Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Real Power Resides in the Voice of the People

A citizen commented on the Pensacola News Journal Facebook page the other day that he thinks the referendum that asks citizens to surrender their right to vote for their superintendent will fail "because people rightly ask why would all this 'dark money' be contributed to a PAC on this issue."

While we agree with his sentiment generally, "dark money" as it applies to politics is actually money that is given in unlimited amounts by undisclosed donors.  Criticism of them centers around the influence that those vasts amounts of unattributed dollars exert over elections because of the resources that they bring to bear to shower the electorate with information that sometimes more closely resembles propaganda.

In the case of this referendum, however, there has been no "dark money" that we know of.  The $159,400 that has been donated to the PAC that is trying to influence voters to surrender their right to elect their superintendent is not technically "dark money."  Quint Studer's donation of $159,350 of that money is in the sunshine and is posted on the Florida Division of Elections web site for the public to see.  He has also made no secret of the fact that he founded the PAC himself; his operations and communications chief is also the chairman of the PAC.  All of that is very legal and above board.

Nevertheless, the author of that PNJ Facebook comment captured the concern that many voters are expressing about the dubious claims that it "is for the good of the children" and the suggestions "that really smart people know better than parents of kids in schools" about how their schools should be led.

That skepticism is very real, and we're reminded constantly of the elitist view that seems to look down on how we do things here.  Their sense that we're just a bunch of bumpkins out here voting for other bumpkins for superintendent was recently caricatured by the PNJ's editorial cartoonist Andy Marlette in his depiction of Escambia voters and school superintendent candidates as a pot-bellied guy named "Bubba," a buck-toothed gawky guy named "Skeeter," and a cross-eyed dog named "Lil' Bear."  It's Marlette's job to exaggerate for effect, but then the PAC distributed the cartoon on social media as part of its argument for why locals shouldn't elect locals for superintendent.  That's when the caricature became an insulting elitist political statement.

Voter skepticism has been further fueled by the PAC's rampant distortion of the facts and its bold assurances of a brighter day in Escambia education if citizens vote to surrender their right to vote for their superintendent.

For instance, the PAC knows that the statements that they've made that Escambia County's superintendent selection method is archaic because "99.5%" of the rest of the country is appointing their superintendents is grossly mischaracterized.  They've seen the data and they know that it is virtually impossible to accurately compare Florida school districts to others because of disparities in size, structure, and regional educational support, but they continue to feed citizens that misinformation in order to tell them that we're behind the times.  Why?  They've spent tens of thousands of dollars to put that information in front of the public; maybe they hope citizens won't know better.

Likewise, although they're fully aware that the last three Florida school districts that made the move to an appointed superintendent have not fared well with the change at all, they continue to tell us that if we appoint our superintendent rather than elect him or her, we'll see better results.  Then, although they realize that there is data and information that shows great success in our schools, they focus on only one data point as if it is the only indicator of student and school district performance.  They also know that there are at least four reputable data-based studies that have demonstrated that whether a superintendent is elected or appointed has no bearing on student performance.  It doesn't matter if they were selected from a nationwide search, it doesn't matter if they have a doctorate, and it doesn't matter how much we pay them.  None of it has a bearing because there are core factors that DO bear on student performance, and how we select our superintendent isn't one of them.

People who have been drawn to this issue are asking why our elected government officials don't do something about those core factors – especially the pockets of poverty in the communities where our lower performing students reside - instead of leaving it to classroom teachers and principals to deal with alone.  They know where those pockets of poverty are, but they haven't demonstrated the leadership that our community needs to CURE the cyclical poverty that DIRECTLY harms student performance and growth potential in the first place.  Why don't they pour tax dollars and real effort into resolving them instead of REDUCING the funding for critical infrastructure in those communities then pointing a finger at the school district as if it has failed those communities?  It's easier to jump on a bandwagon than it is to lead.

Our republic owes its character and success to the voice of the people expressed at the ballot box, not to the powerful interests that want to suppress that voice or drown it in a flood of misleading marketing material.  We make our republic stronger by showing that the real power resides in the hands of the people.

