Become the wolves, part 1: Florida, the state that puts "a nation at risk"
Jeb Bush's Florida Model and Florida "leaders" have produced America's worst state education system for generation. Weaponize that fact, politically, relentlessly, to change it.
Here are four basic facts about public education in Florida — and its political importance — that you probably don’t know.
1) Jeb Bush’s Florida Model of public education governance is a test and data-obsessed failure that has produced America’s worst test scores and data for a generation. Full documentation here.
2) Florida’s racist voucher program for low income kids, marketed relentlessly and brutally to kids of color born without much capital, produces a 61 percent two-year program dropout rate. That contributes to Florida’s overall terrible test scores because of endless churn between public and voucher schools. Documentation here.
3) Florida voters of all types actually love the humane, developmental experiences local public schools still manage to create under great duress from their political leadership. No local teacher-pay or facility funding tax referendum has failed in Florida since 2012. Many of the largest margins of support come from heavily Trump-voting counties. Graphic documentation to come within this article.
4) Jeb’s failed Florida model has set the bi-partisan political template for American education for a generation. It is setting the template for red state attacks right now. States all over the country — including Florida — are trying to dismantle what remains of their own public education capacity and replace it with nothing.
Don’t. fear. the. wolves. Become them — and hunt.
I’ve started with these four simple Florida facts for the benefit of Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.
We have a casual Twitter correspondence; and I nodded along with her book as I read. It is very very familiar; and I find myself pivoting quickly to: yes, of course, but why are we always on defense when the public always rejects these anti-public education, anti-teacher, pro-meaningless testing policies when given a clear choice?
The answer is: we shouldn’t be.
Indeed, the final line of Wolf is: “The best way to drive off a wolf is to band together and fight back.” Public school advocates need books and political movements and well funded-infrastructure that start with that line instead. And then we need to bring our pack to their doors, figuratively speaking. (The insurrection ruins all conflict metaphors. Thanks Trump.)
The Jeb Bush Florida Model’s appalling human and data record is the best weapon public education advocates have — not just in fighting off massively unpopular assaults on public education nationwide, but in creating a new, aggressive, go-on-offense pro-public education politics.
Forceful narratives already exist in non-union national profile advocacy circles — Berkshire and her co-author Jack Schneider, Derek Black, Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene, Ted Dintersmith, Tony Wagner, Pasi Sahlberg, and many others.
But without political potency that delivers confrontational decision-making power, we’re just a debating society about the nature of the apocalypse.
And while I’m a supporter of teacher unions; it’s important to have an advocacy movement and structure that they do not define, politically. Also, unions have real, tangible incentives to squeeze the best deal out of a broken system they didn’t break. That’s a problem for making the big, humane, systemic changes that would most benefit their members. It’s been a massive generational problem in Florida, for which I do not blame them.
Now let’s take a closer look at the political peril and opportunity failed Florida education policy presents.
Chasing test scores kills test scores — the Florida data lesson
Every moment that #FloridaChild spends in Jeb Bush’s Florida Model of public education, from the age of 9 onward, produces substantially worse test performance than the moment before, relative to other states. This is true both in the aggregate proficiency measures of the NAEP and “growth”-based state tests. By the end of high school, Florida is absolutely terrible.
Here’s the documentation, hiding in plain sight for years and years. Here’s what the Jeb Florida Model looks like during the Rick Scott regime on a map of state test score “growth” measures produced by Stanford University. Blue is bad. Very bad. America’s worst.
To restate: standardized test performance of #FloridaChild collapses on multiple tests every year after the rigged-by-retention 3rd and 4th grade testing window — and it has done so for the entire Jeb Bush era. Here’s another view — with an accurate tagline. In this case, purple is bad. Very bad. And Florida is an “insane basket case.”
You may find this test performance ironic for Florida; but you shouldn’t.
Mass miserable testing is the core of education in Florida, thanks to Jeb. It is the engine of human unhappiness that allows Jebism to reduce children to numbers. It allows Jebism to stigmatize children and communities lacking capital and erode the capacity to provide public education as a public service. Florida’s uselessly painful testing experience makes everything about education less joyful than it might be. It’s hardly surprising this would damage performance on actual tests over time. But it’s also evidence that test performance isn’t the goal of standardized testing: destruction of individualized common good for money is.
