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School reform is one of the thorniest issues in the entire public sphere, and with good reason. Education policy touches on virtually every aspect of public life, from issues of taxation to local versus federal control to organized labor to religion - perhaps it's the sheer broadness of the whole thing that makes the problems seem so intractable. Faced with a vast, complicated dilemma like education reform, we tend too often display that peculiar American trait of looking for simplest possible solution to the most complex of problems, in the way that "nuke 'em" is sometimes suggested as means of "fixing" Southwest Asia.
Compounding the problem is a field fraught with charlatans and nearly overrun with "experts," some of whom are now taking advantage of the schools-destroying policies of the Bush Administration to foist their untested, unproven, and unfunded theories upon entire states at a time. There are actually several factions of these "reformers," and while I'd love to get into some speculation about why Arne Duncan represented a compromise choice for Education Secretary, and why there was so much behind-the-scenes rancor over Education Department appointments, we're going to have to stay focused on one faction in particular: the one to which Senator Johnston belongs. This group, recently coalesced under the deceptively-broad-sounding (perhaps with a hint of Astroturf?) banner Democrats for Education Reform - Johnston sits on the advisory board - is perhaps the most dangerous of the lot. It's certainly among the most reactionary: an anti-idealocrats-in-the-Ed-Department e-mail quoted in the above article paints a harrowingly accurate picture of where we're headed if we start buying the snake oil these guys are selling us:
their appointments would signal expansion for organizations that promote the revolving door of under-qualified teachers as the best answer for poor children. The proposed team, if appointed, would be a grave disappointment for those of us who are hoping to change the education system in the interest of students. Fast-track teachers, scripted instruction, and lots of testing is not an adequate response for low-income students.
Senator Johnston's faction was established by a small clique of highly educated, highly privileged Ivy League trustafarians around ten years ago, and matured around one nonprofit outfit in particular: New Leaders for New Schools. Founded by a Harvard School of Business student (and one of the potential appointees referenced above) in 2000, NLNS organizes and deploys building-level administrators in school districts around the country. Through the surreptitious snagging of the principal-training market (really, it was there for the taking), NLNS has bred an army of disciples, all of them charged up to beat some effectiveness into the lazy, incompetent louts infesting their classrooms.
Senator Johnston and his bill represent the advance guard - his measure, and others like them, are setting the stage for a new era in American education, one that might as well be called The Age of the Building-Level Administrator. Johnston's bill provides the bullwhips and shackles - in other words, the disciplinary tools and punitive policies - that a huge wave of New Leaders-stamped principals are going to need to keep those awful teachers in line. They may be doing it quietly, but they're not screwing around:
By 2014, New Leaders anticipates it will be training 20-25 percent of the new principals in the U.S. needed for urban, low-income public schools.
Center for American Progress, March, 2008
Let's hope not - the very last thing public education needs is an influx of half-trained zealots armed with broad authoritarian legalisms and a grudge against teachers.
How did it come to this - a situation in which educators and their associations are held up to ridicule and contempt, while covert gangs of elitist think-tankers promote laws designed to diminish and emasculate the teaching profession? The explanations and recriminations are numerous and varied, so much so that most fall outside the purview of this article. Accordingly, I'll try to limit myself to the three facets of SB 10-191 that I believe are the most relevant to why the Colorado legislature should not be so much as thinking about considering a vote on such an ill-conceived turd of bill:
1. Michael Johnston's background, which isn't nearly so lustrous once one scratches off the thin layer of gilding which has thus far protected him from any real scrutiny.
2. The Axis of Eval, the loose coalition of data-driven, high-stakes test-loving "reformers" who see no incongruity in the phrase, "We're burning this village in order to save it."
3. Some lowlights of SB 10-191 itself, in which the modus operandi of both Senator Johnston and the "reform" outfits he represents are glaringly evident.
Senator Johnston has been playing a focused PR game for more than 10 years, so exposing some of the myths about his storied resume is going to require a lot of cyber-ink. Accordingly, I'm going to have to present this article in two parts - Johnston's pre-political career, the Sith Lord he serves, and the underpinnings of the Axis of Eval tonight; the sordid tale of how he became a Senator, plus the lowlights of his bill, will be found in Part II.
