Earlier this week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joined Education Next editor-in-chief Marty West to talk about the lessons he learned dealing with crisis and how those lessons can be applied to the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges it poses for K-12 education.
Among the suggestions Bush offers state and national leaders: Be clear and transparent, connect on a human level, and gather the best possible minds regardless of political persuasion.
“Just as in every disaster or every disruptive time in world history, incredible things happen when you’re forced to do things,” Bush says. “Because you have no other option, generally, you do them.”
Educators ask for $250 billion in federal aid, testing, Bush says open schools are economy key, and more
Editor’s note: During this holiday season, redefinED is republishing our best articles of 2019 – those features and commentaries that deserve a second look. This article from Step Up For Students’ director of policy and public affairs Ron Matus was part of our “Education Revolution” series marking the 20th anniversary of the far-reaching K-12 changes Gov. Jeb Bush launched in Florida. Originally published May 30, it spotlights a mom and daughter who participated in Florida’s historic Opportunity Scholarship.
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Tracy James finished the graveyard shift to find her car a casualty of the “voucher wars” – and her 8-year-old, Khaliah, needing another ride to school.
This was 20 years ago, when this Deep South Navy town became the front in the national battle over school choice. In June 1999, Florida’s new governor, Jeb Bush, had signed into law the Opportunity Scholarship, the first, modern, statewide, K-12 private school voucher in America. Khaliah and 56 other students in Pensacola were the first recipients, and now enmeshed in a political clash drawing global attention.
CNN came. A Japanese film crew showed up. So did a member of British Parliament. All wanted to see the “experiment” a Canadian newspaper said “will shape the future of public education in this state and perhaps across the United States.” Tracy and Khaliah were in the thick of it, with Tracy among the most outspoken of an unconventional cast of characters. The single mom with the self-described rebel streak wouldn’t hide her joy at this opportunity for her only child – and refused to cave to anybody who suggested she was being “bamboozled.”
“If you want something better for your children,” she told one paper, “you would do the same thing.”
Not everybody appreciated her resolve.
Tracy walked out of her shift as a phlebotomist to find her car sabotaged, three tires flat as week-old Coke. She called her dad, who said he could take Khaliah to her new school, one Tracy could not afford without the scholarship. The flats left Tracy shocked and ticked – and more determined.
I guess I need tougher skin, she thought. Because we ain’t going back.
Lots of folks know Ruby Bridges. But Khaliah Clanton-Williams? Maybe one day.
The original Opportunity Scholarship students, their parents, and the five private schools that welcomed them have never gotten their due. After an epic legal battle, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the school choice program unconstitutional in 2006, and the decision in Bush v. Holmes seemed to close the chapter. But it didn’t. Many of those whose lives were touched by the scholarship have untold stories, with some still unfolding in ways that attest to the power of that experience.
In one sense, the Opportunity Scholarship was as small-scale as it was short-lived. Students were eligible if their zoned public schools earned two F grades in a 4-year span, and in 1999 only two schools – both in Pensacola – fell into that category. At the same time, most private schools sat it out. Among other restrictions, the law barred them from charging tuition beyond the scholarship amount of $3,400 to $3,800. At its height, the Opportunity Scholarship served 788 students.
And yet, it loomed so large. Florida’s “first voucher” stirred the imagination about what could be with a more pluralistic, parent-driven system of public education. It exposed the festering dissatisfaction many parents had with assigned schools. It enabled and amplified voices that still aren’t heard enough.
Pensacola may be best known for its Blue Angels and sugar-sand beaches. But most of the parents who applied for the school choice scholarships were working-class black women – nursing assistants and bank tellers, cooks and clerks, Head Start workers and homemakers. They had a lot to say about schools in Pensacola’s low-income neighborhoods, and for a few months in 1999, they had the mic.
Khaliah’s assigned school was modest red brick, five blocks from her home, named for the district’s first “supervisor of colored schools.” Khaliah would be starting kindergarten, so Tracy stopped to visit. She never got past the front office. “It was a zoo,” she said. “Kids were running around. They were screaming. There was no discipline. There was no structure.”
Nobody with the school acknowledged her, so after a few minutes, Tracy left … for good. She turned to her only option: another district school near her mother’s house, two miles away. Tracy said her mom, a former custodian for the school district, became Khaliah’s guardian so Khaliah could attend. But that school didn’t pan out either.
One day, Tracy watched through a window as kids in Khaliah’s class danced to music blaring from a boom box. She found the teacher in a side office and asked what was going on: “ ‘She said, ‘It’s reading time.’ I said, ‘They’re not reading.’ “ Tracy opened her eyes wide for emphasis.
