Friday, October 19, 2018

Good Old "Grassroots" Power Politics

I was listening to a radio advertisement sponsored by the interest group that is advocating for citizens to give up their right to elect their superintendent this morning and I was intrigued by the strong words in the ad:  "52nd isn't going to cut it," "We will take the politics out of education," and so on.

They're running that ad, they're putting that kind of language in their internet material, and they're flooding our mailboxes with flyers with that kind of commentary in it.  But the striking thing about the group's messaging is the fact that even as they're absolutely savaging the current superintendent's and school board's record, they're very careful to say that they LOVE our superintendent and the school board members and think that they have just done such a great job.  They just LOVE the job they have done, but then they distort their record so they can put it in a negative light in order to make political points.  So much for "We will take the politics out of education."

Escambia County citizens who have been following the debate on this issue are aware that the group that is behind this marketing material KNOWS that the data they're citing has a flip side that tells a different - or at least a more balanced - story.  This group also KNOWS that there is absolutely no proof that changing the way we select our superintendent has a bearing on student or school district performance, but they jam that data at the citizens and call it "proof" anyway, as if it does.

I've said it before; let me say it again. Whether the superintendent is appointed or elected is NOT a predictor of student or school district performance.  Studies that have been conducted by more esteemed and resourced people and institutions than I have made that point.  There are many other factors that ARE predictors, but the way we select our superintendent isn't one of them.

Consider this data to see how far they're going in order to give citizens the wrong impression about this issue:

  • While they point out the school district's ranking, they ignore the fact that 12 of the top 20 Florida school districts (60%) - all "A" school districts - have school superintendents who were elected by the citizens (FDOE data).  Again, this data doesn't tell us whether electing or appointing a superintendent is the best way to go, but it does show how skewed the data is behind the effort to convince citizens to give up their right to vote.
  • Here's another Florida Department of Education data point that proponents of the appointed superintendent format don't acknowledge: 40% of Florida's "A" school districts have appointed superintendents.  However, that percentage was much higher just 8 years ago.  In 2010, 55% of Florida's "A" schools had appointed superintendents, but by 2015, that percentage fell to 48%, then it fell again to 40% in 2018.  Therefore, over that same period, the percentage of "A" Florida school districts in which the citizens elect their superintendent rose from 45% in 2010 to 52% in 2015, then again to 60% in 2018.
  • Then, when we look at average Florida school district grades on a 5-point grade scale ("A" = 5; "F" = 1), we see that the average school district grade in 2018 for school districts that have ELECTED superintendents is 4.0.  The average school district grade for school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents is 4.1.  One-tenth of a point separates the two approaches to selecting a superintendent!
  • We know where the Escambia County School District ranks in terms of state standardized test score performance, but what we aren't being told in these ads is that most Florida school districts have improved in their state standardized test performance since the 2015-16 school year by an average of 8.6%.  Escambia County has improved its score over that period by 10%.  That is a larger improvement than 20 of the 26 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents have made.  Only 4 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents made a more substantial improvement during that period.
  • What about the Escambia County graduation rate?  Since the 2012-13 school year, the graduation rate in the Escambia County School District has risen from 64.2% to 79.5%.  There is every indication that the most recent graduation rate for Escambia County is over 80%; watch for it.  That's extraordinary.
  • The group also knows that while they say that moving to an appointed superintendent format allows us to cast a wider net for candidates, 17 of the 26 appointed Florida superintendents - almost two-thirds of them - were hired from within their school district staffs, not from somewhere else.  Why?  Florida school districts are among the largest and most complex in the country, and they like to have a superintendent who knows Florida and local education-related issues and nuances.  This isn't Wisconsin where the average ratio of school districts to counties is 6:1; the ratio in Florida is 1:1.
  • And here is one more data point that throws off every myth about how the people feel about the state of education leadership in Escambia County.  The Pensacola Young Professionals' 2018 Quality of Life Community Report includes the results of a survey of 800 registered Pensacola voters.  The survey results show that the Escambia County governmental figure or entity that has the highest favorable rating (Excellent to Good rating) is the Escambia County School District Superintendent (55%). The second highest favorable rating was awarded to the Escambia County School Board (49%).  Again, the polling included only Pensacola residents so we suspect the favorable numbers would be even higher outside of the city limits.  What body is near the bottom of the list?  The Escambia County Commission.  It has a 39% Excellent to Good rating. (They might be able to boost their rating by funding sidewalks and lighting in the neighborhoods where our students live!)

