Respect all choices: how Florida’s “turnaround” fraud drives Florida’s voucher fraud. End both.

As noted in my last article — and as shown above — 61 percent of the children and families who take Florida’s $6,700 Tax Credit Scholarship abandon the “voucher” within two years. 75 percent abandon the voucher within four years. That’s how much actual human beings value this toxic product.

Let me just state the obvious: for all the Polk County District’s challenges, which I wake up thinking about solving each day, 61 percent of our students do not “choose” to bail out of our schools every two years. Not anywhere close. If they did…can you imagine?

But that’s the record of an organization called Step Up for Students (SUFS), which is the unelected state “school board” of Florida voucher schools. It funds scholarships for and “oversees” the many, many bad voucher schools — and the fewer good ones, like Lakeland’s Academy Prep and Victory Christian.

A very misplaced pride in how vouchers fail children of color — and all children

SUFS and advocates of the voucher program are apparently very proud of the 61 percent two-year drop out rate. They’re proud of a provider network typified by Auburndale’s Kingdom Prep. I don’t understand what accounts for this pride; and none of them will tell me why they are not moving heaven and earth to change it.

Perplexingly, voucher advocates are especially proud that a large percentage of the children dropping out of the vouchers are black and Hispanic children. See this bit of hype shared last week from the Florida Department of Education, which is America’s worst.

Whenever people criticize and call for reform of the awful voucher provider network, SUFS immediately mobilizes anti-public school activists and a handful of parents. Then they use them to imply — or directly declare — that voucher reformers are racist. Last week, this wider SUFS universe created a meme of an Orlando lawmaker wearing a KKK hood because she doesn’t think voucher schools should systemically discriminate against LBGT kids.

SUFS’ cynical and socially-destructive self-defense strategy

The SUFS political strategy here — and that of Jeb-world overall — is deeply cynical, but sound. It relies on bullying people who care deeply about equity — many of whom are politically liberal — by calling them racist. It’s easier for most people, especially people who are not racist, to look away from this appalling record rather than to face and endure such a wounding charge. This is especially true when it’s organized at industrial political scale by SUFS’ considerable PR and political staff.

SUFS chooses to intentionally whip this up this social tension rather than work on the actual problem: overseeing and fixing the terrible schools that cause 61 percent of these children to abandon FTC vouchers every two years. I do not know why this is. They won’t say. You would think the SUFS activist universe would want to protect the children of color they are so quick to display at press conferences. But I can’t control what SUFS does.

And true leaders can’t allow empty name-calling to prevent us from doing our jobs on behalf of all children. It’s our duty, even when entrenched interests or grifters shamelessly slander those who threaten the grift. And believe me: any program that sheds 61 percent of its vulnerable participants every two years is a grift.

I’ve been called many names by everybody on all sides of the political spectrum. So what. I don’t care what you call me. Call me whatever you want. But I’m never, ever going to knowingly feed vulnerable kids of all races and creeds to into an education program that 61 percent of participants flee within two years because of how bad and dangerous the schools are.

The “turnaround” population and the voucher population are the same kids

The current discussion of vouchers misses an incredibly important element: the vicious negative public school marketing created by high stakes testing, fraudulent public school grades, and the so-called “turnaround” school process.  I wrote about the fraud of that scoreboard/grade system here, at great length.

“Turnaround” status is shorthand for any school that is lower than a “C” on the fraudulent school grade scoreboard. Turnaround schools are virtually always zoned schools that serve poor neighborhoods and large ESE populations. “Choice” schools overwhelmingly opt out of serving of ESE kids at scale.

Having “turnaround” status exposes teachers, parents, and kids to a spiral of punishments, stresses, and disruption that is the last thing any vulnerable population needs.

But SUFS and Florida’s government need these punishments, stresses, and disruption — for its marketing. Vouchers could not exist — at even their small scale — if state government and SUFS did not have weaponized “turnaround” parent blackmail in their arsenal. As the Orlando Sentinel noted in its Pulitzer-worthy “Schools Without Rules” reporting:

Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”

I’ll come back to this in just a second. But let’s look closely at the demographic similarity of the populations that attend voucher schools and turnaround schools.

The demographic breakdown for FTC vouchers is 27 percent white; 38 percent Hispanic; 29 percent black; and 6 percent other. That is pretty similar to the demographic breakdown of the 105,000 students in the Polk County School District, which is 38 percent white; 36 percent Hispanic; 20 percent black; and 5 percent other.

However, if you factor out the wealthier white children concentrated in Polk’s overwhelmingly white “choice” conversion charter schools — and some of the older district magnet schools — you are left with a traditional zoned school population that looks virtually identical to the FTC voucher population.

