State Representative Rene Plasencia (R-Orlando) used to support public schools. Now he is completely OK with privatizing them. Last week he told the Florida House the story of his conversion and encouraged his teacher friends to follow.
First some background:
Prior to running for office, Plasencia was an Orange County Public Schools high school teacher and track coach (he continues to refer to himself as “Coach P”). After losing a Republican primary in 2012, he was elected to the Florida House in 2014, defeating democratic incumbent, Joe Saunders. In his successful House bid, Plasencia ran on a pro-public education platform, saying he opposed teacher testing, teacher merit pay, school testing and standardized end-of-year-testing for students. In addition, back in 2014, Plasencia said he was wary of public funding for charter and private schools and thought that any school receiving public funding should be held as accountable as public schools. Early in his House career he supported public school students and families, sponsoring mandatory recess bills in 2016 and 2017 and sponsoring, in 2016, HB1135, which called for re-evaluating the State’s test-based Accountability system, claiming the system had lost credibility and “students, parents, teachers and Florida citizens” no longer had “confidence” in it. Those days appear to be gone…
“Coach P” continues to list his official occupation as “teacher” despite, in 2016, having left his Orange County Public Schools teaching/coaching position to become a fundraiser for Florida Virtual School (FLVS), where he is employed as the Director of the FLVS Foundation. The FLVS Foundation, the philanthropic organization of Florida Virtual School, focuses on “seeking investments in high quality, technology-based education initiatives that increase student achievement.”
In 2019, Florida’s Federation for Children PAC, run by billionaire voucher proponent and Step Up For Students founder, John Kirtley, donated $10,000 to Plasencia’s 2020 re-election through his PAC: Commitment to Opportunity, Action and Community Health. For the record, Florida’s teachers union’s PAC, the Florida Education Association Advocacy Fund, also made significant contributions to Plasencia’s PAC.
Last week, when Rep. Plasencia rose, on the House floor, to advocate for HB7045 and its massive voucher expansion, he told the story of how he stopped supporting “institutions” and started focusing on “children”:
“Members, we have a lot of teachers or former teachers in this body and I am one of them, and so I’m not going to stand here and try to change anyone’s mind on this bill, but I do want to tell you why I’m voting for this bill and my personal story, as well. And I imagine like many of the teachers that are here today, when anyone asks me why I ran for office, the number one reason I ran was because of public education. I was very frustrated because of what I THOUGHT was happening in our state. I was very frustrated because of the conversations we were having when we were in the teacher’s lounge or when we were coaching out in the field. So I ran for office, got elected, and I found myself sitting in this chamber with lawmakers from all over the state. And so, one by one I tried to address the issues that I was so frustrated with as a teacher that I believed originated in this chamber.”
– Rep. Rene Plasencia, AT 50:30, Florida Channel 4.21.21 House Session
So… he was a teacher sent to Tallahassee, by the voters, to address the concerns of teachers… At some point around this time, Coach P began to “drink the Koolaid.”
This is probably a good time to remind everyone that, according to Article IX of the Florida Constitution, the “paramount duty” of the state is to make “adequate provision” for “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” for “all children residing within its borders.” As a legislator, ensuring such a high quality system of public schools is Coach P’s primary responsibility.
This is also a good time to remind everyone that the privatization of public schools, under the guise of “school choice,” has been a legislative priority for GOP leadership in Florida, who have had complete control of Tallahassee, for more than 20 years. Lawmakers who fail to support school choice/privatization initiatives lose their committee assignments, find their appropriations vetoed and face well-funded primary opponents more inclined to support “choice.” On the other hand, supporting school choice/privatization initiatives can find one with increased power, with choice committee assignments, ample campaign contributions and advanced into leadership roles.
Unfortunately, after sitting in that chamber, in Tallahassee, with his GOP colleagues, Coach P began to be convinced that what he thought he knew – excessive amounts of standardized testing is harmful to children? Teacher merit pay based on test scores is nonsensical? All school receiving public funds should be held to the same accountability standards? – wasn’t “exactly the truth,” at least not the “GOP truth”:
“And one by one, I began to learn how much it wasn’t true, how much of what I believed and what I was being told wasn’t exactly the truth. Some of the issues we have are at the school district. Some of the issues aren’t even issues. Some of the issues are federal…and the most important thing you can do is read the statutes, talk to staff, talk to other members, find out why things are happening the way they are. And so I started thinking about how I vote and what I vote for and what it means. And I started to realize the number one thing, that when I decided to run for office, I decided to run because I was fighting for public schools. What I understand now, is that the institutions, whether it’s public, private, charter, voucher…whatever you want to call it…the institutions aren’t what we should be fighting for. What we are fighting for are people, we’re fighting for first children…always fight for children first…we’re fighting for their families and we fight for teachers, because we have families as well and we work hard for those kids. And trust me, the institutions don’t treat us any better.” – Rep. Plasencia, Florida Channel 4.21.21 House Session
So… Coach P started reading the statutes and discovered that the Florida Legislature, and the micromanaging education bills that it passes, wasn’t really to blame… apparently the blame lies with the districts, the federal government and the “institution” of public education itself… [I’m going to jump in here and say the practice of state mandated 3rd grade retention based on failing to achieve a state determined score on a state mandated reading assessment is definitely not the fault of the feds, the districts or the schools themselves – there is a simple legislative fix for that… I have more similar examples, but this story is about Coach P’s metamorphosis from a public school advocate to a privatizer].
