Dear LEDC, part 1: Let’s secede from the state education experience; not each other

A couple months ago, I asked an open question of Polk economic development people.

Which of the following arguments makes a better Polk schools sales pitch to a business leader — or maybe a high skill/high wage parent?

1) “Yeah, we bounce around between 49 and 60 in Florida county rankings. That’s where our demographics would predict. We’re a poorish county, and the state always changes the model. It’s an endless game of trying to beat the scoreboard. We’re really no worse than Hillsborough or Orange or Osceola. And anyway, we’ve got some heavily segregated and enrollment-curated charter and magnet schools your kids can attend. And there are always private schools. And pay no attention to massive teacher shortage. Everybody else has one, too.”

2) “Man, we just did the coolest thing ever. We lifted the state’s crushing testing regime and started to adopt Finland’s model of public education in our traditional schools. Teachers can teach; and we expect them to. Do you know about Finland? It’s generally regarded as one of the best and most humane systems in the world. But if you still want the state’s testing structure for your kids, we have magnets and charters that have decided to keep it. Literally, no other district in this state, or in this country, looks like us. We think of ourselves as the pointy end of the spear in reforming ‘education reform’.”

Let me extend that question further. Which of these two scenarios fits better with the creative class, “lifestyle entrepreneur” vibe that Lakeland’s economic developers have been pushing through efforts like Catapult. Indeed, which of those two scenarios would appeal most to Catapult entrepreneurs themselves?

This became a super relevant question last week when Lakeland Economic Development Council director Steve Scruggs called for Lakeland to consider splitting off into its own charter district.

Key quote:

“High-skill, high-wage employees won’t put their kids in our schools,” [Scruggs] told city commissioners, college officials and city staff members during the first day of the city’s annual strategic planning retreat Tuesday.

Scruggs’ bombshell idea came on the heels of quiet meeting that several LEDC leaders, including Scruggs and LEDC chairman Brian Philpot, had with Robin Gibson. Gibson is a longtime Lake Wales lawyer and civic booster. He’s the architect of the Lake Wales Charter district. And he’s my cousin, as regular readers will know. His grandparents were my great grandparents.

Let’s put all that on hold for just a second. We’ll come back to it.

Why do people choose or avoid a specific school?

I want to start with what, exactly, these high skill/high wage parents want from “the schools” that they fear they won’t get in Polk County. We’re rarely specific when we talk about this.

Indeed, to my knowledge, Scruggs did not even attempt to define the “our” in the phrase “our schools.” And yet, that’s hugely meaningful. Because, clearly, “high skill, high wage” people will put their children in “our” schools. The waiting lists and parental roll call of the magnet/elite charter schools — the Montessoris, McKeel, Lincoln, etc. etc. — testify to that clearly.

I suspect I’m a high skill, high wage worker by Polk’s definition. My children have never attended a private school. My son is in Lakeland Montessori Middle now; and he will most likely attend basic Lakeland High starting in ninth grade.

What I believe Scruggs means to say is that “high skill, high wage” workers will not choose to put their children in Polk’s traditional zoned schools — and we don’t have enough spots in special schools for them.

So let’s try to clarify why this is.

I see four real reasons that a parent of any kind chooses or rejects a school. They are:

1) Protection/affinity/segregation: Most people want their child to spend the day around a critical mass of people they recognize culturally, ethnically, or ideologically. Or they want to avoid what they imagine to be a poor or dangerous influence. In my experience, this is the single most important driver of enrollment for all parents. It’s why choice and meaningful integration are generally incompatible. School choice is a tribal choice. The tribes can take multiple forms; but they’re still tribes. And if you are “high wage, high skill,” you most likely want your kids attending school with a critical mass of “high skill high wage” kids. If they don’t, gosh, they might grow up to be “low wage, low skill” adults. That’s by far the greatest fear of the uneasy, not-quite-rich class in modern America.

2) Status: Sending your child to an “A” school earns you a “good parent” badge. So does saying your child goes to an elite charter or magnet school. If you’re doing something extra, like applying for a charter/magnet waiting list, it’s a personal brand signal. It establishes your status as a good person who takes education seriously. It does not matter what your child actually does at the school you choose. Nor does it matter that you have no idea how the state calculates your school grade. That is the fundamental evil genius of the education “reform” movement’s scoreboard education approach. Its built-in marketing is primal and plays on deep human insecurity about status and parenting.