Meet the Elite
I hate it when the wingnuts can be shown to have a point. Their caricatures of "elitist liberals" aren't entirely inaccurate, for example, and they only have to point to people like Senator Michael Johnston, D(INO) of Colorado's 33rd District, to prove it. He's one of those guys who was born on third base, but is convinced he hit a triple - in other words, the most dangerous sort of "liberal" "reformer" out there.
His father (a real estate developer who has marketed "exclusive" properties since 1980) was the mayor of Vail, of all places, and he attended kindergarten through 12th grade at the exclusive Vail Mountain School. VMS is not exactly the sort of place one goes for a grounding in public education in the United States - it currently enrolls 262 K-12 students, whose parents pay tuition of $18,000 per year at the high school level; $17k/yr in middle school; and $16.5k/yr kindergarten-elementary). A rough estimate based on the numbers provided at EducationBug.com shows that last year, VMS pulled in about $4.5 million in tuition, which equates to a per-pupil funding rate - exclusive of donations, gifts, and grants - of around 10 thousand dollars higher than the statewide rate applied to public schools.
This isn't to disparage Vail Mountain School, its faculty, or its graduates - I'm sure it's a fine institution, worthy of its prep-school reputation - but it does show that outside of two years working as a Teach for America placement in the Mississippi Delta, Michael Johnston has exactly zero experience with traditional, comprehensive American schools. He never attended them as a student, and his experiences as a teacher and principal were very limited in both scope and time - yet now he seeks, through his odious bill, to right all the wrongs that afflict all schools, everywhere. The arrogance is staggering, when you think about it.
If one is truly going to be an elitist liberal who shoves half-baked social policy down the throats of people "for their own good," one has to have the parchment to back it up, and here, too, Senator Johnston doesn't disappoint: BA in philosophy from Yale, 1997. This sounds more impressive than it is. For the scions of the well-connected, the Ivy League isn't quite as competitive as it is for the offspring of the hoi-polloi - remember that Yale is the same outfit that granted George W. Bush a BA in history in 1968, and that Harvard gave him an MBA. Johnston would later play a similar game of bouncing back and forth between Harvard and Yale, accumulating the sheepskins and connections that he'd need for his eventual, inevitable grab for public office. Senator Johnston, again like President Bush, is one of those people who considers his own ideas simply too good not to be enforced upon an unwilling populace.
Slumming for Fun and Profit
After Yale, Johnston enlisted in Teach For America, a program which places recent college graduates in teaching assignments in low-income areas around the country. TFA "corps members" are trained by the organization at summer institutes, then assigned classrooms for two years. The idea is that full-fledged teacher school - with its semester-long unpaid internship and year of classroom instruction on the foundations of education, ed psych, and classroom management - is superfluous: that all there is to teaching is enthusiasm and dedication. TFA also ensures that a steady stream of temporary, easily fireable teachers is available to the super-principals that would be created by SB 10-191.
The program can and does work - at least one of my former students is now a TFA corps member, and is doing excellent work in a "Welcome Back, Kotter" kind of scenario in my old district - but Johnston's idea, the idea that a two-year stint with TFA is enough to make someone an expert on state- or nationwide education policy, is ludicrous. It's rather like a volunteer returning from a Peace Corps assignment and proclaiming himself an authority on international relations and foreign policy.
Johnston's assignment was in the Mississippi Delta, and like many a sheltered, privileged white kid whose eyes were opened by condescending journey among the downtrodden, he wrote a memoir after his tenure was up. In the Deep Heart's Core (yes, that's really the title) came out in 2002; in it, Johnston actually fesses up to his own arrogance and lack of preparation:
The first day of school was approaching, and due to my own stubbornness, I was preparing to commit all the cardinal sins of teaching. For starters, I did not have a set of classroom rules. I had made a halfhearted attempt at constructing one but stopped midway. I rationalized that these were high-school students-they did not need rules posted like kindergartners. In retrospect, I believe I didn't know how exactly to enforce the rules, and the thought of having to enforce them frightened me only slightly less than the thought of not enforcing them at all. I had been given no curriculum, but I had not yet decided if I would even use the curriculum, when and if the school gave it to me.
