Education funding still recovering from recession cuts *
Florida is spending more than ever on education, yet the amount of money dedicated to each student is barely higher than in 2007. The state would have to spend an additional $1.86 billion over the next three years to offset inflation and cuts that have ravaged education funding since the Great Recession, according to the Florida School Finance Council, which advises the state commissioner of education. "School revenue is back to where it was in 2007, (but) does anybody believe costs are the same?" asked Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of the Escambia County School District, and president of Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "I think where we're feeling the pinch now is just the operational costs to really support and educate your kids." School funding in the upcoming state budget is anticipated to increase for a fifth straight year, yet it still won't be enough, education officials say. Lawmakers set aside $19.7 billion for K-12 education in 2015-16, a record for Florida at the time and almost $1 billion more than what was spent in 2007, according to the Florida Department of Education. But even then, the funding school districts received per student — which pays for items such as salaries, utilities and textbooks — still was below the 2007 level for an eighth consecutive year, according to the Department of Education. Major education cuts brought on by the recession began in 2007, but federal stimulus money helped keep school funding afloat though 2009-10 and 2010-11. Then, a state education budget of $18.2 billion in 2010-11 shriveled to $16.5 billion in one year when federal aid evaporated, according to the Department of Education. Per-student funding cratered, dipping from $7,128 in 2007 to $6,215 in 2011, according to the department. It's been a slow climb back for school districts ever since. With less revenue, districts had to ride out the recession by slashing operational costs. Across the state, schools closed, teaching staffs shrunk through attrition and layoffs, support-staff jobs were eliminated. Schools cut more than 14,000 support positions, such as teacher aides, between 2007 and 2015, according to the state. Amid ongoing budget reductions, school districts were hit with new mandates in technology, testing standards, dual enrollment and professional development. All the while, enrollment steadily increased by 164,140 students — from 2,652,684 to 2,816,824 — between 2007-08 and 2016-17, according to the Department of Education. Programs such as art, music and physical education were cut, and schools attempted to find creative ways to curb operating costs. Average teacher salary increased by only about 2.7 percent from 2007-2015, $46,922 to $48,179. At the same time, inflation has risen more than 15.6 percent since 2007-08, according to the Florida School Finance Council. Historically low wages have shrunk the pool of teacher candidates, making it more difficult for schools to recruit and retain educators, said Ami Desamours, chief finance officer of the Lee County School District. School districts also have lost more than $4.6 billion in capital funding — which includes renovations and technology — over the last eight years, the Florida School Finance Council reported.
DeVos is the most jeered
By most any measure, the secretary of education is one of the least powerful Cabinet positions. The secretary is 16th in the line of succession to the presidency. Education accounts for a paltry 3 percent of the federal budget, compared with 24 percent for Social Security and 16 percent for defense. And the most recent major federal education law curtailed Washington’s role on testing, standards and accountability, turning much of the firepower in education policy back to states and school districts. That is what has made the protest movement against Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee to be secretary of education, all the more remarkable. After an underwhelming confirmation hearing in which DeVos seemed ignorant of major provisions of federal education law, such as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, some Senate offices reported receiving more calls opposing DeVos than any other Trump nominee. At women’s marches across the country Jan. 21, protesters carried signs ridiculing her as an out-of-touch billionaire. In Portland, Ore., high school students walked out of class in opposition to DeVos, and in Anchorage, protesters picketed the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, demanding she vote against the nominee. This week, Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said they would oppose her confirmation, leaving DeVos one swing senator away from an embarrassing rejection. On Thursday, calls opposing DeVos so overwhelmed the Senate phone system that by the afternoon, offices were having trouble gaining access to their voice mail messages. “We are experiencing heavy call volumes in all our offices,” Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Staff is answering as many as possible.” The opposition has come from some expected sources: well-funded progressive groups, teachers’ unions and the Democratic Party itself, as well as from grass-roots local parents’ and teachers’ organizations. But as clamorous as these protests have become, DeVos is also imperiled by a lack of support from constituencies that a Republican nominee might normally count on.
