The teacher, the server, and the grifters: fight for the living in Florida’s dead, dishonest, corrupt model

My family recently took a friend out to dinner at a Lakeland chain restaurant. As we were sitting down, I heard a customer say to her server: “One day, we’ll live in a world where teachers won’t have to wait tables as a second job.”

As you can imagine, that peaked my interest. When the server, a young woman, came over to our table, I asked if she was a teacher. She said she is. She had spent that day managing fourth graders and teaching them math at a low-income, traditional Polk elementary school, a school that is roughly equal parts black, white, and Hispanic.

She radiated kindness and competence. She told us, among other things, that she works shifts at this restaurant so that she can keep teaching, which she loves. And I have reason to believe, based on some subsequent correspondence, that she’s a leader among teachers at her school. She’s also an outstanding server, by the way. (Until I told her, she didn’t recognize me or know who I am, as near as I can tell, a usefully humbling realization.)

Later, she sent me a thank you email, a kindness as admirable as it is absurd. This line hit me: “I work so hard and it’s the little things at school teaching and at [the restaurant] that count.”

Compare and contrast with the (small) army of the dead

Conversing with this virtuous young woman, who is so much better than we deserve, makes for an extremely helpful contrast with the relative handful of elected and unelected grifters who run and/or command your state government and education system.

This includes both elected officials, and perhaps more importantly, the small army of unelected educrat grifters and hangers-on who enrich or support themselves and wield unelected power through the weakness and bad faith of our legislators.

All of these “servant leaders”could and should wake up every day, like I do, thinking about how to create that world in which this young woman need not take chicken finger orders so that she can keep helping kids understand fractions.

They could and should wake up every morning, like I do, thinking about how to provide behavioral supports that make her job less stressful and diminish disruptions in her classroom. They could and should wake up, like I do, grateful that she’s so honorable and decent. But they don’t.

They wake up thinking about grifting.

They wake up thinking about how to make a buck off the intersection of compulsory education and bad human instincts and the decency and honor of people like this teacher/server. They think about how to bleed this young woman — and the kids she serves — for no other purpose but grift. They are morally dead. And yet they walk. For public education in Florida, it is always the Battle of Winterfell. The dead are always coming for the living. And yet we, the living, have the vast superiority of forces, if we would just realize it.

Let’s start here in Polk.

Convicted criminal Ralph Arza “mentioned that he had met with Richard Corcoran”

I want to introduce you to Ralph Arza, who has become a mini celebrity in Polk thanks to his role in pushing the BridgePrep Charter for-profit real estate venture. You can read about that in this Ledger story. Your Polk School Board voted it down 3-3, after our Charter Review Committee voted 11-1 to reject it.

Arza is a former state representative and convicted criminal — a witness tamperer. Key quote from the Miami Herald

Arza resigned as a state representative in 2006 after he and a cousin left threatening messages on the voice mail of a fellow lawmaker who had filed an ethics complaint alleging that Arza used racial slurs when discussing Miami-Dade’s black schools chief. Arza had previously denied calling Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew a “n—-er,” but admitted that he used the word in recorded voice messages left for state Rep. Gus Barreiro.

Arza blamed the incident with Barreiro on alcohol and denied that he was a racist, but pleaded guilty in 2007 to two misdemeanor counts of tampering with a witness and received 18 months probation.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis considered Arza too racist to take part in fundraising during his campaign. Seriously. Judge for yourself. Here’s the quote:

Ralph Arza’s name was removed [from a fundraiser] because of hurtful and disgusting racial slurs that he has used in the past. He is not affiliated with our campaign,” the DeSantis campaign said in a written statement.

DeSantis then turned around and handed public education in Florida to DoE Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Arza’s close ally — if you believe Arza — and a fellow-traveler in hating public schools and public school teachers like our server.

It was Corcoran that Arza name-dropped to Polk School Board attorney Wes Bridges after the 3-3 vote, urging the board to reconsider.

I received a telephone call from Ralph Arza yesterday afternoon, requesting reconsideration of the Bridge Prep vote.  He mentioned that he had met with Richard Corcoran yesterday and informed him of the vote Tuesday, and said that Commissioner Corcoran had suggested he contact the district.

