This podcast is long overdue. Recorded last summer, I sat down with Carol Lerner to discuss her organization and advocacy yet never published this episode due to prioritizing political candidates leading up the election. The content, however, makes this an ideal podcast to listen to and share with others, especially with the 2019 legislative session just around the corner.
On this episode, Carol discusses the aims of the POPS Manasota organization; provides an excellent overview of the pernicious influence of corporate charter management companies, specifically Academica; walks the audience through the tax credit scholarship program that diverts would-be tax dollars away from the state’s general fund and toward private schools with no accountability; and closes out our chat with how much “dark money” is influencing school board races, particularly in Sarasota county.
If you’d like to learn more about POPS Manasota or join its cause if you live locally in Manatee or Sarasota, you can Like or Follow their Facebook page, follow along on Twitter, or reach out to Carol directly by emailing email@example.com.
P.S. – If you’d like to learn how much “dark money” is being used to infiltrate local school boards to further along the privatization efforts by the corporate charter companies and their legislative lackeys, watch this highly informative video below.
Two weeks ago today, on June 28th, I attended my first Charter Schools USA board meeting at Waterset, the newest CSUSA school that was built in the Waterset development on the south side of Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County. Nestled among a sprawling development that includes a clubhouse and homes for the upper-middle class residents of the area, Waterset is a handsome facility with state of the art technology and classrooms that are surely meant to lure in unsuspecting parents who only want the best for their children.
Before getting to the meeting itself, let me unequivocally state that I am not opposed to charter schools or school choice on principle. As an International Baccalaureate teacher at an A rated magnet school here in Hillsborough County, it would be dishonest of me to take a stand against school choice when I work at a choice school. And if the Florida Legislature adequately funded public education here in this state so that all choices could receive equal funding, I would probably have little to rail against.
In 1996, Florida approved charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. By law, these schools are considered non-profit just like their traditional counterparts and are funded with taxpayer dollars. Many of the early charter schools were small operations set up by parents or other community members who wanted to serve niche student populations who struggled in traditional settings, just as Shanker had first proposed (Pepin Academies and F.A.C.E. are good examples of charters that are genuinely non-profit here in HCPS).
Worst of all, Tallahassee’s incestuous relationship with these for-profit charter management companies are a direct result of the legislation we have seen in the last two years under House Speaker Corcoran. Manny Diaz, for example, one of the principal architects behind HB7069 that ensured more money was devoted to charters, draws a six figure salary for Doral College, a for-profit institution affiliated with Academica, the largest of these profiteers in the Sunshine State. Hello conflict of interest! Florida ethics laws are clearly a joke to these elected officials.
***Back to the CSUSA Board Meeting***
When I walked into the meeting, I was greeted by Kerianne, a woman who works for CSUSA and travels the state to act as a board liaison on behalf of the company. Although technically a public meeting, it was held in a fairly small room that included a long table with chairs around it and only three empty chairs for onlookers. Clearly these meetings are not well attended, which I am sure they would prefer.
The meeting itself was fairly quick, and the people I met were all quite friendly. I have no doubt that the administrators and parent-facilitators at the table (as well as the teachers and staff who work at these schools) genuinely want the best for the students they serve. Ultimately I believe anyone who works directly with children on a daily basis are simply giving back to the next generation and their local communities. But there were a few highlights that are noteworthy:
The CSUSA board liaison, Kerianne, effectively ran the meeting. The board members are simply there to go through the motions and rubber stamp everything.
One of the items approved regarding SB7026 was described as “lots of boilerplate insert school here”, which contained information for how CSUSA would handle school safety initiatives. Some districts are allowing them to “piggy back” on their SRO or SSO initiatives, but other counties are resisting and telling the charters to pay for officers themselves (HCPS has told them that they are responsible for the cost). CSUSA plans to use their employees as guardians or contract with private security firms if the need arises.
Most notably, the SB7026 legislation also includes provisions for addressing mental health, but if CSUSA doesn’t receive enough funding from the state or districts for school psychologists or social workers, the schools are to kick the problem back to the parents for them to handle privately.
Rod Jurado, the board chair, noted that CSUSA has been speaking with Senator Bill Galvano (the Senate President in waiting) about “seeing what we can do to get into Manatee County.”
Board members apparently have term limits, yet were given extensions by a vote.
Noted that CSUSA will be opening (or recently opened) 9 new schools, serving 8500 students (sidenote: at $7408 per-student this means CSUSA will receive $63 million in new revenue, with approximately $28.3 million being added to their bottom lines—all at taxpayer and traditional public education expense).
A mention of growing concern about securing bonds for the new schools being built before the interest rates went up.
Review of school grades for the local CSUSA schools under the board’s purview; interestingly enough, they only discussed the three schools that received an A. Waterset barely earned a C with 337 points.