Florida hides this fact somewhat because it uses mass 3rd grade retention to intentionally ruin the lives and prospects of 8-year-olds — MAGA kids and “lib” kids and LGBT kids and kids of color alike. It does this to both game the 4th grade NAEP and hustle vouchers. That’s war crime-level human evil that also produces dreadful growth data performance on tests and makes kids less likely to graduate and more likely to kill themselves.
The NAEP can read its own data, must be fully aware of Florida’s endless collapse between 4th and 8th grade, and nevertheless helps Florida pretend the totality of its scorescape isn’t dreadful. Full accounting here.
Indeed, no one in power and no one with corporate funding anywhere even rebuts this. They just try to ignore it; and virtually the entire useless Eduwonk industrial complex just generally sings “lalalalalalala, can’t hear you. Data is important. Lalalalalala.” Even the Stanford folks who created the growth maps seem content for their work to remain essentially unknown to the wider world.
The Florida Model is an existential threat to America — and has been for quite a while. Why would any politician want to own it?
If a “traditional school” state model had produced “data” this bad, various big money people would have commissioned the Eduwonk industrial complex long ago to create another “Nation at Risk” formal attack on it.
Not only is there no attack on the Florida Model at a national level; Republican legislatures all over the country are actively trying to adopt America’s worst performing state’s approach to education — in both experience and data — because…reasons?
We cross-partisan advocates for humane, meaningful, egalitarian public education need to flip that script. We need a well-funded, well-publicized report/conventional wisdom engine and endless talking points saying simply: “The Florida Model and Jeb Bush’s Foundation put the nation at risk because they suck. Your state is foolish to emulate them. You will regret it.”
Not just because the Florida Model is cruel and inhuman and discriminatory — it is — but because it’s brutally incompetent, ineffective, and damaging to our national strength. We need to make Florida the face of a new “A Nation at Risk” moment.
Factually, this will not be difficult; because it’s a million percent true. It will be harder to do politically and otherwise because Big Test and the Eduwonk industrial complex has much invested in pretending Florida isn’t “an almost insane basket case.” Many people make good livings — much better than any teacher’s living — pretending that.
And Jeb’s unelected education foundation has bought a lot of Chardonnay and Brie tartlets at fancy conferences for Eduwonks over the years. That matters a lot more to the Eduwonk industrial complex than your individual kid’s or your teacher’s humanity, I promise. Hell, conference Chardonnay and Brie (and that feeling of importance) matter even more than Big Eduwonk’s beloved test data does.
When the Florida Model falls, the Eduwonk industrial complex is coming with it. They do not want that. So they will push back and call us mean — or over-simplifiers. Ignore them.
Their tut-tutting will not change the realities of Jeb’s Florida Model that I’ve shown you. Nor will it change that Florida’s other “metrics” suck if you take two seconds to look past the fake PR, which the Eduwonk complex absolutely refuses to do. Look at Physics enrollment, teacher supply, college applications, meaningful CTE offerings. It all sucks. Florida is far worse than mediocre in every real “measure” it produces, its supposed reason for existence, year-after-year-after-year.
And yet, Jeb and the Florida model has set the bi-partisan political template for American education for a generation. That’s how successful this grift has been for more than 20 years. No political movement in American history has ever played a such a bad hand so well. Respect the game; I do.
Florida’s educational savings account (ESA) grift-in-waiting is the education equivalent of dismantling your best-stocked local grocery store and forcing you to take a debit card to Dollar General or a roadside stand to buy food. That’s what “choice” means in Florida and is exporting to other parts of the country.
That makes Florida an existential American threat to everything from the humanity and well-being of our kids to our competitiveness as a nation as China rises.
Public education is the most popular political “wolf.” Unleash it, in Florida and everywhere
The Florida Model’s leadership failure stands out even more when you realize this: the actual Florida public schools and flesh and blood public school educators are quite popular with the Florida voting public.
How popular is the core public school idea, even in Florida?
No local teacher-pay or facility funding tax referendum has failed in Florida since 2012. Many of the largest margins of support come from heavily Trump-voting counties. Red counties don’t want ESA debit cards to educational Dollar Generals any more than blue counties want them.