excerpted in a Harvard Graduate School of Education News review from 2003
Presumably, Johnston felt that haughtiness and the fact that he was an aristocrat who'd given of his own valuable time to bring the light of knowledge to the poor folks of the backward South would be enough to see him through. It wasn't; In the Deep Heart's Core is a whiny, self-indulgent catalog of all the systemic problems that are keeping Johnston from being the great educator he's certain he is. One of the reviews at Amazon.com, posted by a teacher who worked at the same school as Johnston, sums it up:
Michael Johnston dwells in great detail upon the most negative aspects of his assignment at Greenville High School. It's a wonder that he lasted one month with such filters for negativity. When you are trained as an educator you are expected to go forth with all of your positive energy and your motivational tools to work in your chosen environment. Nobody chained Johnston and sent him to Greenville. It was his choice. He emerges more as a self-validating mercenary than he does as an educator...What he lacked was the compassion to admit that even at Greenville High School the good students outnumbered the bad. I know this because I also previously worked at Greenville High School...His book illustrates that he was a neophyte who was beaten down by his own weaknesses when he was asked to step up and perform what he was trained to do. There remains some resentment against Johnston because he chose to emphasize more negative than positive...Johnston also departed soon after his obligation was complete. In any community there are negatives and positives...One can only hope that Johnston is now preparing educators and not another self-validating mercenary.
Amazon.com Customer Reviews (Full disclosure: the page contains several other reviews, both positive and negative. I chose to include this one for its firsthand perspective.)
What were Johnston's take-aways from Greenville High? I'll let him tell you, in his own, nigh-on-incomprehensible words:
The blank stare I received from those faces was a mixed acknowledgment, a defiant protest against my desire to make categories where they might not exist. But buried beneath those stern flares was an embittered wish for a world where a man's goodness and badness might stand alone as the variables determining his worth, a wish that even the most impossible circumstances might afford some hope.
A Pattern Emerges
Clearly, the TFA position was just a stepping-stone for a man who felt he had so much more to offer the American educational community - no sense sticking around and truly helping a small community when you can move on to imposing your theories upon the masses. It's a clear trend in Johnston's career path: pay the fee or show up (as applicable); put forth some crazy, preferably based on untested, self-generated theories; play the martyr when it doesn't work; and move on before any real accountability begins.
This was the case after he so abruptly left Mississippi - having secured his Mother Theresa cred by passing briefly through the lives a handful of poor black kids, he now returned to the ivory tower (in this case, Harvard) in order to take care of the next necessary component to framing himself as an "expert." To him, this was simply the next step in a career trajectory long in the planning - at least as far back as this dispensing of Solomonaic wisdom from In the Deep Heart's Core, Johnston was letting his self-promoting, mercenary nature show:
"There are a few golden rules to chess," I said. "The first is that you cannot survive without a plan, and in order to have a plan you must always think three steps ahead of where you are. Ask yourself, 'Where do I want to be down the road, and what am I going to do to make sure I get there?' The second rule has to do with protecting yourself as you try to reach your goal: every action has a consequence, even if you don't see that consequence right away. Before you make any move you have to stop and think to yourself, 'What good might happen, and what bad might happen?' Then you have to evaluate each possible part of the decision. What you can't do is be careless. That's how you get killed. When you just start moving for no reason, just moving because you've got nothing better to do, you can be sure somebody else is going to take advantage of your mistakes and use them to his own advantage."
(Could be that this is actually proper pedagogy, mentoring in the tradition of the samurai - a lot depends on context, tone, and faith that the author is accurately relating the conversation. What it does clearly show is that Michael Johnston is a schemer who always has an agenda driving his actions. In and of itself, this is ethics-neutral, but it is worth noting for the strategic insight it presents)
In 2000, Johnston received a Master's in Education Policy (not anything related to teaching a subject, mind you; just "policy") from Harvard, then, instead of bringing his boundless wisdom and best-money-can-buy parchments to an actual school somewhere, he scurried back to Yale to pick up a law degree. He has never practiced law; the degree seems to be of the purely resume-padding variety, though it did once help him to land an adjunct professorship in Education Law at a private university in Denver.
I mention this because it's during his Harvard/Yale orbit in the late '90s and early '00s that Johnston began in earnest his attempts to experiment with the education of other peoples' kids. It was also during this period that he sidled up to former member of the Clinton-era Department of Education, Jon Schnur, who is identified in the linked article as an "idealocrat."
