin July 12, with the runoff elections in August. If three GOP senators are removed (and if three Democratic senators who have been targeted by Republicans retain their seats), control of the state Senate will flip to the Democrats and Walker will no longer have complete control of the governing process.

Ohio does not have a recall provision. But it does allow citizens to force a vote on legislation recently passed by the legislature. The Ohio petition drive, which began a statewide phenomenon, has yielded the largest number of signatures ever gathered in the state’s history. In fact, the almost 1.3 million signatures filed Wednesday represents one of the most remarkable examples of petitioning for the redress of grievances—and of popular democracy—in American history

The public wants the rich to pay their fair share

From People's World

by Juan Lopez

In a sign that most Americans favor a progressive social agenda, a recent public opinion poll revealed that a solid majority of respondents want to curtail military commitments abroad, raise taxes on the rich and close tax loopholes for large corporations.

At the same time, the survey shows that the Republican political establishment is out of sync with the views of the Republican base on these and other questions.

According to results of a survey released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press earlier this month, in order to reduce the national debt and deficit:

66 percent favored increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year
65 percent favored reducing military commitments overseas
62 percent favored limiting tax deductions for large corporations

The attitude for decreasing military presence abroad corresponds with the public view - held by six-in-ten - that the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has contributed greatly to the national debt, more than any other factor tested.

This public sentiment was no doubt an important factor in President Barack Obama's recent decision to scale back troop presence in Afghanistan.

The findings also reveal that the Republican political establishment appears to be at odds with the majority of the Republican base. Sixty-two percent of Republicans approved limiting corporate tax deductions and 56 percent favored reducing military engagements abroad.

While Republican leaders in Congress stand firm against raising income taxes (for the rich), Republican respondents were evenly divided (49 to 49 percent) on whether to support increasing taxes on income over $250,000 to reduce the national debt.

Meanwhile, the poll finds widespread opposition to measures being promoted by Republican Congressional leaders aimed to reduce the deficit and national debt:

73 percent of respondents overall (64 percent of Republicans) disapprove of cutting funds for the states for education and roads
73 percent overall (70 percent of Republicans) disapprove of taxing employer-provided health insurance
59 percent generally (51 percent of Republicans) oppose gradually raising the Social Security retirement age
54 percent generally (43 percent of Republicans) oppose reducing programs that help low-income Americans. Of the four, this is the only issue on which a majority of Republicans (52 percent) goes along with Republican political leaders.
Despite the Republican propaganda machine's best efforts, the figures demonstrate that clear majorities understand what is in their and the nation's best interests.

The study also reflects the positive impact on public opinion of issue-oriented campaigns led by labor and other popular movements in conjunction with center-left politicians and political figures in the Democratic camp, including the president on several issues he has championed.

The survey further showed that public concern for the budget deficit increased since last year. May 25-30, when the survey was conducted, 28 percent cited the budget deficit as the economic issue that most worries them, up from 24 percent in March and 19 percent in December.

This appears to demonstrate the influence that the powerful Republican propaganda blitzkrieg - coupled with the acquiescence of some Democratic politicians - is having on people's thinking.

However, the job situation remains the number one concern for even more Americans - 38 percent said they worry most about jobs, up slightly from March (34 percent), though down from 47 percent in December.

While the March and May figures suggest a somewhat (albeit anemic) overall improvement in the job situation, it also shows the need for a more robust movement for jobs - all the more so given the increased likelihood of a double dip economic downturn.

Massive jobs' creation is a sure way to bring down the federal deficit because it will expand the tax base.

Contrary to Republican claims, increasing taxes on the rich, closing tax loopholes of the large corporations and transferring monies from a reduction in foreign military engagement - all of which enjoy widespread public support as the poll indicates - would go a long way in reducing the deficit and financing a jobs' program.

Local KIPP School has some explaining to do

First I take no joy in pointing out struggling schools and I believe the KIPP School given time will improve. The problem is this school with much fanfare was all but declared a savior of education. The reality however is much different. Their scores were some of the worse in the county.

KIPP schools have more resources funneled into them than public schools and can put requirements on their students and their families that the public schools can’t but at the end of the day they don’t do much better. Charter schools are not the magic bullet they are being described as. If you google charter school problems you will get thousands of stories from all across the nation that describe financial malfeasance and poor results, yet this is what our legislature is pushing. I can’t help but wonder if they are doing so because many of the charter schools are for profit and this can line the pockets of their contributors and friends.

And don’t forget Arne Duncan visited this school and gave then a half million dollars for a music program (while public music programs are being eliminated) and Rick Scott signed the teacher merit pay bill their too. I wonder what these believers in school privatization are saying now.

Given time the KIPP School will probably improve but imagine how much better our public schools would be if we put the same level of resources into them.

Duval Partners for Excellent Education are off to a very rough start

To say Duval Partners were off to a rocky start would be insulting to rock quarries.

For some reason they thought secrecy was the way to go and they have been a group that has preferred to meet in the shadows and dole out information like it was a national secret. They don’t have a web site nor do they have physical or e-mailing addresses either.

They haven’t asked the community for their input and neither have they talked to the staffs at the schools they may be charged in taking over. Remember too that professional educators do not make up this group. No they are business and community leaders though if this is how they do things I am not sure how they received that designation.

If this group is going to have any chance at being successful (though now it seems like they are trying to pass the buck and sub contract another EMO) they must get buy in from the community and staffs of the school something thus far they don’t seem very interested in acquiring.

If this is their way of doing things more tough times are in store for our intervene schools and their leadership will be short lived.

How the Republicans plan to privitize Florida's public schools

From Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

Jeb Bush, Rick Scott, Steve Wise, and just about every other Republican in the state got the memo. They know the jig is up on No Child Left Behind. Like any cunning scoundrel, they know how to seize upon an opportunity. That blood is in the water you see is the disastrous consequences of NCLB’s recipe for any school to ultimately fail.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expressing concern for America’s schools. As high as 82 percent of schools in the nation could fail to meet the goals set by the No Child Left Behind law. This percentage is 45 percent higher than the failing numbers of 2010

Crafted with the best of intentions by people of good will and friends of both public schools and teachers unions, the bill’s hidden trigger for failure was hidden. It’s lofty mandate that 100 percent of the nation’s children would read at grade level by 2014 was never obtainable. NCLB’s progressively tightening standards have doomed schools to failure. And by Duncans number, its occuring at a stunning rate of speed.

The goal could never be met. Even if some grandiose plan were never in place and grassy knollists are hysterical, a perfect storm exists in Florida for an abrupt transfer of its public schools to private entities. The other shoe drop is here now with eminent passage of the new school voucher plan. Read this about the bill’s stealth expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

…..(the)bill, which moved through committees in both legislative chambers this week with party-line votes, would expand the public-school provisions of the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

At the heart of proposed expansion is the definition of a failing school.

Existing law says a student can leave a school that receives two “F” grades in a four-year period. The state Department of Education issues the grades annually based largely on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

That definition would change with the Senate version of the new bill: Students could opt to leave any school receiving a “D” or “F” and a low rating on a separate state system that provides extra funding and support for schools that need additional help.

In both 2008 and 2009, almost 8 percent of Florida schools received a D of F - well over 200 each year. Pearson’s FCAT results disaster for 2010 preliminarily assigned a significant increase in schools failing to make “adequate yearly progess” a key NCLB benchmark used to perceive schools negatively.

Further comparison between the 08-09 numbers shows that a whopping 52 percent increase in the number of schools who received a C – a number thats actually greater as there was a slight decrease in the number of schools which were graded. The astonishing increase shows that the criterion is significantly more lethal.

Including D schools into the slippery calculus which launches voucher applications to the NCLB school death warrant activates the privatization mechanism in Florida. The state’s market based crowd already has this all figured out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Duval Partners, nobody seems to know what they are doing, what a mess

From the Times Unions editorial board

What a mess.

And the shame is that the students of the four intervene schools will be caught in it.

There are three issues that deserve our attention in connection with the new group likely to be in charge of Jacksonville's four intervene schools.

Don't rush

With just a few weeks left before a new school year, Duval Partners for Excellent Education cannot be ready to take on oversight of Jacksonville's four failing schools — probably the most difficult job in Jacksonville.

This needs to be treated like the preparation for any new school. Normally, a principal is given a year to prepare when a new school is constructed.

In this case, making changes in four failing schools is even more difficult than opening one new school.

Ed Pratt-Dannals, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools, has said he could not find a company with a proven track record of turning around schools in the shape of Raines, Ribault and Jackson high schools and North Shore K-8.

