Archives for category: Florida

Billy Townsend was a school board member in Polk County, Florida. He saw up close and personal how charters were sucking the high-scoring students out of public schools and excluding the students with disabilities. He saw up close and personal how the state’s voucher program was serving as a refuge from high-stakes testing and enabling the restoration of racial segregation. Billy believes, as I do, that if the day ever comes when so-called reformers see the harm they are doing to kids and to our democratic institution of public education, they might repent. Will shame move them more than the pursuit of profit and power? Perhaps we are naive to think it might. But hope springs eternal that even the profiteers and entrepreneurs and shady fly-by-night grifters might someday see the light.

Billy has written a powerful series about the Jeb Crow school industry and how its sole purpose is to destroy public education without helping kids. All of the articles are referenced in this post, the last of the series. He has demonstrated how the voucher schools are highly segregated and low-quality. He refers to the choice schools as “failure factories” but now calls them “Jeb Crow” schools to credit former Governor Jeb Bush for creating the Big Lie that school choice saves children. It doesn’t.

Townsend throws out a challenge to reformers who are sincere, if there are any, about equity and helping kids:

Serious “reformers” — those who actually mean it when they use the moral, racialized language of equity in justifying punitive policies that destroy public education capacity — know today that their entire life’s work is bullshit that failed on its own terms. 

They know it. Every single one of them. Some of them will cry about America’s super awesome graduation rate; but they know that’s manipulated data bullshit, too. Mostly, they’ve just gone silent while think tanks beg to keep getting useless test data and grifters use the language and weaponry “reformers” provided them to demolish public education capacity for everyone. 

The question now: if, when, and how will “reformers” ever break their shamed silence about their failures and decide to help us fix them?

Jeb Crow means wealthier, whiter kids get high capital charters; more vulnerable, less white kids get no capital vouchers; and we kill/privatize public schools altogether.

The grifting and cheating by state education officials is breath-taking. They know that school choice is a cynical ploy to shift money from taxpayers to private corporations. They know that the corporation that handles the voucher funding now has assets of nearly $700 million. They know where power lies in Florida. They know how corrupt the Legislature is. But everyone goes along to get along.

If you read one thing today, read Billy Townsend’s reports on Florida’s massive crime against children and the state’s own future.

The Florida League of Women Voters has long been wary about the state’s rush to privatize public school funding through charters and vouchers. It has previously published reports on the conflicts of interests, the politics, and the money in the charter sector. In this report, it investigates the organization created to hand out money for vouchers, called “Step Up for Students.” I am posting only the introduction. To read the body of the report, please open the attached PDF file.

Step Up for Students

 Preliminary Investigative Report

League of Women Voters Education Task Force

Contact: Dr. Sarah (Sally) Butzin

President, League of Women Voters of Tallahassee

sally.butzin@gmail.com

850-728-1097

March 2021

Introduction

For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature.

The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama.  According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets. 

Step Up began with a mission to award vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. It has grown to include vouchers, now known as scholarships, for students with special needs, students who have been bullied, students who are homeschooled, and students with reading difficulties. The income threshold has been raised through the years to at least 300% of the poverty level, with no income threshold for homeschool or special needs students.

Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into General Revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations”.

This report is the work of a team of volunteer members of the League of Women Voters of Florida. The League’s mission is to Empower Voters and Defend Democracy. Voters become empowered through information, while democracy requires transparency. An equitable and high-quality public education system is also essential for a vibrant democracy.

We hope to bring the shadowy operations of Step Up for Students into the sunshine through this report. The growing and unaccountable privately-controlled school system, while ostensibly under the Dept. of Education, should concern every Florida taxpayer. We hope that what we have learned will encourage an investigative reporter or organization to uncover more of what is unknown by the public. It’s a matter of fairness and justice. There’s more to the story.

A money management/marketing firm operating as a charity

Step Up for Students was created by venture capitalist John Kirtley in 2002, one year after then Governor Jeb Bush’s administration established the first (FTC) Florida Tax Credit voucher program, now called a “scholarship.” By 2020, Step Up had total net assets of over a half billion dollars. It is headquartered in Jacksonville at 4655 Salisbury Road. There is an affiliate office in Clearwater.

Step Up has approximately 265 employees with an $18 million payroll. The current President is Doug Tuthill, with a salary of $286,847. Eleven key employees have six-figure salaries with a total of $1.2 million in compensation. 

Founder John Kirtley remains the unpaid Chairman of Step Up. He, and his wife, have numerous board affiliations. Kirtley is co-chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, a PAC (Political Action Committee) that donated $1.4M during the 2020 election cycle.

The Board consists of 8 members, many with corporate ties. John Legg is a former state legislator and chairman of the Senate Ed Committee, and Al Lawson is a United States Congressman. Step Up also works for the state of Alabama through its subsidiary ASOF (Alabama Scholarship Opportunity Fund). Four of the Step Up board members are also on the ASOF board.

