February 22, 2023

Billy Townsend: The study that knew too much about Florida’s “Great Regression”

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Billy Townsend keeps a close eye on Florida shenanigans, and he’s written quite a bit about The Great Regression, the incredible disappearing test results. But it turns out that it’s not news, because a report that has been buried for six years already explained it all. Reposted with permission. 

Back in 2017, Lakeland’s GOP legislators Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton co-sponsored a bombshell Legislative study about Florida’s “Great Regression” of student test scores with age. They didn’t call it that; but that’s what it was. Here’s the cover:

The bill language creating the $50,000 study identified a version of “the Great Regression” and said, essentially: Why do our kids tank on 8th grade tests? Why do “Lib” states do so much better? Let’s compare ourselves to them and adopt their leading practices.

Note the comparison states in bold, in the language of the enabling bill:

WHEREAS, since 2003, Florida’s 4th grade students have demonstrated an increase of 11 percentage points in mathematics at or above proficiency on the national assessment, while Florida’s 8th grade students have shown an increase of only 3 percentage points, and

WHEREAS, since 2013, Florida’s middle school students’ proficiencies on the national assessment in both reading and mathematics have remained flat or decreased, and

WHEREAS, MassachusettsNew HampshireVermontConnecticut, and New Jersey are the top performing states in the percentage of 4th and 8th grade students scoring at or above proficiency in reading on the national assessment, and

WHEREAS, MassachusettsMinnesotaNew HampshireNew Jersey, and Washington are the top performing states in the percentage of 4th and 8th grade students scoring at or above proficiency in mathematics on the national assessment, and

The study did not ask “Why does Florida supposedly score high in 4th grade?” The most likely answer is: “Florida cheats by getting low scoring kids off the test books.” See my Great Regression article in the Tampa Bay Times.

But the study did have multiple 8th grade answers, with receipts, for anyone who cared to read it closely. Then it vanished, never to be publicly discussed or debated — much less implemented. You can find it here, on the website for Insight Policy Research, the company that produced it.

I couldn’t find it hosted on any Florida government site.

I suspect that’s because this study indicted far more than just Florida’s middle school education model.

It offered a bleak window on Florida’s entire economic and governing model, which is on the presidential ballot in 2024 as a national referendum.

It laid out in stark relief the life-altering difference between a child’s experience in the “Free state of Florida” and the so-called “lib states” Florida compared itself to.

Florida Child’s “Great Regression”: a tale of human neglect and purposeful state failure, clearly told in charts

Although it clearly tried not to offend its sponsors in the wording it used, the 2017 study’s graphs and tables tell a brutal story about life in Florida if you’re born here without capital. And it further makes clear that our state’s barbarism toward its low capital, native born population also damages kids born with capital — or who immigrate here.

Come see the highlights.

The median native Florida Child is born — or not born — poor.

Florida child is born to a family with much lower median income/capital than the successful “lib” states — and the country as a whole. This table from the 2017 study has only gotten worse since 2015. But take a look at it.

That median income deficit is a manifestation of Florida’s long-standing and worsening wage gap with the rest of the country. I’ve written about that here and here. The second piece is titled, “Why Floridians can’t afford Florida.” The chart below is produced each year by the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

At the same time, the cost of housing in Florida has spiked.


When Floridians can’t afford Florida, it’s hardly surprising that Florida Woman often decides that she can’t afford Florida Child with Florida Man.

Florida has the 3rd highest rate of terminated pregnancy in the country — and by far the highest rate of any “red” state that tries to stigmatize, harass, and legislate women into forced birth. I consider Ron DeSantis’ spiking abortion rate his most meaningful record and indicator of state health.

I wrote about this here in a piece called, “Ron DeSantis: Florida’s most prolific abortionist.” See chart below for the DeSantis abortion effect.

Low income, low capital Florida Child then meets vastly undercapitalized state school system

Look at this chart from the 2017 study the detailing the number of kids per support staff personnel for each of the states. Note Florida’s huge red number.

No state in the study remotely compares to Florida’s understaffing. That’s public capital not provided for the security and development of Florida child. By contrast, look at how much capital the lib states supply to their kids, who already come to school with much greater private capital than native born Florida Child.

Of course capital and income are not the same thing, which is why Florida is both a high capital and low income state — at the same time. Florida’s assets are worth enormous amounts of money, as are the interests that own them; its normal people are not worth enormous amounts of money.

Our state projects an illusion of wealth because we are awash in imported capital accumulated or inherited elsewhere that comes here to deplete itself on indulgence of sunshine, beaches, golf, or Matt Gaetz sex parties.

Florida Capital could easily afford to compensate for Florida Worker and Florida Child’s low levels of private capital by pumping public capital into the school system to bring that red number above way down. (That’s essentially what Community Partnership Schools with “wraparound” services try to do, but at very small and haphazard scale.)

But Florida Capital and its clerks who call themselves legislators have chosen to do the opposite.

Faced with a massive red state median income/private capital deficit for kids at birth, Florida governors and legislators like Colleen Burton and Kelli Stargel — under orders from people who actually matter — chose to make it much worse in schools by vastly understaffing student support.

Florida Child with no support taught by teachers with no support and with lagging subject matter expertise (or substitutes with none)

The lack of support staff jacks up the stress and strain on equally understaffed teachers. But teachers also have to contend with Florida’s vicious, fake “accountability” system. That combination is the engine of Florida’s shortage of teachers willing to work in our low pay, toxic work environment state system.

For the teachers who are willing to work here, this Florida Model creates an unstable, inexperienced teaching force with far less subject-matter knowledge than successful lib states. See the chart below from the 2017 study, which saw this as a powerful contributor to the collapse in scores, particularly in Math.

