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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Dirty tricks and politics on the School Board

A source at the district told me about the intrigue surrounding the recent elections for chair and vice chair of the school board both of which were nearly unprecedented.

It seems someone engaged in a smear campaign against board member Hershey sending letters to other board members leading up to the election. Where I haven't seen the letters first hand I am told they mentioned a business lean against the Hershey's in 2007 and some vague assertions that Mrs. Hershey was profiting from her position on the board and relationship with Superintendent Willis.

This smacks of the campaign literature allies of Darryl Willie used when he ran against board member Wright in 2012. Then, one of his campaign flyers alleged she to was profiting from her position on the board and referred to her exorbitant board travel expenses which turned out to be one seventh of the amount the board spent on travel, though I guess just about anything can sound ominous when phrased in a certain way. 

Who were Willie's supporters in 2014? Why Gary Chartrand and his friends of course this is the same Chartrand who has already donated to Scott Shine who has to be disappointed in the recent board leadership elections.

He can't be happy that a first year board member was elevated to vice chair, a position he sought last year and obviously coveted.

As somebody who has faced his threats and attempts at intimidation first hand and who has witnessed his supporters underhanded tactics a smear campaign against board member Hershey who in my opinion has been both a fierce advocate for public education and a very able and competent board member doesn't sound completely out of the picture.

Whether Shine or his supporters had anything to do with it, all I have is suspicions, is actually irrelevant because there is a much bigger problem with Jacksonville's education landscape and it is that people like Shine, Chartrand and the folks at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, also financed by Chartrand present them as serious players but the truth is they are not. 

JPEF and Shine are often ignorant about what our schools need as they push Chatrand's privatization agenda. They aren't serious about fixing the problems in our schools but are instead worried about carving out their little niches as they chip around the edges of public education in the hopes that it will one day crumble.

Any person or group trying to smear Lori Hershey in the eyes of the community or board members was bound to fail as her passion and love for public education and her fierce advocacy, excuse my choice of wording, shine through. The board obviously saw these attempts for what they were and elected her anyway but its just shameful that somebody thought to try.

Sadly this isn't the last time I think we will hear about dirty tricks like above and it's because those who seek to tear public education down don't have any good ideas so they rely on what they think will work and that's tearing down good people.

Our schools deserve serious leaders like Willis, Wright and Hershey, not self serving ones like Chartrand, Shine and JPEF.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

'Education reform' needs to be redefined

'Education reform' needs to be redefined
By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