“So when I stand here and I support these bills, it’s not because I have to support them… when I vote for bills it’s because I believe in them. I’ve looked at this bill. I’ve tried to run a similar bill in the past. I’ve tried to run a bill that would eliminate the prior public from McKay, so that kids on the Autism spectrum, that are at a very high level, did not have to sit in a public school for a whole year where they are inadequately, inadequately, taking care of our kids in those schools so that they can go to a school that their parents believes is more appropriate for them.” Rep. Plasencia, Florida Channel 4.21.21 House Session
Two things here:
It is Coach P’s paramount duty to ensure of ALL CHILDREN residing within Florida’s borders receive a high quality education, including the ones with autism. If public schools are “inadequately, inadequately” taking care of children with autism, as Coach P claims, then the legislature should, at the very least, be investigating what needs to be done in our schools to provide adequate services for these children. Giving parents a voucher before their child steps foot in a public school, so that they can hunt for a private school that provides high quality services for their child (private schools are not required to follow federal guidelines for students with disabilities) and will accept them (private schools are not obliged to accept individual children and often have caps on the number of special needs students they will admit), does not absolve the legislature of their paramount duty to ALL children.
HB7045 does much more than simply eliminate the prior public school attendance requirement from McKay voucher recipients. HB7045 is both a massive expansion of private school vouchers (increasing program capacity and raising qualifying income levels to almost $100,000/yr for a family of 4) and a disruption of the current voucher programs for students with special needs – removing administration of McKay vouchers from the FLDOE, repealing the Gardiner program and combining the recipients of both into a subpopulation of Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES, previous entirely for students qualifying by family income). Families of Gardiner recipients are NOT happy with the changes and have mounted a campaign to remove the Gardiner Scholarship from the bill, claiming that #HB7045HurtsMyChild. When HB7045 passes and is signed into law by Governor DeSantis, it will be celebrated for being “the biggest expansion of private school choice in Florida history.” Advocates for students with disabilities and current Gardiner/McKay recipients are less likely to be joining in on that celebration.
“You know, it’s interesting. There’s reasons that we run other bills that EVERYONE overwhelmingly supports – Seclusions and Restraints, which I believe will pass this year, finally, after 12 years of trying to pass it. Seclusions and Restraints is a bill that we’re passing because the institution is failing our most vulnerable students. Think about that.
I have a bill, for children on the autism spectrum, that forces schools to allow for their therapists to provide therapy for them… think about that for a second – we have to pass a law so that the schools can do the right thing and allow for the right therapist that is at no charge to the school to come in and provide therapy that’s going to change a child’s life.” – Rep. Plasencia, Florida Channel 4.21.21 House Session
Here Plasencia paints the picture that public schools are terrible places and lawmakers must pass laws to protect children who attend them. He fails to mention that private schools offer no protections – families accepting private school vouchers must sign away the rights and protections provided to children with disabilities under the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). To be clear, any laws forbidding seclusions and restraints will NOT apply to the private schools accepting HB7045’s vouchers. If HB149 (this year’s “Seclusions and Restraints” bill) passes, maybe next year its sponsors could get to work to ensuring those protections apply to ALL publicly funded schools, including the voucher funded ones. At this moment, HB149 has passed the House unanimously and its Senate companion, SB192 is ready for a floor vote.
As for Coach P’s bill which “forces schools” to allow for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy in public schools… HB1401 does not force schools to allow ABA therapy in schools, it lifts the current legal restrictions preventing certain providers from doing so. Current law allows certified ABA professionals and licensed mental health professionals to provide services in the K-12 classroom setting. However, behavior technicians and other non-certified professionals working under the direction of these certified or licensed professional are not currently allowed to provide services in the K-12 classroom setting. Plasencia’s bill removes that restriction, allowing those technicians and non certified professionals to provide the ABA therapy in the K-12 setting (under the direction of the licensed or certified professional). Vilifying the schools for following the law is a bad look, Coach P! HB1401 passed the House unanimously but the Senate companion, SB1794, has not been heard. HB1401 has been sent to Senate Rules with the hope of fast-tracking to the Senate floor in time for a vote before session ends on April 30th.
“So I’m not trying to convince you to vote for this bill. What I am asking you to do, my teachers who are opposed to this for whatever reason it may be, is rethink your reasons. Is it because of the institution or have you really delved into the issues and have learned what these laws and these words are going to do for so many families around the state?” – Rep. Plasencia, Florida Channel 4.21.21 House Session
HB7045 will massively expand private school vouchers, disrupt special needs vouchers and further advance the privatization agenda that Coach P. and his colleagues have embraced. Coach P. and his GOP colleagues refused to address concerns regarding lack of accountability in these programs or the impact of the Gardiner repeal in HB7045. Florida has 2.8 million public school children and, despite 20 years of Tallahassee defunding and publicly denigrating them, families continue to overwhelmingly choose public schools. The concerns that 2014’s newly elected Coach P had – the lack of accountability in voucher schools and the overwhelming burden of standardized testing on students, teachers and schools, in the name of “accountability” – all still remain and could be addressed by a legislature intent on improving, rather than destroying, public schools.
In 2022, Coach P. will be term limited. Rumor has it he will run for a seat in the Florida Senate. Voters will need to choose: do we continue to vote for privatizers or will we start to choose candidates who will defend, rather than denigrate, our public schools?
Read this and other blog posts at the Accountabaloney Blog.