The Movement That Shall Not Be Named
Coined by Elizabeth Green of GothamSchools.org - which has done a bang-up job keeping track of these ideologues and the damage they're doing - "idealocrat" is a fitting enough moniker. It carries connotations of Wilsonian catastrophe, combined with governance by bean-counter. It's especially fitting in this case, since Schnur is another of these wunderkinds with no experience but all the answers.
To wit: he graduated from Princeton in 1989 (hey, that's the year I finished up my stint as an enlisted man, mortgaging four years of my life overseas in service to my country so that I might qualify for GI Bill benefits and be able to scrape together enough cash for some post-secondary schooling at big, public university! What a coincidence!), and by the mid-nineties was serving as a Senior Education Advisor to Vice President Gore. It was a meteoric rise, though none of the easily-searchable biographies on him - he has no page on Wikipedia, LinkedIn, or the other usual suspects; had to resort to slim bios in places like the Executive Leadership roster of the non-profit at which he works - explain what he was doing during early 90s. Whatever it was, it must have been damn impressive, for it resulted in a 1984 graduate of a Wisconsin public school advising the Secretary of Education and the Vice President on policy only a decade later.
With the failure of representative democracy in the 2000 elections, Schnur (whose political fortunes were, at the time, linked with Al Gore's) enrolled himself in Harvard Business School. He had already recognized that the federal government was
"too clumsy to drive the kind of change I was interested in"
...and so partnered with two classmates, neither of them educators, to found New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit that trains and organizes principals for urban school districts. Schnur talks about the successes of New Leaders in a 52-minute video linked here; for our purposes, the more important part of the story is that it is through New Leaders that Johnston, already busily working on his future political career, became an educational discipline (or junior-partner ally; the public record on their relationship is murky) of Schur.
(It's probably for the best that despite his rock-star status among the Axis of Eval, Mr. Schnur keeps his public associations on the down-low. This undated biography lists him as CEO of the highly wingnutty think tank American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, though in fairness, a quick check of AEI's site didn't reveal Mr. Schnur to be a current scholar, trustee, or officer. He is listed, however, as participating in AEI-sponsored "working groups" as late as 2007; October of that year found him serving on panels at an AEI event ominously entitled The Supply Side of School Reform and the Future of Educational Entrepreneurship. Other presenters and discussants at the same event included noted teacher-hater Michelle Rhee and advocates of for-profit "reform" efforts like Chris Whittle of Edison Schools.)
Schnur pals around with people who have dollars - and, apparently, an abject, unreasoning hatred of teachers - but not the best interests of kids, at heart. This is typified by a June, 2007, report entitled What can TPS reports teach us about education?, which chronicles a "Business Roundtable" in which Schnur was a participant. In it, teachers are compared to Peter Gibbons, the legendary slacker-hero of the film Office Space who brags about what amounts to a fifteen-minute work week, owing to all the "spacing out" he does during the day. The article plaintively asks,
how do we attract and retain enough teachers and principals willing to give up the Peter Gibbons moments for a career raising student achievement levels?
Indeed. I so value my hours of goofing off and doing nothing that I scarcely notice they exist. Fortunately (and as always), the idealocrat is ready with a socially conscious, Europe-tested, utterly half-baked piece of authoritarianism, presented as a guaranteed, no-doubt "data-driven" solution. In this case, the "reformer" advocates an outright militarization of the process of teacher training:
The military is absolutely seamless in comparison [to the current, local-and-state-administered approach], while local, state, and federal governments, in addition to teacher colleges, non-profits, national councils, and unions all meddle in teacher issues. Maybe there's something there. Maybe we need some sort of national teaching cadre a la the Peace Corps or the Army. Heck, maybe we should make service in one of the agencies required, like Israel, Denmark, and Germany. The Peter Gibbons lifestyle is just too tempting.
(emphasis courtesy of the original, gushing author)
Indeed again. No wonder these folks think I've spent ten years doing nothing but emulating a fictional slacker, as my union meddled in the affairs of my fellow teachers: I haven't been through teacher boot camp, and I'm here, doing this job, entirely of my own volition. Sheesh. Do they really think that without a strong authority figure compelling us to work hard, the default nature of the teacher is exemplified by Peter Gibbons? Who are these people?