I asked DoE on Twitter to elaborate on the nature of Corcoran’s conversation with Arza; and I got crickets in response. My follow up with Bridges about this conversation leaves me quite comfortable in assuming the most heavy-handed possible implication. Corcoran can feel free to address on the record anytime he wants. I will happily print it.

Since the conversation with Bridges, Arza has sent a heavy-handed letter to my School Board colleague Lisa Miller. She shared it publicly. It’s cartoonish. Go check out her Facebook page to read it. For some reason, I didn’t get one, which I find vaguely insulting.

And here’s a funny personal aside: Arza claims he convinced Hunt Berryman to run all those “Billy Townsend is a child-eating drug pusher” TV ads and robocalls in the 2016 election. I have no way of knowing if this is true; but that’s what he told me during a pleasant chat at the last Florida School Board Association meeting. We chuckled about it.

I do know this: all of you helped me win that campaign 60-40, with 140,000 votes. That’s about 15x more than Richard Corcoran has ever won in any election. But I expect the small army of the dead to come back for more in 2020. They’ll find something else to call me. If you want to shoot me some dragonglass, feel free to contribute here.

Who the Florida Charter Schools Alliance chooses to embody it

So why is Arza nosing around Polk County?

Despite Arza’s colorful history, a thing called the Florida Charter Schools Alliance has made him its public face. Arza has been lobbying for BridgePrep in that role. Again, it shows the moral compass of the for-profit charter industry. He’s what they show to the public, without hesitation. (I’m not talking here about Lakeland Montessori, McKeel, Lake Wales Charter, Achievement Academy, etc., the locally grown charters. We have different issues we need to work out with them. And the Arza grift is as much a threat to them as it is to traditional schools.)

I believe Arza spoke one-on-one to every board member; but I don’t and can’t know for sure due to Sunshine rules. I know he spoke with me. I’ll talk to anyone one-on-one. I don’t care who you are. And I take nothing personally, except the well-being of the kids we serve and the people who serve them.

As I’ve said publicly a couple of times, I didn’t feel threatened or really even lobbied by Arza. We mostly talked pleasantly about politics. On a personal level, like a lot of political operators, I find Arza sort of amusing. I think we understand each other. And it’s always nice to have a window into how these people think and work. I was somewhat open to BridgePrep concept — which has bilingualism at its heart — until I learned the committee’s recommendation; a bit more about the real estate venture nature of the deal; and some of the shady background of the school’s network.

But I was still pretty surprised we voted it down 3-3.

And it wasn’t until we got the post-vote I talked to my buddy Richard, and you know, he wanted me to let you know you got a nice district there and it would be a shame if something happened to it note that I even felt the need to write about this.

In Arza’s letter to Lisa Miller, he made a reference to “another board member” saying we would probably “lose the appeals at the state.” I think he’s referring to me. However, I want to make clear that I do not think we would lose any appeal based on the merits of the case or the law. I expect us to lose when BridgePrep appeals because there is no such thing, really, as charter law, except what the Board of Education says. And their process for approval in Tallahassee is rigged and corrupt and built to serve people like Ralph Arza, not our teacher/server or your kids.

That doesn’t mean board members must make ourselves complicit on your behalf.

Will we reconsider BridgePrep?

In any event, the BridgePrep vote tied at 3-3 because Board Member Kay Fields did not attend the meeting to vote. I don’t know how she would have voted; but she expressed support for approval, subject to negotiation, in our previous work session. If she chooses to revisit the vote (Roberts Rules apparently allows for that), BridgePrep will probably win approval, subject to negotiation. If you’re opposed to that, you should let your board members know your position.

I do know BridgePrep’s for-profit management company, SMART Management, contributed $23,000 to a PAC called “Inform Florida” that worked hard for Fields in the 2018 election. You can read about Inform Florida here and the 2018 election here.

As a whole, many of these essentially for-profit real estate ventures masquerading as schools work together to advance their grift. You can see that on this lift of contributors to “Inform Florida.” Click to enlarge.


The Academica that spent $14,000 is a for-profit charter chain that employs Republican Sen. Manny Diaz in a roundabout sort of way. Here is some background on that. Diaz is the key state senator behind all this, the one who gives Kelli Stargel her orders. Public Education Activist Kathleen Oropeza put together this wonderfully helpful resume for Ralph Arza. Spend a little time with it if you want. 

