JULIE DELEGAL: BOARD MEMBER OPPOSES LAWSUIT TO STOP VOUCHER PROGRAM, DENIES CONFLICT

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  • JULIE DELEGAL
  • OCTOBER 5, 2014

Duval County School board member Jason Fischer is a nice young man. But in politics, I’ve learned, it’s the nice young men you have to watch.

His most recent actions reveal that he’s a foot soldier in the war to destroy public education. And his bread may be getting buttered by lieutenants in the Jeb-Bush-brand, school privatization movement the ones who are affiliated with his employer, Uretek Holdings.

Fischer’s recent activities put him squarely in the camp that has been systematically destroying Florida’s public schools for more than a decade. As both governor and puppet-master, Bush has overseen the implementation of a punitive school-grades system and an overreaching teacher-accountability scheme.

Meanwhile, the Bush camp has promoted privatization and the funding choices that go with it – while the Legislature has been starving our public schools. Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s claims that he’s boosted spending for education, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that, in real dollars, per pupil spending in Florida public schools is still not up to pre-recessionary levels.

Fischer has come out strongly against the lawsuit filed by the Florida School Boards Association, which questions the constitutionality of Florida’s private-school voucher program. He not only published a guest editorial in the Jacksonvlle Times Union, he also asked his fellow public school board members to pass a resolution condemning the suit.

Voucher funding now drains state coffers by more than $300 million yearly.

Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is on record saying that privatization voucher schools, charter schools, etc. could siphon away up to $70 million from Duval next year.

With support from the FEA, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Florida PTA, and other education advocates, the FSBA is asking a Leon County judge to declare the tax credit voucher program unconstitutional on two grounds. Plaintiffs say that by permitting corporations to pay their taxes to the voucher program called “Step Up for Students,” instead of to the Florida treasury, the program creates a separate, shadow school system. The Florida Constitution, the suit points out, calls for a single, “high quality,” and “uniform” public school system.

The Constitution also forbids aid to religious institutions, and the majority of schools funded by “Step Up” are religious schools.

The response to the lawsuit from voucher supporters is, essentially, “You’re picking on poor children who need to have ‘choice,’ you big meanies.”

As I’ve written many times, in many ways, it’s impossible to gauge the quality of that “choice.” Voucher schools use a test that was not designed to measure gains, which is a term of art for educators.

About 70,000 low-income children use the program statewide. This year, however, the Legislature expanded voucher eligibility to include middle-income children, and they did it in the most underhanded way imaginable. After prior efforts to pass it failed, legislators tacked the expansion in a 141-page “amendment” onto a tangentially related bill as the legislative session was about to end.

On Sept. 24, a judge dismissed a separate voucher lawsuit that challenged the program because of the questionable tactics used to get it passed. The FSBA lawsuit challenging the legality of the voucher program remains ongoing.

Fischer demonstrated where his loyalties lie at the Sept. 16 school board meeting: he’s for privatization.

WJCT reported on Board Member Paula Wright’s response to his request that the board oppose the lawsuit:

“I’ve heard nothing in terms of why we as a district should support your resolution. I think it’s important that we realize that when we ran to be part of this table, we ran under the umbrella of public schools.”

Fischer, who started working for Ureteck Holdings in July 2013, appears to have a conflict of interest. While Fischer lists his position with Uretek on his LinkedIn page, he omits it on his other social media accounts.

Uretek Holdings, a “foundations stabilization company,” (think engineering, not philanthropy) lists none other than voucher-program founder John Kirtley as its Director. The company’s chairman and CEO, Kathleen Shanahan, served as chief of staff for former Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as for former Vice President Dick Cheney when he was Vice President-elect. Floridians know Shanahan from her days as a member of, and as chairman of, the Florida Board of Education.

To say that Fischer has ties to high profile privatization proponents, and that those ties might influence his opinion on local board matters, would be understatements.

In a phone conversation, Fischer denied any potential conflict. “My position as an engineer and as a business developer for Uretek Holdings is completely separate from my work as an elected public official,” he said. His support for the private school voucher program, he contends, “predates my job.” He noted that he does not report to Kirtley and that Kirtley had nothing to do with his hiring. He reports, instead, to Shanahan, but insists that it shouldn’t matter.

When it comes to his work on the School Board, Fischer said, “I operate independently. I don’t take instructions from anyone.” Not even the people who sign his paycheck.

Fischer’s proposed resolution followed an interesting event that occurred earlier the same week during a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Duval County Republican Party. It passed its own resolution condemning the FSBA lawsuit, and called for all registered Republicans to do the same. Who introduced the resolution? Republican Executive Committee member Jason Fischer.

According to the pro-privatization RedefinEd blog, Duval GOP Chairman Rick Hartley vowed to keep track of which School Board members vote against privatization: “We will record the votes. And when they vote against the children, it will help us get rid of some of the sitting members.” (Emphasis mine.)

The move is interesting because the ed-reform crowd, which for years has claimed bipartisan support, seems to be OK outing themselves as a right-wing group through their sponsored blog, RedefinEd.

If Hartley’s bit about “getting rid of some of the sitting members” sounds like a threat, you’d be right. And his is not the only threat.

Kirtley, who also happens to be chairman of an electioneering organization that promotes privatization, The Florida Federation For Children, has put his considerable riches where his mouth is. FFC helped unseat a pair of  two-term incumbent school board members from two different counties because they do not support vouchers: Karen Disney-Brombach, the new president of the FSBA from Indian County, and the FSBAs new president-elect, Diane Smith, from Volusia County, were both defeated by political newcomers.

From the Aug. 27 RedefinEd blog:

John Kirtley, said bluntly: “If the FSBA proceeds with the suit, FFC will be heavily invested in these races around the state for years to come.”

Local choice money didn’t work against the incumbent School Board member who won the Duval County District 4 seat in August. Paula Wright overcame the Republican, pro-privatization dollars that fueled her opponent. Her challenger, Darryl Willie, has a campaign contribution list featuring some heavy-hitting privateers: Three Chartrands and a Baker, to start. Both families have vested interests in charter schools here.

Despite raising more than $55,000 with support from the noblesse-oblige crowd that populates Jacksonville’s Civic Council and other organizations, Willie couldn’t beat Wright, who raised less than $37,000.

And by the way, guess who just wrote a letter to each Duval County School Board member encouraging them to support Fischer’s promotion of state-funded private schools? That would be Gary Chartrand, chairman of the Florida Board of Education.

Jacksonville teacher and writer Chris Guerrieri reports that Chartrand has backed three of the seven sitting board members in recent years, and has given millions to the district through his family foundation. Guerrieri writes that Chartrand “said he does not believe his financial contributions will influence School Board members’ votes.”

Will Hartley, Kirtley, Chartrand and the gang bother to keep bullying local School Board candidates here in 2016? Or will their full attention finally be consumed by Jeb-Bush-White-House Fever?

Billee Bussard contributed to this article.

Julie Delegal has written for Folio Weekly since 2009. Julie has contributed to Charlie Crist’s campaign for governor and Scott Shine’s campaign for School Board District 2. Column courtesy of Context Florida.