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 Richard Corcoran, whose wife just happened to have founded a charter school in Pasco County. But as a 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 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 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 called HB 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 panoply of school choices — including voucher-like 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 voucher-like 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 it of 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’ 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.
Valerie Strauss covers education for the Washington Post and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
Contact Elana Simms at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4828. Follow Elana on Twitter @ElanaSSnews