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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What's exactly up with Rick Scott's one billion dollar education proposal

From the Flog

Governor Rick Scott is increasingly like a bad magician, one who never mastered sleight of hand. The AP reported last week that Scott wants a $1 billion boost to go to Florida’s 2.7 million public school students. The increase would raise Florida’s per-pupil allocation from about $6,200 to $6,300, says The Tampa Tribune (factoring in the 30,000 new public school students entering the system). But FEA President Andy Ford notes that’s still $800 below where we were five years ago, when per pupil funding peaked at a just above $7,100.

As a simple math equation, the governor’s figures do not compute: 2.7 million times $110 equals $297 million. What’s the source of the other $703 million? Is the governor including Federal Race to the Top dollars or other federal grants in his magnanimous gesture? (Emails and phone calls to public officials were not answered by press time, but Folio Weekly will keep asking that question.)

Even though it doesn’t add up, “one billion” is a nice, round number. (Sort of like the $3 billion he proposed cutting from education last year.) It might even buy a popularity point or two for Scott, who now resides in the nether regions of Quinnipiac polls. (Recent approval ratings: 29 percent.)

But rational observers know that years of cuts — to the high school day, art, music, other electives, sports, guidance counselors, ESE specialists, bus service – have hurt public school children. Test scores prove it: Florida’s students have now flat-lined on national assessment tests in reading.

While Gov. Scott’s obsequious $1 billion offer makes news all over the state, The Daily Kos reminds us where the real money changes hands. The nation’s right-wing policy-peddling organization, ALEC, which pretends to be a tax-exempt “educational” group, just received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Microsoft guru Bill Gates in order to better “educate” (read “lobby”) lawmakers about corporately-drafted proposed legislation.

So what do Bill Gates and ALEC have to do with the direction of public education in Florida? Hang in there. First, the good news: Gates Foundation’s efforts in Hillsborough County may have paid off. Hillsborough (Tampa) just led the nation among urban districts in reading. Teachers accomplished this feat having been exempted from the FCAT-dominated teacher evaluation system put forth by SB 736 (formerly known as SB 6) last year. Tampa teachers helped raise reading scores via professional development, peer evaluation and mentoring — in the spirit of the ever-touted Finnish model (which, incidentally, research supports). Gates also underwrote local efforts to conduct study sessions on “Empowering Effective Teachers,” work that was completed this year under the auspices of the local United Way.

Gates’ work on teacher effectiveness might seem at odds with the push to tie teacher evaluations more directly to the FCAT. The money trail reveals other connections, however, to the rest of Florida’s “high-stakes-testing-with-choice-and-competition” crowd — a smallish but powerful group that Florida education advocates like to call, “Six degrees from Jeb Bush.”

Earlier this year, Mr. and Mrs. Gates put foundation money towards a partnership with NCS Pearson. “Unique and original,” the online press announcement reads, “this project is dedicated to creating a complete, foundational system of instruction built around the Common Core Standards.”

Common core standards, you may recall, sounded like a good idea when the National Governors’ Association was voting on them. The same standards, however, have been hijacked by the “reform” narrative, which is now leading the mad dash away from a range of diagnostic and outcome measures in public education, and towards a single, high-stakes determinant.

That single high-stakes determinant in Florida is FCAT. It gets administered, under a $254 million contract, by Pearson. As for Pearson itself (landing within six degrees of our former governor) readers can Google the meteoric rise of young William Piferrer, former Bush travel aide, into and out of the Governor’s mansion, up through the ranks of the Florida DOE, and finally, into an executive position at Pearson.

Pearson is also busy at work on the other new educational industry-builder, End-of-Course exams. But it’s the recent buys of U.S. virtual academies like Connections Education, and an online tutoring company in India, that should get citizens’ attention now. These buys signal a larger role for digitized learning, including virtual charter schools. No doubt Pearson and Gates will fund “research,” (the bought-and-paid-for “think tank” kind,) to sell the advantages of online learning. Meanwhile, the journalistic reviews so far are not good.

Florida should beware of lobbyists promoting “virtual charter schools.” According to Patricia Levesque of Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, virtual charter legislation is likely to be a shoe-in for passage while teachers chase the red herring of a “religious freedom” amendment. Lee Fang references Levesque’s speech to reformers in his Dec. 5 article in The Nation, “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools.”

