Lessons-Marcus

Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.

For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus AureliusMeditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.

I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.

But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.

Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?

And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:

Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?

Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?

Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?

Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.

Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?

Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.

As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.

We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.

With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.

Yes, we understand the pressure from the state that you clearly won’t take a stand against despite how many times we ask, but a good number of us all suffer for it. So while you’re offering Richard Corcoran and his entourage sycophantic smiles and thunderous applause as he and his fellow charlatans dismantle public education one brick at a time, many human beings at our most challenging schools are living with the ramifications of you going along to get along…you know, trying to cook the books by keeping attendance numbers up by not suspending kids, having exam scores so low kids know they can Christmas tree them and pass, all so that the almighty school grades and the ever-increasing graduation rates continue to climb.

If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.

We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.

And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.

As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.

Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.

In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.

Thank you.

Marcus Coin

carolpops
Carol Lerner, retired educator and the chair of POPS Manasota

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 popsmanasota@gmail.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.

Corky
House Speaker Richard Corcoran brings the hammer down on the status quo, or so he claims…

Long before Richard Corcoran became Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he claimed that what was “destroying this country and this state” was “the status quo and the protectors of it.” He again recently harped on his favorite phrase–this time in relation to “institutionalized school boards”–when he penned a column that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times just over one week ago.

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.

As opinion editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Tom Tryon, noted last year during the 2017 legislative session, Florida ranks 49th in per-capita revenue generation despite the fact that we are the third most populous state in the U.S. This lack of revenue ultimately leads to frequent actions such as raiding trust funds to cover rising costs while politically saving face with the GOP’s core constituency. Tampa Bay Times columnist, John Romano, noted similar concerns in a recent piece that called these “anti-tax laws…ticking political time bombs that could blow up our future.”

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.

Taken another way: this is 68 cents per day, which will not buy anything of value in today’s day and age. To the Speaker’s credit, though, it should be noted that 68 cents per day is much better than the 47 cent per-pupil increase school districts will receive in 2018-19 for the entire school year, a move that has left nearly all 67 counties financially hamstrung.

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.

Corky and Joe
Remember, Joe: “Historic”, “Unprecedented”, and “Record-Level”. If we just keep repeating these words perhaps everybody will believe us about public education spending here in Florida.

This point is perhaps best summed up in another John Romano column when he states the following: “The Legislature likes to brag about education funding being at record-high levels, but it’s a disingenuous argument. It does not take into account inflation. It does not take into account new state mandates that force schools to spend more money. It does not take into account that Florida’s K-12 spending is woefully inadequate when compared to the rest of the nation. In short, that argument is a load of bull.”

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?

It’s not just education that needs the funding, either. Two other areas that sorely need attention are healthcare and infrastructure. Despite being a donor state that sends more money to the federal government than it receives, Governor Scott famously rejected federal dollars for both Medicaid expansion that would have meant coverage for over one million Floridians in poverty, as well as a high speed rail that would have connected Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. In a recent column written by Sue Carlton of the Tampa Bay Times after she slogged through hours of traffic on I-4, she reminds us all that “in the name of politics, Scott turned his back on what would have been an important step toward the kind of modern transportation this state will need. Make that: already needs.”

Speaker Corcoran then points out the 1.5 million jobs that were created during his and Governor Scott’s tenure, yet without noting that “much of the job growth during Scott’s tenure has come in low-paying corners of the economy” or that “45 percent of households across the state…still find it practically impossible to obtain even the most everyday necessities – lacking what it takes to pay bills, afford health care, housing and transportation, regardless of regular employment.” When one adds these two facts together, it is no wonder why Florida has an affordable housing crisis.

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.

Corcoran and Scott
Psst! I’ll sign HB7069 if you give me an $85 million dollar jobs slush fund.

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.

Case in point: HB7069 and HB7055, both of which go out of their way to steer our public taxpayer dollars to the for-profit charter management industry. Rep. Manny Diaz, for instance, who sits on both the Education Committee and K-12 Appropriations subcommittee, is paid a six figure salary for a job he supposedly holds at Doral College, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Academica, the largest of the for-profit charter management companies. Along with Charter Schools USA and Charter School Associates, Academica heavily donates to the GOP coffers and must not be regulars on what Speaker Corcoran dubs the “capital [sic] cocktail circuit”. As Fabiola Santiago notes in her excellent Miami Herald piece, Florida’s ethics laws “are a joke” and further states “it’s a clear conflict of interest for members of the Florida Legislature who have a stake in charter schools to vote to fund and expand them.”

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:

Purple Is Bad
All one needs to know is that purple is bad and represents a lack of test score growth.

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.

 

Pat Hall Pic
Pat Hall (second from left), the Education Committee Chair for the League of Women Voters, Hillsborough County Chapter

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast focuses on one of the most critical issues facing the Sunshine State: the citizens and taxpayers of Florida being defrauded by the for-profit charter management corporations.

The guest on the podcast is Pat Hall, a retired public educator now turned public education advocate. Pat, along with other key players in the League of Women Voters, is on a mission to expose the fraudulent ways that these for-profit management companies keep nearly HALF of the money that is meant for students in the classrooms. Our discussion covers how these companies bilk the taxpayers while peddling influence at the state and local levels. Please listen and be sure to share with other concerned citizens and public education advocates!