Then I want you to imagine our teacher/server in Polk waiting on Arza’s table, hoping for a generous tip from his Academica-funded, convicted witness tamperer’s credit card, thanking him for letting her bring him his baby back ribs.

Can I get another glass of water with lemon before you go home to grade papers and get your rest for tomorrow? Chop chop. 

Now on to Tallahassee.

DoE/Legislature 2019: Yes, all that stuff we’ve told you about high stakes tests and school grades for 20 years is a giant, hairy lie

The cornerstone fraud of the Florida Model is not vouchers or for-profit charter schools or budget strangulation. Jeb Bush did not really ride to power on any of that in 1998. He rode to power on using the FCAT to create school grades to punish teachers and stigmatize poor children and ESE children and their communities. He ran on a fraud designed to discredit the core idea of real integration and egalitarian public education. And that’s been pretty successful in Florida. Nothing else has.

The modern Florida choice grift would not be possible without the endlessly manipulated, test-and-punish school grade grift that drives it.

For 20 years, Florida public education advocates and stakeholders have made a terrible, terrible short-sighted mistake every time they cited their own personal school or district grade. In Polk County, we continue to make a terrible, short-sighted mistake in having any reference to school grade fraud in our strategic goals. I will get it out one day.

Trust me on this: now that Tallahassee has a taxpayer voucher nose under the tent, school grades will worsen in the next couple years. The grifters gotta have something to sell with. There is no excuse, based on observation and experience, not to be that cynical about school grade fraud and manipulation.

Every time someone says, “we improved to a B,” a Ralph Arza gets his wings.

“We don’t grade our private schools”

However, in order to get their voucher grift, your legislators this year had to publicly disavow school grades as the meaningless fraud that they are. That’s a big deal, with long-term ramifications. And I was genuinely surprised how openly and shamelessly they did it. I thought they might come up with some fig leaf talking point. But they didn’t.

When your legislators and hangers-on are denouncing their own fraudulent school grades so they can give your money to Pastor Tiger, you’ve reached the end of an era.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Orlando Sentinel quoting Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan from Mount Dora, the top education lawmaker in the House.

“We don’t grade our private schools…I trust parents to do what’s best for their student,” Sullivan responded when asked by her House colleague how parents are to choose a private school. “If it’s a failing school, I trust parents not to send their children there.”

Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland apparently said something very similar about how unnecessary school grades are. But I don’t have the original quote. She’s welcome to clarify her position. I’ll happily print it. I certainly plan to ask her next time I see her.

When Colleen meets the teacher/server

In the meantime, try to imagine Colleen Burton out at the local restaurant where our teacher/server works (I bet she’s eaten there before), trying to explain to our teacher/server the grift that she imposes on her.

  1. Sorry, but you’re so bad at your job — and so lazy — that I have to give your raise and sacrifice your quality of life to Pastor Tiger.
  2. I know that you are bad at your job and lazy because of school grades and standardized test scores.
  3. Kids take these tests for their own good. And they suffer to create a school grade because public school parents are too dumb to make informed choices without them.
  4. However, these standardized tests and school grades are also useless and stifling and stigmatizing. They would make it too hard on the public school rejects that teach at the Pastor Tiger schools.
  5. Thus, for the kid’s own good, kids can’t take standardized tests and create school grades at the Pastor Tiger schools.
  6. When they leave the Pastor Tiger school grifted within a year or two, and return to you, which the vast majority of current scholarship recipients already do, it will become very important for them to take the tests again and create school grades so I can punish and hurt you again for your laziness
  7. Repeat. Forever. Now, please go get me a piece of cheesecake. If you’re quick enough, I’ll leave you 18 percent.

I’m not exaggerating. That is the official logic. Your legislators did public education advocates a great generational service in finally admitting that school grades are a giant grift. Face their logic clearly; and make them own it.

The demand for meaningful, humane public education is growing. It’s on a moral collision course with a government and its hangers-on, who have to resort to increasingly ridiculous contortions to restrict supply and keep their grift alive, as illustrated above.

That’s because the voucher network that will benefit from this grift operates, by and large, with public education rejects and completely without rules or oversight. The Orlando Sentinel has pointed this out relentlessly and heroically for more than a year. Here’s a good summary.