Rushing into this job is a prescription for failure.

Open up

Florida has a history of open government dating to the early 1900s.

So the decision of the Duval Partners board to continue to meet in secrecy is simply wrong — desperately wrong.

Duval Partners could make the case that they needed secrecy when they were in the organizational phase. Open, frank discussions were needed.

But that should have taken three meetings, maybe five. The group has now held about 10 meetings. What's worse, they are far beyond the organizational phase. They are actually interviewing management companies as well as candidates for executive director.

How could they do that in secret?

That point will be moot soon, since the School Board signed the Memorandum of Understanding yesterday and Duval Partners may sign it soon.

Once Duval Partners signs an agreement, the requirements of Florida's Sunshine Law take effect.

Is it coincidence that it has not been signed? It has certainly been convenient for Duval Partners.

This is no way to run a public agency.

When Chairman Cleve Warren promised to open the Duval Partners meetings during a meeting with the Times-Union editorial board, it was presumed that the meetings would be open to all, not just the Times-Union.

Instead, he offered a Times-Union reporter the chance to be present for a token 15 minutes, and when important business was being conducted, the reporter was asked to leave.

This is an outrage.

If this secrecy is legal, it is not right. All it does is lose credibility with the people. It makes the most difficult job in Jacksonville an impossible one.

But following the letter of the Sunshine Law is only part of the problem. The spirit of the law — openness, transparency — is key.

Remember the community

Left out of this entire process are the people the four intervene schools are meant to serve.

How many members of Duval Partners live in these school zones? Just a few.

Jacksonville citizens involved with these schools have been left behind, over and over again.

Their neighborhood schools have been turned into dedicated magnets for the more fortunate. Legacy high schools like Matthew Gilbert, the school Bob Hayes attended, have been turned into middle schools.

And now a shadowy group of citizens are making decisions on their behalf.

This is simply bad management that reminds us of a previous era when a few leaders made decisions for the unrepresented.

This may be the Jacksonville of a few decades ago, but it's not the Jacksonville that just elected a black mayor.

These are not faceless masses, they are people in the neighborhood to be educated by Raines, Ribault, Jackson and North Shore. They deserve to be involved in the decision-making process every step of the way.

What should be done

- Duval Partners ought to decline to take on this job before it is ready.

- The Duval County School Board ought to take every step, including court action, to prevent this hand-off to a group that is not ready to do it properly.

- Jacksonville's new mayor needs to get engaged personally.

- And the community itself needs to get involved in what looks like a disaster in the making. Anyone who believes in participative government needs to join the effort.

Let's grant that the volunteers of Duval Partners want to do the right thing. But serious mistakes have been made.

This mess cannot stand.


America gives up on education

From Education Week

by Christina Samuels

School districts are facing a grim financial future, and the situation won't get better any time soon, according to a survey of more than 400 districts conducted by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pushed off the inevitable for many districts, but those funds are disappearing, while state and local revenue continues to plunge. About 84 percent of the districts surveyed anticipate funding cuts in school year 2011-12, and the cuts are being seen in all types of districts: urban, rural and suburban.

"School people are just running out of ways to limit spending," said Jack Jennings, the organization's president and chief executive officer, in an interview. "They're just at their wits' end."

Released today, the nationally representative survey of school districts was conducted between February and May of 2011. Surveys were sent to 955 districts and 457 districts responded. Because the sample was random and survey results were weighted, the findings can be generalized to school districts across the country.

Mr. Jennings said the center was anticipating about 400 responses, so was surprised that more than 50 more district leaders responded to the survey. "School districts want the public to understand what's going on," he said.

About 70 percent of districts received less money in 2010-11 than they had the year before. For the 2011-12 school year, 84 percent of districts anticipate funding cuts, the survey found. And federal stimulus funds are no longer a cushion for districts. States and districts are required to spend their stimulus money by Sept. 30, 2011.

Looking back to the last school year, about 85 percent of districts with funding decreases in 2010-11 made some type of staff cuts. Those districts represented about 53 percent of all districts in the country.

Districts tried to tilt staff reductions toward teachers of noncore academic subjects: 68 percent of the districts making cuts did so in those areas, while 54 percent made staff reductions in core areas. Districts also furloughed teachers and reduced benefits to save money.

Looking to the upcoming school year, about 57 percent of the districts anticipating funding reductions plan to specifically cut teaching jobs; 50 percent plan to cut administrative staff.

The closest parallel to today's weak economy is the recession of the early 1980s, which was marked by high inflation and President Reagan's cut in federal education spending. But this recession is deeper and broader, Jennings said. Plus, "far more is being asked of the schools, and they're getting less money." Districts should start working on sharing cost-cutting ideas with each other, because the downward trend is expected to continue for the near future, he said.

The survey did note that school officials tended to appreciate the federal stimulus, Eighty-nine percent said their district was better off for having received the money, even though the funds may have just delayed inevitable staff reductions for two years.

"But two years ago, people were concerned about going into a depression," Jennings said. "The stimulus helped. Unfortunately, the federal government isn't coming to the aid of school districts anymore."

Texas or Florida, which state hates teachers and kids the most

From the Texas AFT blog

Linda Bridges, president of Texas AFT, the 65,000-strong Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, offered this observation Wednesday in a press statement marking the end of the special legislative session that began May 31:

The governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker in this year’s regular and special sessions have led a shameful retreat from the state’s financial commitment to the education of Texas schoolchildren.

With a sharply reduced budget enacted in May, and a school-finance plan to enforce $4 billion in cuts in state aid passed yesterday, this retreat sets in motion what amounts to a planned failure to deliver the educational quality our students deserve. Also part of this plan for failure is the elimination of another $1.4 billion in state grant funding for full-day pre-kindergarten and extra help for at-risk students, among other vital programs. The legislature also chose to cut state pension and health-care contributions for retired teachers.

The state’s top leaders and the legislature had one more chance in the special session to mitigate the damage, without touching a penny of the currently projected amount in the Rainy Day Fund. The Donna Howard amendment simply would have allowed any future increases in the Rainy Day Fund to be used to cover the cost of rapidly rising enrollment in our public schools.

Passing this compromise amendment was the least they could do, yet they still chose not to do it. From the governor on down, the folks in the driver’s seat at the capitol seemed to be dead-set on underfunding public education. Needless harm to Texas schoolchildren will result from their unprecedented decision not to fund enrollment growth and to shortchange our public schools.

The final school-finance deal in SB 1 was improved by Rep. Diane Patrick’s sunset amendment, which will prevent the deep cuts of the next few years from becoming the permanent “new normal” of reduced education funding, as openly advocated by some key players. But the reality still is that this bill allocates $4 billion in cuts among school districts over the next two years, provides for more cuts for two more years after that—and none of these cuts were necessary. These cuts are the direct result of a decision by the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, and their legislative allies to refuse to use billions of dollars in the Rainy Day Fund for our schools. We will be dealing with the consequent damage for years to come.

This year’s temporary fiscal crisis also was used as the pretext for a sweeping attack on class-size limits, on state salary guarantees for educators, and on contract safeguards for teachers and other certified school professionals. We saw this year as well repeated opportunistic efforts to drain more public funds from our public schools for the benefit of private-school operators.

We are glad that the attack on class-size limits was blocked, thanks to the efforts of many legislators and a remarkable, ad-hoc coalition of parents, community groups, and educators. A similar coalition came together to block every attempt to enact private-school vouchers.

A relentless attack on teacher pay and contract rights was not consummated until passage of SB 8 on June 27. We applaud the sizable minorities who resisted in both chambers—including a bipartisan group in the Texas House. These lawmakers understood that the permanent changes made by SB 8 in pay and contract standards are unjustified and ill-advised. They understood that a reasonable bill to allow temporary, limited salary reductions, strictly to avoid layoffs, could have been crafted without undermining educators’ contract rights. But SB 8 is not that bill. SB 8 will destabilize our schools and erode educational quality.

This bill will tilt the balance in state law in favor of the exercise of arbitrary power over teachers by school superintendents and school boards. The permanent repeal of important state salary floors and due-process safeguards will roll Texas back toward the bad old days of arbitrary local personnel decisions based on cronyism and other factors utterly irrelevant to the quality of the education we provide our students.

The end of the special legislative session marks the start of a new phase in the battle over the conditions for teaching and learning in our public schools. The immediate struggle over how to implement the legislature’s handiwork will now play out in more than 1,000 school districts.

