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Florida’s Republicans keep their attacks on public education right on coming

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at the Shul of Bal Harbour, a Jewish community center in Surfside, Fla., on June 14. DeSantis visited the temple to denounce antisemitism and stand with Israel, while signing a bill into law that would require public schools in his state to set aside moments of silence for children to meditate or pray. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
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Here’s a very short quiz:

The Hillsborough County School Board in Florida met this month to consider a dozen proposals to open new charter schools or extend the operating agreements on others. The board considered data, recommendations of its staff and testimony from community members about the charters, which are funded by public tax dollars but privately operated.

Then it voted to approve four and deny eight (not always accepting the staff’s counsel). Four of those denied were requests from existing schools to keep. The decisions were made by the board made after members learned about poor academic outcomes, violations of federal law and other issues at some of the schools. Those four schools are supposed to now close and their students must find other schools.

What did the charter-school-loving administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) do? Did it let the local school board do its work without state interference? Did it point out what it considered errors in the process and offer to help the board resolve them? Or did it threaten to withhold funding from the district over the four existing charters that were told to close?

It’s Florida, where Republican officials have long since abandoned the pretense that they believe communities should run their own public schools without micromanaging from Tallahassee or that they want to maintain the integrity of traditional public school districts.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran took the last option, sending a letter to the board which said it had violated a state statute by closing down four schools and gave the board a deadline to explain itself and change course or else face the loss of millions of state dollars.

Board lawyers are planning to challenge Corcoran’s interpretation of the statute, but district officials say that isn’t expected to stop Corcoran from trying, somehow, to keep the schools open. School board Chair Lynn Gray said in an interview that the panel was going to fight him, though, she added, “It could cost us.”

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to queries about Corcoran’s threat to Hillsborough.

The Hillsborough episode is the latest in repeated attacks on public education and local control — long a tenet of the Republican Party — by Florida GOP leaders. DeSantis made clear his disdain for traditional public schools in 2019 when he espoused a new definition of “public education,” which was heartily approved by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeSantis said in a tweet, “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.” That would mean that public education includes private and religious schools that discriminate against LGBTQ and other people that offend them but still receive taxpayer funds through vouchers and similar programs.

Betsy DeVos and her allies are trying to redefine ‘public education.' Critics call it ‘absurd.'

That is what critics of DeSantis and his “school choice” agenda say is the ultimate goal of the governor and his allies: to privatize public education.

“They are systemically trying to eliminate public education,” Gray said, noting that charter school supporters were trying to open charters in areas where Hillsborough’s very best public schools are located — and in areas where there are not enough traditional public schools to handle the growing population of Hispanic immigrants.

“They are very, very strategic about where they are putting them,” she said. “It’s very well planned.”

DeSantis and other state officials say that parents know best what their children need and that school choice programs are designed to give them options. They say, correctly, that some traditional public schools have failed students, but don’t mention the charter schools that have done the same.

In fact, the charter school sector in Florida has long been troubled. Though Republicans in the state have prevented strict oversight of the sector — even while micromanaging public school districts — Florida has long had one of the highest annual charter school closure rates in the country, involving schools that were closed after financial and other scandals. The state has also poured billions of taxpayer dollars into voucherlike programs despite no concrete evidence that the private and religious schools receiving the money have boosted students’ academic trajectories.

And so attacks on traditional public school districts just keep on coming from the DeSantis administration.

Last fall, DeSantis threatened Hillsborough County, saying it would lose state education funding (sound familiar?) if it did not drop plans to reopen schools remotely for the first month of the 2020-2021 school year. The county changed its plans to open virtually like most districts in the country did as the pandemic was raging.

A Florida school district wanted to wait to reopen school buildings. Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to cut its funding.

DeSantis, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, had ordered all school districts to open last fall while most of the country’s districts stayed close despite high coronavirus rates, giving only a few permission to stay shut a little longer than the others.

You might think that Hillsborough is No. 1 on the administration’s list of school districts in which to meddle — but that is only if you didn’t know that DeSantis had his sights set on removing Robert Runcie, the recently departed superintendent of Broward County from the first day he took office as governor in January 2019.

DeSantis pushed for Runcie to be removed by the local school board that hired him, blaming the superintendent in part for poor security at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School in Parkland, where a mass shooting occurred in February 2018. DeSantis knew he didn’t have the authority to unilaterally remove Runcie and his school board kept supporting him. So the governor called for the creation of a grand jury that indicted Runcie earlier this year on a single count of perjury — the details of which have still not been revealed.

Runcie’s attorneys say that the perjury charge — which stems from an investigation into Parkland shootings and was expanded to include other issues — was politically motivated. So do some of the members of the board, which accepted Runcie’s resignation in the wake of his arrest on the charge in late April.

There was also the incident late last year in which Corcoran — who said publicly in September 2020 he would encourage everyone “never to read” The Washington Post or the New York Times — announced that he had “made sure” that a veteran teacher in Duval County Public Schools had been “terminated” from her position. Education commissioners in Florida don’t actually have the power to fire a teacher.

Amy Conofrio was moved to a nonteaching position by the district after she refused to remove a Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom at Robert E. Lee High School, where 70 percent of the students are Black. District spokesperson Laureen Ricks said at the time in an email that the employee in question (who was not named in county statements) was being investigated for several incidents, none of which were named.

Results of the probe into Donofrio, who had co-founded a student-driven organization called the EVAC Movement which worked to empower Black students to work for positive change, have not yet been released.

Florida’s Republican leaders have been in the national news lately for other education moves, which include:

  • A new law that bans critical race theory from being taught in Florida classrooms, though it isn’t clear that any classrooms actually teach it. CRT is an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Republican-led legislatures in numerous state are or have already passed legislation to restrict how teachers can address systemic racism — a reaction to the social justice movement that arose out of protests against the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Teachers across the country protest laws restricting lessons on racism

  • A new law that, among other things, requires public universities to assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the State Board of Education. DeSantis and other conservatives had frequently lamented that conservatives and their views are given short shrift in higher education.

It is worth recalling what the St. Augustine Record newspaper said about Corcoran in an editorial in 2018, which was headlined, “Rest in peace, public education.”

Let’s not beat around the political bush: Putting former House Speaker Richard Corcoran in charge of Florida education is like hiring Genghis Khan to head the state Department of Corrections.
The charter school fox is heading for the Department of Education hen house and, for public schooling, that’s finger-lickin’ bad.
Corcoran is a coercer, a brawler and politician who rewards fealty while marking opponents for payback. Those who know him would say he’d be flattered by the description.

Florida newspaper: ‘Rest in peace, public education’