“War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.” (George Orwell)
“We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.” (Governor Rick Scott)
While George Orwell was adept at instilling terror in the hearts and minds of his readers, his fictional dystopia pales in comparison to the real-life dystopia that public education has become.
The common thread between both worlds is the doublespeak that is designed to convince the public that down is up and up is down.
In 2011, Governor Scott signed the ‘Student Success Act’ into law.  It’s not the first time that lawmakers, federal or state, dressed up bad laws under the clever guise of platitudes.  And it’s not the first time that education reformers messed up public education with legislation that sounded charming enough; ‘No Child Left Behind’ still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of liberals and conservatives alike.
Alas, this is the magic of legislating by dogma and propaganda.  For nearly two decades, Florida politics have been dominated by conservatives whose agenda has included a never-ending war with public schools and their ability to define the terms of their battles through controlling the message.
It began with Jeb Bush.  While I heard snickering over ‘low energy’ Bush being shellacked in primaries by our current president, I knew that the man asking an audience – out loud – to applaud was a shadow of his former self.  In a previous life, John Ellis Bush was the man who replaced Claude Kirk as public enemy number one in the eyes of public education advocates.  He openly declared war on teachers unions and molded an entire state’s education policy to fit his flawed vision.
In the beginning of the Bush years, it was about ‘accountability.’  It was a popular concept to have a way to quantify the quality of public schools.  Standardized testing and school grades, however, created harmful situations for schools that were deemed ‘failing.’  The new accountability regime under Bush was more eager to punish schools than they were to address any of the factors behind those test scores and school grades. 
It was also during the Bush years that ‘choice’ became a central theme of public education policy.  The state’s focus (and funding) shifted away from its traditional public schools toward what Bush believed to be more capable providers of quality education – private, parochial, and charter schools. 
Bush cannot be completely to blame over the current situation in which we find ourselves.  The political scene shifted significantly since Bush’s second term ended.  The Republicans consolidated power in the legislature along with keeping the governor’s mansion in their hands with Charlie Crist. 
An unholy alliance soon formed.  Not all bad education ideas were from Republicans.  President Barrack Obama’s bad education idea began with his choice for Secretary of Education.  Arne Duncan was a reformer whose ‘Race to the Top Grant’ created a mad dash among states for federal education funds under the condition they adopt education reformers’ ideas such as linking student performance to teacher evaluations, placing a heavy emphasis on student scores.  And, included as part of the grant, greater involvement for charter schools. 
With such a broad coalition of support, Florida put on its running shoes to grab this federal money.  It was radical, permanent change that was being funded by a one-time grant.  Bear in mind that the state will not expand Medicaid because they say that it is not self-sustaining in the long term).  The absurdity of the federal government’s education policy made many public education advocates wonder if they had any friends in power.  And it’s no wonder that many ‘undecided’ voters say that they cannot tell a dime’s worth of difference between the two major political parties.  The Republicans, when in power, know to defer to the education industrial complex (testing companies, charter schools) and the Democrats, when in power, seem to find ways to alienate their base (teachers unions) to reach out to the ‘middle’. 
The education reformers continued to win every debate, though, because they were able to frame the dialogue as them versus the teachers unions who don’t want children to succeed.  And every succeeding legislative session included a laundry list of new reforms meant to improve public education, but were open efforts to settle scores with teachers unions.
The Student Success Act of 2011 required all school districts to put their teachers on a new merit pay system.  Teacher pay would be determined in part by their student test scores.  Teachers who were rated ‘highly effective’ would receive a larger pay raise than those who were rated ‘effective.’  It would replace the traditional seniority-based pay ladder.
I knew, however, that something was rotten in the state of Florida.  Since the Bush years, much of education reform was tossing cooked pasta on the wall.  Each legislative session was rife with new laws and mandates for public schools that came with little to no funding.  Tallahassee got to have their cake and eat it, as well.  They were able to say that they were transforming education while passing the buck to the school districts to pocket the expense.  For example, state-mandated exams to measure student performance and teacher pay are unfunded by the state, forcing the districts to foot the bill.
I still was not sure how the latest round of legislative action would help student success, but I decided to play along because I was ‘grandfathered’ in and remained on the traditional pay schedule and because I was a bit envious of the annual raise that new teachers would get should they be highly effective.  Some districts agreed to make their highly effective raise as much as $2,000 a year.
Unfortunately, we are learning that one should not govern by rhetoric.  The Orwellian mantra of ‘Student success’ may have gotten votes; it was the execution that is a betrayal of one of its key talking points -recruiting and retaining new teachers.
As of now, there is a teaching shortage in Florida.  The shrinking pre-intern pool at local colleges of education is one indicator, as is the number of ‘permanent substitutes’ who are filling vacancies in schools across the state.  And, with student success in mind, think of the resignations that are being submitted during the school year. 
And it should be no surprise that the workforce in Florida is becoming less stable.  Teachers who are rated ‘highly effective’ or ‘effective’ have to wait until the spring of the following school year to receive the raise that they earned the previous school year.  As of the end of November, these teachers have not received the merit pay – along with educators from around the state.  As accountability is central to public education, when will the state’s elected and appointed leaders be held accountable for this situation?
Instead of throwing a life preserver to school districts that are struggling to pay the performance pay that was mandated by Tallahassee, the legislature threw an anchor at school districts.  Funding (e.g. Title I) that could traditionally support pay increases has been diverted to charter schools thanks to recently passed House Bill 7069.  I detect a pattern here.  The state’s education policy now consists of passing reform after reform but not stopping to make sure that they are actually working.  It seems the only law that is working with regard to public education in Florida is the law of unintended consequences.
Please don’t just take the word of this fifteen-year veteran educator.  It’s a once in a blue moon event to see parent organizations, teachers unions, school boards, and superintendents joining in a common cause against HB 7069.  There is damage being done in the name of ‘reform’ and it is becoming too real for our children, our educators, and our education staff professionals.
While much of my disappointment is aimed at our state’s leadership, I have to ask that school districts (including Duval County) ratify new contracts.  Two wrongs do not make a right.  Because the state failed in its obligation to properly fund our public schools does not mean that we get to back away from our obligation to properly compensate educators and education staff professionals. 
Going forward, this is our chance to ensure that ‘education reform’ is not just words.  

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is Willis the superintendent we need?

The last time we were looking for a superintendent, I didn't think we needed one to save us, just right the ship so to say. I thought we were a district with great promise and potential and we needed somebody to help draw that out.

The board and I guess the so called elites in the community, however thought we needed somebody to blow the system up. They wanted a change agent to stir the pot, and they certainly got one with Vitti.

Fast forward to now and we are looking for a new superintendent and there will be all sort of debates abut what type of leader we need but what I think we need most of all is a calming and steady influence, a leader to help us recover from the trauma of the last few years and I know when the board brought Willis in it was under the provision it would just be temporary but I think we may need to reconsider that.

I want a leader who was educator and went up through the ranks and one who knows Jacksonville would be invaluable as well. Vitti was barely a teacher and he moved around so much the only things he really knew were two men in a truck and hertz.

