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Learning from Our Mistakes

County school board candidates challenge privatization

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There’s a battle raging here in Duval County, a battle for the future of our schools. On one side are supporters of public education, current and former teachers with life-long ties to the community, folks who went to and taught in our schools. On the other side are agents of the corporate reform movement that pushes school vouchers, charter schools and alternative teaching routes, not to mention high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations in state legislatures across the union. These people dropped anchor here fairly recently, and they really don’t have much in the way of education experience.

The local campaign actually started about eight years ago when the first KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school opened and the controversial nonprofit Teach for America started planting corps members in our schools.

These corporate reforms may accelerate or come to an end this November, depending on how people vote. On Tuesday, Nov. 6, Jacksonville’s school board will change dramatically. Gone will be term-limited members Becki Couch and Paula Wright, as well as Scott Shine, who decided not to run for a second term. Replacing them will be either Charlotte Joyce or Dave Chauncey in District 6; Cynthia Smith or Darryl Willie in District 4; and Elizabeth Andersen or Nick Howland in District 2.

On the surface, these contests may seem like a battle of the sexes, but they are much more than that. All the women in the contests are either current or former teachers; all the men are backed by business interests and the charter school industry. They have vastly different visions for our schools.

School board candidates typically say similar things while on the stump. Invariably, they all want to retain the best teachers and put students first. That’s why it’s important to look at things like track records and experience. Oh, and donors. You can learn a lot about a candidate by the company they keep.

Howland, Chauncey and Willie (henceforth “the men”) are all supported by special interests, such as school voucher providers and charter schools. Joyce, Butler and Andersen (henceforth “the women”) are not.

Another contrast: The women have a lot of relevant education experience that the men lack. Of the three male contenders, only Chauncey has ever even taught in Duval County, and only for a mere two years.

The three women are lifelong residents of this area; the men are not. Howland is the only man who has lived in Jacksonville for more a decade. Furthermore, all the women are graduates of Duval County Public Schools. The men are not.

How did we get to this point? Enter the money men, Gary Chartrand and John Kirtley. Chartrand is a former (Rick Scott-appointed) chair of the state Board of Education and a Ponte Vedra Beach millionaire, who now spends millions to influence education policy. Chartrand lobbied the county to import the KIPP brand (he serves on the company’s board) and Teach for America, a national organization that takes recent graduates (education degrees are optional) and puts them through a five-week teacher boot camp before planting them in our neediest schools for two-year tours of duty. Willie and Chauncey are alumni of this program.

Chartrand also collects school board members like I used to collect baseball cards. He has backed a candidate in every single school board race since 2012. His vision: KIPP-style charter schools staffed by Teach for America teachers. He contributed $4,000 to David Chauncey’s campaign from his own bank account and three nominally active companies whose sole purpose seems to be able to allow him to donate more than the average citizen. He also donated $1,000 to Nick Howland.

Those sums may seem small, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. Chartrand is part of a well-connected network of movers and shakers that includes members of the Civic Council and the board of KIPP charter schools. Preston Haskell, Peter Rummell and Wayne Weaver have also donated to Chartrand’s candidates.

Furthermore, Chartrand has made a habit of turning thousands of dollars in donations into millions to fund his pet projects. His personal contributions in the thousands, force-multiplied by dark money and super PAC slush in the tens of thousands, helped elect State Representative Jason Fischer and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. Once in office, those connections would reap millions in taxpayer dollars for Chartrand’s KIPP charter school. Mayor Curry had the former Jacksonville Children’s Commission send the KIPP school hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for its longer school day, while Fischer has had millions inserted into the state budget also for the KIPP school. Chartrand’s return on investment has been about 50 to one.

Perhaps the biggest feather in Chartrand’s cap is that despite having no relevant education experience and having sent his children to expensive, exclusive private schools, Chartrand parlayed his donations to Florida Governor Rick Scott into a spot on the state Board of Education, where he has a front row seat to push his “pro school choice” (read: privatization) agenda—at the expense of public schools and the teaching profession in general.

Tampa-based money man John Kirtley donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to shepherd the tax-deferred credit scholarship program, commonly known as vouchers. Then he created Step Up for Students, the state’s biggest voucher authorizer.

Vouchers are used to pay tuition to private schools, and many of these private schools have been in the news lately for hiring felons and unqualified individuals placing them on their faculty rosters. Many of these recent hires teach dubious theology as fact. These schools are so lightly regulated, most don’t have to report how they spend their funds. Despite all this, Florida continues to expand voucher programs rather than subject them to common-sense regulations.