Step Up is one of two SFO’s authorized to administer five school choice scholarship programs in Florida. Step Up administers 99% of the contributions, while AAA Scholarship Foundation handles the remaining 1%. Step Up takes an administration fee of 2.5-3% of contributions. The cap on corporate contributions in 2020 was $874M, which means a 2.5% fee would be nearly $21M for Step Up.

This leaves plenty of funds for Step Up to promote the tax credit scholarship programs to corporations and car dealers, as well as to market the program to parents. Step Up offers webinars and support systems to recruit parents and assist them in applying for scholarships. Through the years, Step Up has organized large rallies in Tallahassee to bring thousands of students and parents to Tallahassee to lobby legislators to expand the program.

The fox guarding the henhouse

The Florida Department of Education’s Office of School Choice cannot supervise a program of this magnitude.  The task of supervising over 1,800 private schools and tracking individual vouchers given to parents is huge and varied.  Where students enroll must be verified.  Some schools report vouchers for students who are not enrolled. Some vouchers are awarded to students who do not meet the family income requirement for their voucher.  In addition, some vouchers allow parents to purchase supplies and services for students.  These individual purchases must be tracked.  

This is where Step Up has stepped in. The DOE (Department of Education) has outsourced oversight functions to the same private agency that also awards the scholarships. Since its inception, Step Up has awarded over one million scholarships.

What Step Up financials tell us about their size and growth

Income – Form 990 – 2018 & 2019:

$714,828,892 in “contributions and grants” – 2018

$614,153,616 in “contributions and grants” – 2019

Two Year Total: $1,332,982,508

Expenses – Form 990 – 2018 & 2019:

scholarships totaling $624,325,270 – 2018

scholarships totaling $667,545,702 – 2019

Two Year Total: $1,291,870,972

Payroll & Benefits & Outsourcing

2018 Payroll & Benefits: $19,899,245 

2019 Payroll & Benefits: $22,110,485 (Including $1,164,052 for “management & key employees) 

   $1,120,016 of the 2019 total listed as “fundraising expense”, so as of the last public report, they’re paying over $1 million just to fundraising professionals

Two Year Payroll Total: $42,009,730

What Step Up financials DON’T tell us

  • What is the source of the “contributions and grants”? Donor names are not listed. 
  • 2019 Audit Report listed $683,370 in functional expenses for “recruiting and advertising”. This included (according to the 990) a total of $592,698 paid to two employment agencies. Why? This is very unusual in a non-profit financial report. Who are they recruiting? What is their function?
  • More questions about payroll expenses are raised in Finding 2 of the 2019 audit (below).

What Step Up Audit Reports tell us about their program monitoring function

Findings from August 2019 Audit:

  • Finding 1: Step Up did not always properly evaluate the household income of FTC Program scholarship applicants to ensure that scholarships were only awarded to eligible students. A similar finding was noted in our report No. 2019-012. 
  • Finding 2: As similarly noted in our report No. 2019-012, Step Up procedures do not require and ensure that records of attendance and time worked by exempt employees, reviewed and approved by applicable supervisors, be maintained. 
  • Finding 3: Step Up did not notify employees and students of the purpose for collecting social security numbers. In addition, some unnecessary information technology (IT) user access privileges existed that increased the risk that unauthorized disclosure of the sensitive personal student information may occur. 
  • Finding 4: Application processing errors caused a delay in funding for certain students eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship Program. 
  • Finding 5: Step Up procedures did not always identify private schools receiving more than $250,000 in scholarship funds in a fiscal year to verify that those schools contract with an independent certified public accountant for an agreed-upon procedures engagement pursuant to State law. 
  • Finding 6: Step Up expended $280,000 in FTC Program earnings for non-FTC programs.

Other audits have revealed that Step Up has financial irregularities that require further investigation. For example, Step Up earned $1.4M in interest on tax-credit dollars from 2016-18, which could have been used on up to 237 scholarships. Step Up President Tuthill defended using the interest money for non-program expenses by pointing to “start-up costs.” 

What Step Up Audit Reports DON’T tell us

  • With respect to Finding 1: Failure to properly evaluate household income (multi-year finding) – What is the remedy if a student/family has been awarded a scholarship for which they do not qualify?
  • With respect to Finding 2: This finding says that Step UP has 29 exempt employees, including the Senior Director of Development, Development Officers, Director of Marketing, and Managers of Community Outreach, who worked from home in Florida, Georgia, or Pennsylvania. Who are these employees and what work are they doing on behalf of Florida’s students? Why are they living and working out of state? How much are they being paid? 

NOTE: Proposed legislation under SB48 is changing the SFO audit requirement from annually to every three years.

What School Financial Reports Tell Us about Step Up compliance monitoring 

  • In 2019, there were 1,209 schools that received more than $250,000 of scholarship funds. Of the 1,107 who actually submitted the required reports, 28% contained material exceptions that ranged from inadequate segregation of duties to not utilizing an operating budget.
  • There were 78 schools that did not submit reports and 48 that submitted incomplete reports.