Dixieland’s fight to survive “turnaround” grift and blackmail

Dixieland Elementary, a zoned traditional school in central Lakeland, epitomizes this traditional school population. See the demographic breakdown represented below. The totals are 28 percent white; 37 percent Hispanic; 28 percent black; 7 percent other. That is so identical to the overall FTC voucher population as to make any difference meaningless.

Here’s what I wrote about Dixieland recently, in describing how I choose schools personally, as a parent:

So here goes: For elementary school, I’d pick Dixieland, an incredibly diverse neighborhood school that tipped slightly into “D” status (by one point) this year. I know many of the staff and teachers there. And I love them. I know what they give of themselves.

I’ve judged the Tropicana speech contest for fifth graders there the last three years. The speeches are increasingly better written and delivered; the subject matter is incredibly brave and personal and a cross section of modern American experience. And the kids in the assembly have behaved increasingly well. They’re always, always deeply supportive of the vulnerability their classmates show them on stage. I’d urge anyone who wants to have an opinion about Dixieland’s school grade to attend the speech contest with me next year. You will see real world evidence of meaningful human development.

Each year, looking at a truly integrated picture of American kids pouring themselves out to friends, I’ve found myself wishing my son had gone to school at Dixieland. It’s almost a neighborhood school for me. It might be the closest elementary to my house. It was a missed opportunity.

And, again, lest you doubt that the state rejects my judgment as a parent, I’ve just been informed that all sorts of state-level punishments are about to rain down on Dixieland’s people as collective punishment for existing. That’s a travesty; and it’s anti-choice. As a parent, it takes away the choice to work with dedicated professionals not being harassed by distant educrat grifters. In practicality, it’s likely to chase away the dedicated teachers and staff that led me to choose the school in the first place.

Indeed, punishment has rained down on the children, parents, teachers, and staff of Dixieland. You may remember that this picture, which was taken after I wrote that passage above.

Dixieland’s 1-point D was enough to drop Dixieland into “turnaround” status. And once that happened,  the state’s long-discredited so-called Value Added Model (VAM) teacher score forced teacher transfers at Dixieland just as school started. Full article here. That discredited equation is as follows:

Dixieland staff took it upon themselves, long after their contract time, to help move furniture and re-arrange classrooms. They called me; and I came to help, too. Here’s what Polk Supt. Jackie Byrd said at the time about the forced VAM transfers:

It is never the intent to disrupt any classroom or upset a teacher however, the 18-19 VAM was just recently released. For schools with a school grade of D, teachers with an unsatisfactory rating cannot remain in a tested/core subject area.

This morning we met with the principals along with the DOE staff where this was explained. The principal was informed that the teacher is to receive two days for classroom relocation.
Ultimately, all of this malevolence chased the principal of Dixieland —  an experienced, committed, kind, and effective principal who had built a strong school culture — out of education altogether. She left over the Christmas break. We don’t have an abundance of leaders at our disposal. As is the case with teachers and paras, we can’t afford to cast leaders off like surplus property in this district or state.

Now imagine Kingdom Prep is across the street from Dixieland

Now it’s time for a thought experiment: there’s a vacant lot immediately across the street from Dixieland. Let’s imagine that Pastor Tiger’s Kingdom Prep is actually located there instead.

Kingdom Prep was a SUFS/FTC voucher school in Auburndale that imploded last year after its leader, known as Pastor Tiger, was arrested on molestation charges.

In real life, I’m not aware that SUFS ever said a word about about Kingdom Prep. It never apologized to anyone that I ever heard. It helped no parent get a record, to my knowledge. Nothing. Grifted kids — especially grifted kids of color — aren’t helpful in marketing your grift by calling voucher reformers racist. It’s even less helpful to actually help these kids, apparently. Best to quietly cut them loose entirely after you’ve shown them of at your press conference or your social media propaganda piece. The public schools are always there to clean up the mess, anyway.

Let’s bend the laws of space and time just a touch and look at the Dixieland punishments and VAM transfers through a Kingdom Prep lens. Let’s pretend that Pastor Tiger is still a model Step Up for Students educator, with this on his website.

Now, let’s pick an FTC-qualified child from each demographic group at Dixieland. There would be many, many, many candidates. But let’s focus on third graders, whose parents are rightly afraid of Florida’s barbaric mandatory retention law for 8-year-olds who don’t “pass” the 3rd grade FSA. Remember:

Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”

Here’s a quick thought: which school would you bet on to put up higher (much higher) numbers on standardized tests? The public school that’s 1-point below a “C”? Or the “test refugee” voucher school that imploded after its pastor was arrested for sexual abuse of a child? Be honest.

We’ll never know with clarity because the Republican government of Florida — and its Democratic enablers — are very careful NEVER to create any framework by which the quality of FTC schools can be compared to the quality of the zoned public schools from which they recruit.

