Florida’s HB 7069: Pop-Up Chartering, Rapacious School-Flipping, and More!

When it comes to attention-grabbing headlines, you can take your pick these days. While education legislation cultivates far less sensationalistic media coverage than, say, racist street fighting and devastating weather events, Florida education inhabits the lengthening list of natural and/ or social disasters making Trump’s America far from “great again.” Detrimental new Florida education policies will affect students’ lives in everlasting ways. These policies are related to other grave matters like racial polarization and climate change. More specifically, the Florida legislature just passed a bill that could theoretically open the state up to more than a billion dollars worth of possible charter industry investments. This simultaneously erodes local school board autonomy and drains school districts’ capital outlay funds (which they are now audaciously required to share with charter schools). Also, another new eerily timed law allows Florida climate and evolution deniers to challenge public school curricula, requiring a school board response. Welcome to Florida’s Disastrous HB 7069/ Schools of Hope Era, where pop-up chartering, rapacious school-flipping, and climate change denial are just getting started.  

The class bludgeoning climate has never been more amplified in the public education sector. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, hails from America’s 88th richest (Amway/Blackwater USA fortunes) family; the estimated worth here is $5.4B, according to Forbes magazine in 2016. DeVos’ hyper-privatization agenda couldn’t be more evident than here in the oh so stormy Sunshine State, which she hails as a national model. In fact, on August 29th and 30th, DeVos visited two model schools of Florida innovation: one was a private Christian school and the other a charter school. Acting from the idea that if you ignore something it will just go away, her visit is stark evidence of the U.S. government’s open plan to destroy public education. DeVos isn’t even worried about appearing neutral by making a quick pit stop at a low income public school to read the students a story about her earnest intentions. It’s that bad.

Trump has called public education “a government-run monopoly”, and the goal is to entirely shift management responsibilities onto corporations using vouchers, charters, union-busting, harassment: by any means necessary. DeVos must be especially emboldened  by Florida’s privatization militancy. Charter school legislation is backed by politicians-turned-charter industry profiteers– who casually violate ethics laws through blatant financial conflicts of interest. Right up Trump/DeVos’ alley. The name of the game is blatant theft here. The authority of democratically elected school boards is undermined while federal Title 1 funding for the state’s poorest public schools get cut.  

Surreal? Hyper-real? Unreal? Take your pick of adjectives, or think of your latest dystopian novel, to describe today’s political climate. The science fiction novel, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, aptly describes an American future where workers from super-toxic and largely uninhabitable China are sent to what was once Baltimore (now B-Mor) to raise the purest of food for the wealthy. These workers labor diligently in the shadow of a residential arrangement that Lee casually, yet powerfully, refers to as “Charter villages.”  Rarely encountering the “Charter people” in the flesh, these food growers are astutely aware of Charter people’s whimsical tastes, demanding the latest faddish health food: Japanese knotweed, anyone?

Lee’s novel speculates on the implications of today’s charter school frenzy, and projects us forward to a time when corporate control, in the name of chartering, permeates more than our schools. (This kind of privatized hyper-surveilled live/ work community was also the setting for Margaret Atwood’s 2015 novel, The Heart Goes Last.)  Today’s chartering practices are marked by a distinctively chaotic dissociation between students’ residences and school locations (as kids are not guaranteed a place in the charter schools nearest to their homes). Lee warns that current acquiescence toward this charter-induced chaos paves the path for increased corporate control. Meanwhile, students are structurally denied the right to develop the very critical thinking skills needed to challenge this move toward more centralized and efficient control.  

While the U.S. has yet to careen down the path of Lee’s Charter Villages, we already know there are plenty of obsessive Charter People lurking around out there. They inhabit many levels of government and business, and some of them are, paradoxically, the parents of students suffering from current pro-charter policies. Oh, and there’s one more common Charter People characteristic: many of them live in Florida. The recently approved HB 7069, which was signed by Governor Scott on Thursday, June 15 and went into effect on July 1,  is a standout example of attacks on public education– both infrastructural and ideological– with more to come. The water is rising on this Florida education disaster.

Climate Deniers and Charter Pushers

Florida, ever a notable state when it comes to extremist education experiments, has been making some big education waves lately. Consider the recently passed House Bill (HB) 989. This law targets public school education by allowing any Florida citizen (not just a parent) to file a formal complaint about curricular content–think banned books here–which legally requires school districts to formally respond to the complaint. The non-profit Florida Citizens’ Alliance (FLCA) backs the law. The FLCA is opposed to the Obama-initiated federal Common Core standards, a popular bipartisan cause, but it also focuses on other “anti-liberty” issues– including climate change and evolution-focused K-12 public school curricula. We could laugh at this group’s hysterical war on scientific fact,  if real political power wasn’t being used to shut down climate change education at a critical historic juncture in a climate-critical state.  After Hurricane Harvey, which is poised to change climate change awareness on a mass scale, one wonders about this legislation’s fate. Harvey reminds us we need to pay attention to K-12 education policy, or suffer the havoc that awaits an uneducated and ill-prepared populace.

