Strange victories: Florida petulantly starts rebuilding public education after killing the Jeb/Obama era
The woke wars and other cruelties create attention and dread; but public education had one of its best Florida legislative sessions in a long time, with potential to get much better in the future.
For a generation, Florida’s Jeb Bush GOP used public schools as political tools by attacking the public schools themselves as crappy, out-of-date, union-dominated, anti-equity, public institutions that needed to be slapped into shape by the equitable “non-partisan” business sense of the “private sector.”
Soft bigotry of low expectations and all of that.
Jebism — with crucial help from corporate, Ivy League Democrats and so-called “centrists” — used socio-economic realities to attack the very concept of traditional, community-based public schools and the institutional interests of their most important stakeholders.
Together, the leaders of this Jeb/Obama educational coalition killed the teacher supply chain, drowned schools in useless standardized testing, and made a lot of money for lousy people — both through morally useless “reform” policy think tanks and from charter/privatization grifts.
Together, they reduced human children to nothing more than units of standardized data to sell to grifters and criminals. It was a spectacularly successful con for Republican politicians; and it was disastrous for the country and Democratic party, which helped cut its own throat because … reasons.
But this year has marked an important rhetorical and policy shift in Florida — and elsewhere.
Where Jeb-ism brilliantly used Democratic leaders and empty “equity” rhetoric to wage bipartisan elite war on public schools; the new GOP line uses public schools to wage war on the Democratic Party (including their former “reform” ideological allies), on vulnerable children and employees, and on the very idea of equity.
Both of those wars are ugly, vicious, and unnecessary; and the new GOP school trolling rhetoric and bigoted scapegoat policies are hideous.
But we true public school advocates should also realize that DeSantis-ism has brutally cuckolded Democratic “reformers,” while implicitly rejecting Jeb’s core premise and accepting ours about the civic importance of community-based public schools.
To put it bluntly: the DeSantis/CCDF/Moms for Liberty “right” hates the idea of you much more than it hates the idea of public schools. Indeed, all those homeschool, anti-woke, white nationalist folks would love to attend free public schools — if you did not exist as part of them. That’s the “ideology” driving the “new” GOP approach to education — and it’s important for us to understand the opportunities it presents public school advocates of all parties.
The anti-woke con artists have split the Jeb/Obama education coalition — and made its rhetoric irrelevant — with extraordinary speed and effectiveness. By doing so, they have strengthened public school activists and weakened our most formidable enemies — even in Florida.
In Florida, just this Legislative session, you’ve seen:
A massive investment aimed at retaining and growing the exact same woke teaching force DeSantis and Randy Fine claim to hate so much.
DeSantis’ complex rhetorical rebuke of Jeb’s testing model, which his replacement policies are making into a lie. It’s a political and educational scandal/shitshow in waiting which will further discredit mindless testing.
More detail on those in a moment, but first …
A feckless attempt to turn COVID frustration into a cultural purge
If you listen closely to the nature of the insults and attacks, the anti-woke con artists and DeSantis GOP are now using public schools to politick by attacking the most vulnerable individual children or curriculum ideas within the public schools — not the public schools themselves.
The GOP is showily pretending to purge schools of “impure” or “offensive” books, ideas, children, and employees on behalf of CCDF-type snowflakes and whiny grievance.
It’s a major break from Jebism, which hates the idea of traditional public schools as a public good and education delivery model much more than it hates you as an individual. That’s its “libertarianism” talking.
This paleo GOP pivot away from Jebism is an unintentionally positive development for the future of public schools and for America. The ugly, feckless attempt at a purge is very difficult to project at scale over time into the vast reality of American schools and the human relationships they contain — if you want those same schools to exist at all. And America does.
The casualties of scapegoating children and demanding schools lie about history are real; but I predict this effort will fail like the Capitol Lynch Mob failed to overthrow the government for essentially the same reasons — both its morality and its capability.
We’ll emerge with a greater national consensus about the importance and value of public schools as a concept.