Khaliah, meanwhile, shy and soft-spoken, was falling behind. “I had a hard time concentrating because it was so loud,” she said. “I’d ask for help and it was like, ‘just a moment.’ But the moment never came.”
Tracy heard about Opportunity Scholarships while working another job as a hotel desk supervisor. Some guests asked her in passing about local schools, and as fate would have it, they were lawyers with the Institute for Justice, the firm that would later help defend the scholarship in court.
Ninety-two students applied for the scholarships, including Khaliah, who had come back to live with Tracy. That exceeded the available seats in the four Catholic schools and one Montessori that opted to participate, so a lottery was held.
Khaliah emerged with a golden ticket.
Tracy took her time before deciding on a school. She read up on Catholic schools, talked to friends and co-workers who attended Catholic schools, learned everything she could about Montessori. She was intrigued by the latter – by the mixed-age classrooms, the cultivation of creativity, the curriculum that was so different. In the end, the rebel and her daughter decided they wanted different.
Khaliah attended Montessori School of Pensacola from second through seventh grade, and, in Tracy’s words, “blossomed” in confidence and knowledge. She returned to public school in eighth grade (Tracy wanted her re-acclimated to public school before high school) and graduated from Pensacola High in 2010. For most of the next few years, she worked as a mortgage loan officer. She earned her associate degree in business administration from Pensacola State College in 2018. She’s on track to earn a bachelor’s in human resources management (with honors) in 2020.
Without the Montessori, Khaliah said, much of that would not have happened.
“It made me better,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gone to college. I don’t think I would have gotten my degree. (Montessori) made education more important. It was a higher standard.”
The upside wasn’t just academic. Tracy and Khaliah said nearly everyone in the school embraced Khaliah as family. There were only a few black students before a few more enrolled with the scholarships, but race was not a divide, they said. Khaliah made fast friends. They invited her to sleepovers, to ride horses, to U-pick blueberries. “These things were normal to them, but not to me,” she said.
Montessori co-owner (and head of elementary and middle school) Maria Mitkevicius said increasing diversity was a big reason the school opted into the scholarship program. So was the belief the school shouldn’t be limited to parents of means.
The staff knew the stakes, even if they didn’t know how much things might change. Twenty years after five private schools and 57 kids cracked the door, at least 26 private schools in Escambia County (Pensacola is the county seat) participate in Florida’s K-12 school choice scholarship programs, serving at least 2,163 students. Statewide, 2,000 private schools serve more than 140,000 scholarship students, with thousands more on the way.
“We thought this might change the face of education,” Mitkevicius said. “I guess it did.”
The news on Pensacola TV showed 10,000 sign-waving students and parents, marching at a 2016 school choice rally in Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III. As Khaliah watched it again last week, tears fell.
It hurt, she said, to see so many who still don’t have choice or fear their choices could be taken from them. At the same time, how nice to see strength in numbers.
“Back then,” she said, meaning 1999, “it was just us.”
Remembering back then is tough for Tracy too. Some in Pensacola’s black community could not understand why black parents would support anything connected to Jeb Bush. “We were looked on as kind of those people who are being arm twisted by the governor, like you’re letting the Republicans bamboozle you,” said Tracy, now a clinical recruiter for a Pensacola hospital.
It got ugly. Dirty looks. Heated words. The tires. Tracy said some friends and family stopped speaking to her, and she switched jobs because she felt she was being harassed for taking a stand.
But the rebel has no regrets.
“I wanted to try something different, I wanted to be different, I wanted a different opportunity for my daughter,” Tracy said. “From what I saw happening, I wanted to be able to make the choice, myself, of where she’d end up as an adult.”
“I had no idea that it’d turn out to be such a controversial issue,” she continued. “To be thrown into sort of the limelight of a political battle, I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea how important it would be.”
Or how much of a struggle.
“When we went through that program, I was thinking that was kind of the end of an era,” Tracy said. “But it was actually the beginning.”
The shy girl who helped pioneer school choice is now a tough-minded mom who needs more.
Khaliah is married to a paper mill machine operator, and their oldest, Kyrian, will begin kindergarten this fall. His zoned school is one of 11 D-rated schools in the district, so like her mom before her, Khaliah looked for alternatives. She applied to three higher-performing district schools through an open enrollment program, but all were full. On a second go-round, Kyrian got into a new elementary north of Pensacola. It’s not ideal. The drive will be up to 45 minutes each way, and Khaliah switched jobs – to drive for Shipt, Lyft and Uber – so she can have flexibility.
