This piece has been edited from its orginal version, in accordance with the clarification below.
For the past two decades, Florida education policy has been decided in a top-down manner that gives little or no consideration to educators, parents, or locally elected school board members. Not only does the legislature pass ideas that give Alice in Wonderland a run for her money, they want local school districts to jump through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole while taking valuable teaching dollars away from our children. This year, local autonomy, a cornerstone of so-called "conservatism," is being challenged on many fronts. Two of the most pressing issues are testing requirements for graduating seniors and the plan to send armed, non-law-enforcement personnel into our schools.
Ashley Smith Juarez was the single Duval County School Board member who spoke out against the armed-school-employee inanity, aka HB 7026, which was signed into law on March 9. The "Guardian Program," as it's been dubbed, was passed in the wake of the tragic Valentine's Day killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Juarez told WJXT that she is very worried about potential liability issues for the county. Duval County School Board Chairwoman Paula Wright is on record saying she hopes that the district will be able to recruit retired police officers and military personnel for the jobs.
Superintendent Patricia Willis bemoans the cost, as does former board Chairwoman Becki Couch, who cites the recurring tendency of the legislature to underfund their laws.
Reports estimate that even with dedicated state funds for the guardian program, the district will fall about $600,000 short of the cost of full implementation, not counting future liabilities. The cost increase comes at a time when the district is carving into its reserves to offset a $62 million budgeting shortfall. So while we're scrambling to arm school personnel with money we don't have, we're also cutting art, music and library instruction, and losing teachers, all while increasing class sizes and other demands on teachers.
As a cop's daughter, I find the idea of hiring unscreened, untrained, un-deputized cop-wannabes to wield guns in our children's schools terrifying. Yes, I know that Duval already has an in-house police force monitoring our high schools and middle schools. Yes, I know that many of the schools' in-house officers have had prior police training.
It is the legislature's devaluing of their very important work (to $12.50 an hour with no benefits) that worries me. It's the idea that any gun-loving aspirant with a few weeks of summer training can be set loose in our elementary schools—with a gun—that worries me.
NRA propaganda has accomplished nothing less than diminishing our culture's most cherished beliefs about civilization. Law enforcement personnel go to great lengths to earn society's trust-and not everyone is accepted for the job. George Zimmerman comes to mind. Propaganda artists like Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch, however, have convinced Americans that Wild West, vigilante-type justice is not only OK, but necessary. They've overseen the creation of laws that upended centuries of the common-law Castle Doctrine, and now makes it OK for folks like Zimmerman to kill innocent people on our streets. The NRA legislative push has essentially deputized everyone, while blackballing decent human beings who try to inject sanity into the process. Local judicial candidate and former Republican representative Charles McBurney of Jacksonville was blackballed for judicial appointment by NRA members because he dared to suggest the legal truth: An affirmative defense, like 'stand your ground,' is the defense's burden to prove. It will take some more rabbit-hole-like court hearings to straighten out the twisted legislation that has since passed.
Meanwhile, we're about to enact a LaPierre policy notion that was once laughed at by sane people: "arm the teachers." Our local school board voted 6-1 to adopt job descriptions for this gig.
While Duval voted to implement hiring requirements, whether the district can recruit qualified personnel, and ensure their screening and training before the Aug. 13 deadline, remains to be seen. Whether the city of Jacksonville, including the risk-management types in the general counsel's office, has any role to play in funding the "Guardian Program" mandate, also remains to be seen. Tampa Bay Times education reporter Jeff Solocheck says other Florida counties appear to be in various stages of accepting or rejecting state grants:
- Putnam County has put off implementing the plan, voting 4-1 against it despite a locally convened task force's recommendation, according to WJXT.
- The Clay County School Board initially voted in a $1 property tax hike, (proportionate to each $1,000 in property values) to cover expanded security, but reversed itself Thursday, after implementing a plan to place armed, trained civilians in their elementary schools.
- St. Johns County is embarking on "community discussions," while its school superintendent balks at the $4.1 million shortfall and insists it's a community-wide issue, not just a school issue.
- Sarasota County has begun work to create its own internal school police force.
- Flagler County is asking whose job school safety really is-the sheriff's or the school district's-as the two entities negotiate the costs.
