Whither Expertise?

According to a front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review, “The Diplomats Can’t Save Us.” (An accompanying story says “The Generals Can’t Either.”)

As the story continues on the jump page, there’s a series of quotations from career diplomats “asking if their services are still valued”; describing “a toxic, troubled environment and organization” and “complete and utter disdain for our expertise” and “a slow unraveling of the institution.”

I understand that looming international dangers become ever more urgent when the State Department is dominated by neophytes and amateurs, and that those dangers can include human rights abuses, terrorist attacks, and even war. And I am appropriately frightened.

But that doesn’t keep me from noticing that those jump-page quotations could just as easily have come—with absolutely no editing required—from teachers in America’s public school districts.

We seem to have blundered into an era in which expertise is demeaned and incompetence is ignored—not only in the State Department, but also in the Education Department, and in many local Boards of Education. Not to mention the West Wing.

Florida Schools’ Chaos Is Worse Than Reported

There’s increasingly broad coverage of the mess Florida legislators are making of Florida education. Education Week has run a dozen major stories in July alone, and the Washington Post just added its voice under the headline “Florida’s education system—the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model—is in chaos.”

The stories in these and other journals have focused mainly on two recently enacted laws. The first (HB 7069) requires public school districts to share capital funding, in addition to operating funds, with charter schools. It’s already resulted in a lawsuit filed by one school district, challenging the requirement as a violation of the state constitution, and other school districts are expected to join the suit. The second law (HB 989) allows any district resident, not just parents of students, to challenge any instructional material being proposed for use in a district school—for any reason, however off-the-wall. Since use of the challenged materials may be subject to injunction pending the outcome of a hearing, the net effect of the law may be nothing short of sanctioned censorship-by-wackadoodle.

But the chaos is actually going to be worse than what will result from these two laws alone—because there’s a third recently-enacted law (SB 436) that’s aimed directly at nullifying church/state separation in public schools by disingenuously claiming to “safeguard” students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs while in public schools. In case you’re wondering, this is not aimed at protecting Muslim students from harassment. Nor is it aimed at securing equal visibility for annual observances like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Tet, and so forth in addition to Christmas.

What is it aimed at? Remember where Florida’s educational patron saint, Betsy DeVos, got all her experience with education: Christian private schools in Michigan. Florida’s educational chaos is aimed at creating the kind of Biblical-scale Chaos from which only one kind of Order can emerge: More charter schools (many of which, in Florida, are already self-identified as “Christian”) and an enormous voucher-like “scholarship” program to funnel public tax dollars to private schools (also heavily “Christian” in Florida).

Charter Scams


The big news is that a grand jury has indicted two Ohio men affiliated with this company, which used to manage charter schools in five Florida counties, and two of its vendor companies. The charges include fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds. You can read the whole story here—

Newpoint indicted on fraud charges related to theft, money laundering

But the main lesson seems to me to be that the reformers’ zeal for deregulating charter schools has created precisely the kind of environment scam artists like these are looking for. And now the Florida legislature is throwing even more money into the pot.


Wackadoodles Ascendant

I used to think the characters in Carl Hiaasen’s novels were masterfully comic exaggerations.

That was before I moved to Florida and discovered that Hiaasen’s fiction is far from fictional. In Florida, fringe types aren’t just inescapably vocal and visible, they’re increasingly empowered—by the state legislature.

For example, HB 989 (also known as the Return of Book-Burning Act) now requires every Florida public school district to appoint “an unbiased and qualified hearing officer” to hear any complaint from any resident about any textbook or other instructional material approved for use in the district. From any resident, not just from parents of students.

HB 989 was passed by the legislature and is now law in Florida. It does not provide any guidance for vetting a potential hearing officer, for ensuring the candidate is in fact unbiased, or for determining what the necessary qualifications would be. Nor does it provide any guidance for use in evaluating residents’ complaints.

But we can guess what many of those complaints will involve, because we know which state Representative sponsored the bill, and that gives us a pretty good idea of who wrote it. The legislator’s constituents include an organization known as the Florida Citizens’ Alliance (FLCA), and the FLCA website identifies a handful of specific targets for its efforts “to stop the indoctrination of our children.” These include not only the expected targets, like Common Core standards and “pornographic” novels, but also transgender student rights, gun control, and even social studies texts that identify the United States as a “democracy” instead of a “constitutional republic.”