People must be wondering why the activists who are supporting the change in the way we select our superintendent say that they LOVE the way the superintendent and the school board have done their jobs, but then they rattle off a litany of one-sided data points in order to tell citizens that they and the district aren't getting the job done.  The answer is simple.  They want a specific outcome and they want us to believe that the data that they cite is proof of the need for change, but they don't want to alienate the superintendent, the school board, or the citizens of Escambia County who know the kind of job they have done.  They have said repeatedly and in a number of different ways that citizens should not elect the superintendent because we're not engaged enough to make that choice.  Maybe they really believe that, and maybe they also believe that we're not engaged enough to know the other side of the story.

For a group that says it's a grassroots organization that wants to take the politics out of our schools, their strategy is a very political one, pushed out in a very expensive advertising campaign, and funded and backed by a very powerful bundle of interest groups. (But they just LOVE the job the current school district superintendent and school board have done!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Data Danger in the Appointed Superintendent Debate

A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  Sometimes, a logical fallacy erupts as a debate tactic and at other times, it emerges innocently through a simple failure to properly connect the logical dots.  The argument in support of an appointed superintendent in Florida, while well-meaning for the most part contains logical fallacies that citizens should watch for.

Citizens are receiving flyers in their mail and some are seeing posts on web sites and on social media that associate Escambia County's standardized test score ranking with the fact that the county elects its superintendent rather than appoint him or her.  The not-so-subtle implication is that the ranking is due to the fact that the citizens of Escambia County elect their superintendent rather than leave it to three school board members to appoint them.

Of course, they cite the most dramatic data that shows the school district in its worst light with respect to the rest of the state, then they arrive at the conclusion that since many school districts of a size similar to Escambia have higher test scores and also have appointed superintendents, there must be a connection.

However, that false cause-and-effect connection ignores the studies that have established that whether a superintendent is elected or appointed is not a predictor of student or district performance or success.

Making that flawed causal connection is the logical fallacy, just as it would be a logical fallacy for those on the other side of the debate to claim that since 60% of Florida's "A" school districts have elected superintendents, having an elected superintendent is the superior approach.

Since we can't conclude much from that data that establishes a causal linkage to how we select our superintendent, we wonder if there is data that we can use, data that is accurate and relevant?

Maybe we can consider trend data.  Is it possible and is it relevant to look at ALL school districts that have elected superintendents and compare their performance trends to ALL school districts that have appointed superintendents?  Can we learn anything from examining "right direction/wrong direction," trend data?  Maybe so.

As we've seen from Florida Department of Education (FDOE) data, 60% of Florida's "A" school districts are led by elected superintendents.  That leaves 40% of "A" school districts being led by appointed superintendents.  If the appointed superintendent format was the superior way to select a superintendent, it seems that trends would favor that approach.

However, that 40% figure for school districts that are led by appointed superintendents is DOWN from where it was just 8 years ago.  In 2010, 55% of Florida's 26 "A" school districts had APPOINTED superintendents.  In 2015, that percentage fell to 48% of Florida's 21 "A" school districts.  Then, in 2018, their share dropped again to 40% of Florida's 20 "A" school districts.

So, as the percentage of "A" school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents has trended downward over the past 8 years, the percentage of school districts that have ELECTED superintendents has trended upward by the same amount.

Then, when we look at average school district grades on a 5-point grade scale ("A" = 5; "F" = 1), we see that the average school district grade in 2018 for school districts that have ELECTED superintendents is 4.0.  The average school district grade for school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents is 4.1.  One-tenth of a point separates the two approaches to selecting a superintendent!