If you’d like to learn more about this situation, Like or Follow the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County on Facebook,  and be sure to click any of the linked articles below the LWV logo:

LWV Logo

 

2014 investigative piece by Noah Pransky of Channel 10 News about how Charter Schools USA were charging exorbitant rents and nearly had their charters pulled by Superintendent Elia

The League of Women Voters Education Blog curated by Dr. Sue Legg from the University of Florida (this link will open up to a post about for-profit charters)

An interim report written for the LWV by Pat Hall and Dr. Sue Legg about the business practices of Charter Schools USA

“Charter School Explosion” – A 7 part series written by Pat Hall and published exclusively in La Gaceta. All of these pieces are highly informative, but if you only have time for one, be sure to read part 5, “Following the Money,” which was featured by Diane Ravitch on her own education blog.

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 1)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 2)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 3)

Charter School Explosion – Doing It Better

Charter School Explosion – Following the Money (MUST READ!)

Charter School Explosion – Accountable to Whom?

Charter School Explosion – On the Fringe of Legal?

Publisher’s note/two minor corrections: 1) SLAM stands for “Sports Leadership and Management”; 2) Hillsborough County School Board member for District 1, Susan Valdes, received $12,000 total (not as in a single day) from for-profit charter management companies or people during the last election cycle. $6,000 came on a single day (5/25/16), and the three individual checks I reference from John Hage (CEO of CSUSA), Charter Schools USA, and Red Apple Development were all donated on 12/17/15. You can find campaign contribution records for her or any elected official in Hillsborough County by clicking this link here.

Trainwreck
The Florida Public Education System under HB7069 and HB7055

Got some time to spare? You might want to read the language of HB7055, the tumescent bill brought to the citizens of Florida by Corcoran, Diaz, Bileca et al. What started off as a 109 page bill covering multiple topics has now ballooned to 198 pages after a couple committee stops. In its current form it has an 11 page introduction and covers 32 different subjects, which is why many critics of the legislation have dubbed it a “train bill.”

But this is a misnomer.

HB7055 is not a train bill. It’s a trainwreck. And it will have a devastating impact on public education here in Florida.

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the latest Tallahassee shenanigans since the start of committee work back in September, there is one theme that is running through many of this year’s bills—subvert the Florida Constitution by legislating around it. Two strong examples are the proliferation of vouchers and attack on teachers’ unions.

Despite all the problems that have recently cropped up in the last year concerning the utter lack of accountability for private schools and for-profit managed charters receiving public taxpayer dollars, Speaker Corcoran seems intent on giving more and more money away to those who will line their own pockets rather than educate our children. It’s not enough that educational vouchers to religious schools have already been struck down by the Florida Supreme Court during the Jeb Bush era, or that Governor Scott’s stacked deck of CRC players is also trying to remove the Blaine amendment, Corcoran and his army of yes-men in the House will continue to write bills this way to economically undermine the entire public education system despite the outcry from engaged and enraged citizens.

No one is asking for these giant bills like HB7069 and HB7055. Well, except for the Koch brothers (and their lobbying arm, Americans for Prosperity) who are investing in politicians—including Corcoran—to dismantle the entire public education institution brick by brick under the pretense of reform and/or school choice. The only thing the Kochs and their lackeys care about is the commodification and monetization of our children and their learning.

And who finds this the most distressing? Public education advocates in general, and teachers in particular. So what is the House to do? Silence the teachers. How? By making it difficult to unionize and thereby have some semblance of control over their contracts, salaries, workplace conditions, and the exercise of their First Amendment rights without fear of retribution.

Let’s completely set aside the fact that this legislation will provide yet another end run around the Florida Constitution by potentially stripping educators of their constitutionally guaranteed “right of employees, by and through a labor organization, to bargain collectively.” (Article I, Section 6) The legislation is redundant because employees can choose to decertify their union if they ever deemed it necessary, so all the bill really seeks to do is shut down any union with less than 50% membership and have them jump through numerous officious hoops on an annual basis.

But worse than the redundancy and officiousness of the language in the bill is the rhetoric and so-called logic being proffered by Education Committee chair, Michael Bileca, who recently stated “the 50 percent threshold is intended to preserve the rights of the majority” and that “a minority leadership…is not a voice for the majority.”

Really, Representative Bileca? You do know where you live, don’t you? The United States of America, the country that always lives under minority leadership. Case in point: the 2016 election cycle. Roughly 60% of all eligible voters turned out at the polls. Of that 60%, 48.6% voted for Hillary Clinton and 46.2% voted for Donald Trump. 46.2% of the roughly 60% of the voters means that our current president now holds office because 27.7% of Americans voted for him. You know what that is? A minority rule.

These numbers also bear out at smaller scales such as state level elections, which means the legislation that the so-called “majority” keeps passing is not intended for the majority of the Sunshine State’s citizens at all. Instead, these bills are a means of repayment to the plutocratic overlords who bestow their largesse on political operatives who are in turn willing to sell out our own children in the name of corporate welfare, crony capitalism, and the decimation of public education as an institution.

It’s a foregone conclusion that HB7055 will pass the House along party lines at some point this week. Our only hope is that the more balanced body, the Florida Senate, will seek to avert this trainwreck that will slowly derail all of public education as we know it.

Contact your Senators now and demand they prevent this trainwreck from happening.