By Betty Castor
This article appeared in the Tampa Bay Times this morning. Betty is a former Florida Commissioner of Education who is very concerned about the privatization of public schools.
This is a crucial year for traditional public schools. If the past few years are any indication, there will likely be fierce competition for funds with those who favor privatization. However, there is no doubt that citizens support their public schools. In county after county, including all the counties in our Tampa Bay area, voters have approved public referenda to provide new, safe school facilities and/or operating funds. Eighteen such issues were passed statewide in the last year! Now that the public has spoken, it is time for the Governor and the Legislature to prove they’re listening.
Governor DeSantis’ initial public-school budget recommendations appeared positive. While last year’s increase ended up as a paltry 47 cents per student, the Governor is seeking a sorely needed addition of $50 per student. While many public school advocates were initially pleased, he has left many confused by his very recent recommendation for a new voucher program.
This so-called “equal opportunity scholarship” would divert public funds directly to students attending private schools. Not only is this a dramatic departure from current policy, but it is also unconstitutional. It raises the critical question of whether these funds would cut into our scarce resources for students currently enrolled in our traditional public schools.
Florida already ranks at the lower end of the fifty states in per capita spending by state governments and per capita spending of personal income. If we continue to siphon off funds directed to current students and school districts, we will fall further behind. Florida’s districts could surely use those proposed new funds to recruit and retain qualified teachers, purchase technology for classrooms, computers for students and provide modern equipment for workforce training.
The costs of our burdensome testing programs could and should be reduced. Although neither the Governor or his Commissioner of Education has yet signaled a change, no issue is more critical to students and families than the arbitrary and unfair high stakes testing that permeates all instruction. Testing has been used to sort students, retain many at grade level and prevent others from graduating. Florida is one of a small and declining number of states that continue to use a single test as the only measurement for high school graduation!
There are alternatives. Students should be evaluated using course grades, teacher evaluations and industry certification.
In the early grades, testing should be diagnostic, not used for widescale retention. Teachers, whose evaluations are based in part on student test scores are often forced to teach to the test at the expense of more meaningful curriculum. Our students don’t deserve these arbitrary barriers. Thankfully, some thoughtful legislators are exploring alternatives to this punitive and costly high-stakes testing.
Choice continues to be the watchword of proponents for more charter schools and vouchers. While their mantra is choice, they ignore the reality that there is plenty of choice in traditional public schools where students participate in magnet schools, honor societies and academic clubs. The vast majority of the 2.8 million students in Florida are enrolled in traditional public schools. They are taught by certified teachers in districts whose funds are audited and whose meetings are public.
Good charters also are those with local boards and transparency. However, too many utilize for-profit management companies with no real ties to the community and little accountability. According to Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee based research group, 373 charters have closed since 1998, an average of 20 a year. When they fail, it is a terrible loss of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, it is reassuring that the Governor would like to ban the “bad actors” among the charter providers.
The tax credit scholarship supporters have also convinced the legislature to permit the tax credit scholarship program to expand. Some of those schools perform well with quality staffs. Others do not. According to the Department of Education website, two thirds of the schools, enrolling 83% of students, are small and religiously-affiliated. There are presently no requirements for certified teachers. Yet proponents oppose even modest safeguards that would help to provide transparency to their business supporters and the public. The tax scholarship program as well as the Governor’s new scheme for expanded vouchers need a lot of scrutiny.
The students in traditional schools will need continuing support and the resources to help them become successful. Our leaders in Tallahassee should welcome information and incorporate the suggestions of those who represent the majority of students in Florida. The ultimate goal is an open, fair and productive system that helps our students to achieve their fullest potential. The voters have told us as much.