BY FRANK CERABINO – PALM BEACH POST STAFF WRITER
It’s about the guards, not the inmates.
That’s the best way to think about the state Legislature’s latest attempt to undermine public education in Florida.
The bill is called the Parent Empowerment in Education Act, which has something called a “parent trigger” — a kind of magic switch that can turn struggling neighborhood schools controlled by elected local school boards into charter schools run for profit by unelected and sometimes out-of-state corporations.
I think a more accurate name for the bill would be “The Treating Public Schools Like Prisons Act.”
Consider this. Two years ago, legislators made a clumsy attempt to radically undermine the state prison system, the third-largest in the country, with a plan that was ultimately blocked by the courts.
Here’s how it worked: Without fanfare or public debate, legislators inserted language into the state budget that called for turning 29 prisons in 18 counties in the southern part of Florida into for-profit prisons.
And to make sure those privately run prisons would show the mandated 7 percent savings in operational costs over the state’s traditional prisons, the state started shipping the high-maintenance and expensive prisoners out of those prisons earmarked for privatization and into the traditional public prisons.
That’s one way to show privatization works.
Now, they’re doing the same thing to public schools.
The parental trigger bill is designed to lead to the widespread conversion of traditional public schools in Florida to charter schools, which receive public money but don’t have to follow the restrictions of traditional public schools.
Hundreds of charter schools already are operating in the state and teaching about 7 percent of the state’s public school students. The results are mixed. Some schools are good, but many aren’t. Charter schools routinely get more than their share of F-ratings in the annual roundup of schools.
And they take capital improvement dollars away from traditional schools, money that’s flushed away when the charters go broke, which happens about 20 percent of the time.
Charter schools in Florida also have found some bizarre ways to turn a profit: One school in Miami-Dade operated as a nightclub after school hours. A Pensacola charter rented out teens for road work. And a charter school in New Port Richey offered $50 for students to sign up new kids to boost the school’s head count.
The state Department of Education released a study recently to bolster the Legislature’s love affair with charters. The report found that charter schools outperformed traditional state schools on 55 of the 63 metrics measured in state exams.
But Stanley Smith, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s business school, did his own examination and arrived at the opposite conclusion. Smith took into account that charter schools pick and choose the students they take, leaving these schools overall with fewer poor students, or kids with learning or language issues — the sort of kids who do poorly on standardized tests.
“The average charter school is doing about the same as the non-charter school when no adjustments are made for poverty and minority statuses,” Smith wrote. “When the adjusted scores are considered, the average charter school performs significantly worse than the average non-charter school.”
See? It’s just like the prisons. The tougher-to-educate kids get shunted to the traditional public schools, allowing the for-profit model to claim superiority.
In either case, the primary aim of these privatization forays isn’t to better the lives of the inmates or the students. It’s to cheapen and transform a traditional public service for the many into a private business opportunity for the few while eliminating careers of public employees, be they prison guards or teachers.
Forgive me if that doesn’t leave me feeling empowered