COVID emotion vs. COVID logic
The COVID opening debate contributed powerfully to this pivot, whichever side you were on. Big capital wanted its free public school employee child care back; many new COVID homeschool parents — especially working parents — gained a new appreciation for the difficulty of instruction and classroom management and the peace schools provide them for 7 hours a day; and people generally agreed that Zoom school sucks.
Before COVID, privatizers like Jeb actually saw online schooling as an important tool for pushing kids out of public schools. But during COVID, DeSantis and others saw greater political opportunity in forcing kids back into brick and mortar schools. It’s hard to kill and privatize public schools when you’re coercing everybody back into them.
DeSantis and the anti-social, anti-woke Capitol Lynch Mob-type folks — like Polk County’s CCDF — then hijacked the COVID school mask and closure emotion to build momentum for attacking accurate history, gay kids, and Beloved.
But the farther we get from COVID emotion, the less those interests overlap — and the less popular the culture war gets.
You’re seeing that now.
Better ground for protecting the vulnerable and building capacity
I will acknowledge that anti-woke pivot away from Jeb-ism doesn’t feel like a positive development if you’re one of the hated/attacked people — or, crucially, if you imagine you live in a different America with a different generational approach to public education than actually exists.
But anti-social, “anti-woke” crazy people and con artists are much easier enemies for public education advocates to fight — and “Don’t say gay” much better ground to fight on — than the Jeb/Obama coalition and bipartisan “Failure Factories” rhetoric.
Trust me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to defend vulnerable children and beat back Hannah Book Bannah’s cruel petty absurdities than it is to sustain well-resourced, well-staffed, humanely-developmental public schools against the unbending bipartisan cruelty and capacity erosion of the Jeb/Obama alliance. (It took us less than nine months to get the CCDF on its heels here in reddish Polk. Jebism ruled for at least 25 years.)
In Florida, the Jeb/Obama alliance has wrecked countless childhoods with endless attacks on public school capacity and the teaching force. The useless testing and labelling, mass 3rd grade retention, Jefferson County/“Schools of Hope”-type privatization gimmicks were all sold in the name of “equity.” This fake “equity” labelled countless children as “failures” at age 8 for their own good and ruined their lives just so Florida could game the 4th grade NAEP test before collapsing with age on every other NAEP test.
As awful as today’s cultural name-calling is for the socially vulnerable, it’s not worse than telling thousands and thousands of kids (including many of those same vulnerable kids):
“You’re stupid and you don’t deserve to be in class with your friends. And your parents and teachers suck. Pearson test numbers don’t lie about your achievement gap and worth. See you in prison.”
Jebism — enabled by Democratic leaders — tells kids this with “data” at scale every year. It does exponentially more damage to more flesh and blood children than any stupid thing Randy Fine ever said. And despite all the stupid things Randy Fine says — or perhaps even because of them — Jebism had a really bad Legislative session.
Here’s a deeper dive on the three concrete key indicators I cited above of Florida moving away from anti-public school Jebism under the ugly cover of anti-wokism and grudgingly accepting the longterm importance of community-based, egalitarian public schools.
The Jefferson County scandal and public school rebirth is perhaps the greatest privatization defeat in history
I have long said this: the privatizing forces of bipartisan Jebism behave as if they want to destroy public education and replace it with nothing.
I long pointed out this position is civically and politically untenable, even in the reddest of jurisdictions. For instance, local Florida counties — red and blue alike — have routinely voted to tax themselves to pay for public education when the state refused to provide adequate funding.
If public education is ever truly razed, I’ve reasoned, we’ll have to rebuild it.
Enter Jefferson County, Florida — the Stalingrad of privatization in Florida.
The endlessly hyped charter takeover of the tiny Jefferson Schools by the triumphant forces of Jebism ended this year with Florida’s biggest charter and education leadership names running away after five years of abject failure.
Together, they squandered far more state resources than the elected Jefferson school board ever had and left the very poor Jefferson County community far worse off than they found it. Then they tried to pluck meat from the bones like hyenas and stumbled into a scandal that individually and personally touches every important Florida education leader, privatizer, and influence peddler.
But we have DeSantis.