I would bet my house that the “worst” traditional public school outscores all but the very best of the voucher schools. I would bet my house that 1-point-“D” Dixieland would outscore ANY elementary FTC school in the state on the FSA, if that excites you. But SUFS does not want you know. The only meaningful metric available in the entire FTC voucher universe is the 61 percent 2-year drop out rate — from schools that are self-marketed as testing escape. Draw your own conclusions.

Systemic insanity

Based on the 61 percent FTC voucher drop out rate, at least three of the five Kingdom Prep voucher third graders would walk back across the street to Dixieland by fifth grade. That would happen whether or not Pastor Tiger was arrested and the school imploded. If it imploded, all for them would likely come back, hopefully not as victims of a crime.

Dixieland, of course, would have to take them back, whenever they showed up. And these kids would immediately have to take the FSA test again; but at least they would have missed 3rd grade retention, which could literally save their life prospects, as much data makes clear. The FTC choice was not irrational, based on the brutality and anti-humanity of Jeb’s model of education. I do not fault parents for making the choice and giving in to state-sanctioned blackmail.

Of course, these Pastor Tiger-grifted test refugees would produce bad test 5th grade FSA scores back at Dixieland, which would be used to discredit and punish all the kids, parents, and staff of Dixieland who did not leave. The Pastor-Tigered data of the returning kids would be used to force more VAM transfers of teachers so SUFS can keep up its anti-public school marketing to these same test refugee kids and parents. It’s a mind-bending circle of sociopathy.

And understand this, any teacher forced out of Dixieland by VAM could follow FTC kids across the street to Kingdom Prep and immediately become the best teacher at the school. He or she could immediately teach the same kids on FTC that he or she was just forbidden from teaching at the public Dixieland. And the same Jebworld activists who would kill a teacher’s career with VAM would fight to the death — and scream racism — to allow these same VAM-stigmatized teachers to teach the same FTC kids.

It is bonkers, in every way. And I am not lying to you about it.

Hey Melony, if you want to be a champion, don’t make “turnaround” worse; kill it.

We all chuckled at the extended drama of Melony-gate a couple weeks back. But in one of her various accounts of what happened, Rep. Melony Bell of Fort Meade declared that I know her to be a “champion” for public education. In fact, I do not know that. But, in fairness, I’ve never known her to be an enemy, either — beyond the same complicity in fraud that every other legislator of both parties currently takes part in.

Thankfully, this Legislative session offers a good chance for Melony to champion public education.

A new bill is floating around that would make the fraudulent “turnaround” process more draconian and fraudulent and effective in marketing the SUFS voucher grift. I have no idea if Melony can stop it. But she could choose to make it a cause. She could be as loud and disruptive as she accuses me of being. That would make her a champion not just of public education, but of decency, humanity, and good government.

Because make no mistake, Florida’s “turnaround” process is an abomination of poor kid and ESE kid punishment and hatred that should be eliminated yesterday.

Poor kids in zoned schools that most choice schools don’t want need more resources and attention, period. So give it to them, without the stigma and cruelty of “turnaround,” which turns 8-years-old into negative marketing material by declaring to the world there’s something fundamentally wrong with them.

Indeed, turnaround exists only — only – try to blackmail parents into leaving any zoned public school that isn’t wealthy or vastly overachieving on tests.

It exists only to market “choice” grifting. There is no educational or developmental value in it at all. Only stress and harm. The turnaround process in Polk County in 2016-2017 — and the forced teacher transfers and displacement that came with it — caused 1,800 years of lost instruction. Seriously. See this article. 1,800. LOST. YEARS. 

No parent at a “turnaround” school — none — is ever asked if they want the “turnaround process” to disrupt their school. No parents get to “choose” to do away with turnaround. If you choose to be a parent in a “turnaround school,” the state of Florida does not respect you. It considers you a bad parent, who must be punished. I know this fisrthand. I have felt the disrespect personally. As always, choice is a lie in Florida; because Florida only respects a few choices.

Voucher schools, which “serve” virtually the identical population to turnaround schools, are subject to none of the turnaround school BS. The take no state tests to be punished for; they produce no state grades; and neither SUFS nor the Florida DoE provides any meaningful oversight. They don’t deal with VAM.

In fact, every single voucher school should come with this disclaimer: This school has no oversight or assurance of academic standards or quality. You will probably drop out of it within two or three years. That’s the market at work. So you are on your own; and don’t call Step Up of Students when something goes wrong. We won’t answer. But we will bus you to Tallahassee to serve our interests and scream racism if serious public officials try to reform our grift.

That’s quite a thing to celebrate, voucher advocates.


3 thoughts on “Respect all choices: how Florida’s “turnaround” fraud drives Florida’s voucher fraud. End both.

  1. Why wouldn’t SUFS require some level of credible accreditation at the very least for their schools to be eligible for funding? Why wouldn’t accredited schools that participate in SUFS advocate for such a change?

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