Here is my take on Pastor Tiger and voucher schools. Kingdom Prep was not a threat to Polk public Schools; but it was a threat to the kids who attended it and a willful distraction from the real needs of education, children, and teachers.

The low energy end of the Bush era

Jeb Bush is always fighting the battle of 1998. So it’s fitting that he was on hand for the low-energy voucher bill approval. It was of a kind of lifetime non-achievement award.

Bush’s beloved Common Core has collapsed in a puddle of failure and incompetent implementation, like everything else the so-called education reform “movement” attempted over the last generation. So his only real legacies in Florida are America’s worst individual test score growth coupled with America’s leading obsession with tests (see here, again, for the death purple study); a morally and intellectually insane third grade retention policy that punishes poor children; and the destruction of the teacher pipeline.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the pipeline, consider this from FSU Physics professor Paul Cottle, a lonely champion for real, authentic science and math education. We were exchanging notes about the teacher/server in this article.

So our teacher recruiting and retention system has depended for a very long time on exploiting that honorable impulse.  But that scheme has been stretched to the breaking point – hence the crash in the teacher supply.

I am seeing it here.  The turnout for the Orange County teacher recruiting visit here was about half of last year’s.  I figured that was an FSU problem, but when the same Orange County folks did the same visit at UCF, they got only half of last year’s UCF turnout.  The students have figured it out.

The destructive political genius of the Florida Model has been its effective use of morally judgmental language in conjunction with the manipulated school numbers. After all, only a bad parent would send their kid to a “D” school, right? Only bad people let kids suffer in “F” schools.

So it’s been bracing to watch the hangers-on of the choice industry abandon this moral language, completely and shamelessly, in loyalty to their voucher grift. I’m not even talking about the legislators. They don’t know anything about anything.

I’m talking about the ease with which folks named Goff, Tuthill, Gibbons, Matus — and all the other knowledgeable acolytes of well-funded, rented morality — shrug off all that BS they spent a generation spewing about the moral imperative of accountability.

Much ado about a pretty small grift — if you ignore the grifted

Here’s one of the smartest hangers-on, arguably the smartest. Before he left Florida, Travis Pillow worked for Step up for Students, which is the foundation that finances and should be held accountable for Pastor Tiger schools.

Pillow specialized in slathering a thin layer of moral language atop the grift cake of malignant nonsense baked to harm your kids and the people who serve them. I admired his skill, if not his decency. Here’s a tweet from Travis about the voucher bill approval.

LOL. Florida has achieved the ambition of Pillow’s entire adult professional life. And you know what, it’s really not a big deal. Don’t look too closely.

But I actually agree with Travis completely here. People often confuse intent with capability. Vouchers will not kill public education because the voucher school network is defined by Pastor Tiger and Kingdom Prep, not All Saints or Lakeland Christian or Academy Prep. Those respectable, institutional schools don’t scale, by design. They exist to escape scale. Exclusivity is their product. I respect people who pay for it. That’s not a grift.

Only public schools offer scale with any quality. And the death sentence we’re fighting for them isn’t the voucher grift; it’s the fake accountability and teacher hatred that has strangled public schools at scale, that has forced my teacher/server to work for tips and chased away so many colleagues at scale. It’s the same disease we’ve labored under for 20 years. Pastor Tiger vouchers are just a sarcoma of it.

Everyone paying attention, on all sides, “has figured out,” as Paul Cottle said, that continuing the Bush approach is a death sentence. The only question is whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Will we end the grift? Or will we run it to its logical conclusion: the end of a public school system that makes compulsory education possible — replaced by nothing?

They killed their own dead model

Understand, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran no more has a plan for the future of education — public or otherwise — than he did for his gubernatorial campaign. Likewise, Godzilla did not have a plan for rebuilding Tokyo. Let weeds grow in the wasteland is not a plan. Beyond the grift, they don’t know or care what they’re doing.

There is nothing coming to meet the growing demand for education services and human development except computer screens. Nothing.  Tallahassee is not smart, capable, or committed enough to build or implement anything. Kelli Stargel and Colleen Burton have no ideas except what they’re told to do. You think they have any clue what to replace public education with? This was not the most damaging Legislative session ever for Florida public education; but it was probably the stupidest. It’s never been more clear that small army of the dead doesn’t understand or believe its own nonsense.

