March 13, 2021

Billy Townsend: Segregation Factories in Florida (Part 2)

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Part 1 of Billy Townsend’s look at segregation and school choice in Florida can be found here. Part 2 takes a look at “what ‘Jeb Crow’ has wrought for FTC, McKay, and Gardiner kids — and everybody else. Do John McKay and the Gardiners know that Ron DeSantis and Doug Tuthill and Richard Corcoran are destroying everything they worked for and attached to the prestige of their family names?” Reposted by permission from the substack, Public Enemy Number 1.

The “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” voucher school in Lakeland is 100 percent ESE and 100 percent black. It is the most thoroughly segregated school in Polk County, of any kind. It only enrolls eight kids. (ESE means learning or physical disability — or both. “Gifted” children are also included in broad ESE definition. But I’m focused on disability here.)

Yet, according to Doug Tuthill and Step Up for the Students, “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” provides no ESE services for its 100 percent ESE population.

That does not stop “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” from taking the McKay and Gardiner vouchers that fund ESE services. It also takes the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) voucher which funds general education for poor children, as does FTC’s Hope and Empowerment offshoots. FTC has a 61 percent 2-year program drop-out rate.

As you can see below, “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” takes all vouchers despite its general lack of services. Taking all vouchers is a giant red flag for any parent researching any voucher school, as I will explain in part 3 of this series. It should be a red flag for law enforcement and government, too. Yet, most voucher schools take all vouchers.

For now, it’s important to understand that “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” literally carries the seal of approval from Doug Tuthill and Step up for Students (SUFS), which is Florida’s unelected voucher School Board, in its online marketplace for voucher schools.

Doug Tuthill, Step Up‘s unelected superintendent should explain that to a grand jury. He is paid directly from the vouchers Step Up sells to vulnerable people to attend places like “Higher Learning Advantage Academy.” He should called to account for what and how he sells.

And I will be sending this article to Polk County State Attorney Brian Haas.

Step Up sells Jeb Crow’s segregation without accreditation, capital, or recourse

Like nearly all ESE-or racially-segregated voucher schools in Polk County, “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” has no accreditation, of any kind. Only two of Polk’s top 15 ESE-concentrated schools do. See below.

Kids are herded into “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” and other voucher schools by Florida’s over-testing and mass 3rd grade retention or excessive busing in the public schools — or by the difficulty of providing real ESE services in public school settings. Higher Learning Advantage Academy and “schools” like it are corrals, not “choices.”

That is the essence of Jeb Crow education, which Florida has pursued for a generation now.

Why the provocative nickname? — because this kind of racial and capital and disability segregation, stripped from all capacity to actually provide human-centered education, is perhaps the worst of many dreadful legacies of Jeb Bush, the former “education” governor of Florida.

In Polk County alone, more than 800 black children attend 16 segregated voucher “schools” with populations more than 76 percent black children. Not one public school is anywhere close to that. Twelve of the 16 schools are 95 percent black or greater. Six are 100 percent black. See screenshot below:

Not one of the schools has any accreditation of any kind or any meaningful oversight. Not one. Many, if not all, of those kids will cycle in and out of the public system regularly, mostly because of testing.

And keep in mind, you, the taxpayer, pay to keep “Higher Learning Advantage Academy” in business — either directly through taxes or indirectly through corporate tax credits that divert funding from real public schools and force you to make up the difference. Ron DeSantis has made clear that he considers Higher Learning Advantage Academy a “public school.”

Yet, your elected School Board has no oversight at all over these schools. If you’re a parent or taxpayer, don’t bother calling anybody with a voucher problem. The elected School Board can’t help; and Step up for Students, the unelected state voucher School Board, won’t help. Call Ron DeSantis instead.