Hanging One's Hat on Thin Air
His candidate bio page states that in 2004, he returned to Colorado and took a job with the Joan Farley Academy, a 60-student residential treatment facility in Denver. He didn't stay long - enticed by an offer of almost complete autonomy in the setting up and running of his own "small school" by the superintendent of a nearby district, he jumped ship the following year.
I detailed the story of the Mapleton School District's descent into madness in June, 2008 - Part 1 describes how a debilitating series of "reform" initiatives were conjured up and justified; Part 2 gets more into the financing and union-busting aspects of the actual implementation. Both explain the way in which "data" - the holy of holies to the idealocratic edu-hater - was manipulated and obfuscated in order to first rationalize, then protect, what was from its inception a botched, mishandled reform scheme.
Long story short: Senator Johnston's school, the Mapleton Expeditionary School Of The Arts was, at the time he left to pursue his political ambitions in 2008, scoring worse on the state-standardized tests than the comprehensive, traditional high school it had replaced. This was the case even though he was shedding students (presumably the poor-performing ones who didn't "get" or "fit in with" Johnston's vision) at an astonishing pace - incredibly, Johnston's school had a higher dropout rate than the old school. Perhaps this was because the teachers were so inexperienced - in 2007-08, only 4 of a staff of 37 held non-probationary status, and barely half of them were teaching in fields related to their degrees.
Even his greatest claim to fame - the deservedly-vaunted achievement of getting an entire graduating class accepted to college - leaves a lot of unanswered questions, when one starts to examine things a little more closely. For example, the Class of 2008 began taking instruction at the MESA as 10th graders in the 2005-2006 school year. There were 73 of them then, with the student/teacher ratio an enviously low 12:1. (by way of comparison, my school's ratio is going to be over 27:1 next year, and class sizes will be larger than that)
The year they graduated, only 46 remained, and even that number was reduced by 2 by the time the presumptive Democratic nominee turned up in Thornton. That's not much of an improvement over the attrition rate at the former high school, especially considering that freshman classes had numbered about 400 and students had four full years to drop out, move away, or follow any of those other unfortunate paths that cause kids to not graduate.
Frustrating thing is, it's all there in the Colorado School Accountability Reports - ironically, the very reports that were earlier used to doom, disgrace, then dismember the traditional high school replaced in part by Johnston's experiment - but an unfortunate trend among modern reporters is the tendency to get star-struck (or even worse, afraid that anything less than groveling puff pieces will get them black-listed and ostracized) into not approaching all stories, even the ones that on the surface sound like grand successes, with a certain degree of objective skepticism. This was certainly the case when Barack Obama spoke in the auditorium of the old Skyview High School in celebration of Johnston's single achievement: the Denver press gushed over education's new golden child, congratulated themselves on highlighting the plight of struggling suburban schools, and dished about how cool it was to see candidate Obama up-close.
Had they asked a few questions, they might have learned that far from inspiring his students to step up to claim their dreams, Johnston had simply purchased a pre-packaged program and decreed participation in it a classroom requirement. College Summit is specifically designed to raise college admission rates among districts which "partner with" (ie, hire) the for-profit company to administer a curriculum solely focused on applying to colleges and universities. Textbooks, a website, summer camps, a well-compensated advisor attached to the Counseling Department, and 33 scripted lessons are provided for teachers, who are assured that
most of [the lessons] can be taught within one or two class periods.
That's between 50 and 120 minutes (at least!) of classroom instructional time per week, spent not on the skills needed to be successful in college, but only on those skills requisite to getting through the front gate the remediation rate. So as to obfuscate its numbers, Mapleton School District 1 seems to have gathered all of its "small by design" high schools under the old Skyview banner, allowing it to report a remediation rate (college freshman needing remedial coursework before taking on a "real" college load) among Skyview grads in 2009 of 50%.
If data exists regarding how those students of the class of 2008 are faring at present, it's not readily accessible. Perhaps someone could ask Senator Johnston: how are those kids doing? How many are still in college? How many never went, despite the acceptance letter? College Summit gave Senator Johnston an award only a couple of months ago - maybe they have a means of tracking the fledglings they helped to push out of the nest?