Still, she’s worried. Kyrian has special needs – he’s hyperactive, averse to change in routine and undergoing speech therapy – but has not been formally diagnosed with anything. At this time, he wouldn’t qualify for any of Florida’s private school scholarships.
The irony isn’t lost on Tracy and Khaliah. School choice helped them. They helped pave the way for more. Yet 20 years later, there still isn’t enough choice for Kyrian.
The rebel’s daughter said that just means the work isn’t done.
“I’ll continue to fight for my children as my mom fought for me,” Khaliah said. “I’m not taking no as an option.”
We tend to think of K-12 schooling systems as delicate. Cut their funding a bit and their performance falls apart. But what if we were to envision a K-12 schooling system that is anti-fragile, using the concept developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb?
Under Taleb’s definition, systems that are anti-fragile aren’t necessarily hard to break; rather, they simply get stronger when placed under stress. Exercise is a ready example of an anti-fragile system. Exercise tears down muscle, but then that muscle grows back stronger than it was before.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared to place his state’s education system under a policy-induced stress during his two terms from 1999 to 2007. The Florida Education Association didn’t much care for it, mortgaging its Tallahassee headquarters in a (fruitless) effort to defeat Bush’s 2002 reelection bid. Florida academic outcomes, however, clearly improved during that period.
The Obama-era effort to incentivize states and create a teacher evaluation system based on test scores was another effort to create a healthy stress for the K-12 system. Alas, I am unable to create a broadly encouraging national chart similar to the one above (national performance was flat on both NAEP and PISA), but what may loom increasingly over the next decade is a severe competition for public dollars. It may, in fact, more closely resemble the Great Recession than a purposeful K-12 strategy.
Arizona has the best example of an anti-fragile K-12 system. The Great Recession drop-kicked that state’s housing-heavy economy with a steel-tipped boot. State general fund revenue dropped 20 percent in 2009 and the rapid enrollment growth Arizona had enjoyed since World War II suddenly stalled.
Despite Obama stimulus money and a temporary sales tax increase, K-12 per-pupil funding experienced some of the largest cuts in the country. Arizona charter schools already received less funding per pupil than Arizona’s (modestly) funded districts, and then those funds were cut along with everything else. As an Oxford debate is to a punk rock mosh pit, so is 1999-2007 Florida K-12 to the Great Recession in Arizona.
So, what happened with academic outcomes in Arizona charter schools during this difficult period?
At around 200,000 students, Arizona’s charter sector is about the size of a large American school district and more than twice the size of the Wyoming public school system. It also educates a mostly minority student body at a level of per-student subsidy compared to systems nationally. This chart shows eighth-grade NAEP reading absolute scores and gains/declines for Arizona charters compared to state district systems from 2009 to 2019.
Math looks very similar, as do the Science exams. Arizona charters also show high achievement on the state AZMerit exam, and an analysis of transfers shows that on average, they send students to districts with above-average AZMerit scores and receive from districts transfers with below-average scores.
So: This system is looking anti-fragile; funding got cut, but achievement rose. This anti-fragile system of schools draws its strength from the fragility of undesired schools.
The Great Recession hit Arizona’s economy early and hard. Charter operators with long waitlists and strong track records who were able to access capital financing despite the downturn found inexpensive facilities in abundance. Charters that had been struggling with parental demand before the downturn folded under the weight of their difficulties. The Arizona charter school sector overall grew rapidly in size and simultaneously in average levels of achievement.
Far from extraordinary, this is perfectly normal in most human endeavors. Firms with services and products in high demand grow to meet demand, while those with low demand close. When placed under severe stress, Arizona charter schools became much stronger (as did Arizona K-12 education as a whole; Arizona alone made statistically significant gains on all six NAEP exams during the 2009 to 2015 period). It’s very rare in public education, however, that districts routinely face community pressure to keep under-enrolled schools open and school boards routinely fold under this pressure.
Likewise, many districts have high-demand schools with waitlists, but those schools commonly are kept as niche players rather than scaling to meet demand. The dynamic here is the same. Incumbent interests would see a scaling high-demand district offering as a threat to the employment/operations of other schools in the district.
Few districts, therefore, display antifragility; undesired schools remain in operation despite diverting funds from classroom use, high demand schools don’t get the opportunity to replace low demand schools, and frustration abounds for decades as we try – and largely fail – with top-down schemes to spur greater productivity from a system that largely lacks the ability to dynamically improve.
Winston Churchill once noted that Americans will always do the right thing once they have exhausted all the other possibilities. Education is not an exception.
Happy holidays, and see you in 2020!
