Dockery: Senate Should Let Voucher Expansion Die

Writing in her hometown newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, former republican  state senator Paula Dockery makes the clear case why voucher expansion cannot be intellectually be defended:

Opponents of voucher expansion make a valid argument. Students attending private schools are not subjected to high-stakes tests. The schools are not required to hire certified teachers or to comply with the overabundance of mandates foisted on the public schools. Additionally, money used for vouchers is taken away from basic public school needs.

And what do we know about the performance of voucher students in private schools? Not much.

If it’s imperative for public school students to be tested, it should be imperative for any student receiving public school funds. The Florida Senate should continue to insist on accountability before expanding the use of vouchers.

Better yet, the Senate should let the voucher-expansion bill die and instead focus on arming our teachers with the resources and flexibility they need to help each and every student achieve their highest level of learning.

Dockery obviously hasn’t been swayed by the propaganda campaign put up by Step Up for Students executives to save the bill which would pump millions into their coffers which goes towards supporting a lot more than just Florida’s plan:

The nonprofit Step up for Students administers the majority of vouchers and receives millions in administrative fees. With a lot to gain from the House Bill, Step Up has made several unfortunate and notable missteps. Step Up claimed it had a waiting list of tens of thousands of students, beyond the roughly 60,000 students it serves. When pressed to produce the list, it had to admit there was none.

Another embarrassing transgression came to light when a video was uncovered quoting the president of Step Up For Students, Doug Tuthill, explaining how they were able to achieve their legislative success through a combination of investing large sums of political action committee money into legislative campaigns and by making low-income families the face of vouchers, putting Democratic legislators in an awkward position

The hyper-partisan House is waiting to see if SUFS is able to turn public opinion enough to pressure the Senate into some sort of deal. Last week’s Sunshine State News poll revealed that an overwhelming number of Floridians oppose vouchers. Dockery’s narrative on SUFS’ troubling business plan shows that they’ve not been able to spin their way out of the mess their own spin campaign has gotten themselves into. If a republican proponent of vouchers like Dockery sees trouble, there are likely be others that do, too.

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Inside the Politics of Florida’s Voucher War: Weatherford vs. Gaetz

The editors of the Tampa Bay Times conclude:

The Senate wisely tabled its bill weeks ago, and noticeably missing from the House bill is the one thing Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had suggested would be his priority: better assessment of voucher recipients’ learning. The current process for such accountability pales in comparison to the machinations public schools undergo. Private schools are merely required to send voucher students’ results on a nationally norm-referenced test to a single academic to analyze. Nor are voucher schools required to meet the same curriculum standards as public schools. Private schools don’t need to offer a breadth of courses and can forgo teaching some subjects, such as evolution, for example, even though evolution is a part of the state’s academic standards.

For years, voucher supporters have claimed they are just trying to serve low-income students who frequently have more challenges to overcome and are too often zoned for the worst public schools. But the data is far from clear that voucher students actually perform any better in these private settings. And their departure from public schools means overhead costs must be split among fewer students, ultimately leaving less money for the classroom.

This voucher program has always been too clever by half, relying on a convoluted redirect of tax dollars to avoid running afoul of the state Constitution, which prevents public dollars from flowing to religious institutions. And even this year the voucher expansion isn’t standing on its own. House sponsors have cynically included it in the same bill with other proposals related to serving severely disabled students, who are a priority for Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, in line to be the next Senate president.

Florida students don’t need more vouchers. They need a Legislature less interested in gimmicks and more committed to spending the money to do the job right in the public schools, where the state has set clear academic expectations. The Senate needs to stand firm.

Friday’s final House vote for HB 7167 almost went down party lines. The Democrats caucus held together in spite of the shame campaign orchestrated by Step Up for Students against African-American and Jewish legislators. One republican, Rep. Tom Goodson of Titusville, voted against the measure.

The Times mention of Gaetz’ position proves to be particularly poignant. His son, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Niceville) was one of two republicans vote for Rep. Karen Castor Dentel’s (D- Maitland) amendment which would have required voucher students to take the same tests as public school students.

