"Our system has failed." Rep. Melony Bell's important personal critique of Florida's choice/ESA grift.
An inherent defense of public education; a revealing view of "charter"; admirable personal suffering weaponized for bad governing of others. A case study in human complexity and governing.
Watch this minute-long video of State Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, from last week’s meeting of the Florida House Pre-K-12 subcommittee. Bell is vice chair. The topic is Florida kids “missing” from school in the COVID-19 era and what to do about them.
What Melony has to say is personal and profound, in its way. We’ll come back to it.
The ESA grifter train
But first, it’s important to understand that Florida’s grifter government and lawmakers are currently moving legislation to combine the state’s different voucher money pots into one giant cauldron of grift called “Educational Savings Accounts” [ESA].
This ESA is funded by money diverted in one way or another from the human capacity and service offerings of your real neighborhood public schools. Florida’s ESA plan is the education governance equivalent of seeking to dismantle Publix and replace it with a debit card allowing you to buy whatever groceries you can from dollar stores or road side stands.
Like vouchers themselves, ESAs are a practical vehicle for paying the parents of poor or vulnerable or not easy-to-educate kids not to go to school — and for saving real school capacity for mostly white kids with good health and access to capital. This is very consistent with Richard Corcoran’s stated public education goals.
If Arza’s involved…
Here’s a decent ESA rundown from the Tampa Bay Times. If you doubt me on how grifty this is, consider one of the key voices behind it. Note my addition in bold to the “official” description of Ralph Arza.
Ralph Arza, a former Miami lawmaker and current charter school lobbyist, [“kicked out of the legislature for drunk-dialing criminal, racist threats.” Full documentation here.] said Diaz’s proposal is a “natural progression” of the school-choice movement in Florida over the past two decades, and argued the pandemic has exposed educational needs that could be aided by more choice.
Parents have also become more accustomed to the concept of “boutique” schooling, where they can choose from in-person, live virtual and remote learning, or other options like homeschooling.
You see on display in that passage a large part of what’s wrong with modern journalism.
If you’re powerful, you can be “a former Miami lawmaker” without journalism adding “kicked out of the legislature for drunk-dialing criminal, racist threats.” Failing to note that is like touting a public figure as a veteran without pointing out a dishonorable discharge.
Florida’s voucher provider network is the Texas electric grid of education — except much worse. Every day is a crisis of dysfunction.
Arza’s mashed together voucher grifts aren’t even meaningfully related to each other.
On the one hand, there’s the racist, 61 percent two-year drop-out rate FTC voucher program hard-marketed to families of color by over-testing and 3rd grade retention in neighborhood public schools. Full discussion here.
On the other hand, there’s the griftopia of the Gardiner program, which gives rich people free pianos, PlayStations, or Peletons from the Gardiner online store for their mildly disabled children, but does a lousy job providing basic, serious, human services for the profoundly disabled. Ask people actually dealing with the program.
For every “good” school or service for disabled children that FTC or Gardiner “helps” fund (and there are some, particularly with Gardiner), there are hydra heads worth of Kingdom Prep and A’Kelynn’s Angels — in Polk County and beyond. FTC and Gardiner are the money fuel for the “Schools without Rules,” as the Orlando Sentinel aptly dubs the Florida voucher provider network.
As you can see below, A’Kelynn’s Angels in Winter Haven is a going Step Up for Students concern; and it takes all the vouchers, as displayed on the left. It supposedly provides ESE services, as shown on the right.
When I checked in on A’kelynn’s Angels last year, it did not have functioning voicemail, and it was difficult to determine if it was actually open. I also learned that the Florida Department of Children and Families had shut down the “A'kelynn's Angels Learning Center Day Care Center” in 2017 because of multiple violations. Full story here.
Nevertheless, The A’Kelynn’s Angels voucher school is chugging right along with the blessing of voucher superintendent Doug Tuthill and “Step Up for Students,” the voucher School Board that he leads. In fact, the school has apparently grown enrollment by 30 or 40 kids, up to 209, if you believe Step Up’s numbers. (I don’t, really.)
You’ll have to decide what ESE services — or any services — all this voucher money is buying. And it’s just one school. Here’s the pin map that pops up when you search Step Up for vouchers schools just in the Winter Haven area. This is the Richard Corcoran and Doug Tuthill and Jeb Bush shadow school system of grift.
How many of those pins could stand up to any scrutiny at all? That’s how you get a 61 percent 2-year program drop out rate.
As you can see, this entire marketplace is far less regulated or functional than the libertarian Texas electric grid that our federal tax money will be bailing out soon so that energy tycoons can gouge the families of people they helped kill.