Florida’s attack on public schools is multi-faceted. On the culture warrior side, one tactic is to erode teacher/ administrative autonomy from within the system– as in HB 989. Groups like the FLCA may not have to worry very much longer about teaching science in the public schools because Florida is increasingly turning to corporate board controlled charter schools anyway. The message? “If these public schools are going to exist here at all, it’ll be on the most debased terms possible.” Yes, children, to paraphrase the late great Ronald Reagan on old growth redwood trees: “If you’ve seen one coral reef, you’ve seen them all… now get back to your Personal Education plans on your Microsoft tablets!”

While culture warriors establish censorial public school regulations, the brute capitalist warriors seek a large-scale infrastructural overhaul, or dismantlement, of the system.

Nationally, charter schools exist in 42 states and have increased six-fold in the past fifteen years. The pro-corporate charter school model is nothing new for Florida, which ranks in the top five states for charter schools. On its own, Florida contributes approximately 650 charter schools to this growing national trend. The state is also home to a special needs voucher system that channels public funds to private school entities.  In 2013, I published an article (https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/09/04/floridas-most-vulturous-voucher-program/)

detailing my abhorrence at this special needs voucher system– known as the McKay Scholarship. Already an opponent of the privatization trend, I conducted fieldwork by teaching in one of these Florida schools. In 2016-2017, approximately 31,000 Florida students participated in McKay.  The program’s financial skirting of federal education requirements for disabled students is a structural failure regarding education, yet other states are getting into the special needs voucher market. Florida is eager to lead the way, with HB 7069 consolidating many privatization efforts and strategies.

One unprecedented feature of HB 7069: school districts have to share capital expenditure funds with charter schools. On August 9, a Herald Tribune article reported that Sarasota and Manatee county school districts will be providing charters millions of additional funding under HB 7069 requirements. On August 17, a Tampa Bay Times editorial stated that Florida’s Pinellas County (covering St. Petersburg) should join an emerging lawsuit against HB 7069 for the same reason.

Before the passage of HB 7069, the trend has already been to starve out public schools. A March 8 article in the Miami Herald proves this well. During the 2016-2017 school year, Florida charter schools and public schools received the same amount from $150 M in state capital aid. Sounds fair and balanced, right? But do the math: $75M went to the state’s 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools received the other $75M. There are ~ 5.5 times more public than charter schools, but both received the same amount of money! Far from fair, this funding recipe stokes the school-flipping frenzy.

Rapacious School-Flipping

In this already unequal funding climate, HB 7069 contributes quite a pop-up, school-flipping flair. Although the phrase “pop-up”is used to positively denote quickly appearing and disappearing artistic or commercial venues, the phrase seems fitting here. For example, a Hillsborough County’s charter school, the Catapult Academy in Tampa, abruptly closed, unannounced, days into this new school year. While some charters close down amid mismanagement controversies, others are slated to open. HB 7069 enacts “emergency” conditions for charter school expansion in a hostile climate that undermines already compromised local school board autonomy, attacks teachers’ already precarious work conditions, and exploits parents’ already volatile insecurities about failing schools.

Facilitating HB 7069’s passage was last year’s expansion of Florida’s special needs voucher arena. The McKay Scholarship focus grew with the passage of the Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA)– renamed the Gardiner Scholarship after Senate President, Andy Gardiner, who led the effort to create it. While the McKay program funds private school scholarship vouchers for special needs students previously attending public schools, the more expansive Gardiner Scholarship makes money available for families to individualize a special needs (in Gardiner legislation rhetoric it would be “unique abilities”) non-public school education plan. Thus, money, which averages about $10,000 per qualifying student, is available for a range of educational expenses beyond McKay’s school tuition focus. Gardiner supports programs and approved providers including schools, specialists, home school curricula and materials, technology, and even a college savings account. Further, in the interests of developing post-secondary educational opportunities, the Gardiner Scholarship has allotted Orlando’s University of Central Florida $8M for a “students with unique abilities” center. $3.5M of that $8M will go to scholarships for these new programs, and this includes another $3M to fund higher education seed money for students with special needs.

