Questions that State Legislators Should Have Answered Before Approving HB 7069

At the end of the 2017 legislative session, Florida’s “schools of hope” plan was approved, tucked inside House Bill 7069. This 274-page education bill was assembled at the last minute behind closed doors with little to no opportunity for public input, discussion and debate. 1

HB 7069 allows the Florida Department of Education to approve special charter schools called “schools of hope” in cases where schools received a D or F grade, or where they were closed within two years. The state’s initial agreement with a “hope operator” lasts five years. 2 HB 7069 also forces school districts to shut down or turn over to private management any school that receives a D or F grade for three consecutive years.

Removing Local Control

The bill’s supporters claim that districts now have ample opportunity to turn around lower-graded schools by providing $2,000 more per student for one year. These “turnaround” funds are being offered only to the 93 “newly failing” schools (those who received a D/F grade in the 16/17 school year). Over 50 schools applied, and the state will fund only 25 schools. Schools rated D/F for longer than one year were ineligible for turnaround funds.Moreover, HB 7069 eliminated district School Improvement Plan funding that provided wraparound services like tutoring in lower-income schools. In essence, they have moved the turnaround responsibility and funding from the district (where the community resides) to the state, which has little to no in-person contact with the school.

“Schools of hope” are built and operated using public funds, but hope operators are exempt from school district policies and Florida education statutes 1000-1013.2  All other public schools must follow these statutes, which cover attendance, student health exams and immunizations, discipline, Exceptional Student Education, career-themed courses and academies, physical education, class size limits, professional certifications, etc.  As long as schools of hope meet their performance measures and financial obligations, the state will renew their contracts.

Questionable Accountability

HB 7069 defines hope operators as nonprofit organizations with tax exempt 501(c)3 status that have at least three schools serving lower-income K-12 students. The state’s plan for holding “schools of hope” accountable raises many new questions:

Criteria for serving as a hope operator include:

  1. The achievement of enrolled students must exceed the district and state averages of the states in which the operator’s schools operate.This sounds promising, but the state does not seem to have a good track record of enforcing this rule. One of the handful of “schools of hope” currently in Florida did not outperform district/state averages, but its contract was renewed. Who will ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted?Schools of hope measure performance using standardized tests, similar to public schools. For example, to assess math and reading, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Jacksonville schools use an internal test (Measures of Academic Progress) twice a year, the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) in 3rd, 5th through 8th grades. There is no KIPP Jacksonville high school, but KIPP high schools elsewhere use college entrance exam scores as performance measures.3 Why introduce alternatives that use the same damaging practices already imposed on traditional schools?
  2. The average college attendance rate at all schools currently operated by the hope operator must exceed 80 percent, if such data is available.Hope operators report college enrollment (matriculation) rates. The national average college matriculation rate for KIPP students meets this criterion; however, the majority of KIPP graduates don’t finish college. 4 Why prepare Florida students to score well on college entrance exams and be admitted to college if most aren’t able to earn a college degree?
  3. The percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced price lunch (under the National School Lunch Act) enrolled at all schools currently operated by the operator must exceed 70 percent.Districts are required to set up “schools of hope” within the attendance zone or within 5 miles of an existing D- or F-graded school (whichever is greater), but these charter schools aren’t required only to accept students from the lower performing school. Any student can attend this charter school. There is no screening for school of origin. How many lower-income students will be helped by this plan?

Other criteria: The operator must be in good standing with the authorizer in each state in which it operates, and the audited financial statements of the operator must be free of material misstatements and going concern issues.

On Dec. 15, 2017, the Florida Department of Education lowered the bar.5 A hope operator would have to meet only one of the following criteria:

  1. Be awarded a USDOE Charter School Program for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools grant during the past 3 years, or
  2. Be awarded a grant through the National Fund of the Charter School Growth Fund.6 Hope operators like KIPP received these awards, but not for schools operated in Florida. Where is the state’s evidence that “schools of hope” will succeed in Florida
  3. A school board can approve any non-profit charter school.

Can school boards find charter schools with three years of K-12 experience serving lower-income communities that outperform district and state averages? Is the state creating an opportunity for charter schools like Academica to serve as “schools of hope”?

More Unanswered Questions

What will happen to public schools after a “school of hope” arrives?  Will traditional schools still have the resources to offer the same level of staffing or better, and the same or even new career-path programs after their funding is given to these charter schools?  Will students with special learning needs (e.g. students with IEPs, English Language Learners) have the same opportunity to attend a school of hope and receive the same or better level of individualized attention?  How do students in these groups at these schools perform relative to their public school peers?

How well do hope operators serve communities with a high percentage of English Language Learners (ELL)?7 One KIPP executive suggested that the longer school days helped with language. He also noted that 162 KIPP schools have more autonomy than public non-charters.  If the Florida state legislature funded extended days and gave teachers and principals more autonomy, would ELL test scores also rise? Why is school autonomy supported in charter schools, but taken away from traditional public schools by the same legislature?6

Will the state be more transparent and inclusive of public input in future legislative sessions?