What School Financial Reports DON’T tell us

  • Which schools are in compliance and which are not? Is this information available to parents?
  • Who is monitoring the quality and appropriateness of the educational materials and services that are eligible for purchase using scholarship funds?
  • Who is monitoring the quality and academic outcomes for students attending private and religious schools?
  • Who is monitoring compliance with DOE regulations that require to qualify for scholarship money, schools must “comply with the anti-discrimination provisions of 42 U.S.C. s. 2000?” That statute is part of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and says “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Charitable donations as a means to avoid taxes

Per the Florida Department of Revenue, “The (Florida Tax Credit) program allows taxpayers to make private, voluntary contributions to eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations and receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against the following Florida taxes;”

  • Corporate income tax;
  • Excise tax on liquor, wine, and malt beverages;
  • Gas and oil production tax;
  • Insurance premiums tax; and
  • Sales and use tax due under a direct pay permit

What this means is that “donations” made to Step Up are not coming from the company’s assets, but by diverting taxes owed that would have gone into the state’s general revenue fund to pay for government services, including public schools. Since its inception, over $3 billion has been diverted, primarily to Step Up. In 2019 Step Up received $618 million from 250 donors. To date, 1,799 private schools participate in the tax credit scholarship program, 66% of which have a religious affiliation.

The “donations” appear to come primarily from the following since 2010:

  • Alcohol Distribution Industry ($1.3B)
  • Insurance Industry ($75M)
  • Healthcare Industry ($104.5M)
  • Financial Services Industry ($45.5M)
  • Banking Industry ($14.2M)

Notable donor/tax credit companies include:

  • Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits (largest single donor at $615M thru 2019), 
  • Geico Insurance, 
  • AutoNation Insurance, 
  • Humana Insurance, 
  • Iberiabank
  • Continental National Bank, 
  • United Healthcare, 
  • HCA Healthcare, 
  • HMS Host Restauranteur, 
  • Raymond James Financial, 
  • Waste Management, 
  • Skechers USA, and 
  • Circle K Stores. 

It is interesting to note that the Step Up website has not listed its corporate donors since 2018. Why have they gone dark? Perhaps due to negative publicity when it was revealed that many of the religious schools receiving scholarships had policies discriminating against LBGTQ students, employees, and families.  Some corporations withdrew their tax credit donations, including Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank, and Wyndham Destinations.

An expanded voucher program marches on

Using the tax credit donations, Step Up awards scholarships to qualified families, based upon ever-changing criteria. What started as a program to assist low-income families obtain funds to attend private schools (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship), has morphed into four additional programs for students with special needs (Gardner Scholarship), students who have been bullied (Hope Scholarship), students who attend a low-performing public school (Family Empowerment Scholarship), and students with low reading scores (Reading Scholarship).

The income eligibility threshold continues to rise, with pending legislation in 2021 rising to 300% of poverty level ($78,600 for a family of four), with annual increases going forward. There is no income threshold for students with disabilities or homeschooled students. And once a child qualifies for a scholarship, they keep it through 12th grade regardless of whether the family income grows.

New proposals through Senate Bill 48 will convert the five current scholarship programs into two ESA’s (Educational Savings Accounts) where recipients have full choice of spending on an array of approved goods and services and/or private school tuition. Leftover ESA funds can be banked for future college funds. The proposed ESA’s will be funded from a Trust Fund using general revenue funds as well as tax credit donations, which raises interesting constitutional questions.

During the Senate Education Committee debate during the 2021 Legislative Session, Senator Manny Diaz, Jr., the chief proponent of the new ESA program, assured the Committee that the program had ample guardrails to prevent fraud and abuse. However, what our Task Force has learned about Step Up makes us wonder if these guardrails are made of toothpicks.

Follow the money: Step Up and politics

This is an area that needs deeper delving, as it is difficult to trace the various PAC’s  (Political Action Committee) and entities that make campaign contributions under the radar. One place to start would be with Miami Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. (not to be confused with Manny Diaz who heads the Florida Democratic Party). 

Senator Diaz is the driving force with expanding charter and scholarship programs. He has inherent conflicts with his employment with Academica, a for-profit charter school management company. Senator Diaz also operates a PAC called Better Florida Education PC, which reported $1,152,070 in donations in 2021.Step Up President Doug Tuthil was quoted in 2011 on YouTube saying, “One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful (is) we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money. In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races.” Is Step Up still making campaign contributions as a 501-c-3 non-profit organization?

We attempted to connect the dots to find connections between Step Up and campaign contributions to key legislators, as well as from corporations receiving tax exempt benefits. This again proved difficult given the practice of bundling individual contributions into groups with vague names such as Floridians for Good Government.

A driving force behind the ESA expansion is to create a cottage industry of start-ups and business ventures. In a presentation to the Florida Senate Education Committee, Tuthill was enthusiastically promoting opportunities for business to offer goods and services to growing numbers of parents who can choose what to purchase.

Step Up has conveniently created a portal on their website called “My Scholarshop” with direct links to vendors. It would be interesting to discover any links between the vendors and legislators, Step Up board members, or staff? 