Jeb Crow hurts everyone

Jeb Crow’s legacies reach far beyond segregated voucher schools to harm everyone. They include: one of America’s worst teacher shortages; America’s worst test score “achievement” per year (see the map below, if you doubt me, or care about testing) for all types of kids; and a 61 percent 2-year drop out rate for the low income FTC voucherbecause of low capital schools like Higher Learning Advantage Academy. If your education program has a 61 percent two-year drop our rate, it sucks.

It is hard to overstate what a miserable failure Florida’s state education model of governance is and has been for a generation. It’s a data failure and human failure, across the board. Jeb Crow fails everyone by destroying the capacity to provide education in any setting — public or private.

But voucher schools are the worst.

And Jeb Crow is uniquely malignant in how it has used test sorting — and human suffering and desperation and vouchers — to create and hide in plain sight the worst kind of publicly-supported, low capital racial and ESE segregation.

Jeb Crow voucher “segregation factories” could not and would not exist without Jeb Crow’s public school “test factories.” That is the entire purpose of standardized testing in Florida — to drive children out of public schools and into the arms of grifters and criminals who have no capital but the vouchers kids bring with them.

Nothing about Florida’s standardized testing system is designed to help any child.

The worst oblivion of our segregated past exists in Florida vouchers today — right now

This is “Higher Learning Advantage Academy,” where an 100 percent black ESE population receives no ESE services — but does get Doug Tuthill’s seal of approval.

The parking lot above is the closest thing it has to a playground, with a basketball goal at the back of it. I didn’t see any outdoor recreation equipment of any kind, other than that. When I dropped by briefly on a school day late morning, there were two cars in the lot. If there were any kids or teachers, they were inside.

Here is the front door.

Do you think anyone with power has any idea or interest in what’s happening behind that door? Do you think Step Up for Students, Florida’s unelected voucher School Board, does walk-throughs?

Keep in mind, the picture below is the Topeka, Kansas school that the Brown family sought to escape from in their portion of Brown v Board of Education to attend a similarly-equipped school closer to home.

Somehow I doubt they imagined an “escape” to “Higher Learning Advantage Academy.”

The dynamics of neighborhood/community school education versus mandated integration are complex; and there is no real consensus among true stakeholders. I’ve thought about them a lot. I’ve attended very large NAACP meetings on integration divided right down the middle on that balance.

Segregation with capital and high visibility — see the Orlando Jones Community Partnership School — is a risk one might justify taking. Voluntary segregation with capital could be worth a careful discussion.

But useless test-driven racial and disability segregation? Drained of all capital — public or private? Hidden from any basic government oversight or standard?

That’s not even “privatization;” that’s oblivion. Oblivion. A caste machine.

That’s South Carolina in 1921. Or Jeb Crow Florida in 2021.

How the private ESE schools should work

These “private” ESE voucher schools should have rigorous state oversight and accreditation and enforcement of quality.

And they should be funded by a mix of private capital and by the McKay voucher and the Gardiner voucher. These programs are named for former Florida state senators John McKay and Andy Gardiner — who both had family members with disabilities.

Essentially, Gardiner was created to provide public funding for private specialized educational services for children with profound physical disabilities — Down’s syndrome, extreme Autism, cerebral palsy, etc.

McKay was created to help any child with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or “504” accommodation plan for kids with less severe learning or physical disabilities.

In my view, McKay has been a much better program than Gardiner because it is woven into the public system as as well as private providers. And it has some oversight and regulation and some attention to quality, which Gardiner largely does not. You do have to renew Gardiner yearly; and if you buy a school with it, the school bills Gardiner directly, based on my understanding.

See the comparisons of McKay and Gardiner below:

Both disability vouchers can help do good things. I have a relative somewhere else in Florida who has used both.

Today, her child attends an expensive private school tailored for special needs, with help from Gardiner money. But that school has tremendous independent capital — including a strong funding development operation. I know this because I contributed to it and receive regular updates from the school. But that is a rare school — and it does not depend on vouchers.

Also, even with all the private capital, the $10,000 in Gardiner money my relative receives falls way short of covering the full cost of tuition at this school. They have to pay additional tuition gap out of their own pocket. But they can. Thus Gardiner works great for easing the burden of people who have the capital to buy capacity. And that’s about it.