There are huge differences between the candidates supported by Chartrand, Kirtley and their wealthy friends, and the candidates supported by teachers and parents.

 

District 6

The District 6 challenge has longtime teacher and lifelong Jacksonville resident Charlotte Joyce pitted against recent transplant and former Teach for America corps member and current lawyer David Chauncey.

Joyce has spent her entire adult life in our public schools system. If elected, she would represent not just schools at which she has taught, but also schools that she has attended.

Chauncey taught for two years at Ribault Middle as a Teach for America corps member, leaving as soon as he fulfilled his two-year commitment.

The district’s outgoing school board member Becki Couch supports Joyce, announcing on Facebook, “If you live in my district, I ask that you vote for Charlotte Austin Joyce to represent the school board seat I am vacating. She is a seasoned educator who will put the needs of students first. She has grown up on the Westside and attended Stilwell and Ed White. She is an experienced educator with school aged children, so she understands the needs of our students and community on the Westside.”

If primary is prologue, the money favors the corporate candidate. Joyce raised $9,455 during her primary campaign. She spent $8,396.47 and received 6,629 votes ($1.22 per vote). Dave Chauncey raised $75,247 and spent $65.952.24 to pull in 6,624 votes ($9.92 per vote).

While Joyce was bringing in small dollar amounts donated by teachers and parents, a full 79 percent of Chauncey’s total $75,000 donor haul came in the form of maximum donations, and 75 percent was funneled in from outside the district. Gary Chartrand and his organizations donated at least $4,000, records show. Ten political action committees contributed, including the Watchdog PAC, First Coast Conservatives and Floridians for Economic Freedom.

Since Chauncey took so much money from charter school interests, you may be wondering how he feels about charter schools. This tweet, from last year, seems to indicate that he is all for them.

When Corcoran and Chauncey speak about “high expectations, high support” charter schools, one of the schools to which they allude is the KIPP chain, which recently expanded into Miami. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Chauncey received loads of financial support from the KIPP Jacksonville board and leadership.

 

District 4

In District 4, another longtime teacher and lifelong resident, Cynthia Smith, is running against Teach for America executive Darryl Willie, who has been in Jacksonville seven years. Mr. Willie has now run for a seat on the school board twice.

Smith has a compelling story. She started as a bookkeeper and worked her way up to assistant principal before leaving to run a pre-school. She served in Duval County Public Schools for 16 years—16 years longer than Darryl Willie.

Like Joyce, Smith is endorsed by her predecessor, in this case outgoing District 4 representative Paula Wright.

Smith is also certified in Esol Education, Reading, Guidance and Counseling and Leadership. Willie has no certifications.

Darryl Willie did spend three years in a classroom in Arkansas more than a decade ago. Since then, he has had a variety of jobs, landing at Teach for America in 2011. He became the Jacksonville location executive director in 2015.

These, however, are troubling times for TFA and that fact, more than anything, may have influenced his decision to run for the school board again. It’s no secret that Teach for America is on its way out of town. The organization brought in only 50 new teachers this year, all assigned to charter schools rather than traditional DCPS schools. Superintendent Diana Greene told me personally that, while the district plans to honor last year’s contract, the deal will not be renewed.

Teach for America Jacksonville received a whopping $5 million from the Quality Education for All initiative, but none of the money ever saw the inside of a classroom. And, in any case, that well is fast running dry.

That brings us to Darryl Willie’s six-figure salary.

According to the Supervisor of Elections website, Willie’s salary is $120,000 a year. It’s an amount no teacher in Jacksonville will ever see in a single 12-month’s time. Even principals who oversee hundreds of staff members and thousands of kids rarely take home that kind of dosh.

If Willie and Chauncey, both TFA alumni, joined forces on the Board, the two of them might be able to reverse TFA Jax’s current downward spiral.

 

District 2

The race for District 2 features former DCPS teacher and current mental health counselor Elizabeth Andersen and Navy veteran and businessman Nick Howland. As in the other races, the corporate reform movement has thrown its considerable weight behind the businessman, not the teacher.

In the primary, Andersen raised $6,845 to Howland’s $56,559. Andersen spent $5,236.99 and received 4,823 votes ($1.09 per vote). Howland spent $51,496 dollars—nearly 10 times as much as Andersen—and received 6,678 votes ($7.72 per vote).