In Florida’s county-level system, Florida’s 67 counties are very very willing to tax themselves to do what state government refuses to do: support their community public schools and develop all their kids. This rather contradicts our social-media-algorithm stoked narrative of civil war and division, doesn’t it? Local communities see public education as a good egalitarian investment in human capacity. See chart I created below:
The test scams that Florida teachers must drill for and kill a month (read this firsthand account) of class proctoring are not popular — nor is the punishing authoritarianism and grifting of Florida’s leaders. Let’s put the FSA and NAEP up for referenda and see how they stack up.
Actual Florida human beings in real communities do not see a conflict between respecting and supporting traditional public schools as the first and largest “choice” in a “choice” model. (And there doesn’t have to be.) They have voted with their feet and their money, repeatedly, to respect all choices, starting with community-based public schools.
And here’s the thing: if all “choices” are genuinely respected, supported, and subject to humane, rigorous human oversight, there will be many fewer choices. That’s because public schools are the first choice for the vast majority of people, for many good reasons. Trashing the true first choice with negative marketing and erosion of capacity is the sine qua non of “choice” as a politics and a grift.
Talk to normies as much as possible
Unfortunately, no mass politics has even tried to counter fake “choice” politics and grifting at a state or national level. No statewide Florida politician has tried to exploit the disconnect between local school votes and the dehumanizing, top-down test-and-punish model that squanders that investment and which produces terrible test results.
By and large, the normie public just wants to go to school and have a teacher who cares and a sports program and school plays and music and the chance to go somewhere else if they’re miserable for some reason.
Yet, the normie public in Florida and elsewhere keeps voting for people aiming to kill the public capacity to provide that very thing — because no statewide or national politician tries to tell them it’s a big mistake.
That’s because your normal parent hears all the time from all authority that “school grades” actually have meaning and aren’t abject fraud designed to outsource their kids to grifters and criminals with no recourse to elected officials.
They’re told by the all the Eduwonk “experts” and politicians, including Democrats, that the Florida Model is working OK as a producer of human and data outcomes — contrary to their own experience and all obvious data. Despite this:
Nobody at a state/national level has simply told voters, over and over again: You in Florida vote to support your local kids and teachers and schools with your money while simultaneously voting to support the distant government “leaders” squandering it on garbage.
No state/national politician has said, clearly and repeatedly: Your kids and teachers are being cheated and harmed every day by handful of grifters making money off your taxes by reducing your kids to cheap, life-killing algorithms and manipulated data. And you’re getting nothing in return, not even good test scores. I’ll change that.
The era of Big Test is over. What politician would even want to own it?
Ending the failed and fraudulent “Big Test” era, as Peter Greene calls it, and rebuilding the human capacity and care of public education everywhere is enormously popular. Florida shows you where the Big Test alternative ends; and it’s a dead end of fraud, failure, and unpopular human unhappiness in all ways.
And yet, name the last high-profile Democratic or Republican or other type politician who has actually told you that Florida’s performance sucks on its own terms; exploits and harms its most vulnerable children for money; and cheats local taxpayers? Have you ever heard it said in a campaign? Or at a fancy education conference?
Name the last politician to run loudly on fixing Jeb Bush’s failure. Name the last politician to declare: the era of Big Test is over as the centerpiece of a state or national campaign.
The fact that you can’t name anyone from the year 2000 onward who has run first and primarily on education is precisely the reason that the idea and basic concept of public education, which is stubbornly and overwhelmingly popular nationwide, constantly faces attack from well-funded, organized grifters imposing deeply unpopular and harmful policies and experiences.
Berkshires wolves lose and lose and lose when the public knows clearly what they’re doing and has a clear vote or mechanism with which to push back; and yet, we never counterattack with a coherent politics of our own. We just exhale until the next attack and act like we have no power to fight back and make Jebism pay for overstepping.
In fact, we have the bigger, more powerful army — the much larger wolfpack. But we’re not focused; and we have no political leadership willing to politicize public education, in a good way, at scale. We have lots of soldiers, but no generals, few logistics, and no overarching strategic narrative to deploy.
Our debates and discussions happen in the walled garden of the “education policy” world, not the day-to-day political normie world of campaigns and mass communication. As a politics, education has allowed itself to become a niche interest that allows assaults to continue with impunity. That has to change.