David whips Goliath
More than that, using old fashioned public pressure, Trump-voting Jefferson County’s multi-racial, local elected board and community took back their multi-racial schools from Florida’s most powerful education grifters. They forced those same pillaging grifters to cough up the same extra funding, at least for this year.
It’s the most successful David v. Goliath power play I’ve ever seen in Florida. And there is a real sense of hope and pride radiating off the folks I talk to in Jefferson County. They have a strong, veteran principal skilled in serving low income schools ready to take over their K-12 campus. There’s a palpable sense of rebirth.
Faced with destroying the Jefferson County public schools and replacing them with nothing, even Manny Diaz, Richard Corcoran, and the associated Jebbist grifters were forced to admit defeat, surrender the schools to the tiny community, and cough up the same extra money the charter and external operator grifters got to fail.
Faced with destroying public education in tiny Jefferson County and replacing it with nothing, DeSantis-ism, under a multi-racial, Trump-voting community’s public pressure, went all-in on rebuilding community-focused public education capacity.
That tells you everything about the practical and political limits of privatization, even in Florida.
DeSantis knows he has to pay woke teachers to staff popular public schools. Money talks, culture war BS walks.
No stupid abusive anti-woke thing Fine or DeSantis belched out in the last few months changes the truth of this thing he also said recently.
“If you want to recruit more people to come in, they’ve got to be able to afford to be teachers,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Wellington. “What we’ve been able to do, over the last three years, is $2 billion for increasing teacher compensation across a variety of initiatives.”
DeSantis has a made a big show in recent years of raising the starting salary for teachers in Florida to the top 10 in America. This is useless and accomplishes nothing to increase the teacher supply or stabilize the teaching force. Teacher turnover is massive for new entries to the field. Not many make it past three years. Raising starting salary, while doing nothing for the median salary for veteran teachers, makes turnover of our least committed, least experienced, and least effective teachers more expensive for taxpayers.
Somebody finally seems to have gotten that through the thick skulls of DeSantis and legislators. This year’s $800M infusion into public school teacher salaries — made possible by Joe Biden and the federal government — is supposedly aimed at veteran teachers, too. We’ll see.
Sure, DeSantis will take credit, while blaming everybody else for Florida’s uniquely severe inflation. That’s the type of person he is.
But it’s also an implicit recognition that anti-woke champion Ron DeSantis needs woke teachers wayyyyyyy more than they need him — or any of us. And that’s quite a reversal for the dude whose trash-talking Education Commissioner bragged about cutting public enrollment by 2/3 before COVID.
Not only did the Corcoran/DeSantis axis not kill public education in its most imperiled, online-dependent COVID state when they had the chance; now they’re surrendering previously conquered ground and resources to people who want to rebuild it. [See Jefferson County.]
They’re also investing in the future of the very same woke, gay-saying, understaffed teaching force they’ve spent the entire Legislative Session attacking in a stupid performative culture war. Florida’s teacher union is cautiously optimistic.
DeSantis is investing in the same woke teachers he and Randy Fine love to attack —because he knows he has no alternative except nothing. Good luck keeping them unwoke.
The wild card of DeSantis’ predictable testing/progress monitoring lie
By virtually all accounts, DeSantis is breaking his promise to vastly reduce testing and improve the experience by imposing a 3X per year high stakes online “progress monitoring” regime. The spring version seems to be just as vast and time-consuming as the current FSA testing regime that DeSantis said he was getting rid of.
The state will require local districts to do this high stakes progress monitoring/testing on a state K-10 platform that has not yet been built. The teacher’s union is already, accurately, framing the testing bill as a high profile broken promise.
Meet the new test. Same (or worse) as the old test. Except the new test doesn’t even exist yet. LOL. That is a recipe for an administrative, experiential, procurement, and political scandal/shitshow.
I consider any act by Florida education leaders that turns testing/data into a useless political scandal/shitshow as helpful to hastening the demise of useless test-obsession in education.
So, pop the popcorn, and we’ll see what happens.
Beware of too much dread, my fellow advocates
I realize that my rather upbeat narrative here runs somewhat contrary to the prevailing narrative around public education at this moment — on all sides.