These questions weren’t answered before “schools of hope” were added to HB 7069. Because the lack of due diligence on this measure, it is crucially important for all stakeholders to carefully monitor the implementation of this law, then hold representatives accountable in upcoming elections.


Footnotes

1 Text of HB 7069: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2017/7069/BillText/er/PDF. Schools of Hope were not fully vetted in state legislature last session, but passed by being lumped into conforming bill HB 7069. That bill included a few positive, but problematic measures for public education (20 minutes recess, one less standardized test, merit pay for teachers, etc.). Sen. Farmer explained in a point of order how this bill violated state rules that ensure transparency and due process (Florida Channel video of 5/8/17 Senate session, starts at 20:15, http://thefloridachannel.org/videos/5817-senate-session-part-2/).

Find out how your state representative voted: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2017/7069/Vote/SenateVote_h07069c1017.PDF and http://flhouse.gov/Sections/Committees/billvote.aspx?VoteId=41180&IsPCB=1&BillId=59539&SessionId=83.

2 Read the “school of hope” plan in the Florida Education Code (state laws that govern education); for example, where they are allowed to set up [1002.333(1)(b); line 4998], initial contract time [1002.333(3); lines 5154-59], and excemption from state statutes and district policies [1002.333(6)(f); line 5174-75].  All Florida education statutes 1000-1013 published here: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Index&Title_Request=XLVIII#TitleXLVIII

3 Hope operators like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) runs a network of 209 elementary, middle and high schools, with over 88,000 students (2016-17).  In 2015-2016, 95% of KIPP students were African American or Latino, 17% English Language Learners, 11% received special education services, and 88% eligible for free or reduced lunch (http://www.kipp.org/results/national/#question-1:-are-we-serving-the-children-who-need-us). “Independent Reports” by a DC-based consulting firm, Mathematica, of KIPP performance are posted on their website. These reports emphasize successes and benefits (http://www.kipp.org/results/independent-reports/#mathematica-2015-report). Based on statistics from KIPP’s website, nationally, and in many regions, these schools of hope are successful in raising test scores and ensuring college admission (http://www.kipp.org/results/national/#question-4:-are-our-students-climbing-the-mountain-to-and-through-college). Nationally, in 2015-16, 93% of students graduate from KIPP high schools, 80% started college, and 38% of students 25 or older graduated from college with a Bachelors Degree. However, these performance measures vary by region and school. One 5-year-old Jacksonville KIPP Voice elementary school’s FSA scores do not meet district or state levels, and its attrition rate is 19% (http://www.kipp.org/wp-content/uploads/report-card-results/2016/school/kipp-voice-elementary-school.pdf).

4 Schools of hope compare their college completion rates to national averages, but this comparison is inappropriate.  Because hope operators’ implicit message is that students will complete college, the percentage of college graduates should match the percentage accepted to college very closely.  Statistics from KIPP’s website (http://www.kipp.org/results/national/#question-4:-are-our-students-climbing-the-mountain-to-and-through-college). Also, on October 11, 2017, Miami-Dade agreed to partner with KIPP to open a school in Liberty City. Note that the figure used in the Miami-Dade-KIPP Partnership document is higher than the figure on their website, because they included students who graduated with a 2-year associates degree (http://pdfs.dadeschools.net/Bdarch/2017/Bd101117/agenda/D66rev.pdf).

5 Florida Department of Education Proposed Rules for approving hope operators: ttps://www.flrules.org/gateway/ruleno.asp?id=6A-1.0998271. Read more at http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/2017/12/18/florida-department-of-education-posts-proposed-schools-of-hope-rules/.

6 Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools awards https://www2.ed.gov/programs/charter-rehqcs/awards.html. National Fund of the Charter School Growth Fund (https://chartergrowthfund.org/portfolio/national-fund/

7 Some regions with a high percentage of English Language Learners show some success. KIPP Austin has four elementary schools, four middle schools, and one high school, with 4,500 students, 93% Latino/Hispanic, and 51% ELL (as reported to the state; http://kippaustin.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/TAPR_annual_report_2015-16.pdf). This charter district is one tenth the size of the Collier County School District, and has a student to teacher ratio of 20:1. KIPP Austin high school graduation rates are 93%, college matriculation is 83%, but 67% of these students (49/73) dropped out of college.  In Los Angeles, another region with a high percentage of English Language Learners, all  students take a different test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. In elementary school, KIPP LA students scored about double their public school counterparts; however, this achievement is significantly diminished in reading and math by 8th grade (http://www.kipp.org/wp-content/uploads/report-card-results/2016/region/kipp-la-schools.pdf). Do some students begin to experience testing fatigue?  Or are they worn down from the discipline? Because these practices are used simultaneously, it’s impossible to isolate the cause.

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