Change starts with a question for every non-elected public school advocate, including those I’ve mentioned in this piece: Have you sought power and wider popular exposure for your ideas by running for office — some office, any office — on your education ideas? If you haven’t, why not?
If you don’t own a TV network or a foundation, the loud pursuit of power though campaigns — even losing campaigns — is the shortest path to mainstreaming any important fact or idea in any given community. And that is the shortest path to wielding actual power.
Focus on the Florida Model — election after election — until it’s gone
Florida is the birthplace and cornerstone of “Big Test” politics. It’s also the worst performing state on “Big Test” because forcing your schools to chase test scores kills test scores. It is the political key to dismantling the Big Test era of inhumane fraud in American education.
But it’s not going to dismantle itself.
If you want to go get Florida — the Big Prize of Big Test — you have to go get Florida, politically and rhetorically. All rhetorical fire should be concentrated on the Florida Model’s fraud and failures in 2022 governor’s campaign — and every subsequent election until it is dead. Indeed, make the Florida education model and its names the education boogeyman of every election — from School Board to governor — in every state. Do you want to be like Florida? With these outcomes? The “insane basket case?”
Make the Florida Model and its architects — starting with Jeb Bush and his unelected foundation’s minions — defend, by name, their objectively awful record for once. They can’t.
And understand this: Ron DeSantis isn’t really Florida’s governor. Some weird holographic mash-up of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump is. I wouldn’t even waste time arguing with DeSantis. He’s an institutional puppet of Jeb’s education foundation on one hand and an emotional puppet of MAGA on the other.
Florida has no functioning state government
Florida is a state without a functioning government or public political culture, as COVID has demonstrated.
Instead, we have law enforcement and a patchwork of big private interests — Publix, Disney, Big Real Estate and Development, Big Retirement Neighborhood Association, Big Law Firm, Big Nursing Home, Big Energy Company etc. — that provide private overlapping elements of “governing” within their own areas of control. Big Hospital and Big University increasingly operate far from their public roots in the public good.
Indeed, Jeb’s private education foundation is the K-12 private interest that has controlled the public school governing portfolio in Florida — and has since 1999.
These interests appoint “elected” clerks to the Legislature to codify their agreements on paper and act as ambassadors or couriers in working out differences among them in Tallahassee. Occasionally, the public tells the private interests through referendum that it would like a $15 minimum wage or legal weed or for felons to vote or smaller class sizes. Mostly, the private interests and their clerks give the public the finger when that happens.
That’s our state “government.”
If you are born with capital or migrate here with capital, you can live comfortably and entertained within the gates Florida’s big economic interests construct, the same way you can in Dubai, I suspect. I’m a fourth generation Floridian and professional knowledge worker; so my family and I do OK.
If you’re born in Florida without capital, you’re likely doomed, by design. Expect to be retained in 3rd grade because of your test score — ripped away from your friends and age cohort — for the sake of gaming the NAEP. Or you can take a voucher to a garbage “school.”
Thus, a Jeb/Trump mashup is the perfect Florida governor. That’s because neither Trumpism nor Jebism wants a functioning, elected state government, for different reasons. Trump’s are entirely feral and personal; Jeb’s are ideological and ego-driven — more or less.
We can exploit the inner contradictions of a Jeb/Trump hybrid, if we’re smart. But don’t kid yourselves. It will remain politically and institutionally formidable in the 2022 Florida governor’s campaign.
It’s an uphill battle to convince a majority of the transient Florida public to establish a permanently functional state government. Florida narrowly elected Rick Scott twice and Ron DeSantis once precisely because a narrow majority didn’t think it wanted a functioning public government. We’ll see if that’s changed at all with COVID.
Public education offers the best vehicle for that change because the Florida public has supported it by direct vote more than any other Florida governing function — only to see that support squandered at the state level on inhumane grift.
Cut through the menacing 2022 noise with something new
It’s also important to understand this: Florida will take on all American sins and serve as the quisling MAQA-burgh for the next few years. The Trump singularity is going to gather all white supremacist, nihilistic, anti-social, grifting, Q-insurrection-curious, feral-politician pilgrims to the Mar-a-Lago event horizon like an orange black hole.