“I see teachers who are public school teachers, who believe in school choice,” Gaetz said. “And they say to me, ‘Matt, I want to compete against private schools and charter schools, but when you measure me against teachers in those schools, can we at least use the same ruler for measurement?’ I think it’s a fair ask.”

Was the younger Gaetz throwing down the gauntlet on behalf of his father? It sure looks like it. Senate leadership has been pretty clear on accountability and a voucher bill has no chance of getting to Rick Scott’s desk without it.

What’s driving this in the House? The shrill rhetoric from republican voucherists must make some of the adults in the Senate cringe. Perhaps they’ve been enabled by Speaker Will Weatherford’s hubris. Recognized as one of “Ten Rising Stars Under 40″ at CPAC in March 2013, Weatherford seeks higher office. What better way to make a name for yourself than to expand the most sweeping state expansion of vouchers to date?

The elder Gaetz probably won’t ever again seek public office and wants to shepard his son’s promising political career. Unlike Weatherford, both Gaetz’ have connections to  public schools. The elder Gaetz is a former school board member and school superintendent. The younger attended one of the state’s top high schools, Niceville HS, and maintains relationships with many of his old teachers. Unlike Weatherford, who would like to lead a dismantling of our public school system, the Gaetz’ probably don’t want that. Moreover, both likely see Weatherford as a potential rival.



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Rick Scott’s 2012 FCAT Rankings Show Poverty Matters

Ocala Star-Banner editor Brad Rogers remind his readers of Rick Scott’s ill-fated 2012 release of FCAT rankings by district, and he’s not attempted that stunt since. Scathing Purple Musings speculated that the decision was a strictly political one and a response to California governor Jerry Brown’s turn-down on high-stakes tests.

So why hasn’t Scott released the ranks again? Maybe it’s because the data clearly shows that poverty matter no matter how much you hold everyone accountable by tests. Rogers explains:

So how’s Marion County done in the two years since the Scott list, which cited 2010-11 school year scores? Well, based on the aforementioned DOE criteria, it fell to No. 45 in 2011-12 and to No. 50 in 2012-13.

Yikes! Our schools are headed the wrong direction. Yes, be alarmed, folks. Very alarmed. No matter how incomplete the picture, it’s still not a pretty one.

But wait … .

Let’s look at another list ranking the 67 Florida school districts. This one measures the percentage of low-income students K-12 who receive free or reduced lunches.

In 2010-11, Marion ranked No. 44, the same as its FCAT scores. In 2011-12, when it was No. 45 on FCAT, it was No. 48 in free/reduced lunches. And last year, when it was 50th in FCAT, it was 51st in free/reduced lunches.

There’s clearly a pattern here, and it’s not just our school system. Scott’s 2012 list showed St. Johns County (St. Augustine) No. 1 on FCAT and No. 1 with the least students on free and reduced lunches, while North Florida’s Madison County was last, No. 67, on FCAT and No. 65 in free/reduced lunch participation.

Not an economist here, but clearly the economic performance of a community is directly reflected in the quality of its schools’ performance on FCAT

Such clear data serves as a rebuke of the “no excuses/status quo” crowd, so they have moved on to other platitudes like “failing schools.” Rogers has clearly pointed out how that meme, too,  is flawed.

Rick Scott’s 2012 political grandstanding with FCAT rankings is further demonstration that he cannot be trusted by Floridians to oversee education policy. Neither can republican legislators who use the “failing schools” meme to justify charter school and voucher expansion.

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Teach for America Bringing Illegal Immigrants to Teach in Denver Classrooms

From KUSA NBC reporter Nelson Garcia:

DPS is working with Teach for America to bring in people with an official status of “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” as determined by the federal government. Part of the requirements for DACA status is that a person must have been brought to the United States under the age of 16 and have a clean criminal record. Even with DACA status, they are still not recognized as legal citizens, but they are allowed to work.

“When they see the accomplishments of a young man like Alejandro and he’s their teacher with such ability and enthusiasm, I think he brings tremendous hope,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg estimates that the 10-to-20 percent of the school’s district’s population are undocumented.

“I moved to 10 different houses and went to eight different schools just in third grade,” Fuentes Mena said. “I could kind of see where they are coming from.”