Jury rips districts: A statewide grand jury has concluded that many Florida students are in imminent danger because their schools are not complying with state requirements for school security. “There is no conceivable set of circumstances that any Florida school, charter or not, should be unprepared to comply,” according to the report that was issued Wednesday. It’s the second report issued by this grand jury since it was empaneled by Gov. Ron DeSantis to look into school safety noncompliance by districts. The report singled out the Broward County School District as particularly slow to comply, citing its flawed communications systems, under-reported student incidents and its rushed efforts to meet the law’s requirements. Sun Sentinel.
Armed teachers: Republican legislators who pushed to allow Florida teachers to be armed in classrooms now say they don’t need to know how many have signed up for the training to carry weapons. State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and the chair of the Senate’s education budget-writing committee, said this week that she doesn’t know how many teachers are carrying concealed weapons in schools, and that it isn’t something that concerns her. Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, is pushing for disclosure, and said she thinks Republicans don’t want the number released because it will prove the program is a failure. Thirty-eight of the state’s 67 districts are participating in the armed guardian program, but Safe Schools director Damien Lewis said in September that only 11 were considering arming teachers. News Service of Florida.
School board term limits: Local school board members in Florida would be limited to 12 years in office under a proposed constitutional amendment filed Wednesday in the Senate. State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican from Sarasota who is also chairman of the state party, filed the resolution that, if approved, would place the question on the November 2020 ballot. A similar proposal was filed in the House in September, but it calls for term limits of eight years. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics.
Four-day school week rejected: Hernando County School Board members informally have agreed that a four-day school week is not in the district’s future. “I see this going over with parents like a ton of bricks,” said board member Gus Guadagnino, echoing the thoughts of the rest of the board and school officials who looked into the idea as a way to cut costs. They said the arguments against four-day weeks — longer school days, a loss of art and music classes, trouble with transportation and sporting events — outweighed the arguments for the change, which centered on saving money. Tampa Bay Times.
Teachers honored: Heather Young, an art teacher at Venice Elementary, has been named the Sarasota County School District’s teacher of the year. Joshua Grant of Venice High was named the district’s high school teacher of the year, and Sarasota Military Academy Prep’s Marissa Dobbert was chosen as the middle school teacher of the year. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Charlotte Sun.
Student-athlete safety: The House PreK-12 Innovation Committee has given its approval to a bill aimed at improving safety for student-athletes against health crises brought on by heatstroke. The bill, filed by state Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, would require defibrillators to be available for all games, practices, workouts and conditioning sessions, with an employee or volunteer trained to use it, and amend guidelines for when schools should have cooling zones or cold-water immersion tubs available. Tampa Bay Times.
Campus therapists approved: Therapists will be on Citrus County school campuses next year after a contract between the school district and a community mental health provider was approved by the school board. The deal calls for LifeStream Behavioral Center to provide 6-10 mental health counselors to be divided among schools. The therapists will treat students for behavioral and emotional issues and refer students to other services as needed. Citrus County Chronicle.
Desegregation plan reconsidered: The Volusia County School Board wants to take another look at the desegregation plan that’s been in effect for decades. The plan bused black students from a Daytona Beach neighborhood to schools that were predominantly white, but did not bus white students into the mostly minority schools near that neighborhood. Board members have asked district officials to research the results from the plan. Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Medical marijuana in schools: The Duval County and Citrus County school boards have approved policies that will allow students with prescriptions to receive medical marijuana treatment at schools. The treatment must be administered by a student’s caregiver or parent, and no one at any school is permitted to help or store the drug. WJAX. Citrus County Chronicle.
Vaping by students: The percentage of Collier County middle and high school students who use electronic vaping products is the highest in the state, according to the Florida Department of Health. Its new report said 39.2 percent of Collier students reported vaping in the last 30 days in 2018. The county with the lowest rate is Gadsden, at 15.6 percent. The statewide average is 27.9 percent. WBBH. A look at what vaping is costing one U.S. school district. Education Week.
Contract negotiations: The Manatee County School Board approves a contract that gives 71 percent of the district’s teachers a $1,249 pay raise, and $936 to another 28 percent. The raises are effective as of Dec. 20, and paychecks will include retroactive pay to July 30. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Pasco County School Board is expected to vote Dec. 17 on a tentative contract agreement that would give 3.25 percent raises to the district’s 1,100 school-related workers. The agreement would cost the district about $2.2 million. Gradebook.