Looking further, the trend that we saw with "A" school districts follows school district grade averages.

In 2010, the average grade for all school districts that APPOINT their superintendent was 4.6, but in 2015 the average grade slipped to 4.3, then it fell again to 4.1 in 2018.  On the other hand, the average grade for all school districts that ELECT their superintendent rose from 3.9 in 2010 and 2015 to 4.0 in 2018.

By the way, Escambia is a "B" school district.  The school district ranks near the bottom of the state's "B" schools, but it's still a "B" school district.  We want our school district to do better, for sure.  We want it to be an "A" district, but we have a district that has been working hard and improving over the past decade or so.  As we've seen, that progress is important.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

6 BIG Reasons to Vote NO on an Appointed Superintendent

Before Escambia County citizens surrender their authority and right to choose their superintendent to three school board members (the majority of a five-member school board), they must know the facts behind the choice.

1.  No Student Performance Benefit

Whether a superintendent is hired by the citizens through an election or hired by the school board through an appointment, neither by itself is a predictor of student success or school district performance as illustrated by 2017-18 Florida Department of Education (FDOE) data that shows that 60% of Florida’s top 20 school districts – all of them “A” school districts – and 52% of the school districts that have a graduation rate of 80% or higher all have elected superintendents.

2.  Education Level of Superintendents Not a Factor

The fact that 70% of Florida’s “A” school districts and 76% of Florida’s “B” school districts (including Escambia County) are led by superintendents who do not hold doctorates in education proves that the data does not support the suggestion that superintendents who hold EdD degrees produce better results.

3.  Preserve Checks and Balances

The Escambia County School District currently has a leadership structure that includes an elected executive (the superintendent) and an elected legislative body (the school board) which has successfully leveraged a system of checks and balances to protect Escambia citizens from abuse and corruption.  An elected superintendent is accountable to the same people that the elected school board is accountable to:  the people of Escambia County.  With a board-appointed superintendent there would be NO checks and balances because the superintendent would be controlled by the school board, not counter-balanced by it.

4.  Keep Politics Out of Our Schools

Assertions that campaign contributions make the superintendent “beholden to wealthy contributors instead of focusing on our teachers and students” ignores the fact that an elected superintendent is no more susceptible to donor influence than elected school board members.

Furthermore, citizens should be aware that having an appointed superintendent can actually be MORE political than having an elected superintendent.  School board members can intimidate, threaten, and harbor ill will toward superintendents who don’t champion or accommodate their personal causes, issues, and wants.  That political pressure can easily find its way into schools through principals and into departments through department heads who can be left in the difficult position of reconciling competing political interests and directives at the expense of otherwise consistent, apolitical district-wide practices.

Here in Escambia County, we have seen through the experiences of County government that having appointed executives is not always the most effective, most orderly, and least political approach.  The county went through 7 county administrators (including interim administrators) between 1998 and 2012, including 4 between 2008 and 2012.

Although the Escambia County School Board is stable today, many Escambia citizens remember that the Escambia County School Board itself has had its share of embarrassment when power plays, internal politics, and drama among school board members made headlines.

5.  Appointed Superintendents are Expensive

The salaries of appointed superintendents in Florida are generally significantly higher than the salaries of their elected counterparts.  In fact, the average base salary for appointed superintendents in 2017-18 was nearly $100,000 more than for their elected peers.  In school districts that are already struggling to make budgets meet their needs, one must ask whether paying a lot of money to an appointed superintendent is worth the cost, particularly in view of the fact that there is no evidence that appointing a superintendent improves school district performance.  Taxpayers should be concerned that having a board-appointed superintendent would likely cost them at least $1 million more in superintendent salary over the next ten years.

6.  Citizens Should Be a Part of School District Solutions

So-called “low performing” and “failing” schools do not owe their outcomes exclusively to the leadership of the school district and to the principals and teachers at individual schools. 