Teach for America is a program which brings people of different backgrounds and experiences into the classroom to enhance learning. They are not licensed teachers but were issued an alternative license from the State of Colorado to teach. These teachers are currently enrolled in classes to attain their traditional teaching license after one year.

The Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform has serious concerns regarding DPS’s decision to hire DACA individuals. The group said in a statement that it believes the majority of people with DACA status are not properly trained or certified to become teachers.

One wonders what the TFA cheerleaders and enablers who are against immigration reform will think about this.

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Step Up for Students’ Cynical Last-Minute Voucher Push

Even with today’s likely passage of voucher expansion in the Florida House – whose republican leadership doesn’t want anyone to know that Floridians really oppose  – the administrative agent of the state’s voucher plan, Step Up for Students, is going scorched Earth. While staffers were reportedly directing a bombardment of African-American and Jewish Democrat legislators with a shame campaign, SUFS chairman penned a red meat attack on the state’s public school teachers for opposing the voucher bill which promises to further empower and enrich the shady organization he founded. Writes John Kirtley in his redefinED blog:

Now I do not defend the way big money is impacting modern politics or the coarse campaigns that are often a byproduct, but to be lectured on the evils of campaign spending by the FEA is surreal. It is the FEA’s primary political weapon. Since 2002, the FEA and its national affiliates have invested $20.1 million in Florida campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Its money is so integral to Florida Democratic legislators that no one raises an eyebrow when all the party’s House and Senate members meet, as they did on April 2, at FEA headquarters. The low-income parents for whom the school-choice movement fights don’t have money for campaigns. I am honored to fight for them and to help their voices be heard. Here’s one way to measure the impact of the FEA’s spending: Democrats admirably fight to increase money for Florida’s pre-K program, even though it’s the nation’s largest voucher system — with 144,000 4-years-olds in private centers, many of them religious. Democrats also fight for Bright Futures scholarships, even though they help students of all incomes attend public and private universities — religious ones, too. Yet Democrats this year oppose even a modest expansion for a scholarship that helps the poorest of K-12 students attend a private school. The difference: FEA represents employees in K-12 schools.

Kirtley’s dismissal of the state’s teachers as “employees” of public schools reveals the contempt his ilk have for the professionally credentialed people who have chosen a career of service. His selective ire for the FEA is intended to deflect the reality that the state’s largest parent group, the Florida PTA, opposes his voucher plan. But then again, Kirtley has already covered that base by demonizing them, too.


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BREAKING: Poll Shows Floridians Oppose Vouchers

From Allison Nielson for Sunshine State News:

Vouchers continue to be a controversial issue in the Sunshine State, with a new poll showing more than half of voters are opposed to providing scholarships to low-income students to attend nonpublic or private schools.

The Voter Survey Service, commissioned by Sunshine State News, found 55 percent of voters said they oppose vouchers, while a smaller number — 42 percent — said they support vouchers

Only 2 percent of voters were undecided.

“This has been a tough sell,” said James Lee, president of Voter Survey Service, on the voucher issue.

According to the poll, voters in Southwest Florida had stronger opposition to expanding vouchers than voters in the Panhandle, with 61 percent of voters opposing them.

Read the rest.

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Is Charter Schools USA Using Uncertified Teachers at Failing Tampa School?

Marlene Skokol reports in the Tampa Bay Tribune:

TAMPA — As if Woodmont Charter School did not have enough problems, a former teacher has lodged a discrimination complaint and says the F-rated school uses teachers who are not properly certified.

Tammy Gilmore, a community activist who now lives in Atlanta, has written to Hillsborough County Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia and charter schools director Jenna Hodgens, saying the school in Temple Terrace is out of compliance with numerous state regulations.

“Most of the low-income parents of the school are unaware of their rights and fail to understand the school grade, as well as newcomers of the school that are from low-income families as well,” Gilmore wrote on March 20. “I can trust that you will follow up on my complaint and concerns.”

A former teacher and parent at Woodmont, Gilmore said she was fired this year after she took time off due to an illness. In addition to contacting the district, she said she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination based on her race, gender, age and medical disability.