You could, in theory, fix some of this with money. Florida ranks 48th overall — and far behind West Virginia in per pupil education spending, as you can see below from a recent Polk County School District budget presentation. (I’m told new DeSantis-endorsed School Board Member and self-declared campaign felon Rick Nolte slept through this presentation. Of course.)

Florida has tons of room to improve the education situation funding if it ever chooses to. And Florida Capital can certainly afford to vastly outspend West Virginia. It is choosing not to.

Lib stability vs. Florida chaos

But the “Great Regression” isn’t just a money problem.

Indeed, I would argue that money is less important to Florida’s Great Regression than the intentional, school-level chaos Florida’s test-driven fake accountability system creates.

In my informed opinion, if you got rid of the chaos and kept the same money problem, you could make some dent in the Great Regression and the Teacher Shortage. I don’t think you could do the same if reversed.

Indeed, Florida has been foolishly pumping money into starting teacher pay — rather than median teacher pay — for several years now. That only has the effect of making turnover and onboarding more expensive for taxpayers. Most turnover in the teaching profession comes from years one to three. And higher starting pay has done nothing to fill positions or coax more people into the profession or slow down the Great Regression of test performance.

Here’s why:

Florida middle schools had extremely unstable and chaotic student populations in 2015 — coming and going. And they still do. Neither the “lib” states, nor the country as a whole, comes close to Florida’s enrollment chaos in middle schools. That’s Florida’s version of punitive “choice” at work. Take a look for yourself below.

Now look at this chart. In 2015, 1 out of 6 Florida “public” middle schools was a “charter” middle school. Compare that to the successful lib schools, which had few if any at the time of the 2017 study.

Most charters have significant attrition rates that contribute both to the early departure and late enrollment of students. Here’s an example from Missouri, which unlike Florida, tracks charter school dropout rates (otherwise known as “attrition”).

Twitter avatar for @blythebernhard

Blythe Bernhard @blythebernhard
The mobility rates in school choice-rich St. Louis are astounding. La Salle charter school has the highest in Missouri: 69% of students transferred in or out last year. Hawthorn charter: 67% Sumner High: 64% Roosevelt: 59% GCAA charter: 55% Vashon: 52% Atlas charter: 49%
Twitter avatar for @ToddMcKeeEdD

Todd McKee @ToddMcKeeEdD

The literature is pretty clear that increased mobility and transitions between schools contribute to the risk of dropping out. Retail schooling is disastrous for kids! https://t.co/yepcz3Ysbw

And this chart does not include district-run magnet schools and voucher schools, both of which contribute to overall attrition and late enrollment.

Vouchers, with roughly 180,000 kids coming and going all the time, likely generate chaos at a much larger scale than charter or magnets. Florida’s core voucher program had a 61 percent percent 2-year dropout rate, according to the closest thing ever done to a study. See my full “Jeb Crow” series about just how bad Florida vouchers are here. It’s a must read to understand the new ESA supergrift that the Florida GOP just announced. (More on that later.)

Vouchers produce thousands and thousands of kids leaving awful “private” schools to return to traditional public schools — sometimes mid-year, sometimes not. But even kids who come into a new public school at the start of the year after leaving a bad voucher school pose great test score risk, to be blunt.

Here’s a great, brief speech from Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, making that point and others about the reality of vouchers. Click to watch.

You can tell who paid for the 2017 study by the hilariously obtuse language it used to avoid saying Florida’s fake choice grift produces chaos and terrible test scores. See below.

LOL. I love the sort half-hearted, pawn-it-off-on farmworkers speculation — as if migrant farmwork is so uniformly spread throughout Florida as to affect mobility rates for the schools that 80 percent of kids attend. There’s a real “hot dog guy” meme and/or Supreme Court leak investigation feel to that:

I tried to contact the “project director” of this study Catharine Warner-Griffin, Ph.D. She did not answer me.

That moment when Colleen Burton almost mattered — and then chose not to because of … reasons

Study co-sponsor Rep. Colleen Burton, who just replaced her retiring co-sponsor Kelli Stargel as Lakeland’s state senator, has never had a political or governing will of her own. She’s in it for the special parking spot and the status of being in a fancy club.

If there’s more pointless legislator than Colleen Burton, please point this person out to me.

I suspect Colleen and Kelli commissioned that study in 2017 because I was raising hell about the purposeful state disruption of Polk County’s middle schools both as a School Board candidate in 2016 and as a board member in 2016-2017. Here I am talking to a hostile Florida Board of Education about it in 2016.

Perhaps Kelli and Colleen wanted to pretend to be responsive. Ask them.

But Colleen and Kelli clearly orphaned their own study because somebody with actual power eventually told them to stop pretending to be responsive; and they obeyed meekly like they always do.

I’d like to ask Colleen who gave her that order; but Colleen won’t return my emails or phone calls asking about the study. (I’ll get her eventually. Lakeland’s not that big.)

I would bet on the disgraced Richard Corcoran as the culprit.

He was Speaker of the House at the time of the study. He later became Ron DeSantis’ first Commissioner of Education. His combined, gross tenure as legislator and education leader brought us the massive DoE/Jefferson/MGT Consulting/Academica charter scandal and general toxic disruption of Florida’s already toxic and disrupted education system. DeSantis should have put Corcoran under oath in that scandal; but he’s actively covering it up. (Someone else should ask Corcoran about the 2017 study. He’s not going to answer me.)

So why would Corcoran — or then-governor Rick Scott or then-Senate president Joe Negron — order the state-sponsored killing of this $50,000 “Great Regression” study, which could have helped build a better model?

It knew too much.

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