Used to be it was hocking gator-infested swampland to sun-starved Yankees and shivering Canadians.
Then came the evolution of the duplicitous post-hurricane “contractor” – the prototypical hack/charlatan who trolls storm-damaged neighborhoods for the roofless and the desperate.
But thanks to a perfect storm of faltering education, amateurish solutions and absentee oversight, the Sunshine State may have entered yet another golden age of unchecked fraudulence.
This new era dawned when in 2001 George W. Bush’s Education Department brain trust (with the backing of key congressional Democrats) went active with No Child Left Behind – their sweeping, underfunded and at points inept attempt at education reform.
A decade-plus later, NCLB remains a painful primer in what not to do:
• Standardized testing has not resulted in the level academic playing field touted;
• The wholesale firing of staff as a means to better performance outcomes has yielded only marginal success;
• There is little evidence to suggest that charter or for-profit schools will ever be the backstop for chronically troubled districts as was advertised.
Examined in even the most charitable of hindsight, the law was educationally grandiose.
And fiscally wasteful.
In a twist wholly antithetical to its Republican authors’ economic worldview, NCLB has gone beyond grandiosity to bellicosity, opening to the states vast coffers of federal dollars and creating the potential for widespread misappropriation of precious education dollars.
Both progressive and conservative watchdog agencies are posting online horror stories about the reckless ways in which many states are handling the various No Child windfalls, a disproportionate number of which have to do with one of the law’s primary interventions for struggling schools: tutoring.
Indeed, NCLB-funded tutoring programs are fast becoming a mostly unregulated, nationwide industry rife with ethical if not legal violations.
And Florida may well be the poster child for what’s wrong with the No Child tutoring clause.
In a recently completed, three-month, in-depth investigation conducted by the Tampa Bay Times it was discovered that convicted criminals have been approved to head up tutoring businesses.
According to the Times report, the state was billed an estimated $7 million for tutoring sessions that never took place.
And dozens of incidents of bribery were substantiated, most notably the enticement of poor students with gifts and lavishing luxuries on officials who oversee tutoring programs.
But more common are the infractions by the educators themselves. Too typical is the case of an Alachua County, Fla., principal who coaxed her students – some of the poorest in the state – to enroll in the school’s tutoring program.
Problem was, she owned the for-profit agency to which she made those referrals.
Worse yet, the principal in question is believed to be one of 100 public school employees who tutor or own tutoring businesses operating under similar conflicts of interest.
To their credit, a former member of the state’s Ethics Commission, CEO of a nonprofit tax research group and Republican State Senate president have gone on record saying that the practice should be scrutinized and made illegal.
But the Times expose included dozens of school administrators who either declined to comment or defended outright self-referrals such as that of the Alachua principal.
It’s not clear if or when some critical mass of stiff-spine politicians, state education officials and local administrators will own up to what’s happening with the funds so desperately needed in this melting pot of a state.
But until then, we may be witnessing a new and seedy era in Florida — one that has brought shame to thousands of honest educators and visited continued hardship upon its most needy students.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013
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