The district is looking into Gilmore’s allegations, Hodgens said. If instructors are teaching subjects without certifications, Hodgens said she will find out if they have the required “out of field” approvals.

I have a hard time believing that CSUSA would be using uncertified teachers, but it’s plausible that certified teachers are teaching out of field. To do so is within the letter of the law, but parents have to be notified. If they didn’t notify parents, it will put CSUSA in some hot water. There may be additional problems as the Woodmont school is a failing school.



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Gutting of Florida’s Bright Futures Hurts Minority Students; A Sop to Testing Industry

Fresh off the story that Florida will have to pay Utah $5.4 million for piloting the state’s new tests comes news that Florida’s tremendously successful Bright Futures scholarship program will be gutted $126 million by 2017. Scott Travis provides this justification from a republican legislator in the Sun Sentinel:

In 2008, one in three qualified; now it’s one in eight, according to the Florida College Access Network, an advocacy group affiliated with the University of South Florida.

The state in 2010 dramatically increased the required SAT and ACT scores for students graduating in 2014 as a way to cut program costs. Legislators also complained the qualifications were too low to be considered a merit-based scholarship.

“There’s only so much money to go around for education. If you’re giving a merit-based award, it should be to the top students in the state,” said state Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.

Moraitis, who never misses a chance to propose legislation which lines the pockets of rich charter school operators, now wants to strengthen the hand of big testing companies. The more times a family has to pay for another test, the more money they make. A much better predictor of future success has always been a student’s performance in the classroom.  It’s why we have begun weighing GPAs to appreciate the rigor of Honors and AP classes.

Republicans like Moraitis aren’t going to be able to dodge the reality that they are hurting minority students while Jeb Bush is out there telling the nation how swell his education policies have been for minority students.

“This is a significant disinvestment of the state’s financial resources, and it broadly impacts students,” said Troy Miller, a senior researcher at policy analyst for the Florida College Access Network.

The changes are expected to have the greatest impact on minority students. The federal government’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether Bright Futures’ test score requirements discriminate against black and Hispanic students, a department spokesman said.

There are a couple of bills in the Legislature that would keep the eligibility requirements the same as last year, but they’ve yet to be scheduled for debate.

“I was told it was a nonpriority,” said Rep. Ricardo Rangel, D-Kissimmee, who sponsored one of the bills. “They’re not going to hear it, because to change it, they would have to restructure everything in the budget.”

Florida Republicans have so many contradictory balls in the air right now, that even they can’t keep up with them. This double-down on SAT and ACT doesn’t jibe with the Common Core double-down which is supposed to create more classroom rigor. How does this Bright Futures slash and choke fit in with their new alternative HS graduation paths – which is one of the good ideas they have? Many minority males will be taking a vocational education path which requires them to move to a two-year post secondary school.

Decision-making on Florida education policy is done inside the small echo chamber enclosed in the offices of republican legislators in Tallahassee where self-righteous, narrow themes dominate. Its been a long time since it’s actually been about students in Tallahassee.


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Florida PTA: The Boogeyman Who Torments Step Up for Students

During last year’s run-up to another failed parent trigger bid, House sponsor Rep. Carlos Trujillo attempted to marginalize PTA opponents of his bill as “there to bake cookies.” Trujillo’s problem – and that of shaky voucher administrator Step Up for Students – is that members of the Florida PTA show up at hearings to oppose their legislation. The image of actual parents standing up against them obliterates their narrative. The attempt by SUFS continues. Consider this from an outraged, unidentified parent in a letter that SUFS posted in their blog after members of the Florida PTA showed up to oppose expansion of Florida’s voucher program:

I find very suspicious any group calling themselves The Florida PTA is against facilitating freedom of choice for families to use their own tax money to choose what school they send their children to whether the school is religious or not.  The agenda of organizations like the Florida PTA seem to be more rooted in preserving their own relevance and self preservation.  I think that the primary reason that organizations like the Florida PTA are resistant to such programs and their expansion is because they have not adequately determined what the function or relevance of their own organization would be in a future with more private schools than public schools.