Soon, though, active and retired Texas teachers and school employees and the 80-percent-plus of Texans who opposed cuts in public education will have another opportunity to render a verdict on the actions of state leaders and lawmakers. To borrow a theme from our friends at the Save Texas Schools parent/community group: We’re watching, we remember, and we vote!

Florida McKay Scholarship fraud hall of fame

From the Miami NewTimes

by Gus Garcia Roberts

If you ask us, a private school that's been busted defrauding the state of scholarship money for disabled kids probably doesn't deserve a second chance. It most likely wasn't the finest institution of learning anyway.

The state clearly doesn't agree.

Yesterday, we published a feature story, "Rotten to the Core", that detailed the blissful lack of oversight private schools enjoy while accepting funds from Florida's McKay Scholarship program.

Due to very little proactive investigation, most fraudulent McKay schools are probably getting away with it. But the Department of Education has proven that 25 schools engaged in financial fraud, plus one where the owner was discovered to be a felon using a frontwoman.

According to our unscientific survey-- using websites and corporation records as a guide-- at least eleven of them are still in business.

Here are the fraudsters, along with how much money they've accepted from the program. If this blog post came up when you were Googling a prospective school for your child, we would suggest you keep looking.

1. Florida Christian Institute for Academic Excellence
County: Lee
McKay cash received: $6.8 million
Fraud: Collected money for student who was no longer enrolled, apparent signature forgery
Still around: No

2. Leadership Academy
County: Broward
McKay cash: $6.5 million
Fraud: Payments for at least ten students who didn't go to the school, more forgery, no proper school building, staffers with criminal records
Still around: No

3. Agape Christian Academy
County: Orange
McKay cash: $5 million
Fraud: Summer school payments for students who didn't attend summer school
Still around: Yes

4. Aukela Christian Military Academy
County: Broward
McKay cash: $4.9 million
Fraud: Payments for at least ten students who didn't go to the school, more forgery
Still around: Yes

5. Success Academy
County: Duval
McKay cash: $4.8 million
Fraud: Payments for at least 52 students who actually went to public school
Still around: Yes

6. Academy High School
County: Broward
McKay cash: $3.7 million
Fraud: Payments for at least 13 students who didn't go to the school, forgery
Still around: No

7. Hope Academy
County: Miami-Dade
McKay cash: $2.8 million
Fraud: Staffers with criminal records including grand theft, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and the sale of marijuana
Still around: Yes

8. Center of Life Academy
County: Miami-Dade
McKay cash: $2.2 million
Fraud: Payments for students who were no longer at the school, forgery
Still around: Yes

9. CHC Private Schools 1
County: Brevard
McKay cash: $2 million
Fraud: Report purged
Still around: No

10. Choice Preparatory School
County: Miami-Dade
McKay cash: $1.6 million
Fraud: Payments for students no longer at school
Still around: Yes

11. Solid Rock Community School
County: Pinellas
McKay cash: $1.5 million
Fraud: Getting people other than parents to sign McKay information without parents' consent
Still around: Yes

12. New Jerusalem Christian Academy
County: Putnam
McKay cash: $1.5 million
Fraud: Purged
Still around: No

13. Heritage Academy
County: Leon
McKay cash: $753k
Fraud: Purged
Still around: Unknown

14. Paladin Academy
County: Miami-Dade
McKay cash: $1 million
Fraud: Cashing McKay checks without parent signatures
Still around: No, but its parent company, Pennsylvania-based Nobel Learning Communities, is still kicking.

15. Community Learning Institute
County: Gadsden
McKay cash: $893k
Fraud: Payments for students who were incarcerated or otherwise no longer at the school
Still around: Yes

16. Muskateer's Academy
County: Miami-Dade
McKay cash: $794k
Fraud: Stole students' McKay information from other schools, used it to falsely enroll them at Muskateer's
Still around: No

17. Heritage Christian Academy
County: Putnam
McKay cash: $349k
Fraud: Accepting funds for tutoring and group therapy, despite not providing those services
Still around: Yes

18. Wesley Chapel Christian School
County: Pasco
McKay cash: $490k
Fraud: Payments for at least ten students who didn't go to the school, more forgery
Still around: Unknown

19. Alfie's Center For Performing Arts
County: Dvual
McKay cash: $344k
Fraud: Purged
Still around: No

20. Academy of Dreams
County: Hillsborough
McKay cash: $312k
Fraud: Owner, who had criminal record including kidnapping and witness tampering, used frontwoman to register school
Still around: No

21. Dre's Playhouse Exceptional Academy
County: Taylor
McKay cash: $268k
Fraud: Payments for students who didn't go to the school, payments received even after school was closed
Still around: No

22. Harvest Christian Academy
County: Hillsborough
McKay cash: $206k
Fraud: Payments for a students who didn't go to school. Owner was already incarcerated in federal prison for a $3 million bank fraud scheme
Still around: No

23. Palm Harbor Preparatory
County: Pinellas
McKay cash: $174k
Fraud: Payments for a student who didn't go to the school. Owner pled guilty to grand theft, served probation and paid restitution
Still around: Yes

24. Academic High School
County: Palm Beach
McKay cash: $138k
Fraud: Purged
Still around: Yes

25. Capital City Preparatory School
County: Leon
McKay cash: $73k
Fraud: Receiving McKay payments without getting parent signatures
Still around: No

26. Cyber Tech Academy
County: Duval
McKay cash: $54k
Fraud: Didn't physically exist
Still around: No

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why the public hates teachers unions

I will sometimes post on message boards about education issues. Invariably somebody rants about how the teachers unions have held public education back. Now I have issues with my union but its not because they have held education back.

Despite my issues, out of the two groups, the teachers union and the Florida State government it is really a no brainier who to support. One group, the union cares about teachers and schools and using tried and true reforms. The other, the state wants to punish teachers, use gut reaction reforms and privatize schools

I always ask, can I get an example why you think this way, and nine times out of ten they never respond with one.

Well today I got a response and this was it:

Sorry g. I missed your question about unions holding back education. Just one example? By maintaining the job of teachers that can barely speak English let alone teach English. Just another for the road. The teachers ability to execute the position being measured by a proficiency test.

First this wasn’t sourced, it sounds like something Limbaugh said on his show or something somebody heard from a neighbor or a friend of a friend. People hate the teachers unions and don’t even know why.

Next, the union doesn’t hire teachers, so if a teacher was hired and wasn’t competent that would fall on the administrations shoulder.

Teachers do have to take a test to become certified and then go through a new teacher program but these requirements are determined by the state and again not by the union.

After a teacher is hired the principal can let them go at 97 days, or can let them go at the end of years one, two or three and this is if they are a member of the union or not.

And this is why people hate teacher's unions?

Now say somehow this teacher made it past year three and was on a professional contract (which will not exist for new teachers come July 1st), that’s when the union would step in and not to protect the teacher but to make sure the teachers rights to due process were followed. There is a procedure in place to get rid of bad teachers. The union just makes sure the administration follows it.

Listen friends if you haven’t come to the realization that the teachers union is not obstructionist or just exists to protect bad teachers and that these are tired old talking points, like most people have, it’s time you woke up.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

The Duval County School Board jumps on sinking ship

The Duval County School Board signed a memorandum of understanding with the newly formed non-profit education management organization Duval Partners. This will give them the ability to run the four intervene schools should that come to pass.

Duval Partners in the meantime has been looking to subcontract the job to another for profit EMO. They in effect are trying to jump ship, pass the buck and the school district, instead of insisting they bow out or do what they were asked to do, has just given them permission to pass the buck.

What exactly is going on at 1701 Prudential Drive and can anybody explain the logic of this? This house is out of whack.

DCSB member Betty Burney gets it right

I have been a frequent critic of Betty Burney and I think since day one she has been on the wrong side of the, “what to do with the intervene schools” issue. I believe handing them over to an EMO was the best of all bad options, seemingly made just a little better by the fact the EMO they chose was both a non-profit and made up of community leaders.

Fast forward and now the EMO we contracted is handing the schools over to another EMO and their chief applicant has a dubious record and is not from the city. Right then the School Board should have pulled the plug.

Mrs. Burney along with Paula Wright and Tommy Hazouri voted not to go any farther with Duval Partners while the rest of the members apparently have had their heads buried in the sand and were unaware of the recent developments. That might not be so hard to believe because as organizations go Duval Partners has been amazingly secretive (more on that soon).

Like I said I have been critical of Mrs. Burney but when she gets it right, she gets it right.

If you care about education here in Jacksonville these are troubling times.