ESAs just pay poor or ESE kids to stay out of wealthier kids’ public schools
As the Arza excerpt shows above, Florida’s grifter government is using the chaos and enrollment oddities of the COVID-19 era as cover and half-baked excuse for cutting/transferring funding away from already vastly underfunded public schools. Florida’s government is attempting to use COVID-19 as an excuse for accelerating the destruction of capacity to provide education at scale and with any basic quality — and replace it with nothing.
ESAs are just a backhanded, dishonest way of ending compulsory education, by allowing “a la carte” spending on an “education services marketplace” with few, if any, decent products.
Outside of a few very specialized Gardiner-enhanced schools, the shelves of the ESA supermarket are bare, I assure you, if you’re looking for anything good.
In Florida, ESAs will become a vehicle of unmonitored “Unschooling.” There’s a careful case to be made for “unschooling” as a concept, not a grift — as a pressure valve antidote to the useless, de-humanizing authoritarianism of test-and-punish Jeb-era schooling. But that’s an article for a different time. Florida’s grifters fund grifts, not concepts.
In reality, Florida ESAs will pay poor kids or disabled kids not to go to school while enriching people who run cons. That’s what the voucher system is right now; ESAs would make it worse.
Melony Bell: bane of unschooling
Enter State Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade — and her remarkable, minute-long speech at an official meeting of the Florida House Pre-K-12 subcommittee last week.
[Full disclosure: Melony and I have some recent history, as some of you may know. The last time I clipped an official legislative video of her, she was urging Ron DeSantis to remove me from office as an elected school board member for unspecified “disruption” — basically just for existing.
She absorbed a lot of public ridicule for that — and she complained that I cyber-bullied her by clipping her own official statement from an official meeting that was on TV. Her daughter was/is mad at me for various other things she never specified that I did or didn’t do as an elected board member. Again, just kind of mad at me for existing. Thus, I admit that I first watched this video through a bit of lingering verbal combat headspace/lens.
And then, something about the humanity of it — and relevance to public education and ESA fraud — started eating at me. There’s a lot going on here that I think is valuable for people to see and consider. And in truth, I’ve always thought Melony was actually the least public-education hostile Republican legislator in Polk County. Kelli Stargel is MUCH worse. It is strange that Melony and I ended up so at odds. Anyway, take all that for what it’s worth.]
To boil the story down: a relative Melony describes as mentally ill with “Munchausen disease” was unschooling (she doesn’t use that word; but that’s what she’s describing) her kids years prior to COVID. It seems these kids often fell to Melony for care. Admirably, Melony stepped up and tried to help her niece and nephew by forcing them into school via the courts, which ultimately failed.
The years-old experience seems to have caused Melony great pain; and she used it to say last week that the truancy system in Florida is “broken: — that it’s far too easy for parents to keep their kids home from school. Consider that position in the context of “choice” in Florida.
Again, this all happened to Melony well prior to COVID; but Melony shared this personal anecdote in an official public meeting as evidence of the need to “hold these parents accountable” now for their children’s COVID-era school attendance.
And she noted this little real-world reality of many “charter” schools.
“My oldest niece, who is now 21, went for six weeks to some kind of charter school and did get her diploma.”
“Our system has failed.”
As the ESA grifter train gains steam, DeSantis, Corcoran, Chris Sprowls, Manny Diaz, Arza, et al. will likely order Melony Bell (and Colleen Burton and all the rest) to vote for a dollar store education debit card that empowers Melony’s relative, rewards her with cash, that takes her side against Melony.
I am not sure if Melony understands that; but that's the reality. Will she have the strength to follow her personal convictions where her own scarring experience takes her? Only she can answer that.
At the same time, it’s vital to observe the dangerous leaps power can make when it uses personal experience, rather than careful public inquiry, to engage the awesome power of the state.
Melony clearly believes — she said it — that her pre-COVID experience with a mentally-ill relative suggests that the power of the state should hold accountable/punish COVID-era parents.
That applies to parents having their kids take a COVID kindergarten “red shirt” year — or who think seven hours in front of a screen or exposure to physical schools with poor COVID-safety governance is a bad idea — or are struggling with pandemic life in other ways. She thinks people who “choose” not to expose their kids to Florida’s 9th highest state rate of juvenile infection (which Gov. DeSantis was recently caught lying about) should be “held accountable.”
None of that has much to do with Melony’s pre-COVID experience. To equate the two is dangerous. And governing officials too often let their personal experiences dictate their views and what to punish more generally. This is especially true in education.
State power too often thinks of education as an authority to weaponize more than a human resource that requires capacity. We need to flip that in this country — high capacity resource first, authority (especially punishing authority) second, if at all.
Melony’s little speech, whether she realizes it or not, illustrates that profoundly.
“Our system has failed,” she said. And I agree.
It’s just that “our” and “system” are much bigger words than Melony seems to realize. They cover every grifting inhuman inch of the Florida Model, for which she has responsibility and from which she and loved ones have suffered. She could actually start doing something about that today.