Howland reportedly spent $17,000 on an advertisement that touted the candidate’s “conservative” businessman credentials. School board races are supposed to be nonpartisan, by the way, because what is best for our children ought to transcend political ideology. Howland has nevertheless taken every opportunity to let people know he is a Republican. The Republican Party of Jacksonville has even canvassed for him.

Howland received the maximum contribution from 30 donors, both individual and corporate. The Florida Times-Union reported that he had received money from several PACs. His donors are known supporters of charter- and private-school scholarships.

Most remarkable of all, Nick Howland’s résumé is nearly identical to that of current school board member Scott Shine, whose résumé was in turn nearly identical to that
of his predecessor, Fred “Fel” Lee. All
are wealthy businessmen who began by dabbling on the edges of public service, serving on various boards but without the benefit of anything approaching relevant education experience.

The other candidates for the District 2 School Board seat concur. Shannon Beckham, Casey Ayers and Sam Hall have all rallied behind Elizabeth Andersen and her uniquely qualified background. Andersen is, after all, a former teacher and a current mental health counselor in an era when schools are finally starting to take mental health seriously.

I reached out to Willie, Chauncey and Howland with questions. To his credit, Howland was the only one who responded to me. In his response, as elsewhere, he says he will be independent of his donors and that he will do what he feels is best for the district and its children.

 

Why donors support candidates

I believe Howland is being honest when he says he won’t be beholden to his donors. He doesn’t have to. He already shares their views on charters, vouchers and alternative teacher routes like Teach for America. That’s one reason why people and organizations
support candidates.

The other reason is because they want something.

Donors like Chartrand and Tampa-based voucher lobbyist John Kirtley expect a return on investment. These are not swing voters who can be swayed by Howland’s devilish good looks, Willie’s ability to do the KiKi challenge, or the fact that Chauncey is a Gator.

All three are incredibly light on policy details (except for Willie, who thinks the district should organize a reading-to-babies-in-the-womb program). Howland wants to recruit and retain great teachers, but doesn’t offer any concrete proposals.

Yet all three candidates have attracted enormous sums and support from the forces of privatization. Before voting, citizens should ask themselves why these rich, white millionaires, most residing outside the districts up for grabs, support these men.

 

Amendment 8 & Charter Schools

Another way to see where candidates stand on the issue of privatization is to review how they felt about Amendment 8. Before being removed from the ballot, the amendment was vigorously pushed by the corporate reform movement and charter schools supporters.

Indeed, the stillborn initiative was the work of charter school lobbyists. As more and more charter schools fail (more than 350 have done so), local school boards around the state have begun to push back. Forcing the corporate reform lobbyists to retreat to their last bastion of support: the Republican-dominated state legislature.

It turns out many prominent and powerful Republicans and their family members own, work for or have close ties to charter schools. Speaker Richard Corcoran’s wife operates a charter school; Representative Manny Diaz takes home a six-figure paycheck from another one; and Representative Michael Bileca operates a foundation that funds a charter school.

Charter school supporters eventually devised a plan to circumvent the principle of home rule, which used to be a tenet of the Republican Party, and take the authorization of charter schools away from local school boards. Amendment 8 was born.

The amendment used two nominally popular ideas (the introduction of civics education and term limits for school board members) as a smokescreen for a nearly universally reviled idea: the creation of a state entity to authorize, or impose, charter schools.

The state of Florida already mandates civics education in middle school, and Duval County already has term limits for school board members. So there was no need to change the state constitution on those grounds. The amendment really boiled down to state versus local rule on charter schools.

When asked how they felt about Amendment 8, Chauncey and Howland both said they were undecided. That’s highly unlikely. It seems unconscionable that a person running for a seat on the school board wouldn’t support local control, but neither Chauncey nor Howland could commit to that.

On Sept. 8, the Florida Supreme Court had Amendment 8 removed from this November’s ballot, saying it was deceptive. We’re still wondering why Chauncey and Howland claim they’re undecided.

Undecided or not, Howland and Chauncey did take quite a bit of money from local charter school interests. Chauncey, whose wife works for the Chartrand-funded KIPP school, received the maximum amount in donations from KIPP executive Tom Majdanics and four other KIPP board members (Chartrand, John Baker II, Gary Norcross and William Walton), while Howland received money from Majdanics, Chartrand and Baker. Darryl Willie wasn’t completely frozen out, as Daniel Edelman, another board member, threw him a grand.