Florida's McKay scholarships create fraud and chaos, part 3

From the Miami NewsTimes

by Gus Garcia-Roberts

A Plantation High reading teacher, who asked that her name not be used, can relate. She has noticed her "problem" seniors disappearing like never before. Sometimes she runs into them on the street and finds out they're at Preparatory Zion Academy or someplace similar. "These kids are graduating, but they're illiterate," the teacher says. "If you ask me, it's criminal."

The principals of neither Carol City High or Plantation High responded to New Times' inquiries. Public school brass are loathe to publicly admit to pushing struggling kids toward private schools.

Chris Christe could be the poster child for McKay scholarships. Sweet and glassy-eyed, he was raised by his grandmother in the shadow of Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens. Mom had died when he was 10 years old while she was giving birth to his brother. Dad made an awkward visit every three years.

Chris had trouble paying attention at Norwood Elementary and lagged behind classmates. In fifth grade, he took an IQ test. He got a 95. "Not retarded retarded," his blunt-spoken grandmother Gloria Joachim says, but low enough that the assistant principal recommended a more specialized school day: Have you heard of the McKay program?

So Chris ended up at the South Florida Academy of Learning, located in a storefront at the California Club Mall. Two years later, it went bellyup. Next there was Opa-locka's Monsignor Edward Pace, a large private high school that accepts McKay scholarships. The classes were too "fast for him," Gloria says, and she'd find Chris cowering in her bathroom when it was time to go to school. Last year, he finally received a diploma from the unaccredited West Hollywood Private School, which is run by a husband and wife in their converted home.

When transferring her grandson's credits, Gloria was bewildered to find that, according to the state, he was already enrolled at another school she had never heard of: Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah. As it turns out, Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno, the couple who ran Muskateer's, had stolen Chris's McKay information from the South Florida Academy of Learning, where Jacqueline had once worked.

"I'm unimpressed," 69-year-old Gloria says with a cynical chuckle when asked her opinion of the McKay program. She estimates taxpayers invested roughly $30,000 in the last six years of Chris's education. "I wish that money could have gone to establishing an area in his own public school for kids with special needs. Then there would have been some accountability."

Though it sounds exotic, what Gloria is describing is the traditional public special-ed model. "I didn't have the illusion that he was college-bound," she says, "but I wish he could have more skills that would help him with a job."

Now 22, after getting his high school diploma, Chris spends his days pacing Grandma's living room. He talks about becoming a songwriter, but when art colleges return his phone calls, he tells them Chris isn't home and hangs up.

"No job, no school, no nothing," Gloria laments. "If you can think of what to do with him now, let me know."

Christopher Vaughn decided it was time to leave South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy — the Oakland Park strip-mall school with the ass-thwacking principal — in his junior year, when a classmate tried to stab his brother with a pen.

It was 2010, and Christopher was 18. He was a sturdily built kid with a hard-fought, scraggly beard and loads of ambition despite having sprouted from tragedy: Mom dead of AIDS, Dad always working, six siblings, raised mostly by a grandmother who was getting eaten by Alzheimer's.

He wanted a college degree. He wanted to start an organization to help kids with rough home lives just like his. Before going to South Florida Prep, he had been a good student at Lauderhill Middle School.

But when Christopher tried to transfer his credits — all As and Bs — from the disastrous private high, they were rejected by the charter Smart School. Then the alternative public school Whiddon-Rogers Education Center turned down his transcript as well. Having made no mistake besides going to the high school his grandmother heard about at church, Christopher faced the prospect of being a freshman again.

"I had to start from scratch," he says. "Everything just went down the drain. I didn't feel like being in school no more."

He hasn't taken the excuse to give up. He's now about five credits from graduating from Whiddon-Rogers.

In October the year that Christopher left South Florida Prep, fire marshals shut down that school. The student body wandered between local parks and churches for a month, before the DOE finally suspended its McKay payments, about four and a half years too late.

Principal Julius Brown was sued by the strip-mall owner for falling behind $55,650 in rent, and he faced three other lawsuits related to the tragic van accident on the trip from Orlando. He does, however, know one way to make some money in a hurry.

In March 2011, Brown and partners incorporated Sunrise College Preparatory School in Orlando. According to its website, classes in grades kindergarten through 12 begin August 29.

Sunrise College Prep is not registered with the state, but Brown clearly has a plan: The school website advertises that it accepts McKay scholarships.

After reaching Brown by phone at his new school, New Times could get in only one question: Planning on paddling kids in your new digs?

"I got nothing to say to you!" he bellowed before hanging up. "South Florida Prep was a long time ago. I've moved on!"

Rich Abdill contributed to this report.

Florida's McKay scholarships create Fraud and Chaos, part 2

From the Miami  NewTimes

by Gus Garcia-Roberts

He was on the lookout for outfits such as Jacksonville's Cyber Tech Academy, to which the state had paid $54,000 in tuition through 2004 despite the fact that the school didn't physically exist.

That's as proactive as any investigation ever got, says Stoughton, a former Tallahassee Police officer. From 2005 through 2008, he worked with three to four colleagues in the DOE's Office of Inspector General. "I never got the sense that we really got a good grasp on the scope of potential fraud," he says.

Seth StoughtonJeb BushFlorida Department of EducationDisabilitiesPrivate EducationRegistering a private school is as easy as filing minimal start-up paperwork. Becoming eligible to receive McKay payments isn't much tougher and relies mostly on the honor system: You must claim to have a location, promise to run background checks on staffers, and either have been in business for three years or have access to a surety loan or line of credit. "The restrictions on opening a school are so relaxed," Stoughton says, "that it's almost a right rather than a privilege."

The DOE has investigated 38 schools suspected of McKay fraud. In 25 cases, the allegations have been substantiated. Of those, five — Muskateer's Academy, Paladin Academy, Choice Preparatory School, Center of Life Academy, and Hope Academy — were in Miami-Dade.

The thieving schools across the state received, or in many cases are still receiving, McKay money totaling $49.3 million.

In the 27 investigative reports that were made available to New Times — the rest have been purged — the vast majority were sparked by a tip, usually from an associate with an ax to grind. A few of the more notable cases:

• At Homestead's Hope Academy, recipient of $2.8 million from McKay, a 2010 investigation revealed at least three staffers had criminal records. One of the employees had pleaded guilty in Georgia to intent to distribute cocaine. Another had served two years in the same state for the sale of marijuana. The school is the target of a lawsuit filed by a mother who claims her developmentally disabled daughter was repeatedly molested by a classmate on a school bus and that principal Cecil Persaud did nothing about it. Visited by New Times, Persaud — a gray-toned man with a patchy mustache — claimed the fraud "didn't ring a bell," refused to discuss the molestation lawsuit, and threatened to call police.

• The most common caper involves simple forgery: school administrators doctoring attendance records and signing parents' names to show that students are enrolled when they're actually not. Jacksonville's Success Academy — which received $4.8 million — was likely the largest such case. From 2001 through 2005, the school accepted $421,000 for 52 students who were enrolled in public schools.

• At Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah (Stoughton says of the name: "I think they just had no idea how to spell"), husband and wife school owners Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno were indicted for stealing several students' disability information to falsely enroll them and pocket thousands in tuition. Muskateer's received $794,000 from the state. The Cermenos were sentenced to ten years' probation and seem to have disappeared to Texas.

But some of the most egregious offenders have evaded even a slap on the wrist. In February 2008, Stoughton's office held countless hours of deposition and prepared a damning 795-page report in exposing a similar $78,000 fraud at Harvest Christian Academy in Tampa. The principal, Bishop Michael Wayne Lewis, was already serving five years in federal prison for a $3 million bank fraud case. Lewis scoffed that because "he was currently incarcerated for a scheme involving the theft of $3 million," according to a report, "he would not 'waste' his time with $78,000."

The State Attorney's Office (SAO) apparently agreed, deciding not to press charges. "This was a case I had worked on the entire time I was there," Stoughton says. "It was incredibly frustrating."

The apathy to McKay fraud was politically motivated, he believes. "This program was the governor's baby, and he had a lot of political capital invested in this," the former investigator says of Bush, who held office until January 2007. "My understanding was that he viewed our investigations as negative publicity about the program."

Counters Bush's spokesperson Jaryn Emhof: "Governor Bush has consistently supported greater accountability over the scholarship programs."

Of the case reports provided to New Times, only three resulted in arrests. The vast majority of offenders were ordered to simply repay the stolen money, although many of them have failed to make payments.

In October 2007, prosecutors did decide to press charges in a case involving two sisters. Betty Mitchell and Jeannette Nealy had swindled at least $200,000 in McKay money through Faith Christian Academy in Polk County.