Constitutional issues

The Tax Credit Scholarship program is an ingenious way to skirt constitutional issues such as the separation of church and state. By using Step Up, a non-profit entity, as a pass-through, the state is not directly funding the vouchers to religious schools.

In 2017 the Florida Supreme Court dismissed a law suit filed by the Florida Education Association for “lack of taxpayer standing” since the scholarships were funded from donations rather than tax revenue. The question remains whether the expanded ESA program will have the same protections.

Separate and unequal

In their book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, authors Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider ask, “Where does this end?” Some have suggested the ultimate goal is to create a completely parent-driven system where scholarships are available to all. Others have pointed out the cost-savings of privatizing the education system, eliminating the state’s responsibility to monitor the quality of educational programs, certify professional teachers, build safe school buildings, and provide annual assessments of learning progress.

When asked about quality control and learning outcomes, voucher proponents always revert to “parent choice.” It is up to the parents to make those determinations about “what is best for their child.” This assumes that all parents are up to the task.Are we on the road back 200 years ago when schooling was solely a parent’s responsibility? Parents back then cobbled together clusters of one-room schoolhouses and private tutoring. 

Parents with means had access to private schools with qualified teachers, while the Catholic Church created a system of parochial schools.

As the industrial age approached, it was clear that this parent-driven school system was inadequate for a modern society. In 1838, Horace Mann founded and edited The Common School Journal. Mann is considered the father of public education. His six main principles for creating public schools were:

  1. the public should no longer remain ignorant;
  2. that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public;
  3. that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds;
  4. that this education must be non-sectarian;
  5. that this education must be taught using the tenets of a free society; and
  6. that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

It is ironic that in the post-industrial information age, the Florida Legislature is promoting a system that was abandoned years ago. The Covid Pandemic has laid bare the importance of being highly educated to survive and thrive in a technological age. A high-quality education is more important than ever. This means highly trained teachers and a curriculum based on research and science. 

Reverting back to a cobbled-together system of home schools and religious schools in church basements will leave more children behind, and will lead to re-segregated schools based on race and income. Is this where Florida is headed?

Resources

This is a preliminary list of resources we found during our investigation. Others may find them helpful in uncovering more about the operations and conflicts with Step Up for Students.

John Kirtley: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article235210632.html

John Kirtley: http://search.sunbiz.org/Inquiry/CorporationSearch/SearchResults?InquiryType=OfficerRegisteredAgentName&inquiryDirectionType=PreviousList&searchNameOrder=KIRTLEYJOHNF%20L040000768592&SearchTerm=Kirtley%20John&entityId=L04000076859&listNameOrder=KIRTLEYJOHNF%20L040000768592

Step Up For Students, Creation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Step_Up_For_Students

Step Up For Students, Promotion: https://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2016/11/new-us-education-secretary-has-ties-to-florida-voucher-fight-107601

Step Up For Students & Donors: https://jaxkidsmatter.blogspot.com/search?q=Step+up+for+students+takes+down+their+annual+reports+to+hide+their+donors

Step Up For Students, Audit: https://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20190905/audit-finds-problems-at-floridas-step-up-for-students#:~:text=The%20audit%2C%20issued%20last%20week,students%20before%20it%20was%20fixed

Step Up For Students, Our Leadership Team: https://www.stepupforstudents.org/about-us/our-leadership-team/

Step Up For Student, Equal Opportunity: https://www.stepupforstudents.org/equal-opportunity-education/

Step Up For Students, Anti-gay policies: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/education/os-ne-vouchers-gay-students-updates-20200214-kprtbtsjfjbnhlsfat2asjfvle-story.html

Step Up For Students, Financial Reports: https://32n7ya2og9cc2147lx4e0my6-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019-2020-990-Form.pdf

Manny Diaz: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article235210632.html

SB48, Bill Analysis: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2021/48/Analyses/2021s00048.aed.PDF

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, School Requirements: https://revenue.alabama.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Non-Public_School_Notice_of_Intent_to_Participate.pdf

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, Jeb Bush: https://yellowhammernews.com/bush-visits-alabama-raise-awareness-school-choice-low-income-scholarships/

POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS SUMMARY

Step up:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/office-of-student-learning-2/teaching-learning/

Step up Advocacy: Voices for Choices.  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/step-up-voices-for-choices/

Step up Regional Councils:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/office-of-student-learning-2/school-support/

Employee Giving:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/donor-resources/employee-giving/

Kirtley vs AAA 

https://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2019/04/18/school-choice-advocates-face-off-even-as-vouchers-win-support-972612

KEY LEGISLATOR PACs

https://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20191228/florida-legislatorsrsquo-pacs-amass-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars/1

Sen. Wilton Simpson:  Pasco County, Trilby: Senate President

PACs:  Future Florida and Florida Green PAC, Jobs for Florida, Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee $68,934,933.44

Senate Education Committee Republicans

Sen. Jennifer Bradley: District 5, Marion County; Education.  Husband is Rob Bradley, 

Chair of Senate Appropriations Committee

PAC:  Working for Florida’s Families https://www.opensecrets.org/campaign-expenditures/vendor?cycle=2020&vendor=Working+for+Florida%27s+Families