The FLCA website is of course soliciting volunteers statewide to be trained to become hearing officers. Teachers of social studies, literature and language arts, and STEM subjects should be bracing themselves.

Florida, Chapter 2

Florida’s Charter Aggrandizement Act (also known as HB 7069) is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Broward County School Board. (For those who live elsewhere, Fort Lauderdale is probably the best-known city in Broward County. And yes, Florida has only one school district per county, strange as that may seem to people from the Northeast.)

HB 7069 is the one that, in addition to providing extra incentives for new charter schools, also requires all Florida school districts to share their capital funding to help underwrite the construction of those new schools. In addition to specifically challenging the law’s charter school giveaways, Broward County’s suit seeks to have the entire law declared unconstitutional because of its shotgun approach to school reform. HB 7069 includes provisions dealing with everything from mandatory elementary school recess periods to standardized testing to teacher bonuses—in violation of Florida’s constitutional requirement that every bill be limited to a single subject.

Observers expect several other counties’ school boards to join in the suit, notably including Miami-Dade County. It could be fun to watch.

Education as Predation

During my years teaching in an inner-city high school, I witnessed first-hand the marketing of hope to desperate students by the for-profit colleges and other commercial post-secondary institutions. The “admissions officers” (more properly described as sales reps) regaled the students with visions of successful careers in high-paying fields, acknowledging no potential impediments—either academic or economic. They ignored the schools’ dismal graduation rates. Their discussions of student loans focused on the ease of qualifying, not the enormous debt burdens their students racked up.

I was encouraged when the Obama administration announced regulations designed to correct such predatory abuses. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the current administration’s plan is to delay, dilute and dismantle these regulations. Here’s the story as reported by NPR.

“Two weeks ago, we reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was rolling back the ‘gainful employment’ rule intended to rein in for-profit colleges. On Friday, she took a further step back.

“On July 1, colleges were supposed to begin disclosing information about program performance to students in their marketing materials. The schools now have an extra year to comply.

“‘Once fully implemented, the current rules would unfairly and arbitrarily limit students’ ability to pursue certain types of higher education and career training programs,’ DeVos said in a statement.

“As we reported on the details of the rule:

“‘Colleges and universities were to be evaluated based on how many graduates are able to pay back their loans. The logic being, if too many students end up with low incomes and high debt, the program is not offering good value for money. Programs that consistently failed the test were supposed to lose access to federal student-aid dollars.’

“The New York Times noted recently that evidence suggests the gainful employment rule had been working as advertised, in that colleges are voluntarily shutting down the programs that provide the worst return on investment.”

Education “Reform” in Florida

A bunch of new laws went into effect in Florida today, several of them designed to have serious impact on public education. The one that’s received the most publicity is HB 7069, which could have been named the Charter Aggrandizement Act. It’s a shotgun approach to “reform” that includes a $400 million jackpot to encourage new charter schools to locate near public schools—as in, right across the street from them. And as if nearly half a billion dollars isn’t a sufficiently lavish giveaway, this new statute also requires public school districts to share a portion of their capital funding with the charter schools (in addition to the existing requirement to share their operating budgets), thus essentially underwriting the construction costs of the new schools.

And if the shotgun approach isn’t destructive enough, there are two other bills aimed like laser scopes directly at a couple of the key principles of public education.

SB 436, which should be known as the Eliminate the Church/State Separation Act, is disingenuously billed as a measure to “safeguard” students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs while in public schools. Uh-huh. There are news stories nearly every day that identify student and teacher rights that are clearly in need of protection. But, instead of any of them, this dubious “right” is what the legislators chose to enshrine?

And, finally, HB 989 revises the policy on instructional materials to allow any resident of the district to challenge books and other materials being used in the public schools. Any resident, not just parents. This, in other words, is the Return of Book-Burning Act.

It’s as if the legislators are determined to turn the phrase “Florida education” into an oxymoron.