DeSantis and the shifting Republican leadership structure thinks all the education culture war stuff and scapegoating and racism and book-banning is going to help sweep it into power in 2022 and 2024.
Many Democratic public school advocates wake up each day fearing DeSantis is right about that — and dreading each new anti-woke atrocity lobbed like artillery into public schools.
But a Republican war on Democrats using public schools is a very different animal than a Republican war on public schools using powerful Democrats, which is what we’ve had for 20-plus years, whether MSNBC watchers realized it or not.
Jeb’s war thrived on the “Failure Factories”-style Democratic and corporate cover it long received. The equity language let them pretend it wasn’t a war, just accountability for “achievement.” That incredibly well-funded bipartisan lie was the genius of Jeb-ism.
Foolishly, Republicans have completely renounced Jeb’s rhetorically covert war in the last nine months or so. Jeb’s war split rank-and-file Democrats and their party leaders because of its lip service to equity. DeSantis’ war unites rank-and-file Democrats and connects them to cross partisan community allies. It also paralyzes and silences Democratic “reform” leaders.
And I see no evidence that Republicans can actually win an open war — as opposed to one enabled by Democratic cover — on public schools. That’s because a Republican war on public schools that gazillions of Republican kids attend for free is not popular — at all — with Republicans themselves or most independents.
An unpopular personality disorder
Moreover, in its zeal to use public education to take short-term power, the DeSantis GOP has also saddled itself with the very unpopular “ideology” of long-term white straight “Christian” cultural dominance.
But white straight “Christian” dominance — like all instinct to domination — is not actually an ideology. It’s a personality disorder.
As that personality disorder gets closer and closer to how actual white straight Christians live their daily lives — as it moves out of distant abstraction and into book-banning and meeting screaming and in-person community cruelty — it gets more and more unpopular with more and more Republicans and white straight Christians — not to mention everybody else.
Now, to be clear, “white straight Christian dominance,” as an abstract idea, may not be less popular with Republicans than than Democrats or “wokeness,” as equally abstract ideas. Many personally decent Republicans are told by their media and closed communities that abstract Democrats and wokesters want to dominate them. That’s a powerful lie to have eating away at your brain at the voting booth and family dinner table.
But the vast majority of the many, many Trump-voting Republicans I know actively reject the antics of white straight Christian dominance when forced to actually deal with those antics. They much prefer me to the Hannah Book Bannahs as a collaborator and even good-faith opponent. I’m not abstract.
To be blunt: people who seek to dominate you are assholes first, whatever else they claim to be second. And no one likes assholes to have power over them or their kids in the name of any ideology. It forces the rest of us to organize against dominance for raw self-defense in a way that weakens dominance. See Lakeland’s public humiliation of white straight Christian supremacist mayor candidate Saga Stevin and the ongoing recapture of Polk County’s public space from the personality disorders of the Capitol Lynch Mob/Michael Flynn-loving CCDF.
A war on public schools built on pure, open assholery will lose.
And I think white straight Christian supremacists, anti-wokists, and egalitarian public school advocates alike have all failed to heed a lesson of Ukraine/Russia: waging a vicious war of aggression does not equate to winning it. In fact, waging a vicious war can prove strategically disastrous for the nastier, dumber side.
No, Corcoran is not winning. He already lost.
You can see a really powerful, well-reported example of this from my friendly acquaintance Kathryn Joyce of Salon Magazine. She has a three-part series about Hillsdale College, which is a key engine of the "white straight Christian supremacy” parts of the Republican war on Democrats using public schools.
But before it was that, it was a key engine of the "white straight Christian supremacy” parts of the Republican war on public schools that powerful Democrats enabled.
Richard Corcoran and Arne Duncan and John King were all on the same side bleating about equity during the “Failure Factories” and “Schools of Hope” era here in Florida. Not anymore — because Hillsdale and Corcoran totally, hilariously cucked the reformers.
And Kathryn’s excellent, accurate reporting has picked up on the clear vibe shift.