 

How you know who’s who in school board races

In school board races, everyone says they’re in favor of retaining great teachers and putting children first. Such rhetoric is a given. It’s important to look behind the words and see who’s actually supporting which candidates.

If a candidate is supported by teachers and parents, then there’s a good chance they are for public education. If they are supported by JAXBIZ, the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce, then there is a good chance they are not for public education.

WJCT reported that the top-funded candidates in all three local school board races—Nick Howland, David Chauncey and Darryl Willie—are endorsed by JAXBIZ.

“We look for high-quality candidates who are business-minded and know how to run a business,” said JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis.

He said that’s because school board members are responsible for a large budget, and it’s important that dollars are spent efficiently.

This explanation might fly in the District 2 school board race (Howland is a businessman), but how does it make sense in Districts 4 and 6?

Willie runs a small nonprofit that depends on donations to operate, and Chauncey is a lawyer. He doesn’t manage any budgets. JAXBIZ picked these two in lieu of proven lifelong residents with tremendous education backgrounds, one of whom (Smith) does run a business.

It’s hard to believe that JAXBIZ does not take its orders from the Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council, a consortium of businessmen who are quite influential and used to having their whims carried out. If we look at those from whom the candidates have taken money from, we see Chartrand and KIPP’s Davis (both are also part of the Civic Council), as well as Wayne Weaver and Matt Kane, who have given to both Chauncey and Howland, and Tim Cost, who has donated to Chauncey.

Kane, by the way, was on the board of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission when it decided to break precedent and give KIPP hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school’s extended school day.

Can you imagine these money men supporting a sheriff who didn’t have a law enforcement background? Yet they consistently support candidates who have little to no experience in the important field of education. Even worse, their track record is abysmal.

They supported Jason Fischer, who quit to run for the State House, where he proved to be an ardent foe of education and diverted millions more dollars to KIPP. Furthermore, in a display of chutzpah, Fischer called for an audit of a budget he had helped craft before he quit.

JAXBIZ and the Civic Council also supported Scott Shine, whose antics cost
the district more than a hundred thousand dollars when he attacked me in The Times-Union. They were big supporters of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who spent cash like a drunken sailor. Vitti left the district more than $60 million in the hole when he went back to Detroit.

The Civic Council, which is basically just a club of rich businessmen, also wanted the district to defer the selection of a new superintendent until after the elections, when (they hope) they will have three sympathetic school board members. Thankfully the board decided to ignore this request and proceed.

Then, when the district started the superintendent selection process, the Civic Council demanded access. The district rightfully said no, and eventually selected Superintendent Greene. The Civic Council was allowed to have a representative on the community board.

The Chamber of Commerce and its related organization, Florida Tax Watch, are also ardent foes of the class-size amendment, one reform that is proven to work. Even though it was twice approved by the citizens of Florida, the language has been so gutted that it is nearly unrecognizable. Furthermore, choice schools can calculate a school-wide rather than class-wide average. That means they need fewer teachers, which means there will be fewer union teachers. This may explain why, rather than giving parents options, the corporate reform community pushes for what they refer to as school choice.

 

In Conclusion

Gary Chartrand, a rich grocer from Ponte Vedra with unconventional ideas about education, has used his money and influence like a sledgehammer to pound our public schools into submission. He never taught a single class a day in his life. He sent his children to exclusive, expensive private schools with small classes taught by experienced, professional instructors, and lots of electives and support. This is not what he wants for your children. This is not what he has been pushing for.

His candidates—Howland, Chauncey and Willie—have a total of five years of classroom experience among them. This shouldn’t be a surprise, coming from a man who told Melissa Ross on First Coast Connect that he thought teachers losing work protections was a good thing. It’s ridiculous to think he and his friends are giving all this money to candidates who don’t believe what they believe, who don’t want what they want.

They are going against three strong, smart and practical women—Smith, Andersen and Joyce—who are current or former teachers, who are all lifelong residents of Jacksonville, and who all graduated from Duval County Public Schools. They have indeed walked the walk and talked the talk.

Jacksonville voters have a real choice this November. It’s a choice between people who support our public schools and their teachers, or people whose allegiances lie elsewhere. Like in their bank accounts.

_____________________________________

Guerrieri is a current Duval County school teacher.

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frankiem

Amen. Love that last line:) Thursday, October 25|Report this