Sen. Doug Broxson: District 1, Okaloosa County; Pensacola Appropriations Subcommittee on Sen. Education, Appropriations

PAC:  none

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr:  District 36, Hialeah, Miami-Dade; Education, Appropriations, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC: Better Florida Education: http://www.betterfleducationpc.org/contributions.php

Manny Diaz Jr: https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/candidate/manny-diaz-jr-can?cycle=2018-election-cycle

Sen. Joe Gruters: District 23, Sarasota; Education, Governmental Oversight and Accountability, Appropriations

PAC:  Republican Party of Florida $605,925,807.52

Sen. Travis Hutson District 7, Volusia County; Palm Coast Appropriations and Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC:  First Coast Business Foundation $762,575

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/first-coast-business-foundation-69922-pac/donors

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo: District 28, Lee County;   Appropriations, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC: Working Together for Florida

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/payee/working-together-for-florida-pac

Other School Choice Supporters 

Sen. Kelli Stargel: District 22 Lake; Appropriations Chair

PAC: None

Sen. Aaron Bean: District 4 Duval 

PAC: Florida Conservative Alliance $751,742.60 

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/florida-conservative-alliance-60710-pac/donors?page=5

Lizbeth Benacquisto, District 27, Lee County: 

PAC:  Protect Florida Families $666,536.02

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/protect-florida-families-fund-74099-pac

POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES 

American Federation for Children: Advocates for School Choice/Alliance for School Choice-Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos https://www.politicalresearch.org/2012/08/01/rights-school-choice-scheme

Conservatives for Principled Leadership http://conservativesforprincipledleadership.com/

Conservative Solutions for Jacksonville http://conservativesolutionsforjax.com/

FAPSC-PAC https://www.fapsc.org/page/33

Federalist Society Members:  National group of conservative attorneys 

Fl Education Empowerment: Kirtley (closed)

Florida Federation for Children (Kirtley):  https://www.federationforchildren.org/about/

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/editorials/fl-op-edit-florida-voucher-schools-20210202-t7eunnz47vcezlzqys4ex6dfq4-story.html

*Victorious candidates supported by FFC:

https://www.federationforchildren.org/school-choice-supporters-victorious-florida-elections/

Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future:  FP&L; U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals Corp (aff. with Associated Industries of Florida). https://unitedforflchildren.com/

Contributions Reporting

Florida Elections Commission Campaign Finance Database https://dos.elections.myflorida.com/campaign-finance/contributions/

Center for Responsive Politics runs the Open Secrets https://www.opensecrets.org/

National Institute on Money in State Politics runs Followthemoney https://www.followthemoney.org/

Campaign Finance Database: https://dos.elections.myflorida.com/campaign-finance/contributions/#both

Florida Transparency USA https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl

NSPRA describes major funders of educational reform https://www.nspra.org/our_mission

Download the pdf here:

Peter Greene reviewed the Network for Public Education’s report on for-profit charter schools in Forbes, where he is a regular columnist.

He writes:

It has become cliche for politicians and policy makers to oppose “for profit” charter schools. It’s also a safe stance, because most people agree they’re a bad idea; for-profit charter schools are not legal in almost all states. 

But charter school profiteers have found many loopholes, so that while they may not be able to set up for-profit charters, they can absolutely run charter schools for a profit. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the difference is that one is illegal in almost all states, and the other, as outlined in a new report, can be found from coast to coast. The new report, “Chartered for Profit,” from the Network for Public Education examines the size and reach of “the hidden world of charter schools operated for financial gain.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of NPE.)

The most common workaround for operating a charter school for profit is a management corporation. In this arrangement, I set up East Egg Charter School as a non-profit; I then hire East Egg Charter Management Organization to run the school, and that is a for-profit operation (known as an EMO).

An EMO is an educational management operator.

In some cases, the school and EMO are enmeshed with each other, sometimes with family ties. In Arizona, Reginald Barr runs a non-profit EMO that manages four charter schools; he also, with his wife Sandra, runs for-profit Edventure, which collects $125 per student for managing the schools. The schools lease property from a company owned by the Barrs and hire another Barr company to handle payroll. The four charter schools are controlled by a single board; Sandra Barr and her mother hold two of the three seats.

Some of these management operations are large scale; the report finds that just seven corporations manage 555 charter schools across the country. But chartering for profit can work on a small scale as well; of the 138 for-profit management companies NPE studied, 73 ran only one or two schools. In other words, the EMO is created specifically to run one particular school, not as a stand-alone business venture...

No matter the scale, “sweeps” contracts are a common tool. The management company provides virtually all of the school’s services (building, maintenance, curriculum, payroll, etc) and may even contract not for a set fee, but, as one EMO contract states, it receives “as renumeration for its services an amount equal to the total revenue received” by the school “from all revenue sources.”

There are other ways to pull profits from these operations. Many charter schools are part of lucrative real estate deals. One audit in New York found that the Diocese of New York was renting a facility to NHA for $264,000 per year; National Heritage Academy (NHA) sublet that space to its charter school $2.76 million. Jon Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, also owns Red Apple Development, whose website displays 66 CSUSA schools that Red Apple developed and, in most cases, owns and leases.

