Florida's Education System--the one Betsy DeVos Cites as a Model--Is in Chaos

President Trump speaks to fourth-grade students as he tours St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando on March 3, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from left, as well as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, left, and Ivanka Trump. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Florida's Education System--the one Betsy DeVos Cites as a Model--Is in Chaos

The K-12 education system in Florida -- the one that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos likes to praise as a model for the nation -- is in chaos.

The K-12 education system in Florida -- the one that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos likes to praise as a model for the nation -- is in chaos.

Traditional public school districts are trying to absorb the loss of millions of dollars for the new school year that starts within weeks. That money, which comes from local property taxes, is used for capital funding but now must be shared with charter schools as a result of a widely criticized $419 million K-12 public education bill crafted by Republican legislative leaders in secret and recently signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott -- at a Catholic school.

Critics, including some Republicans, say the law will harm traditional public schools, threaten services for students who live in poverty and curb local control of education while promoting charter schools and a state-funded voucher program.

The law creates a "Schools of Hope" system that will turn failing traditional public schools into charter schools that are privately run but publicly funded. The law also sets out the requirement for districts to share capital funding.

The man behind the Schools of Hope initiative was Republican House Speaker of Florida Richard Corcoran, whose wife founded a charter school in Pasco County. But as this recent Miami Herald opinion piece notes, a number of Republican lawmakers in the state legislature have financial stakes in the charter industry. "Florida's broad ethics laws are a joke," wrote Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago.

At a recent meeting of the Florida Board of Education, superintendents warned that the new fund-sharing requirement puts their school buildings at risk. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho was quoted by WTVY as saying: "You really could see the potential unraveling of long-term maintenance and construction for public school systems across the state. It is not a good indicator when one of the two largest credit rating agencies declares a negative condition for school systems on the basis of a policy statement out of Tallahassee." That's a reference to a report issued in June from credit-rating business Moody's saying that the fund diversion "is credit negative for school districts with significant charter enrollment," suggesting that their ratings could be lowered.

The Broward County School Board has decided to sue over legislation H.B. 7069, alleging that it violates the Florida Constitution, and other county school boards are expected to do the same thing, sources in the state say.

Charter schools are just one of the alternatives to traditional public schools that DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who spends many weekends at her home in central Florida, has praised the state for offering to parents. The school "choice" advocate has frequently called Florida a national model for its range of school choices -- including voucherlike programs that use public money for religious and private school tuition -- though she doesn't talk about the consequences of expanding these choices on the schools that educate the vast majority of schoolchildren.

You don't hear DeVos talking about the fact that Florida has for years had one of the highest annual charter closure rates in the country, schools that were closed after financial and other scandal. Or that there is no substantive evidence that voucherlike programs that have channeled billions of taxpayer dollars into scholarships for poor children to attend private and religious schools has boosted the students' academic trajectories -- even while there are no mandated consequences on these schools for poor results.

You won't hear her talk about those things because she has said that her idea of education "accountability" is in itself the expansion of school choice. By this way of thinking, the state that gives parents more options -- whatever the quality of those options -- is the state that is doing very well. And Florida, as DeVos says, is great at it.

Underscoring this notion is a proposal by Florida education officials to ask DeVos's Education Department for a waiver from key parts of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the massive K-12 law that replaced No Child Left Behind and lays out principles for ensuring that public schools address the needs of the most disadvantaged students. Florida, as first reported by Education Week, no longer wants to judge schools on whether they are closing achievement gaps between different groups of students, or on how well English language learners do on English proficiency tests.

Will DeVos -- who has said repeatedly that states and local communities should have control over their own education decisions -- agree to this? And if she does, will Congress agree that she is properly interpreting ESSA? Stay tuned.

And there's this:

* Gov. Scott also recently signed a new law that has alarmed people who care about science education. Known as H.B. 989 and targeted at the teaching of climate change and evolution, it empowers those who want to object to the use of specific instructional materials in public schools. Now, any resident can file a complaint about instructional material; it used to be limited to parents with a child in the schools.

* The state requires students to sign pledges that they won't talk to anyone -- not their parents, friends, or anyone -- about standardized tests they have to take in the Florida assessment system. In fact, WFXL.com reported that one parent was incensed when her 10-year-old daughter had to sign. Brielle Rivera from Boynton Beach was quoted as saying: "When I asked her about her test, she started crying and tells me that she can't tell me or she'll be arrested. I was shocked."

* The Florida Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge from parents to the state's law requiring that third graders pass a test or be forced to repeat the grade. The law was one of the reforms instituted by former governor Jeb Bush, who pioneered standardized test-based school reform when he was governor from 1999 to 2007. It resulted in a jump in fourth-grade reading scores -- but that improvement faded by eighth grade. DeVos, incidentally, was a longtime ally of Bush's.

But in the spring of 2016, some Florida parents decided to opt their children out of the state-mandated standardized reading test -- some of the kids were honor students -- as a protest of the over-importance of test scores and the way in which the scores are used. Those students were not permitted to move on to fourth grade. An appellate court this past spring ruled against the parents, and now the state's high court is letting that ruling stand.

So, state officials who don't want to judge schools anymore on whether they are making progress on closing achievement gaps between white students and historically underperforming students still want to use a single test score to prevent third graders from moving to fourth grade.

It's worth remembering that the standardized testing system pioneered by Bush, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, collapsed under a mountain of problems. It was succeeded by the Florida Standards Assessment, which state superintendents revolted against a few years ago, saying in a statement that they had "lost confidence" in it -- a polite way of saying it was an unfair mess that hurt schools, teachers and students.

* Florida started a multimillion dollar program -- and boosted funding in the new law -- for a program called "Florida's Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship," which gives bonuses to teachers with high SAT and ACT scores (and strong evaluations). This rewards teachers for getting high test scores sometimes decades earlier, and teachers who didn't take college admissions tests because they started out in community colleges can't qualify.

But, as Ramon Veuneswrote in the Sun-Sentinel, there is no bonus for teachers who boost their own students' standardized test scores:

I had a measurable real-life positive effect on my students' education for the past three years, and I am not getting any money whatsoever for this. Yet, Florida legislators have determined that if I would have scored well enough on a test I took almost 25 years ago that has no definitive connection to my students' education, I would deserve thousands of bonus dollars. In case you're slapping your face at the baffling absurdity of it all, please rest assured that you are not alone!

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