SUFS didn’t even want admit which one of them posted the letter as it was attributed to “staff.” Top SUFS executive Jon East seems to be the one tasked with taking on the Florida PTA and other parent groups who are opposing this year’s  voucher expansion. From East’s Tampa Tribune column:

Eileen Segal is a gracious Florida PTA president who welcomed to her annual conference last summer a contingent of low-income parents who take advantage of a state scholarship for their children.

So she was speaking from the heart in a crowded House committee room last month when she said: “What you’re doing here today is very sad; it hurts my heart. Parents should not fight against parents. We all need to work together because we all want the same thing for our children — the best-quality education.”

Eileen is right, and yet she was part of a PTA group that had come to the Legislature to condemn the educational option that parents of 60,000 of the state’s poorest students have chosen this year. The audience that day was crowded with scholarship parents and their children, who in some cases sat next to PTA parents who stood on the other political side.

The PTA is not alone in this regard. A group called Parents Across Florida has written rather viciously about how the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income children should be abandoned, even arguing that “vouchers actually strip away parents’ ultimate choice” and that parents want only neighborhood schools and “don’t want to be forced to shop around.” A group called Fund Education Now, which is led by three women who have played a constructive role in fighting for greater investment, has called the legislative effort to expand the scholarship to more underprivileged children “shameless.”

East’s clever patronization of Segal, coupled with his reference to her first name, is crafted is this manner  to make him seem like the reasonable one. It’s doubtful that East or any other SUFS executive for that matter,  is on record anywhere supporting Fund Education Now’s “constructive role in fighting for greater investment.”

With significant media scrutiny falling on both SUFS and the current voucher expansion bill which has no accountability provision and a price tag of $1 billion, SUFS top dollar executives have decided to focus efforts on their unpaid opponents.



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Florida to Pay Utah $5.4 Million for Field Test Questions

There’s more fall-out from those new state tests which are being field-tested in Utah. Kristen Moulton in the Salt Lake City Tribune reports:

Utah is about to reap an unexpected windfall from the questions it wrote for the new SAGE tests being launched this month in Utah schools.

Florida agreed late last month to pay rental fees that could amount to $5.4 million for test questions that Utah Office of Education wrote and which Florida desperately needs.

Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove told the State Board of Education on Friday that the state education office jumped on the chance of renting out test “items,” as the questions are called. He initially thought it might be worth only a few hundred dollars.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude,” Menlove told the board. “We anticipate there will be other opportunities as significant as this or greater in the future.”

The money, he said, will allow Utah to hire teachers over the summer to write even more queries to add to Utah’s bank of end-of-year test questions.

The board voted to let the state office entertain overtures from other states in the market for test questions, after briefly flirting with the idea of a robust marketing campaign.

Utah is in a unique position because, as Dave Thomas, vice chairman of the board said, “To a certain extent, we’re the only game in town if you’re not with one of the consortiums.”

The state office, with the help of educators, wrote all but 651 of the 11,783 questions in its bank. They are being used this year in the state’s first effort to assess how well students are learning under new Common Core standards for language arts and math. The test also assesses science knowledge. The state got 651 questions in swaps with Hawaii and Delaware.

Utah had been part of a multi-state consortium writing test questions, but under pressure from some conservatives, pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in August 2012 and began writing its own.

Florida last year pulled out of the other consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, although it didn’t decide to write its own questions until last month. Since Florida’s testing on the Common Core standards begins next year, it’s in need of test items fast.

“They’re kind of renting them out, so to speak, for that first year while they have time to develop their own,” Deputy Superintendent Judy Park told the board Friday.

The amount of money Utah makes depends on how many items Florida buys and how many students are asked the questions.

A letter from the contractor that acted as the go-between in the deal, American Institutes for Research (AIR), estimated the value to Utah at $5.4 million.

And you thought that Florida was the go-to state on all things education because Jeb Bush says so. Who would  have ever thought that test-every-kid-in-sight Florida would need to get test questions from another state. The whole idea that it was ever a good idea to consider that Utah could ever provide a reliable field test for Florida was laughable to begin with. Now knowing what it cost taxpayers makes it an even bigger howler.






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