Cyber-charters are particularly profitable, with one recent report suggesting that Californians are overpaying cyber charters by $600 million.

Please open the link and read about the vultures feeding on public school money.

The Orlando Sentinel has been covering scandal after scandal in the voucher schools of Florida, but the Legislature doesn’t care about their scandals and is planning to take even more money from public schools to fund more private voucher schools. The Sentinel published a story about one troubled voucher school that has received over $5 million from the state since 2015 despite the fact that it hires teachers without college degrees.

Leslie Postal and Annie Martin wrote about Winners Primary School in Orange County, which recently changed its name to Providence Christian Preparatory School:

The job applicant hoped to teach fourth grade at Winners Primary School, a small private school in west Orange County. She didn’t have a college degree and her last job was at a child care center, which fired her.

“Terminated would not rehire,” read the reference check form from the daycare.

Since 2018, the school, dependent on state scholarships for most of its income, has hired at least three other teachers with red flags in their employment backgrounds and at least 10 other instructors who lacked college degrees, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.

One Winners teacher — whose only academic credential was his high school diploma — was arrested in November, accused of soliciting sexually explicit videos from a boy in his class. Others have criminal backgrounds or histories of being fired for incompetence in other jobs, the records show. Despite that, the Florida Department of Education recently opened and closed an investigation into the school without taking any action.

The school is constantly hiring because many teachers work there only briefly. With about a dozen teachers on staff, Winners had a teacher turnover rate of 83% between 2019 and 2020. The turnover and the questionable teaching credentials raise doubts about the quality of education offered to the school’s 250 students in pre-K through eighth grade.

“The kids should’ve been in public schools,” said Evan McKelvey, who taught math at Winners for six months, leaving in January after getting hired at Bishop Moore Catholic High School. “All of the public schools around here are leagues better than that place.”

Almost all the students attend because Florida’s scholarships, often called school vouchers, cover their tuition. Since 2015, Winners, a for-profit school run by a married couple with a history of financial problems, has received more than $5.1 million in state scholarship money.

The school’s students use the state scholarships — Family Empowerment and Florida Tax Credit — that aim to help children from low-income families attend private schools...

Typically, the nearly 2,000 private schools that take state scholarships do not need to make public information on their operations or their employees. Despite state support, taxpayers have no right to see who is hired or what is taught at these schools.

Because of the teacher’s arrest at Winners, however, the department opened an investigation, telling the principal it was worried the school could be in violation of state scholarship laws because “proper vetting during the hiring process is not occurring,” according to a letter sent to the school Nov. 19.

“When we’re made aware of situations like this, our team thoroughly investigates,” said Eric Hall, senior chancellor at the education department, when asked about Winners at a January meeting of the Florida Senate’s education committee. ”We take these things very seriously. We would make sure that we hold those institutions or those individuals accountable.”

Less than two months later, however, the department closed its investigation without taking any action against the school, despite a file depicting a shoddy employee vetting process and a history of questionable teacher hires. The school faced similar state inquiries in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and was cleared to remain a scholarship school then, too.

That is because the Republican-led Legislature has written the scholarship program laws to give the state only limited power to oversee participating private schools. As the Sentinel reported in its 2017 “Schools Without Rules” series, some of the schools have hired teachers with criminal backgrounds, been evicted, set up in rundown facilities and falsified fire and health reports but still remained in the voucher programs.

This year, the Florida Senate is considering a bill to expand the scholarship programs that already serve more than 181,000 students and cost nearly $1 billion, so that more children could use them and more state money would be spent.

The Legislature also has turned down requests to stiffen the rules that govern participating private schools. In 2018, for example, a proposal to require private schools’ teachers to have bachelor’s degrees — as the state demands of its public school teachers — was rejected. Advocates say the scholarships, some of which go to children with disabilities, give parents options outside public schools, and if parents aren’t happy with the private school they pick, they can move their child to another campus...

The education department investigated the school previously after a complaint from a parent who wrote the state to say the campus was dirty and “children of all ages are running out of the classroom screaming and hitting each other,” as well as after a report from the Florida Department of Children and Families that a teacher had hurt a student and the Sentinel’s report in 2018 that the school had hired a felon as a teacher.

A custodian at the school served time in prison for a firearms violation.

The story goes on with more details about the checkered past and present of a “school without rules” and a legislature that happily hands out millions to anyone who asks for them, all in the name of “school choice.” Even bad choices are fine in Florida.

Subscribe to the Orlando Sentinel to read the full story.

Kathleen Oropeza, parent activist in Florida, explains in The Progressive how Republicans intend to destroy public schools and turn the state into a publicly-funded voucher haven. Governor Ron DeSantis is accomplishing Betsy DeVos’s dream while tossing aside the future of the state’s children. In Florida, public schools are held accountable for students and teachers but in private and religious schools, no accountability or standards are required.