Board rejects Maier request: Marion County School Board members reject Superintendent Heidi Maier’s request to hire an accounting firm to audit the school district’s hiring process. Maier wanted authorization to spend $21,350 for the random audit of 200 employees to see if their applications had been properly vetted. Board members called it a waste of money and unanimously rejected the request. Ocala Star-Banner.
Board meeting security: The Manatee County School Board will discuss making changes to the security protocol it established for board meetings shortly after the district took over the Lincoln Memorial Academy charter school in July. Bag checks and metal detectors will probably remain, but alternatives to the prohibition on standing during meetings, heavy police presence in the room and the removal of some attendees for breaking the board’s rules could be considered. Bradenton Herald.
School start times: Palm Beach County School Board members have authorized Superintendent Donald Fennoy to research the feasibility of later high school start times. Sun Sentinel. Parents and students in Broward and Palm Beach counties say high schools should start later in the day, though many worry about the impact of later times on after-school activities, homework and working students. Sun Sentinel.
School calendars: The Palm Beach County School Board approves a change in the school calendar. Schools will be closed March 17 for the state’s presidential primary. That day will be made by by cutting spring break a day short, with schools open March 30. Palm Beach Post. Sun Sentinel. The Lake County School Board approves a 2020-2021 school calendar that closes schools on Veterans Day and Thanksgiving week. The year will begin Aug. 10, and the last day of classes for students is May 28. Daily Commercial.
Teacher shortage: The national shortage of teachers is also being felt in special skills fields such as braille instructors. Officials at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind say the shortage is due to cuts in teacher training. “Since the day I started, there has been a chronic shortage of teachers who are able to teach reading and Braille,” said school president Jeanne Prickett said. News Service of Florida.
New school program: A program to train Charlotte Technical College students in breaking down airplanes and assembling them could start at the Punta Gorda Airport by January 2021. The Charlotte County School Board approved a lease for a donated plane and other equipment, and the school district has received a $1.7 million grant from the state. The Charlotte County Airport Authority still has to approve the lease, and the Federal Aviation Administration must sign off on the plan. Charlotte Sun.
No charges for principal: Bradenton police have concluded that there’s not enough evidence to charge Palmetto Elementary School principal Michelle Mealor with child abuse. A substitute teacher told police she saw Mealor yank a chair out from under an autistic boy, causing him to fall the ground. “Basically, we have conflicting statements,” said Police Chief Scott Tyler. “To bring a battery charge, we would have to show that she deliberately caused physical harm.” Bradenton Herald.
School investigations: Police in DeLand are investigating a report that girls at a private school in Volusia County are being ordered to change in a classroom with windows and surveillance cameras. If they didn’t change into their gym clothes in the room, they were reportedly told by a female teacher at DeLand Preparatory Academy, they would receive failing grades. School officials say they believe the investigation “will be resolved in our favor.” Orlando Sentinel. Kirsys Elizabeth Padron, 35, a language arts teacher at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High, is identified as the teacher who resigned during an investigation into allegations that she was having sex with a student. Miami Herald.
Teacher retires: A Palm Beach County teacher who was facing being fired for threatening to kill someone has instead retired. Raymond Berger, 56, a physical education teacher at Eagles Landing Middle School in Boca Raton, cursed and yelled the threat in front of students. The school board had scheduled a vote Wednesday to fire Berger, but he submitted his resignation and retired Tuesday. WPTV.
Bus driver facing firing: A Manatee County school bus driver faces dismissal after a student she was driving was struck and badly injured by a vehicle as he crossed the road to board the bus. District officials are not saying why they intend to fire bus driver Tina Rodriguez. “Why they want to discharge her, I don’t know,” said Hector Ramos, the coordinator for Rodriguez’s union. “If management persists in terminating her, we will proceed to arbitration.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Opinions on schools: While support for school choice is surging, some of the Democratic presidential candidates are swimming upstream. Patrick R. Gibbons, redefinED. School districts know their students and communities far better than legislators in Tallahassee. The decision to teach about the Bible as part of secular public education should remain in their capable hands. David Barkey, Orlando Sentinel. If Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to emphasize civics as part of public education, fine. Just don’t imply that Florida hasn’t already been doing that for a while. Joe Henderson, Florida Politics. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested we need a common term for concepts such as mastery-based learning, personalized learning, competency-based learning, individualized learning and customized learning. I recommend we use the term ”customized education.” Doug Tuthill, redefinED.
Student enrichment: Sales from a Florida 4th-grader’s hand-drawn University of Tennessee shirt have raised more than $950,000 for an anti-bullying organization. The university marketed the shirt after the boy was teased by his classmates over the homemade design he wore for his school’s college colors day. Associated Press. WTVC.