Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Florida's School Of Hard Knocks

Incoming Florida GOP Governor Rick Scott ended up the state's chief executive despite a long and ugly history of fraud and ripping off billions.  He still bought himself the Governor's mansion, first crushing GOP candidate Bill McCollum in the primary under $50 million in attack ads and then doing much the same thing to Democrat Alex Sink in November.

Now Florida's about to get a taste of education reform, Rick Scott style.  From Mojo's excellent Stephanie Mencimer:

Conservatives have been plotting for years to blow up the public school system. Now, Florida's incoming governor Rick Scott is poised to light the fuse.
During his campaign, Scott pledged to overhaul the state's schools while simultaneously reducing school property taxes by $1.4 billion. How to accomplish both? Privatization, of course. His plan, which promotes online schooling along with other educational options, may actually pave the way for the elimination of such pesky budget busters as buses, cafeterias, teachers, and, well, school facilities themselves.
According to various news reports, Scott is cooking up an education proposal that would expand an existing voucher program designed for low-income and disabled kids, opening it to all students. The result would be that instead of public school funds filtering through the unionized public bureaucracy, it would go with the students, who could use the money to enroll in the school of their choice—public, private, charter, or virtual. If parents are wealthy enough to pay for their child's education with their own funds, they can use the voucher money for laptops or school supplies, or even sock it away in a college fund. The proposed voucher amount, about $5500, is only 85 percent of the annual cost of educating a child in Florida.

School vouchers for everyone in Florida, eh?  I wonder who's set up to take advantage of those billions?

Even so, Scott appears ready to liberate public school parents to take their money anywhere they like, especially to online schools—a new cause célèbre for Jeb Bush, who recently launched an advocacy project called Digital Learning Now! to lobby against barriers to online public schools.

One of the hallmarks of Scott's education reform plan is the idea that many kids don't need to go to school at all; they can learn everything they need to in virtual classrooms. Online schools offer many cost-saving advantages, but unfortunately many of them are so bad that even the military won't take people who graduate from them. Online schools also seem even more vulnerable to fraud than regular old charter schools.

In June, Bush spoke at a graduation ceremony at Electronic Classroom for Tomorrow, Ohio's largest online school, which enrolls nearly 10,000 kids but only graduates 35 percent of them. ECOT didn't get off to a stellar start, demonstrating some of the pitfalls of such schools. In its early years, the management company running the school overcharged the state $1.7 million in teaching hours it couldn't document, as well as $500,000 in computer equipment that disappeared with students who never came back.

Scott's education "reform" plan seems be less about actually making Florida's schools better and more about paying private companies to run bad ones. On his transition team are a couple of CEOs of for-profit charter school companies with questionable track records, including the head of Imagine Schools, which runs underperforming charter schools in Ohio, Arizona, and Florida. Five of the 11 schools the company runs in Ohio are on an academic emergency list and another three are on an academic watch list. The Imagine School in Florida is on probation for its second consecutive "F" rating and at risk of being closed by the state. Charter schools figure prominently into Scott's reform plans.

Ding ding ding!  Privatize the schools and rake in the cash when you cut corners.  Get rid of teachers, principals, classrooms and hell, even schools, and pocket the difference.  Who cares if the kids graduate?  Who cares if parents get ripped off?  It's their fault for not doing their homework before signing their kids up for the new frontier in free-market economics.  Talk about the new dot-com bubble.

Cutting taxes only puts that much more pressure for counties to go along with Scott's cut-rate online scheme.  "Want to balance your budget?  What if you didn't have schools to pay for?"

I wonder if Scott will put those disclaimers on the inevitable commercials.  "Warning:  your child may not actually receive an education or even graduate.  Please consult prospectus before enrolling.  Enrolling does not guarantee success."

Doesn't hurt that his incoming staff is larded up with private school executives looking to turn Florida into a gold mine.  You figure 3.5 million schoolkids in Florida times $5,500 a year in vouchers is nearly $20 billion a year up for grabs, and this scam would be totally legal, especially with Florida's GOP supermajority in the state legislature.  Scott and the GOP can get literally anything they want passed, including this crackpot scheme.

And Florida will soon start paying the price.  The laboratory of democracy is open for business, and business is good.

New tag, because I think I'm going to get a lot of use out of it over the next four years: Galtian Republic Of Rick Scott.


JoyfulA said...

This Florida deal need not be limited to online schoolchildren who live in Florida. Rick Santorum's kids all went to an online school billed to a Pennsylvania school district, and they lived in Virginia. Maybe Ricky could be a consultant to the new governor.

Betty Cracker said...

Schools aren't the only thing in Scott's cross-hairs: He's already setting the stage to privatize prisons (huge industry down here).

A private company built a prison awhile back, carefully selected inmates without medical issues or behavioral problems and is now, with Scott's enthusiastic support, touting its cost efficiency in comparison to state or county run facilities.

On the bright side, Scott seems destined to be a one-termer. At a recent get-together with my redneck relatives, all were bitching and complaining about the crook they just helped elect, and he's not even governor yet.

It seems they channeled their inchoate rage into voting for anything with an "R" behind its name. And now -- oops! -- they're finding out Scott plans to gut their pensions and slash the state workforce. I didn't utter a single "I told you so." It was kinda hard.

Zandar said...

Indeed. The Galtian Republic of Rick Scott has increased its 2011 shortfall to $3.5 billion and Scott is still promising to cut millions in property taxes (as Florida's home prices continue to plummet!)

And of course he won't say what he'll cut in order to balance the state's budget hole.

Florida's about to find out the hard way.

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