And as Republicans move into a new phase of their long-game efforts to privatize public education, Hillsdale has become a key resource.
But I think “a new phase of their long-game efforts to privatize public education” mislabels the shift and grants far too much design and competence.
Indeed, how does Kathryn’s portrait of an ascendant Hillsdale favorite Richard Corcoran compare to what I just showed you about the ignominious and failed end of his career and power during this Florida Legislative session? Does this sound like the same guy and movement that just got steamrolled in Jefferson County and quit in disgrace?
Richard Corcoran — who has reportedly suggested cutting the public school system by two-thirds and whose brother has worked as a lobbyist for a charter school management company — spoke at Hillsdale the same year, telling the school's attendees to view education as the battlefield where Republicans could win the political war. In that fight, Corcoran said, steady progress toward school privatization was being made.
As Florida Republicans move closer to achieving their stated long-term goal of making 100 percent of the state's students eligible for school vouchers, Corcoran suggested that once the state manages to lure 1.5 million students away from public schools — to get those kids "across that Rubicon," as he put it — the resultant loss of funding and forced consolidation would alter the educational landscape so radically that not even future Democratic governors could change it back. Indeed, they might be getting close already, he said, with almost a third of that number already using vouchers or in charters.
"You can't take those 500,000 kids and bring them back into the public school system. So you have to keep doing what we're doing, as quickly as we're doing it," he said.
If you read’s Kathryn’s series, which was just published, it seems like Corcoran is ascendant and powerful. He is not. He was actually ascendant in 2015 or so, with Arne Duncan and John King and Barack Obama as the wind beneath his “Failure Factory” wings, when he had the juice to seize Jefferson County schools for his charter grifter buddies and declare:
“I promise you, … Jefferson County will turn around with this program.”
Today Corcoran is broken. He’s done. He’s leaving the power gifted to him by Marco Rubio and DeSantis with his tail between his legs. He can’t even rig his way into a real job with a real college to run into the ground like he did Jefferson County and Florida’s DoE. Maybe Hillsdale will hire him. LOL. I hope so.
Corcoran had a pandemic wrapped in a culture war in Florida and he still couldn’t destroy or even really dent public education — much less get it to the “Rubicon.” And now he’s gone, a has-been, with visions of university/college presidencies no longer dancing in his head because of his incompetence as a leader.
He’s going to be some kind of “consultant” somewhere — the Florida equivalent of waving a “will grift for food” sign.
Hillsdale not that formidable either
Even without Corcoran to wreck it, I don’t see any real indication that Hillsdale can win whatever war it’s pursuing. Establishing a few “classical” charter schools or a voucher program does not equate to winning the war on public schools.
Florida proves that, too. Here’s another quote from Kathryn’s story that I think merits a clarifying strategic note.
As Florida Republicans move closer to achieving their stated long-term goal of making 100 percent of the state's students eligible for school vouchers …
Florida’s hideously segregated scam voucher “schools” are so terrible that they have a collective 61 percent 2-year drop out rate according to the only study ever done a few years back. 75 percent over 3 years. [Go see what Florida voucher schools actually are here, in this series of articles I called “Jeb Crow”.]
Now rewrite Kathryn’s sentence:
As Florida Republicans move closer to achieving their stated long-term goal of making 100 percent of the state's students eligible for the state’s terrible school voucher program that has a 75 percent three-year drop out rate …
How would this understanding of intent vs. capability affect the war we’re fighting for public education — in Florida and beyond?
The missing piece to the doom story too often told about privatizing public education is that high drop out rate, exclusive charter schools and astronomically-high drop out rate voucher “school” scams spit out gazillions of kids who have to be taken in by somebody else for the business model to even work as a grift.
If public schools didn’t exist, grifting privatizers would have to invent them. When privatizers start to believe their own nonsense and commit themselves to the public school mission, you get the Jefferson County debacle. And that leads to rebirth of real public education.
You’ll know right wingers are serious about killing public education — rather than just killing Democrats — when they collectively attack, with legislation and institutional power, compulsory education requirements.
But that would also ruin the privatizer’s grift — for vouchers and charters alike.