Oropeza writes:

In what state Senator Perry Thurston calls a “death knell,” the 2021 Florida House and Senate are fast-tracking the passage of SB 48. This bill will convert the state’s five vouchers into two Education Savings Account/Debit Cards paid, for the first time, with public school tax dollars and a spending flexibility so wide that parents are not even required to pay for teachers or tuition.

Vouchers provide parents with public money to pay for private, often religious schools, with little accountability or guarantee of quality, in eighteen states. Florida leads the way, ahead of other states like Arizona, in how to “choice” parents out of public education and into private school voucher programs. Today, Florida operates two Exceptional Student Educationvouchers, the McKay and Gardiner, plus the Corporate Tax CreditHope and Family Empowerment, for a total of five vouchers. The goal has always been to significantly expand the base of students giving up their right to a free public education in exchange for granting parents the freedom to spend their child’s money as they see fit. 

To accelerate the growth of vouchers, Florida seeks to convert all five programs into Education Savings Account/Debit Cards, funded directly by state general revenues. This money will not be spent on public schools. Instead, “parents can use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, home education, curriculum, therapy, postsecondary educational institutions in Florida and other defined educational services.

The bill, modeled after legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, represents the unfinished business of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman, and a host of rightwing philanthropists from the Waltons to the Kochs. 

I said I won’t repost blogs anymore, except for very rare occasions. I intend to stick to my promise.

So don’t consider this a repost. Consider it an introduction.

An ally in Florida sent me two blogs by Billy Townsend.

Here are the ones I read. I subscribed to his blog.

He wrote this blog for the benefit of Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

He says that Florida is the state that put the nation at risk. He explains why. Great reading.

In this one, he lays out exactly how to get Biden’s attention: prepare to run a primary against him for ignoring/betraying the parents and teachers devoted to public education. Active opposition, he says, will get the wolf away from the schoolhouse door.

In this one, he describes how the voucher schools that Florida wants more of include a large number of segregated and unaccredited schools. How cynical that Florida figured out a clever way to restore segregation by lying to black parents. He asks:

Is it any wonder Florida’s FTC vouchers have a 61 percent 2-year drop out rate?

I have noticed that voucher studies typically overlook or minimize or obscure attrition rates. I remember a voucher study of Milwaukee by pro-voucher academic Patrick Wolf where he noted that voucher schools had higher graduation rates when compared to public schools. In the original study, the attrition rate was 75%. When Mercedes Schneider jumped on that statistic, Wolf said he made a error and lowered the dropout rate to 56%. Of course, 56% is a huge attrition rate too. (See here too and see here as well.)

Florida’s State Constitution has explicit language forbidding public schools fir religious schools. Voters in Florida passed a referendum in 2012 against vouchers.

No matter. Republican legislators are expected to endorse SB 48, which will decrease funding for the public schools that most students attend. Students will be able to get a voucher even if they never attended a Public school.

Read about it here.

The fact that voucher studies repeatedly show that unregulated voucher schools produce worse outcomes for students than public schools is of no concern to the rabid believers in the free market.

The free market of choice that Florida is embracing will deepen the inequities in the state’s already mediocre and underfunded school system.

In 2018, voters in Palm Beach County, Florida, were asked to decide on a referendum to raise property taxes for the “operational needs of district non-charter schools.” That is, for public schools, not charter schools. After the measure passed, two charter schools in the district sued for their “share” of the revenues. The case went to an appeals court which ruled 2-1 against the charters. Then it went to the full court of appeals, which ruled 7-4 that the charter schools were entitled to a share of the money.

The opinion also said that the wording in the ballot measure that prevented charter schools from receiving money was “severable” — essentially meaning that it can be disregarded — and that the rest of the referendum could remain in “full force and effect.”“Severing and striking the ‘non-charter’ limitation from the 2018 referendum still accomplishes the 2018 referendum’s intent to generate additional revenue ‘to fund school safety equipment, hire additional school police and mental health professionals, fund arts, music, physical education, career and choice program teachers, and improve teacher pay.’ The only difference is that a portion of those funds must be shared with charter schools,” said the 17-page majority opinion shared by Chief Judge Spencer Levine and Judges Dorian Damoorgian, Burton Conner, Alan Forst, Mark Klingensmith, Jeffrey Kuntz and Edward Artau.

But dissenting judges lambasted the majority for deciding that the referendum could remain in effect and for deciding to take up the case en banc.They argued, in part, that allowing the referendum to remain in effect violates the will of voters, who thought they were casting ballots on a measure that would exclude funding for charter schools. Judge Robert Gross described it as an act of “judicial hocus pocus.”

“Rather than taking that principled approach and acknowledging the only proper remedy is the referendum’s invalidation, the majority has instead rewritten the referendum and pulled a bait-and-switch upon the voters of Palm Beach County,” Gross wrote in a dissent joined by Judges Martha Warner and Melanie May. “By judicial fiat, the majority has imposed a levy for the benefit of charter schools that the voters never approved ‘by local referendum or in a general election’ as required (by a section of state law).”