Stoughton helped the SAO write a news release, detailing the fraud and the sisters' potential prison time — they would later be sentenced to a combined 17 years — to send to media outlets. There's no deterrent to like-minded schemers, Stoughton believes, like a nice, scary news story.

When Stoughton shipped a draft of the release up the flagpole at the Department of Education, he says, "The response I got was essentially: This is good news how?"

Stoughton eventually left the department to go to law school. The DOE never sent out that news release.

Sheldon "Klassy" Klasfeld, beaver-toothed and round-spectacled with slicked curly locks, sits in his junk-clogged sliver of an office in the front of Academic High School. The principal and founder of the Boca Raton academy — and perennial candidate for the Florida House — is in full stall-and-divert mode, waxing at length about his hippie days in Pittsburgh, clearly reluctant to give a tour of his school, located in a nondescript strip mall.

Eventually, he exhausts his tale of hitchhiking to Woodstock and opens a door into maze-like halls of yellow wood panels, scrawled in places with black graffiti.

Seth StoughtonJeb BushFlorida Department of EducationDisabilitiesPrivate EducationIn two classrooms, high school kids sit in oppressive silence, plowing through workbooks. The teachers are at their own desks, saying nothing. This is not an exam day: Academic High students get credits, and eventually diplomas, by filling out answers in textbooks every day from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunch is not served, though kids can buy chips and soda from vending machines wedged in a corner.

The state is aware of Klasfeld's special brand of academia. In 2003, the Palm Beach County school board shuttered Academic High — which was then a charter school — for mismanaging its budget and cramming multiple classes into one room. Klasfeld appealed in person to the Florida Cabinet, where he was unanimously denied by a panel including Governor Bush and then-Education Commissioner Charlie Crist.

Within a year, Academic High re-opened as a private school and has received $138,000 in McKay cash, drawing the same milk from a different DOE teat.

Ask Klasfeld, though, and he's simply providing options to students, most of them with learning disabilities, who would never pass Florida's standardized tests required for graduation in public schools. "I used to be a big advocate against the FCAT," he remarks while sitting at a picnic table outside after the hasty tour. "Then I realized it was just bringing more kids to us."

After some consternation, Klasfeld pulls a student out of class to speak with a reporter. Seventeen-year-old Alex is pock-marked and slow-speaking. Until 2009, he attended Coral Springs' Academy High School — which received $3.7 million in McKay funds — before administrators there were caught forging parents' signatures, among other ploys, to continue receiving money after the disabled students were no longer enrolled.

Alex says it's not entirely just book work at his new alma mater. "We do reports too," he says. "About presidents, about Osama, stuff like that."

Klasfeld sits across the picnic table from Alex and often interjects nervously. Alex says he wants to enlist in the Army after he gets his diploma. "Ten-hut!" the principal hollers nonsensically. "Sir, yes, sir!"

As the program director of a Fort Lauderdale tutoring and after-school nonprofit called HANDY — Helping Abused, Neglected, Disadvantaged Youth — dealing mostly with poor and African-American children, Kirk Brown is depressingly familiar with the scourge of two-bit McKay schools "preying" on South Florida's inner cities.

Twenty-eight percent of the scholarship fund's students are African-American, and 45 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ghettos tend to attract the huckster portion of the McKay schools. In neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Sistrunk, it seems, you can't swing an FCAT without hitting a dubious educator setting up a fly-by-night school designed to lure kids who might otherwise struggle with standardized testing.

Any combination of the words preparatory, Christian, hope, academy, and perhaps Zion usually appear in the name. The administrators make their arrival to a neighborhood known by leafleting and billboarding housing projects. Or they show up at Sunday services and prowl for old ladies wearing church hats and toting children. "They look for kids who don't have traditional parents," Brown says. "Grandmothers, aunts, uncles — anybody who's not necessarily going to do their homework and may be swayed by the religious angle."

The inevitable morning comes when those students show up for class to find only an empty store for rent, or they attempt to transfer to another high school or matriculate to college and are informed their credits are worthless.

"They have that look of somebody whose house just got robbed," Brown says of the children he's watched go through the experience. "These schools are run by the worst kind of parasites. All these kids have is their education, and that's what they're trying to steal."

But sometimes the parasites don't have to do that much work, because public school administrators do it for them.

Beginning a few school years ago, Carol City Senior High social studies teacher Paul Moore was mystified by a new, perennial exodus of his "problem" seniors — students who might fare badly on FCATs. They were kids he usually liked to have one last-ditch shot at improving their studies.

Eventually, he figured out where many of them had ended up: Parkway Academy in Miramar, a charter school and target in 2009 of the Florida High School Athletic Association's largest fine — $260,000; later reduced to $118,000 — for dozens of football recruiting violations. Other of Moore's missing seniors had scattered to private schools, most of them McKay-funded. "It's an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools," Moore says.

Florida's McKay scholarships create Fraud and Chaos, part 1

From the Miami NewTimes

by Gus Garcia Roberts

From June 2006 through November 2010, the woefully cash-strapped Florida Department of Education (DOE) forked over $2.057 million to Julius Brown, former middle school basketball coach and cofounder of a string of obscure sports apparel businesses.

Seth StoughtonJeb BushFlorida Department of EducationDisabilitiesPrivate EducationThe money was in the form of tuition vouchers for kids with physical and learning disabilities to attend the South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy, the Oakland Park K-12 private school of which Brown — a looming and lean former basketball pro with a slug-like mustache — was founder, president, principal, athletic director, and boys' basketball coach.

As is customary with schools that receive the vouchers, provided by the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program, the DOE didn't inquire about Brown's curriculum or visit South Florida Prep's campus to make sure it was safe for schoolchildren. In Florida, private schools essentially go unregulated, even if they're funded by taxpayer cash. South Florida Prep also received at least $236,000 from a state-run tax-credit scholarship for low-income kids.

While the state played the role of the blind sugar daddy, here is what went on at South Florida Prep, according to parents, students, teachers, and public records: Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the "campus" as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976 Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick — Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting "mother nature" — a woman's period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. "We had no materials," says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. "There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum."

In May 2009, two vanloads of South Florida Prep kids were on the way back from a field trip to Orlando when one of the vehicles flipped along Florida's Turnpike. A teacher and an 18-year-old senior were killed. Turns out another student, age 17 and possessing only a learner's permit, was behind the wheel and had fallen asleep. The families of the deceased and an insurance company are suing Brown for negligence.

Meanwhile, Brown openly used a form of corporal punishment that has been banned in Miami-Dade and Broward schools for three decades. Four former students and the music teacher Norris recall that the principal frequently paddled students for misbehaving. In a complaint filed with the DOE in April 2009, one parent rushed to the school to stop Brown from taking a paddle to her son's behind.

"He said that maybe if we niggas would beat our kids in the first place, he wouldn't have to," the mother wrote of Brown. "He then proceeded to tell me that he is not governed by Florida school laws."

He wasn't far off. The DOE couldn't remove South Florida Prep from the McKay program, says agency spokesperson Deborah Higgins, "based on the school's disciplinary policies and procedures."

It's like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash: Dole out millions to anybody calling himself an educator. Don't regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.

For optimal results, do this in Florida, America's fraud capital.

Now watch all the different ways the flimflam men scramble for the cash.

Once a niche scholarship fund, the McKay program has boomed exponentially in the 12 years since it was introduced under Gov. Jeb Bush, with $148.6 million handed out in the past 12 months, a 38 percent increase from just more than five years ago.

There are 1,013 schools — 65 percent of them religious — collecting McKay vouchers from 22,198 children at an average of $7,144 per year.

The lion's share of that pot ends up in South Florida. Miami-Dade received $31.8 million, more than any other county in the state, and Broward was second with $18.3 million. Palm Beach ranked fifth, with its schools collecting $6.9 million.

But there's virtually no oversight. According to one former DOE investigator, who claimed his office was stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics, the agency failed to uncover "even a significant fraction" of the McKay crime that was occurring.

Administrators who have received funding include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.

Even in investigations where fraud, including forgery and stealing student information to bolster enrollment, is proven, arrests are rare. The thieves are usually allowed to simply repay the stolen loot in installments — or at least promise to — and continue to accept McKay payments.

There is no accreditation requirement for McKay schools. And without curriculum regulations, the DOE can't yank back its money if students are discovered to be spending their days filling out workbooks, watching B-movies, or frolicking in the park. In one "business management" class, students shook cans for coins on street corners.

And public schools now apparently help with the recruiting. Failing kids, who would sabotage all-important standardized testing scores, are herded en masse to dubious McKay schools.