Levesque noted that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. Next year, Levesque advised, reformers should “spread” the unions thin “by playing offense” with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, “even if it doesn’t pass…to keep them busy on that front.” She also advised paycheck protection, a union busting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly “under the radar.”

(Levesque takes no salary from FFF, but makes a nice living as a partner in her lobbying firm, Meridian, which represents education-technology companies.)

So, for 2011, the bill that’ll fly “under the radar” will be virtual charter schools, which, Fang writes in his must-read article, has been a goal of ALEC’s since 2005. Readers will recall that the First Amendment and Florida’s Blaine Amendment – i.e., religious freedom issues — had nothing to do with the failure of former Gov. Bush’s voucher program. Bush’s direct private school vouchers, the part of the “Opportunity Scholarship” that was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court, failed, instead on constitutional “uniformity” grounds. That is, private schools were deemed to fall outside of the “uniform” state system, in which Florida’s tax-supported schools must participate.

The indirect tax-credit voucher for private religious schools was not addressed in that case, and has yet to be challenged in court. (See Holmes v. Bush.) Florida’s tax-credit voucher programs now appear to be coordinated under a single “charity” called Step Up for Students. Since corporate income and other would-be tax dollars are diverted via Step Up to families in the form of vouchers, that money never actually reaches the Florida treasury, thus circumventing the “direct voucher” moniker. (You read it here first, two years ago. )

Stepping from Pearson and digitization brings us to Gates’ Connection No. 2, which has less to do with the high-stakes-testing half of “education reform,” and more to do with the “choice-and-competition” part. The Microsoft mogul is already a supporter of the choice-and-competition movement, the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools. Gates is to Houston’s KIPP what Acosta Marketing’s Gary Chartrand is to Jacksonville’s branch of KIPP. In 2009, the Gates Foundation pledged $10 million to Houston’s KIPP, while pledging a credit-backing of $30 million to the charter’s national program.

While it’s unclear how Gates benefits from being charter school financier, the perks of being a landlord are coming into focus. According to the Miami Herald, south Florida charter school investors do quite well: “The Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.” See and, two in a series on charter schools courtesy of the Miami Herald. The newspapers caught up with the Zulueta brothers at a charter school principals’ retreat, held at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Setting the Zuluetas aside, consider the above-mentioned tidbits about the Gates Foundation in tandem with another news item, caught by intrepid Florida education blogger, Bob Sikes.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Walton Foundation (the WalMart people), KIPP, tax-credit voucher king John Kirtley, and Jeb Bush’s ed-policy point-woman, Patricia Levesque, have formed yet another “education organization” to “educate” lawmakers about their proposed legislation to preserve and grow “choice-and-competition”: the Florida Charter School Alliance. The Waltons gave the alliance $900,000. Bob also notes that Walton money already funds the (Bush-Levesque) Foundation for Florida’s Future, and recent news also has the Waltons generously endowing KIPP’s national foundation to the tune of about $25 million. Does “choice” need any more proponents in the Florida legislature?

The GOP already backs private school tax-credit vouchers. The movement wins over “Democrats” in Florida (read: “black Democrats”) with a deft combination of parental anecdote and campaign cash. Too bad choice doesn’t deliver better results for our children.

When it comes to educational results, studies have already shown that “choice and competition” has little or nothing to offer to our kids, compared to public schools. (Fifteen of Florida’s 31 “F” schools were charters, to name just one miserable statistic among several that have been cited here, by this author, repeatedly, for the past three years.)

In an economic downturn, “choice and competition” has everything to do with corporate CEOs salivating at the public trough. Follow the money: Charters and vouchers are a captive market for curriculum, textbook, testing/teacher evaluation, adult remediation, software, virtual school, and other products that Gates, Walmart, and NCS Pearson can produce. These are products that will be bought and paid for by taxpayers, directly (via charter schools) and indirectly (via tax-credit voucher schools.)

And if the public schools suffer more — in terms of de-funding—because lawmakers choose, instead, to expand “choice”? Well, that’s just more fuel for the fire. More failing public schools primes more families to buy education reform snake-oil: choice, competition, and untested digital solutions.

The object of the education reform movement in Florida is to spread the failure around, spread the privatization narrative around, and fertilize the movement’s self-fulfilling prophecy — the one that depends on the demise of our public schools.

– Posted by Julie Delegal

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