3) Convenience: This is also important, especially for parents/families with fewer resources. Resources equal flexibility. The fewer you have, the less practical choice becomes. Of the 65 percent or so of Polk students who attend “traditional” zoned schools, I would wager that ease of getting their child to school — ease of getting them cared for during work hours — combines with elements of #1 to overcome the pull of #2.

4) Child experience: While the first three are about parent imagination or daily adult needs, this one relates to how a child experiences a school — both in the classroom and socially. It’s my number 1 priority, by far. Fighting 1 and 2 is probably a losing battle for now. Convenience will always matter for many people. And the way that 1, 2, and 3 interact for adults lies at the root of all of our pointless education wars. They make us fight each other — and largely ignore the question of child experience. This is, of course, crazy. In every way.

With these four factors in mind, let’s look at what’s going on with “high skill, high wage” workers. Quite simply, they want all of 1, 2, and 3. Give me status, affinity, and high quality experience. But they generally act on status and affinity first because that’s where easily accessed metrics dwell.

A parent can tell very easily who will attend school with their kids and what kind of test scores they can expect those other kids to throw off. We have no measurement of child experience. That measurement comes viscerally, later, through tears or happiness.

And when I talk to “high skill high wage” friends and employees, they all have the same concerns about their fancy schools that traditional school parents and teachers have. These concerns are not overall school numbers. They are the stupidity, drudgery, and confusion bred by the testing scoreboard focus. They are general lack of time for recess, art, and enrichment. They are bad relationships with individual, bitter teachers. What’s become clear to me is that high skill, high wage parents generally do not like the experience of the modern scoreboard education school environment, even at fancy schools.

That’s why many are drawn to Montessori and art-based schools. Both brand themselves successfully to parents — in ways that are unmeasured — through special student experience, not achievement numbers.

Other than inertia, that’s the primary reason my son is at LMMS, probably combined with a little bit of #1’s tribalism and #3’s convenience, if I’m being honest.

Of the public schools in Polk County — of any kind — the Lakeland Montessori schools probably care least about the education scoreboard and testing machinery. And yet they still do fine on that scoreboard.

My daughter attended Rochelle School of the Arts from 3-8 grade. Then she went to Harrison School of the Arts at Lakeland High. Rochelle gave her free violin and general musical education for five years. Harrison gave her the chance to play Rosalind in an unbelievably good production of “As You Like It.” I didn’t care about the school grade. And I will put those opportunities for educational experience up against anything Brandon or Tampa has. Yet they are not generally available to 65 percent of Polk county public school students attending traditional schools. And I have heard that they are not generally available at McKeel, Lincoln, or Lawton Chiles Middle either. And it’s absolutely the case that McKeel, Lincoln, and Lawton Chiles care deeply about their scoreboard. That’s because numbers can cover up much about experience. But they don’t cover everything. And I think that explains why post-Maready McKeel seems to have turned toward a more child-centric, Finlandish approach to schooling.

So here are the real questions buried in the secession idea:

How do we replicate in Lakeland’s traditional schools the numbers that special academic schools throw up on the scoreboard? Or the experience of the art/Montessori schools — which also throw up good numbers?

The answer to the first question is clear: you don’t. You never will. The system will adjust itself to make sure it doesn’t happen. There is nothing more vicious and political than a Tallahassee cut score. Stop playing that game. It’s not even a goal worth achieving if you could. Stop thinking of our children as spreadsheet cells. The scoreboard is a community dead end.

The answer to the second question is more hopeful and plausible: you attack the state of Florida’s crushing approach to classroom experience on multiple fronts. That’s the secession we need. And we need it for everybody. The experience at magnets and charters will benefit as much from state secession as the traditional schools. I’ll address this further in part 2.

But I want to focus now on why a Lakeland charter district is a non-starter if you take any time to think about it.

Lakeland is not Lake Wales; and it has no Robin Gibson

Lake Wales successfully created a charter district because it convinced teachers and parents to at six schools to convert to charter and attach themselves to an umbrella organization called Lake Wales Charter Schools. They lost the election at the seventh, which was McLaughlin Middle, the only Lake Wales area middle school at the time. That has provided an ongoing complication to the charter district.