The McKay fund is not the only cash cow that unregulated schools can dip into. There's also the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which gives tax breaks to corporations in return for private school scholarships. With Gov. Rick Scott pushing privatization of education in all forms, legislation that passed in May is set to skyrocket both programs.

The tax-credit fund saw its cap increased by $30 million to $175 million, while the McKay program could nearly quadruple. Thanks to the amended law, a kid with a peanut allergy could now find himself eligible for a scholarship created for students with learning and physical disabilities.

Jacqueline Cermeno, along with her husband Erick, of Hialeah's Muskateer's Academy were indicted for stealing disabled kids' identities.

Seth StoughtonJeb BushFlorida Department of EducationDisabilitiesPrivate EducationNew Times shared findings from this investigation with state Sen. Stephen R. Wise (R-Jacksonville), one of the co-introducers of the McKay program in 1999. "It's appalling," Wise says. "I'm amazed that there's not more scrutiny about where the money is going."

"After I get done with you," he tells a reporter, "I need to talk to my staff director. We need to have some hearings and do whatever we can to make some changes."

According to Republican lore, it started with a senator's child and a nun.

In the mid-'90s, state Sen. John M. McKay (R-Bradenton) struggled to find a proper school for his daughter, who had a learning disability.

"I called every public school in my district," McKay, who has since retired from office, tells New Times. He ended up sending her to Dreams Are Free, an idyllic, specialized school in Sarasota run by Sister Gilchrist Cottrill.

McKay's epiphany: Create tuition vouchers so that all Florida children with special needs could go to schools like Sister Gilchrist's. As senate president in 1999, he tacked his namesake program to Gov. Jeb Bush's fledgling A+ Plan for Education, a voucher program paying private school tuition for students from poorly performing public school districts.

Two years later, Republican lawmakers passed the Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income kids, which offers a smaller tuition cap — currently $4,106 — but is available for more students.

The add-ons were politically shrewd. Bush's program was hugely divisive and, as it turns out, doomed. In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that the A+ Plan was unconstitutional and a drain on public school coffers. But the McKay and Tax Credit scholarships chugged onward.

To be eligible for a McKay voucher in the early days, a student would have had to qualify for an individual education program (IEP) — which encompasses conditions ranging from attention disorders and autism to physical disabilities — and be failing in public schools. The latter requirement was eventually scrapped by legislators. A cap limiting the number of McKay kids per district was also tossed.

Today, students with an IEP are required only to spend at least one year in a public school to qualify for the McKay program. But even in that, there is fraud. In June 2010, Deborah Swirsky-Nuñez, a special-education supervisor in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and wife of region superintendent George Nuñez, was arrested for playing a sort of three-card monte with the McKay system in order to have her two kids' private school tuition paid by the state.

According to investigators, Swirsky-Nuñez fabricated address records. She falsely enrolled the children at the public Dr. Michael M. Krop High even though they attended Plantation's American Heritage Private School. And she used her sway with test administrators to rig her kids' performance on the IEP exam, securing a combined $19,000 annually in McKay payments.

At least seven others, including her husband George, were implicated, but only Swirsky-Nuñez was charged with organized fraud. She has pleaded not guilty, and her trial will begin in October. Krop's principal, Matthew Welker, was suspended for 30 days for alleged complicity in the scheme.

The recent expansion of the McKay program should only make it easier to milk the system. The new law, which last month easily passed the Florida House and Senate and was signed by Governor Scott, makes students with "504 plans" — special accommodations for physical impairments — eligible as well.

That includes asthma and allergies to anything from peanuts to bee stings, says Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, who argues that the expansion is "undermining the validity of the program."

An additional 52,000 students will be eligible, almost quadrupling the pool.

McKay waffled with indecision before throwing his support behind the expansion. He insists he "would never want this program to be a Trojan horse towards the destruction of the public school system." After reading a partial draft of this story, McKay hedged that "there are sins in every program" but added that the state is unwise to "abandon all oversight... Somebody better get off their ass and fix those problems."

The nun also has misgivings. Sister Gilchrist, of the prototypical McKay school, has seen her copycats. "There are a lot of people who are starting these little schools, and the teachers aren't qualified," she says. "There needs to be some oversight."

Department of Education investigator Seth Stoughton, who specialized in voucher fraud, had a strategy when he'd go on field trips from Tallahassee to other regions around the state. He'd print out a list of every McKay school in the area and drive his rental car past the addresses, just to make sure the schools were there.

Fraud and abuse in the Florida Voucher system

From Failing Schools

by Sabrina

I nearly vomited* while reading the Miami New Times’ account of some of the horrors taking place in Florida’s poorly regulated voucher school system, under the McKay scholarship program that gives tuition vouchers to special needs students. Abuses like these are a prime example of why it is so important to have a robust, healthy public school system, with real oversight by officials who are directly accountable to the public. De-regulating that system doesn’t typically encourage innovation, as privatization proponents argue; at best, most of these schools do no better than the schools with which they’re meant to compete. But often, de-regulation does encourage fraud. (According to the article, administrators receiving tax-payer funds for voucher schools include “criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.”)

An excerpt from this chilling article (emphasis added):

…The money was in the form of tuition vouchers for kids with physical and learning disabilities to attend the South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy, the Oakland Park K-12 private school of which Brown — a looming and lean former basketball pro with a slug-like mustache — was founder, president, principal, athletic director, and boys’ basketball coach.

As is customary with schools that receive the vouchers, provided by the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program, the DOE didn’t inquire about Brown’s curriculum or visit South Florida Prep’s campus to make sure it was safe for schoolchildren. In Florida, private schools essentially go unregulated, even if they’re funded by taxpayer cash. South Florida Prep also received at least $236,000 from a state-run tax-credit scholarship for low-income kids.

While the state played the role of the blind sugar daddy, here is what went on at South Florida Prep, according to parents, students, teachers, and public records: Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976 Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick —Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting “mother nature” — a woman’s period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. “We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

In May 2009, two vanloads of South Florida Prep kids were on the way back from a field trip to Orlando when one of the vehicles flipped along Florida’s Turnpike. A teacher and an 18-year-old senior were killed. Turns out another student, age 17 and possessing only a learner’s permit, was behind the wheel and had fallen asleep. The families of the deceased and an insurance company are suing Brown for negligence.

Meanwhile, Brown openly used a form of corporal punishment that has been banned in Miami-Dade and Broward schools for three decades. Four former students and the music teacher Norris recall that the principal frequently paddled students for misbehaving. In a complaint filed with the DOE in April 2009, one parent rushed to the school to stop Brown from taking a paddle to her son’s behind.

“He said that maybe if we niggas would beat our kids in the first place, he wouldn’t have to,” the mother wrote of Brown. “He then proceeded to tell me that he is not governed by Florida school laws.”

He wasn’t far off. The DOE couldn’t remove South Florida Prep from the McKay program, says agency spokesperson Deborah Higgins, “based on the school’s disciplinary policies and procedures.”

*ETA: A contributor to (see the pingbacks, listed in the comments) apparently took issue with my declaring that the situations depicted in this article made me almost puke. My apologies for being graphic, but that is the full-on, 100% truth, friend! Did you miss the part of the story where one of the un-credentialed “teachers” hired by one of these schools talked to students about menstruating into someone’s food? ‘Cause I didn’t!

Yep, reading about poor special-needs children being beaten and used for profit makes me nauseous. Apparently, I have a weak tummy…or a strong sense of outrage!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Has the Charter School Expeiment failed?

From the USAToday

by Richard D. Kahlenberg

Replicating good charter schools and rejecting bad ones sounds eminently reasonable, but it's far easier said than done. For decades, educators have been trying to scale up high-achieving, high-poverty schools, but success often comes down to hard-to-duplicate factors, such as a charismatic principal, a supply of teachers willing to work extraordinary hours or particularly motivated students.

After two decades, it's time to fundamentally rethink the charter school experiment. The prevailing charter model isn't working because it is based on two profoundly flawed ideas: that teachers' unions are the biggest problem in education; and that packing poor kids into separate, high-poverty charter schools will produce educational success.

Today's charter school theory says unions block schools from firing bad teachers and paying good ones more, so if we eliminate the union, we'll improve outcomes for kids. But the hypothesis hasn't panned out. Even though 88% of charters are non-union, only 17% of charters outperform regular public schools. Non-unionized Southern public schools have never done particularly well, and the lack of teacher voice in charters means substantially higher teacher turnover, which is bad for students.