This Tuesday on November 6th, "Vote NO on Losing Control" of your right to elect your superintendent.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Apples to Oranges

The political action committee (PAC) that's pushing the referendum that asks Escambia County citizens to surrender their right to vote for their superintendent has been telling voters that 99.5% of the nation's school districts appoint their superintendents.  They use that data point to tell us that since virtually all other school districts in the country appoint their superintendents, Escambia County's method of selecting its superintendent by voter ballot is antiquated and "archaic."

The impression that we're left with is that nearly all of the school districts across the nation are foregoing the "elected" format in favor of what the PAC says is the more enlightened "appointed" format.  We citizens then assume from what they're saying that school districts nationwide are fairly comparable in their structure, size, composition, and support apparatus, and that the chief difference between the Escambia County School District and 99.5% of the others is the method by which we select our superintendent.  They lead us to the conclusion that it is that factor - changing the method by which we select our superintendent - that is the prime catalyst for education growth and success.

It turns out, however, that's not the case.  They're comparing apples to oranges.

States that include California, Arizona, and Montana, for instance, have a two-tiered district structure in which citizens ELECT the overwhelming majority of their county superintendents.  The county superintendents oversee appointed "local" district superintendents who preside over smaller geographic areas of the county.  Thus, the roughly 1,700 local district superintendents in those three states are appointed by their local school boards or county boards, but most of the superintendents who oversee education at the county level in those states are elected, as is the case here in Escambia County.

Looking at California, 53 of the state's 58 county superintendents are elected by the citizens to oversee the state's "local" school districts, which number around 1,000 school districts for the state's 58 counties. [1]

Although there are 53 elected county superintendents in California, if a civil grand jury in Santa Clara County has its way, that number will rise to 54.  Just 4 months ago, the grand jury recommended that the county change from an appointed county superintendent to an elected one in part because of the high turnover of appointed superintendents there:  5 superintendents in the past 11 years.  The grand jury also found that "an inherent tension exists between appointed superintendents and the appointing BOE" (board of education).  The finding also stated that the Santa Clara County school board had often exceeded its authority by encroaching into the day-to-day management of the school district which is the superintendent's domain.  The report observed that the challenge for the superintendent, who has independent constitutional and statutory authority as he or she does in Florida, is the need to appease the board which has the authority to terminate the superintendent's "at will" employment. [2]

Like California, Arizona and Montana also have county superintendents who are elected by the people to oversee local school districts.  The people of Arizona elect 15 county superintendents and Montana voters elect 56. [3] [4]

Then, there's New Jersey which also has county superintendents, 21 of them.  However,  they are all appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state senate.  New Jersey's more than 500 local superintendents report to them. [5]

There are variations of that oversight structure in other states like Illinois which has 56 regional superintendents who oversee their more than 800 local school districts and superintendents.  Illinois' regional superintendents are elected to their positions by the citizens. [6]

Unlike those states and others that are similar to them, Florida school districts - including the Escambia County School District - do not have subordinate "local" school districts within their large county systems.  The absence of the additional structure above and below Florida's large county-wide school districts also explains why Escambia County's school district, with its 40,000 students, is larger than 99% of school districts nationwide, one of several reasons that objective comparisons of hierarchical structures are difficult to make.  Here in Florida, more than 61% of the school districts elect their school district superintendent.

Additionally, most states have regional cooperative educational service centers or alliances that provide a range of cooperative educational services to groups of local school districts so the local school districts can focus more on classroom education, but Florida school districts do not.  The fact that most U. S. school districts are able to leverage that kind of resource is significant to their operations and organizational structure.

The table below illustrates the effect of that smaller local structure on the scope of school district work at that level.  It reveals that the five states mentioned earlier - California, Arizona, Montana, Illinois, and New Jersey - all benefit from their structure in that they have a higher average number of school districts per county and a lower average number of students served by their school districts than Florida has.  Also included in the table is data for Wisconsin which has been referenced by supporters of the referendum for comparison.  The contrast between these states and Florida in this regard is striking.

So, when the PAC that's pushing this referendum says that 99.5% of school districts have appointed superintendents, they're trying to compare apples to oranges.  The structure, size, composition, and support services apparatus here in Florida are vastly different than they are in every other state.  We know that in the real world of school district operations, those and many other factors matter.


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.