Given the state’s promotion of “pioneering” charter school ventures, and its “financially innovative” special needs voucher and scholarship funds, it makes sense that Florida is championed, by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos among others, as a national leader in education deform.  When G.W. Bush became U.S. president in 2000, we know his brother Jeb was already Florida’s governor– eventually slashing school budgets and shutting down public schools in the interests of leaving No Child Behind. That Bush Brothers connection positioned Florida as a kind of ground zero in a national education disaster. (Recent statistics show that Florida ranks 50th in high school graduation rates!) 16 years after No Child Left Behind’s appearance, HB 7069 emerges as more evidence of the all out war on public education, with nothing less than children’s futures as the casualty.

Corporate controlled schooling is governed by hyper-commodified, tech-obsessed education philosophies, ruthless and unaccountable school discipline measures, and the usual racial resegregation that accompanies class warfare tactics. (One in eight black students now attend U.S. charter schools, according to a recent NAACP report.)  Charter schools alter everything: social and professional relationships; union strategies; neighborhood fabrics; transportation burdens; and local governing structures. In true Charter Village style, changing schools changes everything.

“Honey, we have to leave one hour earlier each morning so our kids can receive a quality education,” said one parent to the other.

“That’s fine, but our bosses won’t let us leave early to pick them up, so we’ll have to figure something out,” the other parent wearily retorted back.

As weary as chartering makes some families, too many politicians stand to gain financially for it to slow down. House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s wife started Classical Preparatory School, a charter school in Spring Hill, Florida that offers “Traditional Education. Transformational Learning.” Representative Manny Diaz is the Chief Operating Officer for a junior college managed by Academica, one of Florida’s largest for-profit charter school management companies. At the same time, he voted for a $14M cut to Miami Dade College, a public college attended by many in his constituency.  Miami’s Republican Representative, Michael Bileca, chairs the House Education Committee. He also happens to be the Executive Director of a foundation that funds True North Classical Academy. The Miami Herald cites these three as chief architects of HB 7069. Are you getting the idea here?

This bill is so polarizing that some mainstream media outlets speculate it goes too far.  The Thursday, June 15 Miami Herald ran an article asking whether a $30M expansion of Gardiner Scholarship funds, which was tucked into the much larger and controversial HB 7069 legislation, was being used as “pawn or principle” in this latest education battle. The answer? Pawn! The original HB 7069 language did not include Gardiner Scholarship expansion (already captured by HB 15).  Anticipating resistance to HB 7069, Gardiner’s expanded funding was unabashedly included in HB 7069 to get it passed. Who’s heartless enough to say no to special needs students? Not our politicians!

The Miami Herald addresses Gardiner’s inclusion in HB 7069:

“It was only during budget negotiations with the House did the House agree to finance the program — but at the lower $30M level — and while they authorized the expansion in HB 15, House leaders wove the funding into the controversial HB 7069 and touted it as an essential component… Opponents blasted the strategy as an attempt to use vulnerable children as “pawns” to gain support for the controversial legislation.”

Why is HB 7069 so urgent that politicians manipulated public sentiment about special needs students? Money. The legislation calls for nothing short of a large-scale conversion of Florida’s public education infrastructure into (auspiciously named) Schools of Hope. Schools of Hope can open in or near failed public schools without guaranteeing their students admission to the new charter schools. If a school consecutively earns three grades lower than a “C”, students must be reassigned to another school and the old school must be reopened as a charter school. HB 7069 has allowed up to 100 public schools to be slated for just this fate.

If you think about it, 100 new schools can generate millions, and this is why the Florida charter market is creating much business world buzz. This summer, Colliers International Education Services Group sold two Florida charter schools for $33M to Oregon buyers AEP Charter KCC II and AEP Charter Renaissance LLC. This completes part two of a $105M seven-school deal. Five schools were sold last November for $72M. The hold on the other recently sold schools involved local school boards’ charter renewals. To speculate in dollar signs: if each new charter school is purchased for $15M (like that deal with Oregon buyers) then 100 flipped schools places us squarely in the billions. $1.5B to be exact. This is what’s at stake in this manufactured crisis.

That one million dollar Oregon deal shows how school boards impede the frantic flow of capital, what with those silly democratic processes of accountability and whatnot. But never fear! The state has a plan to put school boards in their place (and school districts are fighting back, too).

An Unconstitutional Law?