I want a leader who is going to listen to parents and teachers not millionaires from Ponte Vedra. I want a leader who is going to push back against corporate reforms like Charters and Teach for America.

I want somebody humble.

I think I am describing Pat Willis.

Now I don't think Mrs. Willis would be here for five years or even three but I could see her sticking around a year or two more and perhaps grooming her replacement and I think this would open up lots of options as well.

Lets face it, whoever the board hires is going to have very limited knowledge about how Jacksonville, which is very complicated works. Instead of just dropping somebody into the deep end if we could have somebody shepherd and mentor them for a year or two then they couldn't help but be more successful.

The board talks about making a decision for the long haul but the thing is every journey starts with a first step.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Everybody hates Teddy, everyone loves Paula, school board chair elections

Have you ever watched the TV show Rectified? If you haven't don't feel bad because you weren't the only one. It was once called the best show that nobody was watching. It was on the Sundance channel, you know one of the channels at the end of the box and it was about a man  named Danielwho spent twenty years on death row. He wasn't exonerated but eventually DNA evidence brought the verdict into question and he was released and went home to live with his family which included a step brother named Teddy and everybody hated Teddy.

I imagine a year ago Scott Shine thought things would be different this year, and that he not Paula Wright would be chair of the school board. Supported by Cheryl Grymes he made a bid to be vice chair of the school board and historically the vice chair has become chair after a year which makes Mrs. Wright's reelection all the more amazing.

I have been following the school board for nearly a decade now and I can't remember a two consecutive year board chair. Shine so unpopular on the board was rebuffed last year and Ashley Smith Juarez then the chair stepped back into the vice chair role only to be replaced this year by Lori Hershey a second year school board member which is something of a meteoric rise in itself.

Mrs. Wright bide ed her time and I am sure her tongue for six years as members with less seniority became chair several times over. It must feel good and validating that she has been chosen to lead the board for a second consecutive year especially when this year is arguably more monumental than others. The state continues to pound public education mercilessly, teachers aren't working with a contract and there is the superintendent search as well, any one of which would be a full plate by them self.   

A few years ago, Mrs. Wright was the school board member that asked tough questions and rubbed the majority of the board the wrong way, now she is running the board and will be doing so for a unprecedented second year in a row.

I haven't always agreed with Mrs. Wright. I felt for her first term like fellow board member Couch, she sat on her hands too much. I had great hope that they would both be champions of teachers and would hit the ground running. I also felt she and the board gave Vitti a lot of rope (with which he eventually hanged himself) and a rubber stamp for to long but all that is the past as I believe she has evolved into the fierce advocate and the leader that our schools need.

Finally I will say I feel a lot more comfortable this go around with the superintendent search and that's because I think we are in better hands. I have great confidence that Wright with the help of Couch and Hershey will find the super we need.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Scott Shine donates to anti ed legislator that he called gutless and clueless

My wife would prefer I use words like uninformed and calculating but at the end of the day aren't they the same thing?

A few months back when the board was discussing joining a law suit against House Bill 7069 a public education kneecapping bill that greatly favors charters that was supported by the republican members of the Duval delegation in Tallahassee, Mr. Shine said the delegation only voted for the bill because they didn't know what was in it (clueless) and because they were afraid (gutless) of speaker Corcoran who welds immense power.   

Well fast forward to the week when Mr. Shine gave a member of the delegation state representative Aaron Bean's reelection campaign the maximum amount of money he could.

Lets examine that. Shine knows the bill hurts public schools and thus his constituents. He said the members of the local delegation did so because they didn't know what was in it and they were afraid of the speaker and then he gave one of those members the maximum contribution,  allowable.

District 2, your school board representative is financially supporting state legislators that have voted to cripple your schools. Is this what you had in mind?

Why do republicans hate education? Is the constant attack on teachers and students what republicans voted for?

Florida's reckless and reprehensible treatment of public education and teachers is well documented.

Trump's appointment of Betsy Devos, who wouldn't be qualified to be a volunteer office aide is another glaring example of there contempt for education.

Then add in the tax reform bill and how it attacks education and there really can't be any doubt. 

From Mother Jones:

The plan would impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments at private universities….double the standard individual tax deduction, meaning much weaker incentives for charitable contributions to colleges….end student loan interest rate deductions….restructures the American Opportunity Tax Credit, eliminating tax benefits for students who take more than five years to graduate….repeals the Lifetime Learning Credit, which is used by grad students, workers who need retraining and part-time students and nontraditional undergrads who take more than four years to graduate. 