Likewise, the predominant charter school model of trying to educate the maximum number of disadvantaged kids hasn't worked because economically and racially segregated schools are almost always unequal. Although charters could, as schools of choice, be more integrated than neighborhood public schools, data show charters have even higher concentrations of poverty than those schools.

The news media pay outsize attention to successful high-poverty schools, but nationally, middle-class schools are 22 times as likely to be high performing. Low-income students given the chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.

It's time to return to the original vision for charter schools outlined in 1988 by American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, who wanted charters to be schools that provide teacher voice and educate students from all walks of life.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.

What happens when Charter Schools fail

From the NPR staff

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are overseen by their own independent boards. Because of their independence, they are allowed to do things that traditional public schools cannot do. School administrators can experiment with things like the length of the school day and the makeup of each school's curriculum.

With that freedom, charter schools have become academic beacons for parents looking to find the best and safest schooling options for their children. But the system's lack of oversight has also created problems. In recent years, there have been investigations in states, including California, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which found charter school CEOs taking money from their own schools, putting unqualified relatives on their payrolls and engaging in other questionable activities.

On Monday's Fresh Air, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall details her ongoing investigation into Philadelphia's charter school system, where 19 of the 74 charter schools operating in the city are under investigation for fraud, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest.

by Martha Woodall

Read Martha Woodall's series in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia Inquirer: Charter Schools,  Coruption And Fraud

At one school, the Philadelphia Academy Charter School, parents raised concerns in 2008 after school administrators told them that there was no money available for special education students.

"The school kept saying 'We don't have money for [these students],'" Woodall tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "However, there was money being spent on all kinds of other issues. [When parents] raised questions at the Board of Trustees meetings, [they] were basically told, 'We don't want you asking questions.'"

Ultimately, both the founding CEO of Philadelphia Academy Charter School — and his successor — were charged with allegedly stealing almost $1 million from the school's coffers, including money students had collected for a Toys for Tots campaign. The two men — one of whom had only a high school education — also allegedly engaged in questionable real estate deals. As a result, the high school paid rent money for its facilities directly to them.

"They charged really high rental rates for the school to use the building and then they accumulated money through the higher rates," she says. "... They were using taxpayer money that was supposed to go to the school for other purposes."

In addition, both the school's founding CEO and his successor had relatives on the school's payroll. The founding CEO's wife was the head of the board of trustees.

"They were making more money and supervising people who had far more experience and more credentials than they had," she says. "In order to keep the school open, the Philadelphia School District required the top administrators to leave and required a replacement of the board and the board then basically fired all of the relatives. They wanted to sever all ties with all of the families involved."

But Philadelphia Academy Charter School wasn't the only charter school in Philadelphia with ethical and financial problems.

"We've had cases here where large numbers of family members are on the payroll and [other instances where there were] contracts awarded to relatives and friends that include leases on luxury cars," she says. "Part of the problem that we have found is that the boards that are overseeing some of these schools are not involved as deeply as they should be. ... They may be friends of the CEO and therefore they're reluctant to provide the type of oversight that they should be providing."

School districts are supposed to monitor charter schools' academic progress. In the Philadelphia School District, says Woodall, there are seven people overseeing all 74 charter schools in the district — but that office will soon be halved due to budget cuts.

"You have so few people keeping track of the charter schools," she says. "They don't have opportunities to go out and visit the schools and pay too much attention until the charters are up for renewal. So that gives several years in between where people can get away with things

Rick Scott doesn't like pensions or the Florida state constituion

From the Ledger

by Glen Marston

The Florida Education Association teachers' union sued Gov. Rick Scott on Monday to block a new retirement-contribution law. It requires that workers in the state retirement system pay in 3 percent of their salaries to the system, even though they were told they would never have to do so.

Despite the deceit, in this tough time of high unemployment, stagnant salaries and diminishing benefits, such a lawsuit does not generate sympathy.

Private-sector employees who already contribute to their pensions say be happy to have a pension.

Private employees who have 401(k) plans say it must be nice to have a pension.

Workers without either say they'd be happy with any kind of retirement.

The rest say they'd just like to find a job and get back to work.

Given such widespread employment difficulty, why would a court side with the workers in the state retirement system?

Because the Florida Constitution prohibits the Legislature from making any law to change the state retirement system.

Regardless of societal circumstances, the constitution's provisions cannot be changed by law. All laws must conform to the requirements and restrictions of the constitution.

Gov. Rick Scott exuded confidence Monday when speaking of his prospect as defendant. Remember, he is a lawyer.

The fact that he avoided the constitution when speaking about the case may indicate that the worker lawsuit is well-grounded.

"Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense," Scott said in a statement. "Floridians who don't work in government are required to pay into their own retirement. This is about fairness for those who don't have government jobs. Plus, we are ensuring a pension will be there for state employees when they retire."

Not that it will affect the court case, but the multimillionaire governor was disingenuous about "ensuring a pension will be there."

That's because:

Florida's retirement system is rated as one of the best-funded among the states.

The workers' 3 percent contributions will not add anything to the fund — employers will be contributing 3 percent less. The fund will not change.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who are all Republicans and make up the Florida Board of Administration, made no change to the retirement system when they met June 16 to review its status.

They said there is no need to change the $131.5 billion system, which grew $3.6 billion in the first quarter of the year.

The system covers 655,000 workers and 219,000 retirees.

As to whether the retirement-contribution law is fair, consider that state workers around Florida were told at their time of hiring that the retirement system required no contribution, as a way of offsetting low salaries.

The courts will determine whether the law is constitutional. On its face, though, it is crummy.

[ Glenn Marston is editorial page editor. E-mail: Phone: 863-802-7600. ]

Duval Partners for excellent education betrays community

It turns out during all these secret meeting the Duval partners were having over the past few months they weren’t just replacing members that were jumping ship but they were looking for an education management organization to take over the schools should they have to. If you just said, what and looked around confused, you are not the only one. It seems the non-profit EMO that our school district was going to hire is in the process of hiring a for profit EMO to do they job non-profit EMO was supposed to do. They call this subcontracting; I call this, well why did we go with Duval Partners in the first place?

If Duval Partners is not up to the task and it is a formable task there is no shame in that. However instead of passing the buck and creating an additional level of management and diverting funds away from the schools to pay for this, they should just say so and bow out. Them bringing in outsiders to do the job they were supposed to do is tantamount to a betrayal of the school district but even worse a betrayal of the community.

I thought the chances for them succeeding were slim to begin with but all the chances they had were because they were part of the community and as a result would have a good basis for finding out what those schools need to improve. What they don’t need to improve is an out of town for profit EMO coming in and running things.

Duval Partners if this is your plan bow out and do so gracefully, nobody would fault you. But bow out quickly because time is running out and the kids that go to those schools deserve a chance even if it is just a slim one.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

A dark day for Florida's public schools

On the heels of the disastrous merit pay bill that cripples Florida’s present and future teachers and the three billion dollar cut to the statewide education budget, the governor today signed five more bills designed to hurt Florida’s education system and speed up the privatization of our schools.

The five bills are: S.B. 1546, Charter Schools; H.B. 7197, Virtual Education; H.B. 1331, Opportunity Scholarships; H.B. 1329, McKay Scholarships; and H.B. 965, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

All of these bills take resources and money out of our resource and money starved public schools and for several of them, like the merit pay bill was, are not backed up by facts. Charter schools as a group do no better and often do worse than their public school counterparts and the problems with virtual schools both with quality of instruction and cheating are many. Then there is the opportunity scholarship bill, which says district must pay for busing kids to their new schools, even if these new schools are in different counties.

The answer should be to commit our resources to our public schools, to develop effective curriculums and programs that serve all our children, not just a few and then to bring in competent leadership. If education in Florida were a three legged stool and each of above was a leg then our stool as things stand now wouldn’t be standing because all three of its legs are broken.

The answer should not be to further cripple our public schools and siphon money into the for profit corporate world where the bottom line is more important than our children.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

It turns out tenure isn’t dead in Florida after all

It turns out tenure isn’t dead in Florida after all, if you are a charter school that is.

John Thrashers bill to make running and expanding charter schools was signed by the governor today. Basically it says high performing schools get 15-year contracts. From now on high performing teachers get one-year contracts. The bill also says if the charter schools get a high performing evaluation for three years they can expand and add grades easier. Teachers from now on if they get high performing evaluations for three years can be released in the forth without a reason given.

There are some things that the public should know about charter schools. They pick and choose whom they take and often do no better or worse than their public school counterparts who have to take anyone who shows up.