Not one of those schools was a “special” school. Lake Wales had no magnets or charters. And the schools that chose to affiliate with the new charter district were geographically isolated from much of the rest of Polk school district. In short, it was quite clear which schools ought to belong to a Lake Wales district. And the district office didn’t have very much invested in them, from a showpiece standpoint.

Finally, Lake Wales had Robin Gibson. After 30 years of serving as the unofficial benevolent king of Lake Wales, Robin had the legal expertise, the civic intensity, the public credibility, and the sheer willingness to give his time to do the work this effort required.

I recently asked Robin how many hours he put in to meeting with parents, teachers, and staff in advance of the seven elections; how many hours he spent setting up the legal and administrative structure of the district. He told me he couldn’t estimate it.

50 bloody elections, at least

Now let’s look at the candidate schools for any Lakeland district. Let’s assume we’d have to do the Lakeland Electric service area. Let’s assume that because I can’t see us leaving George Jenkins or Valleyview out. Both are outside Lakeland city limits. (As an aside, city limits don’t legally matter to this discussion. Any school that chooses to convert can opt to contract with the new oversight entity.)

My quick count sees anywhere from 45 to 60 schools likely in the LE service area. I think the number is closer to 60. Supporters of a charter district would need to convince each school to hold a vote of teachers and parents. A majority of both must approve conversion.

Who is going to engage each one of those schools and make the case to every principal, teacher, and parent on a retail level? Who’s going to be Robin Gibson — multiplied by 7? Is that you, Steve? Or you, Brian? Or me?

Let’s be clear: it’s not going to be me.

That’s before we even get to the legal and administrative death fight over resources and power that would ensue when we try to rip away half the schools from the Polk district.

Lakeland’s civic and government institutions are balking at the risk and effort involved in creating high speed internet over infrastructure we already own. This charter effort makes Gigabit look like 100 feet of sidewalk construction.

Lakeland schools are Polk schools

And more than that, what would we even accomplish?

The LE service area is roughly half the Polk district. Why do we think “our” numbers are going to distinguish themselves from Polk numbers? That’s an extraordinarily arrogant assumption, one I don’t see backed up by fact. My educated guess is that the LE service area is going to look almost exactly like the rest of Polk.

But I’m not done. Because how, exactly, are you going to convince the McKeel empire to surrender its own governance structure to join this uncertain new Lakeland entity? Ask the same question of the rest of the charter and magnet schools. Maybe you could convince Lincoln and Lawton Chiles; but McKeel is not happening. And I’d be shocked if you got the Montessori schools, either. An LEDC-led effort to seize schools will smack of elitism. Why would any of these “special” schools take the risk of breaking from Polk. What’s in it for them?

If you don’t get McKeel’s size and numbers, if you don’t get the special schools, you’re losing a big chunk of the Lakeland scoreboard. If all you get is Lakeland traditional schools, our numbers will plunge. If you define your success by Lakeland numbers, you will fail without the magnets and charters. Not because traditional kids and parents suck. But because the modern scoreboard education system is built to produce segregation by aggregate test scores — and by some other things. I despise it because of that. But I’m also not blind to its realities.

So, let’s look at the most likely scenario: the new Lakeland Charter gets all the LE area’s traditional zoned schools. You now have responsibility for their kids and numbers. You have no control over — and do not benefit through branding — from the schools that “high wage, high skill” employees choose for their kids because of numbers, affinity, and status.

How, exactly, have you managed to create a draw for “high skill, high wage” employees? All you’ve done is kill your scoreboard branding. Your only path to the perceptions you’re after is through experience.

But if that’s the focus, why bother with the unwinnable fight for numbers at all? LET’S START WITH AND FOCUS FULLY ON EXPERIENCE. NOW. TODAY.

What all of Polk County should focus on

That will require two broad strategies:

1) Control the Polk experience to the best extent we can.

2) Realize that most of what everyone hates about scoreboard education comes from state mandates (and to a much lesser extent, federal). The miserable experience Tallahassee imposes on all Florida school districts is a political choice. We chose it in 1998. We can unchoose it at any time, with the right combination of effort and power. It is time to do that.