I would bet a ton of money that none of those top 15 ESE-segregated schools in Polk County have a sophisticated fund-raising and public outreach effort — or a differential between tuition and voucher.

McKay and Gardiner used to be very different from each other and from FTC “vouchers.” ESAs will complete the ongoing mashup of racist and classist grift.

Over the years, oversight of McKay and Gardiner has slipped to the point that they’ve mostly become giant piggybanks for grifters who endanger kids. Or, in the case of Gardiner, a place where rich people can buy free stuff — Peletons, Play Stations, etc. for even mildly disabled children

The Legislature this year is moving to turn the on-the-ground mashup of voucher programs into a formal legal reality.

Kelli Stargel and Manny Diaz are going to stir together all the voucher programs into one giant cauldron of money and then give people something called an Education Savings Account (ESA). Then you go use your debit card to purchase education services through a buyer beware “marketplace” of grift.

They do this while seeking to dismantle actual public schools. It’s the educational equivalent of dismantling Publix and giving everybody a debit card to shop for groceries at a dollar store.

Thus, everything the McKays and Gardiners sought for kids like their own will be sold out by Doug Tuthill to literally anyone — with a big commission on top, but no oversight. He’s already selling Gardiner and McKay vouchers to 100 percent black ESE schools that don’t provide ESE services.

What won’t he do?

The Jeb Crow apocalypse has already happened; but we can rebuild the future on the backs of failed ESAs and failed politicians

Because the voucher mashup already exists, in reality, I don’t see the ESA creation as quite the apocalypse that many of my fellow activists do. Indeed, I see it as a political opportunity for real educational change away from Jeb Crow.

Nothing discredits vouchers like vouchers. Nothing. We have wasted years fighting over their legality rather than pointing out the garbage they buy — a strategic mistake.

And I think ESAs are more likely to reveal that the education capacity apocalypse has been ongoing for a generation in Florida. I think it’s more likely to fully reveal 25 years of Jeb Crow education for what it is — and blow it up.

In part, that’s because Jeb Crow at least pretends to confuse grifting with building capacity. It does not acknowledge that it plans to kill public education and replace it with NOTHING. But grift is the only idea Jeb Crow has ever had for replacing public education; and that’s going to continue to shock the public as it becomes clearer. We destroyed out kid’s access to a good teacher for this?

The public does not want public education killed — and it certainly doesn’t want it replaced with grifty NOTHING. Grift is not capacity; and the politics of education without capacity in Florida will be increasingly bad. They will be fatal outside of Florida, which is a uniquely grifty state.

Indeed, good luck running for president on test-loving, Big Tech-driven, still Common Core-based Jeb Crow education, Gov. DeSantis. Nobody wants it — not even your own voters.

It’s a massive political accomplishment and/or failure for power in this state to have avoided any accountability for Jeb Crow’s racist, ableist obscenity by just mouthing the word “choice.” I tip the hat and recognize the game.

But the ESA process is making people look again; and its hubris may become its undoing.

A beleaguered and intentionally test-wounded public system is still far superior and possesses far more capital than all Jeb Crow schools and most private schools. In part that’s because local communities want it that way — and routinely vote that way, even in Florida. And because the alternative is mostly unimaginable grifty garbage.

Again, if you’re poor or desperate or a person of color, your general education voucher (FTC) or ESE voucher (McKay and Gardiner) or ESA is very unlikely to buy a school spot or educational service that is not an open, dangerous scam. There just aren’t enough spots with reputable providers — not anywhere close.

You’re gonna end up in a segregated, hideously low-quality grifter school instead. And then you’ll float back to public schools, grifted if you’re lucky — abused if you’re not. See Kingdom Prep.

In part 3 of this, I’ll use the Step Up marketplace to show how to shop more carefully — and save yourself and your child from segregated, no-capital oblivion.

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