The state-level governance model of public education in Florida is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

It is morally dead. Logically dead. Operationally dead. Intellectually dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Just listen to Tallahassee brag about the economy as they plunge teacher pay to 46th in the country and create a bonus program even worse and more harmful than “Best and Brightest.”

And for what? For Ralph Arza?

The payoff for all of this is just a few sketchy real estate venture charter schools that make a few sketchy dudes rich and a dangerous voucher grift on .5 percent of Florida public school kids. Overwhelmingly, those voucher kids come back to us in public schools. And they come back worse off than they left.

Again, if you doubt me on this, consider that every year a child attends a private school with today’s corporate vouchers makes that child less likely to attend a private school with a voucher the next year. It’s the ultimate voting with your feet based on firsthand experience. See image below. Click to enlarge.

Not coincidentally, those .5 percent are among the more vulnerable .5 percent of Florida schools kids. “Grift the vulnerable” has always been the real motto of the Florida Model. Always.

Now let’s fight for the living

But none of this is the same as saying public education is dead. Let me repeat that with a Dothraki scream: Public education lives, despite its leaders.

Everywhere on the ground in this state and county, you will find heroic people, like our teacher/server, fighting with their flesh and blood to keep authentic educational experience alive against the mindless and indifferent onslaught of its morally dead state leadership.

She might as well carry a flaming sword. If she’s going to carry that flaming sword into the dark dead, sacrificing herself, I damn well better go with her.

And you know what, there are a lot more flaming swords out there.

You see them at North Lakeland Elementary, where I recently judged the Tropicana Speech contest. With the support of their teachers and 5th grade classmates, these children shared beautiful stories about: coming to America from Puerto Rico, leaving behind all she had known; the memories of a beloved grandparent; and the debts owed to a devoted mother. The winner convinced us that magic is real.

You see them here at Friday night’s elementary showcase in Lakeland, in which a host of elementary music teachers and principals got together with a countywide Boys Choir, Girls Choir, Strings group, and Orff (stuff you bang or blow on) to put a joyful night of music and art.

That’s Polk County Fine Arts director Beth Cummings leading us in a wild bongo-drumming accompaniment of all the kids singing, stringing, and orffing. It’s the most fun I’ve had as a board member.

You see it in the creativity of the annual ITV video awards.

You see it at the Bartow City Commssion, which displays student art with much ceremony.

You see it with the Polk County Builders Association’s annual blueprint competition. I want to live in the house that Best-in-Show winner Isaac Penaloza, from Ridge Technical College, designed. So do you, trust me.

You see it in our graduation ceremonies for children with profound disabilities.

That’s just from the last week or so. None of it shows up in any fraudulent school grade used to justify the Pastor Tiger voucher grift.

God knows we have our problems, just like America does. I promise you I’m pushing every day to identify, address, and fix them. Indeed, I doubt that any School Board member in the history of Florida ever did anything quite like this with his or her own district. We had an incident today with a bus attendant that may or not make news. If it does, you’ll only know about it because we really are public schools; and we owe the public meaningful accountability. We owe that to our teacher/server, too.

But we also owe it to her — and all 105,000 kids — to fight the never-ending battle to preserve and strengthen what we have that is good. So much is good. The small army of the dead wants to destroy it all. All of it. And replace it with nothing.

The truest dividing line in American politics and public life, especially in Florida, is grifter versus not grifter. The living versus the dead.

I don’t care who you vote for. I don’t care what you call me. Right, left, and center have virtually no discernible meaning anymore. But if you want to be a teacher and a server, I’m here to help you however I can. If you want to be a grifter, I’m here to fight you until I can’t.

3 thoughts on “The teacher, the server, and the grifters: fight for the living in Florida’s dead, dishonest, corrupt model

  1. My heart aches for these teachers who are forced to work 2nd and 3rd jobs just to make ends meet.

    My heart aches for every ESE student who is relegated to a corner for the duration of each school day because the teacher has 20+ additional students to control and teach.

    My heart aches for students who get anxiety attacks before test-time.

    My heart aches for the parents of school-aged children who fear the future.

    Thank you for calling the grifters into account.

  2. Great.

    One correction: students came “to Florida” from Puerto Rico. Not “to America”. They were already in the this country.

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