Many charter schools are for profit, which means instead of all the money going to educate the children some goes to fill corporate coffers and who is paying that money? Well the public of course.

Charter schools can also be run remotely. You think it is hard to get in touch with a school official or member of the board now? Well imagine if they were based out of Maryland.

This is another attempt by the state government to dismantle the public education system in Florida. To privatize it so their friends can get a piece of the education pie.

We should all be alarmed.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

The Times Union editorial board gets it wrong on a trio of education issues.

First they complained about teachers suing to get back the three percent pay cut the state forced upon them to pay for their pensions. Maybe teachers would have been more willing to chip in the three percent if they wouldn’t have been excoriated with the teacher merit pay bill or if the legislature would have closed the loopholes that see the state pass on billions of dollars first. Teachers understand sacrifice they just want it to be shared and right now Scott and the legislature expect them to fix the problems with the budget. I remind you teachers and education took a three billion dollar hit in the latest budget, which is only one billion less than last years.

Next they went on and on praising the local KIPP School. The local KIPP school chooses who they take and keep, requires parents to be actively involved and for kids to attend much longer days and on Saturday. Furthermore they spend more per pupil than public schools and for all this their test scores brought down the city average. Imagine what we could achieve if we put the same level of resources that we do in the KIPP schools into our local public schools. Charter schools are not the magic bullet that those seeking to profit off education would have the community believe.

Finally they mischaracterized Stanton Prep as if it was just anther local school when nothing could be farther from the truth. Stanton takes the cities best and brightest kids and most involved families. If they weren’t one of the best schools around then that would be a story. Many of us in the education community believe having advanced academic magnet schools has seriously damaged the overall health or our local education system. They also have very few disabled children and their percentage of children on free and reduced lunch is one of the smallest in the district, so much for taking students at all skill levels.

I like to play darts but I am not very good, though every once in a while I manage to hit the bullseye. You would think just by luck the Times Union editorial board could say the same thing when talking about education.

Chris Guerrieri
School teacher

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Education Matters is one year old today

In the last year the blog has had 129 thousand hits, sort of impressive when you consider 106 thousand of them have occurred since January first. Last July there were 903 hits total while in March there were over 26,000.

People from dozens of countries have visited the site and read it’s nearly 1300 entries.

The blog started out as completely original content but I learned there are so many great stories out there that don’t always make it to Jacksonville so I started to repost from other blogs and various news services.

There are still about 400 original posts that came from me and about a dozen other local contributors.

One of the neat things about Education Matters is it is linked to the Times Union site opening up readership by about a third. It has also been linked to the Atlantic and Buzzflash, two national sites as well as being linked to a dozen or so education blogs throughout the country.

The most popular referring site was google and the most popular URL was

The two most popular blogs had to do with Rick Scott surprisingly enough as the blogs focus changed slightly to include information about issues related to education. Like him or hate him Rick Scott for the last few months has been a central player with Florida’s education issues.

What wealth apoligists hear

People complain about poor people taking resources from the government but where else are they supposed to get them. Think of the economy as a pie, over 90% of that pie is gobbled up by the wealthiest 20% of the population, which leaves the 80% left to fight over 7% or so of the pie. Some people will inevitably be squeezed out.

There is such animosity towards those at the bottom that game the system while those at the top who do so  get a pass. I recently saw a graph that said one percent of the people who pay no federal income taxes are millionaires and about 12% make over a hundred thousand dollars. Many of our biggest and most profitable corporations pay no taxes at all. Quite often because most taxes are regressive (charging a flat rate) the poor and middle class end up spending a higher percentage of their incomes towards taxes.

Society cannot exist with a small group living opulently while the vast majority scrapes by nor should we want it to.

This is what I say, we could have good schools, a protected environment, an updated infrastructure, protect our vulnerable citizens, pay down the debt and have rich people too, or we can have none of those things and super rich people.

Sadly what the wealth apologists hear is; tax the rich to pay for moocher welfare moms on drugs with ten children.

Florida teachers leaving in record numbers

From the St. Augustine Record

by Marcia Lane

Numbers are up for retirements, resignations and non-reappointments in the St. Johns County School District. Also on the rise are the number of employees entering DROP, the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program.

The bottom line, it appears that more teachers are jumping ship.

Why they are leaving is the elephant in the room.

The increases come following a turbulent year for education in Florida that included doing away with teacher tenure, offering merit pay and using the results of students' FCAT tests as a major means of measuring teachers.

We are seeing this trend across the entire state," said Dawn Chapman, the incoming president of the St. Johns Education Association.

She says teachers who can get into the DROP program are taking advantage of the opportunity. Under the DROP program, employees continue to work but stop earning credit toward their pension. They then are paid their pension, which is set aside and given to them in a lump payment when they retire.

"Teachers that are eligible for DROP or retirement want to get out before they lose the benefits that were promised to them when they became public school employees," Chapman said. "As of July 1, all teachers who are not in DROP will have their (Cost of Living Adjustment) benefits suspended for the next five years."

In St. Johns County, the number of employees signing up for DROP were up 50 percent from last year, going from 50 to 75.

Big personal decisions'

Repeatedly under the 2011 Legislative session, Debby Etheredge, outgoing president of the St. Johns Education Association, talked of how teachers felt as if they were under attack.

"When did teachers become the enemy?" she asked at one district school board workshop.

Etheredge, in a recent letter to union members, warned "Big personal decisions are coming." Those will include teachers with tenure having to decide if they want to keep their Professional Service Contracts, which will mean no pay increases, or decide to move to annual contracts, which loses them due process but has the potential of getting performance pay, wrote Etheredge.

Jim Springfield, who oversees human resources and handles negotiations for the school district, won't link the increases to new legislation.

But he said the changes will affect people including experienced teachers who want to transfer from one Florida district to another who will find they will lose their Professional Service Contracts if they switch.

"They'll have to give it up forever. That's going to hurt local people who want to transfer from, say Clay or Putnam, to St. Johns," Springfield said.

A district's newly hired teachers will automatically be on annual contracts and not be eligible for Professional Service Contracts, commonly called tenure.

Facing changes

The district has heard from out-of-state potential employees who want to know what the changes will mean. One college student wrote Superintendent Joe Joyner saying his professors were advising against coming to the state.

Because some of the Legislature's plans didn't happen, the picture isn't as black as it could have been for district employees, Springfield said. Among those failed plans was a push to do away with the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program.

However, the interest rate paid on the DROP accounts will go from 6.5 percent to 1.3 percent for those who enroll after July 1 of this year.

"Teachers are frustrated with the lack of support from our legislative leadership who continue to add additional responsibilities on teachers with unfunded mandates and then try to make up budget shortfalls on the backs of teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other state employees," Chapman said.

As an example, she said teachers and staff at Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind are not only receiving all of the cuts but have not had a pay raise in three years.

She called Senate Bill 736, which included the majority of the changes in education funding and professional expectations, a "fatally flawed unfunded mandate that will hurt students."

Changing numbers

As the No. 1 school district in the state for two years running, St. Johns County doesn't expect to see a drop in applicants.

"We still have plenty of applicants," Springfield said. "It's not going to limit us, but it just may limit the number of experienced teachers who apply."

For every elementary school posting in St. Johns County, 1,200 applicants apply. For middle schools, 650 apply. For high school, the number is 600 applicants for every opening.

When it comes to the loss of tenure, Springfield's not certain that's the sort of issue that is top most in a new college graduate's mind.

In St. Johns County schools, the number of retirees is up 121 percent. Where 28 teachers retired in 2009-2010, 62 decided to retire in 2010-2011. While the numbers fluctuate, 62 is the highest number in the last five school years.

Also increasing is the number of non-reappointments, in most cases non-tenured teachers who principals decided not to rehire. Those numbers are up a little more than 50 percent from last year.

Cathy Geiger, director for instructional personnel, said there are three reasons for non-reappointments - non-performance, not completed certification and "this is primary this year, budgetary."

The schools don't really know what their budgets will be until the numbers of students attending are confirmed, Geiger said. Class size changes and staffing formulas are what principals must look at when deciding how many teachers to hire. No one wants to hire too many and then have to let teachers go.

The Florida Education Association and other labor organizations on Monday sued Gov. Rick Scott to overturn the new 3 percent payroll contribution plan. Previously the districts paid the retirement portion. Some legislators and Gov. Rick Scott wanted to see a 5 percent payroll contribution, but settled for 3 percent.

More than 655,000 government workers are part of the suit that claims the state is violating a contractual agreement with public employees. Another lawsuit is expected that challenges the merit pay plan.