And, perhaps in an unintentionally ironic yet comical statement, Mr. Jurado explicitly made mention that the schools and board are non-profit, carrying on about how he nor any other board member receive a salary or stipend, and that they should all help correct this misconception when speaking to the public. I still wonder if he would have even said it had I not been in the room.
In the end, the board meeting is largely a ruse that is intended to look like an actual board meeting. Not once was there any discussion of any agenda items, and what discussion that did transpire was mostly explanations that were given to the board from the CSUSA liaison, Kerianne. Although other meetings typically revolve around “recruitment and retainment” of students to maximize profit, most of the money talk was confined to securing bonds for their new buildings, which are owned by the companies themselves and not the public that funded them. The entire enterprise is a racket, and all taxpayers in Florida should be aware and demand better from our elected officials. The Florida Legislature should legislatively close the loophole that allows these charlatans to legally steal from public education coffers that are filled with our tax dollars.
What follows herein, then, is a direct rebuttal to many of the points addressed within the Speaker’s column. As an independent voter who has never had a party affiliation, I am one of many citizens who feels disenfranchised by a two-party system that has been largely hijacked by extremists on both sides of the aisle. The entire Sunshine State needs collaboration and compromise between its lawmakers; our citizens have received very little of either in the two decades I have lived in Florida, however, and this is especially true during the last two contentious legislative sessions overseen by Speaker Corcoran.
The Speaker’s column begins with a bombastic claim that Floridians will have the opportunity “to vote on the best slate of constitutional amendments ever.” Much of what follows from there is largely opinion with few facts to corroborate his assertions, so let’s examine his claims individually to see how they stack up against reality during Governor Scott’s tenure in office as well as Representative Corcoran’s time as Speaker of the House.
Speaker Corcoran initiates his column by proudly stating he and Governor Scott have cut taxes 80 times totaling over $10 billion dollars since 2010. As someone who is personally fiscally conservative, this would be welcome news if my perspective weren’t already tempered by the realization that all Floridians have an obligation to the future, which requires investment in public institutions and services, something our state cannot afford to do by constantly curtailing revenue streams for no other reason beyond pandering to an ultra-conservative political base.
All it will really take is the next economic recession–something that Speaker Corcoran surely knows is coming considering how much he touts his love of free markets as a panacea for every economic ill–and the boom and bust cycle will ensure that our consumption based revenue will collapse in on itself much like it did during the housing crisis a decade ago.
Instead, however, the Speaker is pushing for yet another homestead exemption that will further reduce revenue by $637 million dollars at a time when we desperately need funding for Medicare and Medicaid expansion, infrastructure, and public education. And what do Floridians stand to receive if this amendment passes? $250. Annually.
And while discussing per-pupil funding, let’s acknowledge how abysmal it has been for the last decade despite constant claims by Governor Scott, Speaker Corcoran, and Senate President Joe Negron that this year’s “record-level” $7,408 per-pupil amount is “unprecendented” and “historic”; adjusted for inflation, the $7,126 from 2007-2008 would need to be $8,415 to have the equivalent purchasing power, a fact anyone can check with the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator. $8,415 is clearly far more than the $7,221 our schools received this past school year, meaning we are at least $1,200 behind and lag the national average by approximately $4,000.
At a bare minimum, the students, parents, and education professionals deserve a special session so that the Florida Legislature can actually provide the $400 million it pledged for school safety, rather than shuffle all the money around in the education budget and still claim to have increased funding. Far more importantly, it also begs the question of why education spending did not increase by $1.5 billion when the entire budget climbed by over $6 billion. Public education is already one quarter of the state’s budget after all; shouldn’t it deserve an equitable increase as a total proportion of the new budget?
At this point it is worth noting the about face of Speaker Corcoran, who, lest we all forget, was chief antagonist of Governor Scott for much of the 2017 legislative session, fuming over “corporate welfare” and wanting to eviscerate the funding of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two of the governor’s beloved pet projects. This animosity evaporated almost immediately at the end of the session after a closed-door horse-dealing session that every public education advocate knows all too well.
After detailing how he–along with Governor Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga–appointed the 37 members of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commision, a group that has set out to attempt to install its politically conservative agenda into our state’s most precious civil document rather than listening to what the Sunshine State’s citizenry wants, Speaker Corcoran segues into hollow words about ending corruption in Tallahassee because of his “ethics reform package.”
For someone who constantly preens himself over his record on challenging special interests and ending “corporate welfare”–a point upon which he and I philosophically agree, interestingly enough–Speaker Corcoran’s words run diametrically opposed to his actions when it serves his own interests and agenda.
Speaker Corcoran also goes on to boast of his and Governor Scott’s education priorities, noting–quite incorrectly, one might add–that “Florida is one of the only states in the nation to significantly improve math and reading scores.” He is referring to the NAEP, which is small sampling of random students and schools that deals with proficiency not growth. Truth be told, all the NAEP report demonstrates is that some random students did better than other random students from several years ago.