My suspicion is that neither Senator Johnston nor College Summit knows the answers. Still, it wouldn't surprise me if he maintained e-mail contact with a handful of former students, just to be ready with the quick anecdote of success that'll serve to alleviate any concerns about how many of MESA's College Summit class of '08 might have found themselves at university, unprepared for the coursework but with the ability to fill out one hell of an application...or found themselves accepted, but unable to pay...or decided to meet familial obligations instead of attending school. If there's one thing the idealocrats are good at, it's cherry-picking data and inspirational platitudes for purposes of forwarding individual and movement agendas.
The Axis of Eval
College Summit uses a shotgun approach to the selection process: put enough lead in the air, and something will connect with something. Since their focus is so limited, and their resources so vast, they're quite good at what they do - which helps the bottom line, but not necessarily the kids. College Summit is paid to raise numbers of enrollees in postsecondary ed, not help those graduating seniors make wiser career choices that may not necessarily involve college. Similarly, success in college isn't their concern - College Summit exists to help districts polish their image, and that's it. They admit as much on the For School Districts page of their website
Rising college enrollment rates are hard data that administrators can use to demonstrate what they are doing right for their students. Providing each and every student with what he or she needs to get to college ensures that all students' potential can be realized.
It's a disturbing trend, a byproduct of the "data-driven instruction" that emerged from President Bush's No Child Left Behind fiasco. The idea was that by fine-tuning the analyses of the data provided by all the standardized testing, the instructional needs of individual students could be pinpointed, and lessons tailored to their specific concerns. These "individual leaning plans" would be implemented by classroom teachers through what's known as "differentiated instruction" - essentially, custom-fitting the curriculum to each child in the classroom, based on the analysis of frequent assessments. It might've worked great in a 12-kid, one-room schoolhouse, but in an environment in which teachers see 150 students a day, it's an awful lot of data-mining, analyzing, and lesson planning to lay on an already way-overburdened faculty.
Enter the snake oil. Dozens of companies popped up, all providing "systems" and entire curricula which promised to raise test scores. Anybody could promote any outlandish theory they liked - last year, I was mandated by my superintendent to sit through a day-long presentation by some joker who was pushing the idea of never giving a grade below 50%, even if the student never turned in the assignment. Neil Bush and his parents made a killing on empty, NCLB-related promises, as have many other for-profit rackets seeking a chunk of education pie.
There are workable aspects to some of these programs, but most fail to deliver. This is only now coming to pass: NCLB was imposed in the early 2000s, but the charlatans weren't ensconced until around mid-decade. Now, five years later, the results of their experiments are starting to come in, and they're not good. People of honor might admit their errors and take their lumps, but as we've seen, the people behind this movement are not people of honor - they're the type who move rapidly to affix blame to someone else, then use the ensuing crisis to justify an expansion of their own power. Unfortunately, this particular gang has chosen teachers as their scapegoats.
Political ambition in and of itself is not illegal, nor is milking one's circumstances for personal gain a crime - but both can, in certain situations, pose real threats to society (see Caesar, Julius). The problem begins when a person starts to believe their own hype, and starts to think that because everything seems to have worked out pretty well for them, they must have all the answers for how to fix what's not working for everyone else. It's a variant on the company towns and "gospel of wealth" ideas of the 19th and early 20th centuries: the success (be it earned or inherited) of the members of the upper crust proved that they were smarter/better/stronger/faster than the pitiable Great Unwashed, so they felt no compunction whatsoever - indeed, many saw it as an obligation - to "do their small part" for the greater good. Usually this was by means of forcing people to live the way their betters thought they ought to.
The next installment will deal with SB 10-191 itself, as well as the less-than-mandate-granting means by which Senator Johnston secured his seat. In the meantime, I, like tens of thousands of teachers across Colorado, will continue to fight the bill and all the punitive, un-funded vileness it represents.
If you're a Coloradoan, your public school teachers need your help: please, please, please call your Senator, and urge him or her to vote NO! on SB 10-191. We can fix the evaluation system - the Governor has already empanelled a Council to work on the issue, and CEA has expressed publicly and repeatedly its support for the work this group is doing. More than that, individual teachers recognize that we do need a better system for recognizing effective and ineffective teaching. What we don't need is to rush pell-mell into a "fix" that's going to do more damage than the problems it purports to address.
Colorado Legislative Contacts & Info:
Colorado Education Association - NOT SO FAST: NO on SB 191
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for reference: Florida Senate Bill 6