...The legislation would kill another provision that is deeply important to college faculty members and administrators personally: Section 117(d) of the tax code allows employees of nonprofit universities and colleges to exclude from taxable income qualified undergraduate tuition reductions they, or their dependents, receive….Yet another provision targeted by Republicans would end a tax break for employers who cover up to several thousand dollars in educational costs for their workers.

This is my favorite: The proposal would also eliminate a provision of the tax code used by many universities to waive the cost of tuition for graduate students filling positions like teaching assistantships. If the proposal were to go through, those institutions wouldn’t be able to waive tuition costs without imposing new taxable income on grad students, said Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.

It is standard practice not to charge tuition to grad students. In fact, a pretty good rule of thumb is to avoid any grad program that actually does charge tuition. But if this passes, the waived tuition would count as a taxable benefit for grad students.

It is truly astounding how targeted this tax bill is. It favors rich investors, who mostly vote Republican. It punishes big, urban states that mostly vote Democratic. It hurts universities, which are also filled with Democrats. And it specifically harms students, who mostly wouldn’t be caught dead ever voting for a Republican. Has a big tax bill ever been this carefully constructed to reward and punish voters who support the right or wrong party?

But thats not even it as they are trying to close the very modest 250 dollar write off that teachers have had as well. 

From Time magazine: 

Educators who spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pocket to buy school supplies would no longer be eligible for a tax deduction under the GOP tax reform bill, and the proposal is drawing fierce criticism from teachers’ advocates. 

Under current law, teachers are eligible for a tax deduction of up to $250 for money spent on classroom supplies. 

“Will a teacher in my district who buys pens, pencils, paper for his students be able to deduct these costs from his tax returns under this plan?” Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene asked on Monday, at a markup hearing for the proposed GOP tax bill, which she described as “morally bankrupt.” 

Thomas Barthold, chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, confirmed that the tax plan would repeal the deduction for teacher expenses. The bill has drawn criticism from Democrats and teachers’ associations, who argue it will further burden teachers who already spend a significant amount of their own money on their classrooms.

Is the reason why people vote republican, so they can give millionaires and billionaires tax breaks at the expense of teachers and students. 


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

John Meeks: Tallahassee has reneged on its promises to teachers

A key element of education reform in Florida has failed to live up to its promise this year.  When the Student Success Act (Senate Bill 736) was passed in 2011, our state's leaders touted it as a way to attract quality educators to our state's schools.  Furthermore, the legislation upended the traditional pay scale in favor of a new merit pay system that was based in part on student performance.

"We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher," said Governor Rick Scott.  And, in the name of education reform teacher pay was no longer based on simple longevity but was tied to their performance and results.

Now that the teachers' performance and results have been rated, we are being told that the commensurate pay increases are not happening.  I think that it is highly irresponsible for our state's leaders to fail to properly fund the very reforms that they enacted.  I doubt that such sloppy policy implementation is what attracts quality teachers to our state.

This unfunded mandate is harmful because, in light of the state's lack of financial support and in light of recent budget shortfall, Duval County's highly effective teachers face a cut in their performance pay.

Going forward, I do hope that this serves as a lesson in how we can have great rhetoric such as 'education reform', but we need to remember that true education reform is a long term commitment and not just a catchy sounding slogan to get elected.

It is my hope that our school system finalize a contract with the teachers union in the short term and that Tallahassee fully fund its vision for the long term.

Daryl Willie,Teach for America alum runs for school board in district 4

I guess he is more than just an alum, he is the executive director of the local chapter, a chapter which despite getting millions of dollars from local philanthropists, money that will never see a classroom by the way, that is probably on the way out as DCPS has greatly scaled back their partnership with Teach for America.

I have met Mr. Willie several times and despite my fierce opposition of his last school board run, he has always been cordial to me, though his wife gives me "the Scott Shine" look. He seems like a pretty decent fellow and earnest people can disagree, even fiercely disagree. In another universe who knows maybe Mr. Willie and I could have been friends.   

This is the thing though, during Willie's last campaign, he took thousands of dollars from people who would gleeful dismantle public education and replace it with a string of charter schools where an ever revolving door of teachers made cameo appearances only to be quickly replaced. I am talking about Gary Chartrand and his friends who are no friends to public education. They financed Mr. Willie in 2014 and are likely to do so again.

Then in my opinion he debased himself by allowing false and misleading campaign  materials about his opponent Paula Wright to be distributed. He didn't try and win with better ideas, he tried to win by misleading and tricking people and tearing down a former teacher who has dedicated her life to our schools and children and sadly to many people like that have won races before.

I didn't support Willie in 14 and I couldn't imagine supporting him now. I just hope this go around he chooses to run a race based on ideas and he only accepts donations from people whose lives he wants to effect rather than from millionaires he would be beholden to.

The election is a year off but it not to early to be thinking about it because we know people who want to dismantle our schools already are.