2022’s political season is gonna be a spectacle of feral, trolling menace in this state. Look at Marco Rubio’s abject terror of Ivanka Trump. He may just step aside and hand the Senate nomination to her. And most Florida Democrats fear their own shadows and losing their status — they have no power to lose — even more than Marco does.
To say the least, that’s a challenging political environment for explaining things assertively that challenge long-established, well-funded mainstream narratives and don’t break down neatly among tired, familiar, lazy national political structures.
But we have to start. Repetition and exposure is the key. And the environment also comes with opportunity.
The DeSantis governor’s race will likely have more attention than any other in 2022; and the Trumpian troll noise will become a wall of sameness. A smart, successful politician — with help — could pierce it by yelling something new, repeatedly. Something like this:
“I will treat your child like human being, not a piece of data to sell in school” is pretty good. “The Florida Model is produces America’s worst data and human experience. I will stop squandering your community tax money on Jeb Bush’s failures. I will change it.” — is pretty good and simple.
Amazingly, education was barely even mentioned in the debates and narrative flow of Florida’s 2018 governor’s race. Nibbling at the edges of the Florida Model was the defining political decision of the Andrew Gillum campaign; and it probably beat him in a very close race. That matters enormously because the vast majority of American education policy action isn’t federal action; it’s state action.
A Florida governor that overtly tosses Jeb’s Foundation out on its ear and pivots to Finland or other better examples will change American education forever, for the better. She or he would have much much much more national and historical influence than any federal Education Secretary could even dream of wielding.
MAGA’s peculiar and unpredictable education politics
MAGA actually opposes Jeb’s Florida Model. MAGA hates “Common Core” and standardized tests and “the establishment” and likes its traditional local public schools and sports teams and FFA and proms. MAGA also has a lot of special needs kids, like everybody else. And in case you haven’t noticed, MAGA is turning on Big Data pretty hard.
All of that is Jebism wrapped up in a pretty bow. So talking to MAGA directly about it offers intriguing possibilities.
Donald Trump knows absolutely nothing about education. And cares even less. But he has a predator’s sense for easy vulnerability. He casually, joyfully, ignorantly, destroyed the political potency of Jeb-style “education reform” politics in 2016 by humiliating and emasculating Jeb with two phrases: “Common Core” and “low energy.”
He clearly sensed Florida-style “education reform”s toxic unpopularity as experienced by human beings without having any idea what “education reform” or “Common Core” actually is. That’s the ultimate LOL on everybody in the education “policy” world and the Eduwonk industrial complex. Trump understands the “liberal reformers” who enabled Jeb’s failures — looking at you, Arne Duncan — better than they understand themselves. And he weaponized them against themselves.
Trump used education as a political tool more successfully than any Democratic politician in my lifetime. What an indictment. Trump is, bar none, the most successful “education” politician since Jeb himself. He used education to destroy Jeb’s candidacy and “liberal reform” as a thing. I can’t help but bathe in that irony.
And then Trump, who knows nothing and cares nothing about education, appointed Betsy DeVos, who is much more a Jeb ally than a MAGA ally. DeVos did little to truly advance her causes; but she did shrewdly bamboozle MAGA into thinking she embodies “own the libs” to some extent. So we have work to do to exploit the natural fault lines in the Jeb/Trump Florida mashup.
Will MAGA want to own its kids’ humanity so they’re more than Big Tech’s easily sortable data? Or will it just want to just “own the libs”?
That’s hard to answer in an irrational, tribal, feral political moment. But we won’t find the answer unless we ask it often. We must inform MAGA over and over again:
Jeb-world wants to eliminate your local community schools and your teachers and your right to vote for School Board and wants to reduce your kid to a data point to sell, just like Big Tech does. We’ll rebuild a public education capacity that treats your child like a human being with human needs. Your child is much more than a test score and a bureaucrat’s data point.
This has the virtue of being absolutely true. And good politics. And good policy. MAGA will have to decide how to react to it. Just asking it repeatedly has powerful narrative value for other voting blocs and powerful interests.
Make Florida’s private interests confront themselves
Confronting MAGA with the facts that its kids and their parents actually experience n schools every day could also force the Chamber of Commerce types and various business lobbies to face and acknowledge Florida’s abysmal education performance and human experience. (I’m pretty sure they already know this; but they’re afraid to say it. I’ve talked to some of them. I think they would rather grind out the PR fakery and take their chances, letting other people “be the change.”)