What Hannah Book Bannah gets that Arne Duncan and Democratic education “leaders” do not
I agree that the fragile GOP coalition wants to use anti-woke public education policy and rhetoric as a weapon in its war against Democrats in ‘22 and ‘24. That may or may not work against Democrats. But I see much less evidence of a successful anti-woke war against public education itself — which ought to be the institutional and political and cultural foundation of the national Democratic Party — but isn’t.
Indeed, I see emerging signs of far more effective counteroffensives against nine months of Hillsdale-ism than we ever managed against a generation of bipartisan Jeb/Obama-ism — including right here in red Florida and Polk County. [See Jefferson and the Saga/CCDF pushback.]
These counteroffensives are just happening organically, at the community level or non-leadership elected official level — with zero effective help from national Democratic party power.
Of 30 candidates designated by the group as “pro–public education,” 29 won their races—many in traditionally “red” regions of New Hampshire. Across the state, culture warriors and advocates of school privatization lost to candidates who pledged to protect and support public education.
Those 29 wins also got no help from corrupt and immoral “liberal reformers” who sit around spluttering over euphemisms like “learning loss” and re-litigating COVID school closures as their former right wing “allies” laugh at them and the very idea of “equity” that so-called reformers so long used to rhetorically justify their teacher-hating data abuse.
The vain folly of Democratic Party education “leaders” and pundits
Berkshire’s article ends on an extremely plaintive quote from one of the activists.
“My first thought was that this could really help the Democrats in the midterms.”
This poor person badly misunderstands American Democratic Party leaders. If winning the mid-terms means running as genuine, unapologetic pro-public school warriors, Democratic power would rather lose and blame that hopeful activist for the loss.
And I’m not just talking about Manchin and Sinema; I’m talking about the whole top-level party advocacy and pundit structure. There are many bad reasons for this pathology — money, status, vanity, arrogance, some painful childhood school experience, weird hatred of teacher unions, personal distance from actual community-based public schools, etc.
But a generation of evidence, about which I’ve written a million words or more, tells me it exists.
To their predatory credit, the DeSantis/CCDF/Moms for Liberty right has internalized the idea that public schools and teachers are popular and important as civic institutions in a way that the leadership of the Democratic party still has not and won’t until it purges Arne Duncan and Jonathan Chait-ism from party power.
There is no issue in which the passions and interests of Democratic party voters and Democratic party leaders diverge more severely than action and support on public education. That divergence is the number 1 reason I’m not a Democrat. It is likely to destroy the Democratic party.
But it won’t destroy public education.
Listen to what DeSantis’ self-interest is really saying. Then exploit it.
It would be nice if the Democratic Party leadership ever decided to act ferociously in support of public education out of respect for its most loyal voters — rather than obedience to its nastiest donors and least self-aware pundits.
But it may never happen; and public education warriors need not wait for it.
There is opportunity to go on offense everywhere and put the anti-woke con artists and book banners on defense. The anti-woke con artists have already done the hard part for us. They’ve blown up the corporate “reform” coalition. We don’t need to thank them; but we can benefit from them.
Indeed, if DeSantis thought Corcoranism was true — or good politics — he would not be dropping $800M in recurring money on all those woke teachers turning your kids gay. He would not have thought it good politics to return Jefferson schools to Jefferson County or lie about getting rid of testing.
The new GOP power structure has finally awakened to the massive wedge issue the Jeb/Obama education coalition presents to Democrats and weaponized it. In doing so, they’ve exposed themselves to counterattack.
In cynically agitating its Trump/Capitol Lynch Mob base by attacking “woke” teachers and curriculum, the GOP has stipulated to the importance and popularity of public schools as an American institution. Whether or not it’s good short-term politics for the GOP, the stipulation is a big win for public education advocates, if not for Democratic leaders. But they are not the same.
None of this is to say Florida or DeSantis are “good.” DeSantis is, above all, self-interested. If he’s doing something, he thinks it’s in his personal political/power interest.
We should listen to what he’s clearly telling us — and make him eat it unrelentingly.