In a separate dissent, Judge Cory Ciklin pointed to the majority “ignoring the will of 528,089 Palm Beach County voters who participated in a countywide election. Not this court nor the School Board nor the charter schools can legally agree to severing and striking the non-charter limitation from the 2018 referendum as if the sanctity of voter intent is of no concern and one that can be blithely cast aside as nothing more than an unimportant annoyance.”

The voters thought that the ballot explicitly excluded the charter schools from the taxes they were willing to increase. The court decided otherwise.

As Judge Gross said in his dissent, this is a classic case of “bait and switch.”

The Education Law Center has developed an excellent presentation on the shortchanging of public education in the years since 20008. The great majority of states did not keep up with the costs of educating their children. Only a handful did: Wyoming, Alaska, Illinois, Connecticut. The rest saw a sharp drop in their effort to fund the education of their children.

The two absolutely worst states, as judged by their failed effort to fund their schools, were Arizona and Florida, followed by Michigan. It is not coincidence that these are states that have put their efforts into choice, as a substitute for funding.

The report from ELC begins:

In the decade following the Great Recession, students across the U.S. lost nearly $600 billion from the states’ disinvestment in their public schools. Data from 2008-2018 show that, if states had simply maintained their fiscal effort in PK-12 education at pre-Recession levels, public schools would have had over half a trillion dollars more in state and local revenue to provide teachers, support staff and other resources essential for student achievement. Further, that lost revenue could have significantly improved opportunity and outcomes for students, especially in the nation’s poorest districts.

The states dramatically reduced their investment in public education in response to the 2007 Great Recession. Yet as economies rebounded, states failed to restore those investments. As our analysis shows, while states’ economic activity — measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — recovered, state and local revenues for public schools lagged far behind in many states.

This “lost decade” of state disinvestment has put public schools in an extremely vulnerable position as the nation confronts the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, state budgets are strained by declining revenues. And once again, school districts across the country are bracing for state aid cuts and the potential for reduced local support.

This report builds on our Making the Grade analysis of the condition of public school funding in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Instead of a one-year snapshot, this report provides a longitudinal analysis of the effort made by states from 2008 to 2018 to fund their public education systems. We measure that effort using an index that calculates elementary and secondary education revenue as a percentage of each state’s economic activity or GDP.

A key goal of this report is to give advocates data and information to use in their efforts to press governors and state legislatures not to make another round of devastating “pandemic cuts” to already underfunded public schools.

Open the report to see where YOUR state ranks in its effort to educate its students.

Arizona and Florida are the two most shameful states in their neglect of the future of their children.

The Sun-Sentinel in South Florida wrote a scathing editorial about the Senate Republicans who failed to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection that endangered the lives of members of Congress as they fulfilled their Constitutional duty to certify the winner of the election.

It begins:

The Republican Party was on trial along with Donald Trump. Both now stand convicted, if not by the Senate, then definitely in the eyes of the nation and the world: The ex-president for planning, inciting and inflaming a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to keep himself in power, and the party for excusing that monumental crime against the American people.

The seven Republicans who voted him guilty were 10 too few to convict him, but they deserve the nation’s love and thanks for their devotion to the Constitution. So do the House impeachment managers, who made a virtually flawless case leading to the most bipartisan impeachment vote ever, 57 to 43.

The 43 senators whose votes acquitted him chose the wrong side in the eternal conflict between conscience and cowardice. They prostituted our democracy to a demagogue and despot. They made a dead letter of impeachment and set history’s stage for others like him.

Those contemptible senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, have cost their party any claim to the respect and trust of the American people.

The damage is beyond repair. It has betrayed the nation. The moment calls for the remaining responsible Republicans, however few or many, to break away. The case for a new party is as urgent as when the GOP was founded in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery.

The nation cannot do without the political balance provided by a center-right party proudly bound to constitutional principles, such as the peaceful transfer of power. Until now, no president of either party had defied the expressed will of the voters.

But the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower has become the party of Trump, who holds it in such thrall that only 10 of its House members and seven of its 50 senators dared to hold him responsible for the worst crime it was possible for an American president to commit.

That so many others could accept his having put their own lives at risk on Jan. 6 can be understood only in the context of their political ambitions. Their careers matter more to them than anything else, least of all their oaths of office.

The party of Trump is extremist and infested with cadres of domestic terrorists like the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois and the Oathkeeepers.

An example of its moral bankruptcy was the vote of the Wyoming party to censure Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, for her courageous vote to impeach Trump.

Abraham Lincoln would not recognize what Trump has made of the party, but Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez very well might.

The House impeachment managers proved beyond reasonable doubt every element of a cynical and criminal conspiracy on Trump’s part.

The editorial continues, and it is worth reading in full.

Mull over this line: “only 10 of its House members and seven of its 50 senators dared to hold him responsible for the worst crime it was possible for an American president to commit.

As Cong. Jamie Raskin asked on the Senate floor, “If these acts do not deserve impeachment, what does?”

It is hard to imagine anything worse for a president to do, unless he lined up his opposition and shot them. Would the 43 Republican Senators have held Trump accountable if he did that? One wonders.