It is noteworthy, however, that Polk School Board member, Billy Townsend, keeps pointing toward an exhaustive report done by Stanford University that clearly tracks all students across multiple grades to build a robust picture of student growth (or lack thereof) on standardized tests, which, as anyone in public education knows, is the only metric deemed worthy of consideration by the Florida Legislature. This report, oddly enough, has been routinely ignored by every single person in Tallahassee. Why? This map speaks for the entire study:
With regard to the school board term limit proposal in Amendment 8, Speaker Corcoran neglects to mention that this is one of the “bundled” amendments that will also establish a state governed charter school authorization board that can circumvent the power of our own locally elected officials in addition to establishing a parallel “public” school system that will not answer to local school boards, which is only another ploy to redirect precious, scant taxpayer dollars to entities that have little oversight or accountability.
Finally, as an insult to all Social Studies teachers across the entire Sunshine State, Speaker Corcoran tells us that the Florida Legislature and the CRC have set out to enshrine civics education in our Constitution in an effort to ensure “a student should not be able to graduate without understanding what makes America great. Our founding documents and the values of our free society should not just be taught, but understood by every student who comes out of a Florida school.” This is already happening here in Hillsborough where Civics in a mandatory course that all students take in 7th grade, and undoubtedly everywhere else throughout the state. How else could Parkland students so quickly organize the “March For Our Lives” events and eloquently share their views if we had no robust civics education in Florida schools?
At the end of his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran has clearly failed at what he set out to do when he took the gavel and stated he would disrupt the status quo. What he failed to realize was the paradoxical nature of his quest that did not acknowledge a single fact of paramount importance:
That Speaker Corcoran–and by extension the entire ideologically-driven, GOP-dominated Florida Legislature of the last two decades–is the status quo.
Are you a concerned public education advocate? Interested in seeing a FREE movie about the for-profit charter school industry and the slow, steady privatization of public education here in the United States? If you answered yes to either question, you cannot afford to miss Backpack Full of Cash at Tampa Theatre on Monday, February 26th.
Those who know me personally or have been following the Teacher Voice project since its inception realize that I have no love lost on the for-profit charter industry, which, to be completely honest, is defrauding taxpayers here in Florida and all over the U.S. But before I make any further statements, let me preface the rest with the following two premises:
Philosophically speaking, I have nothing against school choice. It would be disingenuous and hypocritical of me to work at a magnet school in an International Baccalaureate program and rail against school choice as a blanket indictment of all charter schools. What I do have a specific issue with is the lack of funding to support school choice in a meaningful way, because at the current substandard rate of funding here in Florida, it is the traditional public schools who suffer the most while trying to serve the 85+% of parents and students who still choose their neighborhood schools.
Perhaps more importantly–as a taxpayer and fiscal watchdog–I find it absolutely shameful that there is so much corporate welfare and outright fraud happening right in front of our eyes. Our own Florida Legislature–especially elected officials who take donations from companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, and Charter School Associates–are complicit in the fraud because they are bilking taxpayers for tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars per year, the result being the slow and steady decimation of our public education system in the Sunshine State.
Not all charters are equal. Some of them are undoubtedly started by well-meaning, caring individuals who want to provide a niche program for our students. They are genuinely run by true non-profit boards and nearly every scarce per-pupil dollar is spent on students and the classroom.
The schools run by the for-profit charter school industry, however, siphon off much of the money to their bottom lines in various, ethically dubious ways. Here are a few examples: the for-profit company will install their own handpicked boards that in turn hire the company for “management,” and these fees routinely cost up to 15% of the school’s FTE; the for-profit company will demand that parents purchase supplies directly from the school itself, which is often another LLC that charges exorbitant rates for the basics; in many cases, the biggest part of the scam is one LLC (e.g. Red Apple Development, the construction arm of Charter Schools USA) will purchase land to build the school on and then turn around and charge the school (read: taxpayers) rent that is substantially higher than the going rate/property value, sometimes as high as a million dollars a year. Between all these scams, the for-profit charter magnates routinely take around 25% of all FTE that should go to kids and classrooms.
If you are a teacher here in Hillsborough County, last year alone the charter schools received approximately $125 million in FTE. If even half of our charters are managed by these companies, and if 25% of the money they are skimming from the top for their own bottom lines is correct, then that means they profited to the tune of nearly $16 million. That money could have done a lot of good in our school system, including funding all employees’ scheduled salary increases.
This movie is trying to expose a fraudulent trend spreading across America. As citizens, we have a civic duty to be informed and to demand our elected officials to STOP wasting precious taxpayer dollars, fostering and facilitating a peripheral education system that has little to no accountability, and to make a real investment in public education that serves the interests of our children and their future, not padding the profit lines of these for-profit charlatans.
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