- Meanwhile, Bay County, in the Panhandle, is taking a longer view on school security, wondering when the state-issued requirements will end.
It's a challenge to keep up with all the bad ideas coming out of Tallahassee, and a bigger challenge to try to explain to voters how we got here. In a nutshell, Jeb Bush-brand education reform and gerrymandering are generally to blame. Republicans have been able to elect a veritable one-party Politburo to enact their will, and the partisan shenanigans of this year's Constitutional Revision Commission prove they fear they're about to be unseated.
The Bush-brand strategy, since 1999, has been to promote high-stakes testing and privatization while starving our traditional public schools.
This brings me to the other bad Tallahassee idea with which the Duval board is grappling: Raised test score requirements for graduation that, if implemented, would prevent 850 otherwise-eligible students from earning diplomas. This bad idea is being considered not by our elected officials, but by the governor-appointed Board of Education.
The proposal would abolish a cheap and significant alternate pathway to end-of-course exams for students, the Postsecondary Educational Readiness Test, or PERT. Instead, students would be asked to pay out-of-pocket for the more expensive ACT or SAT college entrance exam in order to have access to a concordant score for Algebra I.
For a district that has recently been recognized through the National Assessment of Educational Process program for its outstanding work closing the achievement gap, a district that has raised graduation rates significantly, it feels like the BOE is once again, unfairly, tinkering with the goalposts.
The Duval County School Board drafted a resolution advising against the state BOE proposal, and the following excerpt is particularly salient:
...[I]ncreasing concordant scores on the SAT or ACT and eliminating the PERT as a concordant assessment is projected to cause a decline in Duval County Public Schools graduation rates of between 7 and 11% and is projected to impact students attending Title I schools in a disparate manner with possible graduation rate declines projected at between 12% and 30% at schools with high levels of poverty.
Recently, the ACLU of Florida reported success with due process hearings for students who are suspended, before they are moved to lower quality "alternative schools" as a result of disciplinary measures. Future high school diploma candidates who, under the current paradigm, would be qualified for dual-enrollment and/or industry certification as well as a high-school diploma, may want to consider similar legal action when the BOE's arbitrary denial of a diploma makes them unemployable. The BOE has now been put on notice that this will have a devastating and disparate impact on poor students.
For 20 years, Tallahassee has not cared about the actual lives of students when weighed against the punitive, lucrative high-stakes-testing-and-privatization scheme that lines privateers' pockets and political education committee coffers.
Undaunted by losses at the trial court and state appellate court levels, parents and advocates will have the chance to argue one more time that our state is failing in its constitutional duties to educate our children. Last Monday, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear Citizens for Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education, which was filed nine years ago. Plaintiffs are challenging both the quality of public education in Florida, as well as the adequacy of state funding.
Despite disingenuous claims of "record funding" for public education in Florida, per-pupil funding has not increased, in real dollars, since 2007. Additionally, lawmakers have refused, year after year, to permit local boards from recouping the benefit of rising home values. The austerity began in 2008, ostensibly because of the Great Recession, but even as the economy has recovered, cuts have not been restored. Instead, lawmakers have bent over backwards to lower millage rates—even during the boom years—in order to further starve public school budgets.
When will Florida lawmakers stop shortchanging our children? If the voters are paying attention, it could be as soon as November.
Explanation of Clarifications
Thanks to Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jax for leading to more careful scrutiny of SB 7026, the school safety bill authorizing, among other things, dollars for schools to hire and train "school safety assistants," including non-law-enforcement personnel. Fischer is correct in his assertion that school districts are not "mandated" to take the school safety grant money authorized in the law. This has been corrected to more accurately reflect the parameters of the bill.
There are, however, 50 uses of the word "requiring" in the 105-page bill, creating statutory mandates that increase duties for numerous government employees: state-level education and law enforcement officials, county law enforcement officers, school districts, school threat assessment teams, and individual schools.
Many of these increased duties might be better accomplished by accepting school safety dollars under the optional plan that would increase "school safety assistants" in our schools. The fact that districts want to expand security in the most responsible manner possible, and would have to reach into other pockets of money to do so is, Fischer's implies, not the state's problem.