While President Trump's boastful comments about crowd size at his tour of Hurricane Harvey's devastation in Houston struck some as egotistical and self-aggrandizing, his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a similar performance in Florida, where she robotically recited her favorite talking points against a backdrop of a slow-motion catastrophe striking the state's public schools.
Like her boss avoided interacting with people who bore the brunt of the hurricane, DeVos avoided public schools, going to a privately-operated charter school and a voucher-receiving private school instead.
What's hitting Florida's public schools may not directly endanger lives as Hurricane Harvey did, but it will surely exact a heavy toll on the Sunshine State's education infrastructure.
Yet DeVos calls the state "a role model for the nation," which foretells a troubling future for public schools everywhere.
'A Profit Boom For Charter Schools'
With the approval of its super-majority Republican legislature and its gargoyle-like conservative governor, Florida is forever altering the state's education landscape.
Under a Frankenstein monster-like new law, school districts will be required, for the first time, to send a portion of local tax revenues to charter schools, in addition to state revenues charters are already entitled to. The law gives charter schools the flexibility to open multiple schools a year. It funds a new initiative, called Schools of Hope, that transfers the lowest-performing public schools to charter school management companies. It limits districts' use of Title 1 federal government funds in ways that could provide more money for charter schools. And the law limits the number of restrictions a school district can place on a charter.
The provision requiring school districts to share local tax revenues with charters is particularly devastating to public schools.
As a result, Miami-Dade Schools may see a quarter of a billion dollars of its funds transferred to charters, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tells a reporter for the Miami Herald. "This will force the school district to delay, cancel, or reduce the scope of existing construction projects and impact the district’s ability to pay for school maintenance."
The costs to neighboring Broward County schools may be $100 million. Sarasota schools may lose $9.3 million to charters.
As a result of the Schools of Hope measure in the law, "more than 100 traditional public schools given low grades by the state will be converted into charters — even though the charter sector in Florida is deeply troubled," writes education journalist Valerie Strauss on her blog at the Washington Post, "more than 300 have closed as a result of poor performance."
"Charter schools often fail at a higher rate than traditional schools in Florida," states an op-ed by an education reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. "This bill takes a method of education that is failing at rates much higher than traditional ones – and puts it on steroids." (emphasis original)
“It’s going to be a profit boom for charter schools, and it’s going to hasten the demise of traditional public schools,” State Senator Gary Farmer tells a reporter for the Sun Sentinel.
On top of the harm done to Florida public schools by its new charter expansion law, state lawmakers this year also significantly increased the amount of public money going to private schools through school voucher programs.
One private school DeVos visited in Florida is a Catholic school, where "crosses are prominently hung in classrooms and the school honor code directs students to let God’s love guide them," according to a local reporter. The school charges more than $11,000 per year in tuition.
Another private school DeVos visited receives public funding through the state's voucher program. The total amount isn't clear. But Florida's statewide voucher program, called a tax credit scholarship, cost state taxpayers over $600 million in the first ten years of its operation, from 2002 - 2012, according to Fund Education Now, a state-based public school advocacy. Eighty percent of the parents who use the vouchers send their children to religious schools.
The vouchers are not limited to the poorest families. A family of four can earn as much as $48,600 and qualify for a full scholarship, and $63,180 for a partial scholarship.
Only 25 percent of students using these vouchers transfer out of the state’s lowest performing schools, rated D or F by the state, and only 10 percent of those students end up performing better on standardized tests, gaining over twenty percentile points. Fourteen percent lose more than twenty percentile points. Students who leave their private schools to return to public schools tend to perform less well than their peers who never participated in the program.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who many regard to be a collaborator with DeVos on education policy, recently called for "total voucherization" of public schools at an appearance with other prominent Republican politicians.
Bush called vouchers a necessary "innovation" because "the system we have today is still designed as though it was in the 1930's."
Bush's words are near copies of what DeVos said in Florida in calling public schools "stuck in a mode" from "100 years ago" and proclaiming the state an “innovator.”
Florida Is No 'Role Model'
Florida already ranks among the worst states for school funding – 41st according to one authoritative analysis – when all factors are taken into account.
The most recent annual analysis of school funding fairness conducted by the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education gives Florida a grade "F" on funding effort, noting the state has one of the worst ratios of local and state spending on education compared to the state’s economic productivity. That analysis also ranks Florida 41st out of the 50 states in its level of funding.
In writing about the Hurricane Harvey disaster for the New York Times, education journalist Dana Goldstein ponders whether Houston public schools will experience the same level of transformation after Harvey that education reformers brought to New Orleans schools after Katrina.
Katrina "remade education policy" in New Orleans, Goldstein writes, ushering in the state takeover of the district, "the dismissal of thousands of teachers, and an expansion of the charter school sector."
If Betsy DeVos has anything to do with how Houston schools recover from Harvey, we're likely to see more proposals to turn its city schools into privately operated charters and voucher funded private schools.
In the case of Florida, however, DeVos doesn't need a natural disaster to get what she wants. A manmade one will do just fine.
Editor's note: This is an update of an earlier version of this article, which misstated which private school DeVos visited receives vouchers.