Since its passing, HB 7069 is making waves in some unlikely places. The Florida panhandle is notoriously right-wing, ever celebrating its identity as the Redneck Riviera. While the panhandle’s Bay County is relatively close to Tallahassee, it has a less rapacious appetite than other charter-obsessed locales.  The Bay County School District unanimously decided to join Broward, St. Lucie, Orange, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Duval, and several more, in a lawsuit to be filed October 1. The main issue here is that HB 7069 strips local school boards of their constitutional authority. Also unconstitutional is that HB 7069 violates federal law by cutting Title 1 funds and complicating school board control over those funding allotments.

HB 7069, which grew from 7 pages into a 270 page document during final and secretive legislative sessions, pulls together “seemingly unrelated measures” including the Gardiner Scholarship, Title I de-funding, sunscreen regulations (kids can put it on without a prescription now!), temporary teaching certificates, and even mandatory recess. 100 minutes (it’s only 20 minutes per school day, so don’t get too excited) of guaranteed recess for K-5 public school students is one of the so-called silver linings on the HB 7069 cloud. But people are quick to note that this recess mandate does not apply to charter schools. (And principals resent being told how to run their schools.) In fact, HB 7069 appears to produce and reinforce a two-tiered schooling scheme.

Another example of this two-tiered system: charter schools are exempt from regulations that limit spending on new school construction. While the big picture remains the struggle between local and state authorities over school boards’ roles and procedures, on the ground we will see this struggle manifest as the shameless pushing of charter schools over traditional public schools.  On July 25, the Panama City News Herald reported that the existing process for charter school approval requires potential operators to request an application from the school board, submit a charter, and be vetted by the school board before charter approval. HB 7069 undermines this routine process. It still requires new charters to go before the board. However, the board gets “60 days to rubber-stamp the application and very little room to refuse” according to attorney Heather Hudson, who is quoted in the News Herald. In the event a charter does not get approved, Florida’s Department of Education (DOE) can override the local decision and sign the agreement. Here’s the catch: Schools of Hope will use a standard application created by the DOE– effectively anticipating, even enshrining, the state’s involvement in a process that, for all intents and purposes, could (and should) remain local. This is precisely why the issue of HB 7069’s constitutionality is in question. The school board gets stripped down to a token decision-making body under HB 7069’s fast track protocols. Under these conditions, why elect school board officials at all? Let’s just have that corporate future enrapture us all, eroding any public control– as so many science fiction authors have been predicting for decades.

This Land is Charter Land

Even more grossly unfair is that Schools of Hope charter operators are empowered under HB 7069 to “commandeer” district property– that is land considered unused or “surplus”–for new schools. Like other charter initiatives, they are not obligated to serve students in the low-performing schools they are replacing. To be fair, the bill says those students can enroll in the new school closest to them outside the usual lottery process, which suggests a kind of rightfully warranted preferential treatment for students of former failing schools, yet there is no clear way to enforce this sentiment. If nothing else, the charter industry shows there are many ways to get around attached strings– like neighborhood families. What happens to children who fall through the cracks of this power, land, and money grab? This is a grave concern as local control is ripped away by the state’s own tightening financialized grip.

It is also no surprise that HB 7069 redirects the school district’s money to charters: in this case it’s through an ad valorem tax, which comprises local capital improvement (LCI) dollars. Charter schools can’t collect ad valorem taxes on their own. Due to HB 7069, supposedly an estimated $1.45M of the district’s LCI dollars will be given to the 11 charter schools operating in Bay County, for example. Other district’s report similar problems with fair allocation of funds under HB 7069.

With expedited chartering via Schools of Hope, more money would be funneled toward charters and away from the school district’s own projects. According to a recent Fund Education Now article:

“HB 7069 disrespects the authority of duly elected school boards by forcing them to share their only capital outlay money with corporate charter chains. In addition, the state gives charters up to $100M per year from Public Education Capital Outlay funding derived from a telecommunications tax. Districts never see a dime!”

A “Right to Charter” State

It has always been the case that students’ learning environments are their teachers’ working environments, right? While it is clear how this bill can negatively affect students in the targeted failing schools, it also affects teachers– who have been called “crazy” “disgusting” and “repugnant” by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran. (He has also publicly referred to teacher’s unions as “downright evil.”) As we know, this teacher union-busting climate (in a “right to work” state, no less), coupled with accelerated chartering, is a nightmare for education professionals who already suffer in demoralized, unsupportive, and outright hostile school climates. Teachers are quitting in droves.

No Child Left Behind grew notorious for grading and defunding underperforming (“D” and “F”) schools, with the policies continuing unabated during the Obama administration’s maintenance of the status quo under the new name, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). HB 7069 exacerbates crisis measures, requiring school districts to prepare “emergency plans” in the event of a “D” or “F” grade– thus increasing work anxiety in the event of looming charter school takeovers. Talk about a low morale work environment! One more thing: supposedly Schools of Hope can hire non-certified teachers and administrators. Gone are the pesky days of teacher/ administrator certification in this free market of pop-up charter schooling. Who has the time anymore?