But Florida education’s garbage vouchers and terrible test scores and anti-human authoritarianism are going to hamper the post-COVID business relocation that seems possible for comparatively cheap Florida cities. Consider this recent Bloomberg article about Goldman Sachs moving some operations to Miami, which noted this:
Goldman’s top competitors have flirted with the idea in the past. JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon in 2013 praised Florida’s business-friendly policies and joked that he sometimes wonders aloud why the nation’s biggest bank doesn’t relocate to Miami. Executives at one point floated the possibility of moving the firm’s headquarters to the state, but dismissed the proposal over issues including the quality of Florida’s schools.
Do you think this has gotten better? Twenty-plus years of Jebism is the reason you can’t have nice banks, Florida economic developers.
Indeed, there is absolutely no reason that the end of the Jeb’s Florida Model and Big Test can’t come from a Florida Republican primary insurgency. We should attack it from all sides with all of our wolves unleashed. Our opponents have only lies and some concentrated money with which to defend.
Accurately discrediting the human performance and the data performance of the Florida Model at all levels, whether it delivers a new governor or not, will have a transformational effect on public education everywhere. You don’t even have to win the election in Florida, although that would be great; you just have to win the narrative about the Florida Model. Make politicians in other states to say this, forever:
If you want shitty test scores and depressed kids and no teachers, by all means, test your kids to death. Ask Florida. Ask Jeb. That’s pretty concise.
More “Public Enemies Number 1,” please
If you know nothing about me, at this point, you’re probably saying: "Well, when is this dude gonna stop the lecture and put his money where his mouth is and run for something?”
I did. At almost exactly the same time that Trump was dominating Jeb, I was hammering Jebucation — and the local education and political establishment that has enabled it for generation — from what people consider “the left.” (Left, right, center don’t actually exist in any meaningful way; but that’s a different discussion.)
I ran loudly, won big, governed loudly, and then narrowly (52-48) lost re-election to the Polk County School Board as an unabashedly pro-public education wolf. This occurred in a fairly large, urbanizing red county (Trump +12) between Tampa and Orlando.
Narcissism aside, I might make a useful political case study. (I find myself encouraging. LOL.) Part 3 of this 3-part behemoth will provide that case study. And if my 5-year experience doesn’t provide encouragement, Karen Castor Dentel’s ongoing record of political success definitely should. She’s a very good school board member in Orange County — the Orlando area. Big Charter put out separate mailers last year calling us each “Public Enemy #1.”
Labelling two different people in adjoining counties as Public Enemy Number 1 is peak Florida Model stupidity and laziness — and it rather embodies everything I’ve said. It still makes me giggle. But imagine if we had 30 or 100 Public Enemies #1.
But before the case studies, Part 2 will help equip you to become a wolf or public enemy of the grifters trying to destroy public schools, if you’re willing. And more importantly, it will focus on how to win the rebuilding — and with what model — which is what really matters.
Again, the “Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door” have a two-part ideology: “destroy public education and replace it with nothing (or debit cards to Dollar General).” The “replace it with nothing” part is an even greater political vulnerability than the destroying part.
Real power lies in providing the capacity to meet the insatiable public demand for meaningful public education experiences — and free child care for capital’s work force. COVID has demonstrated that clearly.
Jebism has no clue how to provide capacity — and no interest in learning. So let’s own the rebuilding of capacity, not the doomed fight to protect what Jebism, sadly, has already mostly killed in Florida. I believe capacity in Florida and elsewhere can be rebuilt better — and quite quickly — when the political decision to do so is made.
But it will take political wolves to deliver that decision.
Billy, can you share where those NAEP growth per grade calculations are from? On the NAEP website, it shows Florida as about average in 8th grade reading in 2009, and about average in 8th grade reading in 2015. If Floridian children are only making .7 grades' worth of growth per year, you would think that by 8th grade they would be we behind the rest of the country.... How would you account for the fact that we aren't? Is it mainly an artifact of mass retention in third grade, so most of our students are taking an extra year to get to 8th grade? (A quick Google search of 'Florida third grade retention rate' didn't give me anything to indicate if that rate is large enough to have this much of an effect).