Mayor Breaks with School Board, City Council

A Board of Education rule change that threatens to decimate Jacksonville’s graduation rate, and Mayor Lenny Curry’s post-facto rejection of the City Council’s resolution against the BOE’s rule change speaks volumes about how politics gets done in Jacksonville. It also illustrates the link between the mayor’s fate and the question of whether Duval will continue to have a fully elected school board.

Wednesday, the Florida Board of Education adopted new rules regarding graduation requirements, which Duval school district officials warn could lower the graduation rate 7 to 11 percent. School officials also expressed concerns that students from less affluent economic backgrounds would see their graduation rates plummet disproportionately.

As Jeffrey Solochek reports, the BOE will abolish the inexpensive Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) as an alternate to Algebra 1 end-of-course exam requirements for graduation. PERT costs less than $1 per try per student, while ACT and SAT testing, which students may use to obtain a passing “concordance” score, cost $60 or more per try. Additionally, the latter tests are usually administered at various sites around the county on Saturdays, creating a transportation problem for many students.

The BOE will permit a concordant score from the PSAT, which every Duval sophomore takes once for free, as a substitute for the Algebra I end-of-course requirement. It is unclear whether the PSAT will be offered more than once, for free, or whether cost assistance will be available for students hailing from families living in poverty.

The new rules will not affect any high school student enrolled now but will apply to entering ninth graders next school year.

On May 1, the school board unanimously passed a resolution opposing the requirements.

Within days, the Jacksonville City Council backed the school board, and passed an emergency resolution opposing the proposed graduation rule, according to WJCT. The vote passed 18-0, with one council member absent.

During a regular meeting of the City Council, School Board member Ashley Smith Juarez testified that, considering only the first cohort of graduates, the rule change would cost $250 million in lost economic productivity for the next 30 years. Duval County School Board Chairman Paula Wright wrote an op-ed in The Florida Times Union warning that the change would result in lower graduation rates, and would disproportionately lower the graduation rates of Jacksonville’s economically disadvantaged students.

Judging from his May 16 letter to City Council President Anna Lopez Broche, Curry didn’t get the memo that the entire Duval County School Board, and not “one local school board member,” had resolved to oppose the BOE rule change. The letter’s date coincides with the date of the BOE’s scheduled meeting on whether to adopt the rule change.

In his letter refusing to sign the council’s resolution, the mayor writes:

Without any testimony from those who have proposed standardized testing changes, and based on the testimony of one local school board member, the Council affirmed language that seems to imply such changes are actually mean to harm young people.

Why would the mayor of a large metropolitan southern city callously disregard warnings embodied in not one, but two, elected bodies regarding to the city’s graduation rate? Should the mayor get re-elected in 2019, he’ll be presiding when the implemented rule change chops our graduation rate.

His ostensible reasoning, as stated in his letter, seems predicated on the belief that high-stakes testing culture, and constantly tinkering with the goalposts, is good for our students:

As a result of the work, and a believe that the Florida BOE is appropriately working to ensure that in future years all students strive for an even higher level of achievement, I am returning Resolution 2018-332 to you without my signature.

The real reason may be more pecuniary in nature.

Former BOE chairman and current member Gary Chartrand is a grocery-marketing magnate and champion of school privatization. He brought the KIPP School to Jacksonville, and had a hand in bringing other “reform”-leaning organizations as well, like Teach For America and the privately run, shadow school-governance organization, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF). Chartrand gives generously, usually $25,000 a pop, to both the mayor’s political committees: “Jacksonville on the Rise” and “Build Something that Lasts.” 

Interestingly, “Build Something that Lasts” itself generously gifted “Jacksonville on the Rise” $500,000 on March 5.

Interesting, also, is Juarez’s apparently sharp and decisive break with the education policies of Chartrand, her former benefactor and employer.

From 2008-2013, Juarez worked as executive director of the Chartrand Family Foundation. While her former boss bankrolls the city’s Trump-supporter-in-chief, Juarez is now the national director for the Clinton Health Matters Initiative.

With a former employee working on the opposite political side, a school board moving to appoint a new superintendent on its own timeline (instead of the donor class’), and a mayor squarely in his pocket, what’s a Bush-brand “reformer” and sitting BOE member supposed to do? Maybe ask the mayor nicely to NOT sign the resolution?

After all, if Curry gets re-elected, and if the statewide Government Structure amendment (proposal #10) gets passed this fall, a lower graduation rate will be just what the doctor ordered to tarnish the image of the elected school board. No one will remember the BOE rule change was the culprit.

Business interests in Jacksonville have been lobbying for an appointed school board since 2010, when our local charter revision commission last convened. If these dominoes fall into place, expect a ballot initiative a few years from now asking the voters to give away our rights to elect our school board.

Think of how Mayor Curry relishes his role as “appointer.” Think of the real estate assets and the $1.7 billion budget that are allocated to the Duval County Public Schools.

With this kind of PAC money being thrown around to buy access to the public trough—and public real estate—why would any self-respecting developer bother with raising actual capital?

The dominoes will only fall into place, however, if voters let them.