Send those messages to prospective parents. Communicate them to the Polk district school staff. Ignore the School Board, except for Lynn Wilson. Now that they’ve appointed Jackie Byrd superintendent for a year, they have no real power, knowledge, or horsepower. Lynn is trying in a meaningful way to affect the direction of the Polk schools. But he’s only one elected official.

If you, LEDC, want to affect the arc of education in this county, both operationally here and politically in Tallahassee, you need to engage where the power actually lies. In Polk, it lies with Jackie Byrd, Jacque Bowen (chief academic officer), Heather Wright (data leader and failed local testing co-ordinator), and John Small. Not Tim Harris or Hunt Berryman.

You need to have exactly the same relationship with School District staff as you do with Tony Delgado, Jim Studiale or Larry Giddens, or even my wife Julie (when it comes to downtown stuff).

How many of you guys have even met Jackie Byrd or Jacque Bowen, or looked into what Heather Wright does for — or to — our district’s school experience? Stop talking to Robin Gibson privately. He’s already done what he wanted to do. And it’s irrelevant to the challenges we face in Lakeland and the district as a whole.

Instead, you need to talk publicly and privately and repeatedly to our school district staff leadership. Make them feel your pressure and direction. They need to know what your pressure feels like, because it matters more than mine. I’m quite aware of that.

What real engagement looks like

That said, the ragtag band that makes up Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) has done pretty damn well in forcing a change in mindset at the district level in the last few months.

The School Board did not want to fire Kathryn LeRoy. Neither did the Teacher’s Union. Public and individual teacher pressure, which CBEL largely organized, pushed her out.

If she had not gone, it’s unlikely we’d have a new contract for teachers.

Here’s how The Ledger and union leader Marianne Capoziello put it.

Union members protested at a School Board meetings in November and February. Also in February, former superintendent Kathryn LeRoy resigned and was replaced by Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. After that, Capoziello said, the district became more open to working on points of contention.

“It’s pretty miraculous considering where we were for a while there,” Capoziello said. “The new superintendent and the School Board certainly seemed to have turned a corner.”

It wasn’t miraculous at all. CBEL formed to change leadership. We were the only group calling for it. I don’t blame the union for hedging. It may have been the prudent thing. But we’re not the union; and we did the uncompensated work and took the risks required to unseat Kathryn LeRoy. We backed public pressure with credible political and public consequences. And the direction changed. No one wants the old direction back.

Today, there’s a new contract. The district is reducing the weighting of End-of-Year (EoY) tests for this year. That was an issue we’ve pushed hard on. Leaders are promising more reforms designed to streamline and simplify the entire testing apparatus. We’ll see if they fully adopt our demand to change the name and orientation of the “accountability” office to something designed to help children and teachers rather than hurt them.

These are all tangible steps. They’ve been achieved through engagement where the battle is meaningfully joined — at the classroom experience level. And face-to-face with the real people who oversee it. We’re having ongoing meetings with leadership. We’re collaborating and scrutinizing and pressuring at the same time — all in the service of improving the experience for Polk County schools.

And by the way, the people giving their time to CBEL come from all over this county. The idea of seceding from them because I’m supposed to be their better somehow is morally ridiculous. We should really bury that idea.

If we’re going to continue the momentum and take the fight to the Tallahassee experience, we’re going to need help from bigger guns. That’s where we could use the LEDC — and where the LEDC could change this county and city. The Winter Haven EDC has already been quite helpful.

In part 2, I’ll lay out a strategy for opting out of the state experience and opting in to something much better — and more marketable to high wage, high skill parents and to everybody else.

Indeed, the whole thing rests on a simple, hopeful fact: the interests of teachers, students, high skill high wage workers, non-high wage, high skill workers, economic developers, and politicians have never been more aligned when it comes to public education. If only we have the eyes to see it.

With the exception of the Heather Wrightish educrats of the world, we all seem to agree that this experience sucks for a lot of people. An improved, innovative experience makes for better branding and happier people. Nowhere is it written that we all have to oppose each other. Let’s talk, Brian and Steve. I’m always available. Let’s move forward together.