Teachers and administrators absolutely must be accountable, but the term “failing schools” does not sufficiently describe what is happening in our most challenging schools.  Rather than simply saying that there is a problem with “failing schools,” a more apt characterization would acknowledge the “failing situations” that are exposed in our schools, not caused by them.  Those failing situations impact standardized test scores which determine school and district grades.  The failing situations are the core problem; they are what we should be solving.

Certainly, the citizens of Escambia County must be a part of the solution, not apart from it.  To that end, they should vote “NO” on the costly ballot item that would require them to surrender to three members of the school board their right and authority to choose their district superintendent.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Who Was Richard B. Russell, Namesake of the Russell Senate Office Building?

With the recent passing of Senator John McCain, there has been much discussion of renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain. As the public becomes more familiar with the current namesake of the building, the question some might raise is why it has taken so long to re-name it for someone else.

Senator Richard B. Russell was a democrat United States Senator from the state of Georgia and President Pro Tempore of the Senate when he died in office at the age of 73. He served in the Senate for more than half his life (38 years) and before that, he served as Governor of Georgia and as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. He spent 50 of his 73 years in politics.

What makes the naming of the Russell Building after Senator Russell in 1972 noteworthy is his place in the history of United States civil rights and the timing of the naming of the building relative to what was generally viewed as the end of an ugly chapter in American history seven years earlier in 1965.

The 100 years leading to 1965 was plagued by rampant institutional racism and segregation, but Senator Russell stood squarely opposed to any change of course throughout his political career.

In 1956, Senator Russell co-authored the "Declaration of Constitutional Principles" (also known as the "Southern Manifesto") in opposition to racial integration in public places. The manifesto, signed by 101 mostly-southern congressmen (99 democrats and 2 republicans), was written in response to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision which took much of the starch out of the Court's 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision which legitimized the separate but equal segregationist doctrine.

A year later, Russell opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which was advocated by President Eisenhower and created the six-member Commission on Civil Rights and established the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. It also authorized the U.S. Attorney General to seek court injunctions against the deprivation and obstruction of voting rights by state officials.

Three years later, the Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which expanded the enforcement powers of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and introduced criminal penalties for obstructing the implementation of federal court orders. It also required voting and registration records for federal elections to be preserved. Senator Russell voted against this act as well.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and schools, created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor employment discrimination in public and private sectors, and provided additional capacities to enforce voting rights. Of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Russell said, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states." The "we" to which Senator Russell was referring was a bloc of 18 Southern senators (17 democrats and 1 republican) who filibustered the bill in the Senate for 60 days in an attempt to block the legislation through Senate rules.

Nonetheless, the bill which had been envisioned by President Kennedy and was carried on in his honor by President Johnson, prevailed in the Senate and was subsequently signed into law by Johnson. In response, Russell led a southern boycott of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the last of the series of civil rights laws that had been approved over a span of eight years between 1957 and 1965. These laws were essentially designed to finally close loopholes and enforce the 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments which provided citizenship and voting rights for native-born and naturalized African-Americans a century before.

Senator Russell voted against all four of those key acts of Congress.

Russell was selected to serve as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and President pro temporare of the Senate in 1969, he died in 1971, and the Senate Office Building was named for him in 1972.

So, at a time when there is an indiscriminate rush to topple confederate statues and monuments whether they were associated with the South's Jim Crow past or not, here we have a federal government building that is named for a dedicated segregationist who did everything he could throughout his lengthy career in public office to defeat the civil rights laws that were intended to reverse 100 years of institutional racism, even after slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment.

Some have explained Russell's actions as simply a matter of him being a product of his environment and times. History is replete with examples where that is true of others, but in this case, there was a century of legal authority that Russell and others before him dedicated their lives to defying. If Russell were merely a man - a regular citizen - in that time and place, that would be one thing, albeit still racist. However, Russell spent his adult life as the leader of a movement and as a leader and mentor in the United States Senate; in that context, he had a duty to rise above his time and place and lead righteously.

The decision to name the Russell Senate Office Building after Senator McCain is a no-brainer.  It should have never been named for Russell in the first place.