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Reports reveal big charter school “accountability” lie *
In one of the testier moments in what was the testiest ever confirmation hearing for US secretary of education, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia questioned if nominee billionaire Betsy DeVos would demand the same kind of accountability from the full range of education institutions she wants included in her program for unleashed “school choice” – public schools, charters, and private schools receiving taxpayer money through vouchers. The exchange went like this:
Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
That DeVos responded to a legitimate – even essential – question with a stubborn, insipid talking point is illustrative of not only her inability to provide an intelligent, straightforward answer to most questions about education policy, but also indicative of the empty rhetoric the well-financed charter school industry uses to respond to any appropriate questioning of the rationale for expanding these schools. There’s ample evidence – based on both DeVos’ personal efforts to unleash unregulated charter schools in her own state, Michigan, and on evidence from other states that have similar unregulated charter school environments – that much of the vaunted “accountability” of charter schools is an empty promise at best, and at worse, a curtain to hide all sorts of malfeasance and corruption. As a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy documents, “lack of oversight” and regulatory guidelines have led to a massive expansion of low-performing charter schools in Florida. While Michigan is often called the “Wild West of charter schools,” Florida is the “Wild South.” In 2015, I traveled around South Florida to report about how a plan for charter school expansion hatched by former Gov. Jeb Bush had spread financial opportunism and corruption while doing little to improve the academic performance of students. In a subsequent report, I revealed that the rise of charters as big, unregulated businesses brought with it new and special forms of ripping off the taxpayers under the guise of a “civil rights cause.” CPD’s new report reveals the situation with charter schools in the Sunshine State has only gotten worse. While Florida’s K-12 charter enrollment increased 172 percent over the last ten years, millions of taxpayer dollars poured into charters that quickly closed. “Many of those charters that do remain open fail to perform well,” the report states. “Florida lawmakers have allowed charters to be scaled rapidly despite the large quality control problem that exists in the Florida charter industry,” says report author Kyle Serrette in an email to me. “Whenever new charters are approved, those decision makers believe they are getting a new ‘A’ rated school – yet in fact, 21 percent of the time they are getting a ‘D’ or below charter school. The flood of poor performing charters will only get worse until we get to the bottom of why this is happening.” The report calls for a moratorium on new charter school expansions in the state until there is an accountability system with transparent data on the schools, a better way to identify struggling schools, and a regulatory structure of “local school advisory councils” to provide more oversight. Serrette tells me, “Florida lawmakers have the responsibility to ensure charter schools are providing students with the education they deserve and holding themselves to the standards we would expect of any school.”
Senate looks at “block tuition” for universities
The Florida Senate will move forward next week with a proposal that would require all 12 state universities to adopt a "block" tuition policy by the fall of 2018. The move to require undergraduates to pay a flat tuition rate per semester, rather than be billed on the current credit-hour basis, could be controversial. The state has had a block-tuition option for a number of years, yet none of the universities has adopted a plan. The dilemma: how to move to a block-tuition system without financially penalizing students while at the same time providing incentives for them to take enough courses per semester to graduate in four years. Additionally, university leaders, who have held the line on tuition increases in recent years, don't want to see a plan that would reduce their tuition revenues. Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made higher-education initiatives a top priority, said the Senate is still working on the details of its block-tuition proposal but that he believes a middle ground can be found. The Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday will take up two bills that embody the bulk of Negron's higher-education package, including the block-tuition plan. But at this point, there are no specifics on the block-tuition proposal other than the mandate that each university adopt a plan. Negron is advocating block tuition as part of an overall effort to get more Florida undergraduates to finish their baccalaureate degrees in four years, which means taking 120 credit hours of classes, averaging 15 credit hours for the fall and spring semesters or five three credit-hour classes in each semester. One of the Senate bills includes a provision that will measure the performance of the 12 state universities based on a four-year graduation rate, rather than the current six-year rate. The bill sets the goal at 50 percent. Based on the freshmen who entered state universities in the fall of 2011, the system averages 45 percent, according to the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system. The four-year graduation rate ranges from 67 percent at the University of Florida to 13.5 percent at Florida A&M University. In comparison, many elite public universities have much higher four-year graduation rates, including the University of Virginia at 87 percent and the University of North Carolina at 81 percent, according to Senate analysts. Only three Florida schools exceed the recommended 50 percent goal: the University of Florida, Florida State University and New College of Florida. The University of South Florida is close at 48.5 percent. But half of the schools are at 30 percent or lower.
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