There are even more deleterious effects that HB 7069 has on the teaching profession, as it tries to smooth over major thorns in the DOE’s side, like teacher pay and high stakes testing. Teacher bonus caps for IB, AP, and CAPE are removed (which is a good thing for teachers receiving these bonuses, but no one else). The controversial teacher evaluation, Value Added Measures (VAM), system is no longer mandatory (leaving everyone wondering what will be the next harassment tool?) The Best and Brightest scholarship for teachers remains in effect (how’s is that decided, favoritism for non-union rabble rousers)? And testing has been altered again and moved to the last four weeks of school. These are still high stakes tests; Florida would never walk away from that profitable endeavor.

The above changes may benefit teachers in the short run, but don’t be fooled! While surface-level bonus/ rewards systems are doled out, teacher contracts contain limits on employment guarantees; school districts may only award teachers one year contracts and teachers are already being transferred, even right before school starts, with little notice. While the bill includes some “Best and Brightest” teachers’ bonuses, permanent contractual teacher raises appear to be a thing of the past. Tenure for new teachers was previously eliminated– as education is further turned into a commodified battlefield involving business people, politicians, school boards, and teachers’ unions, with families caught in the middle.  To add insult to injury, SB 118 has been filed by Senate Education chairwoman Dorothy Hukill. This bill allows Representatives and Senators to unexpectedly visit (spy on?) public school campuses. School district officials are not permitted to limit the visit in any manner. Further intimidation tactics, straight from the Florida Senate’s Education Committee chairwoman! Regarding other governmental facilities, lawmakers don’t have unprecedented access. But, of course, public schools get the differential treatment– as usual. Battleground warfare tactics.

Quite a Formidable Opponent

Far different from the hope proffered by HB 7069’s pop-up charter/emergency public school-flipping schemes, the real hope lies with the growing coalition of parents, teachers, school staff, administrators, school boards, and concerned public education activists who sent over 150,000 letters opposing HB 7069. Even as Betsy DeVos looks to Florida to lead the nation in public education obliteration, there may be some surprises in Trumplandia/ Flori-duh yet. More people seem to be waking up to the idea that failing schools are a mere symptom of broader racial engineering and class warfare agendas, with the deliberate underfunding of public schools producing a highly exploitable education panic. Parents will grow increasingly frustrated by such blatantly unnecessary school-flipping, as their own children’s right to a free quality education is destabilized by invasive and ill-fitted education market forces coming increasingly from out of state.  

Maybe more Florida school districts will join up to defeat HB 7069 in the courts, challenging the latest school-flipping phase in education corporatization. As people gain more clarity about the overall situation, we can turn to the urgent task of retrieving all of the stolen tax dollars constituting these sinister financial maneuvers. (Even Republican Adam Putnam, who is running against Rick Scott for Florida Governor, has mildly criticized the sweeping education measure as “a bridge too far… done in the dark.”) It may become more fashionable to criticize such an obviously flawed attempt to shower the charter school industry with public school dollars, but it’s important to acknowledge that the industry is quite a formidable opponent no matter how large the opposition. And the legislation has been passed. That’s why this is “school-flipping.” How many deals will quickly go down as this legislation stays tied up in the courts?

On August 4, public education advocate Diane Ravitch’s highly esteemed blog featured University of Maryland’s Steven J. Klees. Klees writes about the deep ties between the Florida legislature, the charter industry, and HB 7069’s controversial passage:

“Many of them [legislators] or their families have become wealthy from running charter schools and, with the enactment of HB 7069, stand to make much more money. Yet there was no talk of conflicts of interest or violation of ethics laws…. in the final days, the charter school industry responded by giving charter school parents and students incentives, like discounts or extra credit, for sending in messages of support [for HB 7069].”

Nothing short of people’s dreams for their children’s futures are at stake here. In Bay County, this dream can be summed up as securing future careers outside the two largest employers: the military and Wal-Mart. On one side, a rapacious emerging industry salivates over the new land/infrastructure deals which stand to grow more risk-free for investors as local control/ accountability is eclipsed in favor of state-backed profit schemes. On the other side, working families can either allow visions of shiny new charter schools to dance in their heads or help create an alternative. Here’s hoping that the dream of quality, accountable public schools for all, regardless of family incomes, will ultimately outweigh whatever “incentives” –Charter Villages, anyone?– the charter school industry offers struggling Florida families.

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