A weekend interview with Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson
Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson visited St. Petersburg this past week to attend meetings about digital learning. While in town, he met with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board to talk about education issues facing the state. What follows are excerpts from the hour-long session.
Does Florida spend enough on schools?
Enough compared to what?
Enough compared to what the opportunity is.
Someone will say the reason Massachusetts and Connecticut are doing better than our students are, particularly in Massachusetts, is because they spend more money. There are a couple of things to consider. Those are states that are strong union states. So they are already doing things with contractual obligations that we don't have here as a right to work state. No. 2, there is more state involvement, there is a lot more state influence on how ways you should use money in ways you wouldn't find in the southern states. No. 3, when you look at the cost of living and how they are able to tax certain industries - Florida's is tourism, up there it's manufacturing. So how we tax industry is very different. So someone saying once we actually have the same per pupil funding as Connecticut and Massachusetts, then we'll be on par, that's apples to oranges. Now I'll be the first one to tell you, money matters. … What matters more is how you invest it, how you spend it. Just because you have more money in no way means better results. You can look at Newark public schools and see a very different piece than what you see here.
So what are the opportunities for better investment of the money that Florida is spending already?
It's just thinking differently about how to educate students. For example, we've got virtual education. … There's a big push now on saying, do we have blended learning. There are ways to figure out how to make the money happen. We haven't reached the limits. But I will tell you because we are in some fiscally interesting times, people will find a way to invest the money.
On reducing the achievement gap, does Virginia have an answer or someone else on how to do it?
The answer is often driven by what question you want answered. I've often said what you don't have is a political gap problem as much as you have a political crap problem. Here's the difference. We know what it takes to educate students who struggle. There's a lot of research on that. We've got a lot of examples in urban areas and in rural areas of what it's like to close the achievement gap. And we've got examples of the roles and the effect of bright teachers being put in the right schools, given the support they need to make it happen. So a lot of this stuff really isn't a knowledge problem. It's a political problem. An the political problem is driven by what decisions do we want to make and whose interests are we making decisions for. So if we're saying, wow, a lot of our kids are unable to read, that's not a reading problem. If white kids are reading better than black, Latino, Hispanic or Native American kids, that's not a reading problem. We know what it takes to get kids proficient in reading. The question is, are we willing to make the tough decisions, political decisions, to get the right resources - human and financial - into the schools or after-school programs … to make it happen? Same thing in math.
This movement has been around for quite a while. Do we need to change oversight of charter schools? … Do we need to change and give school boards more discretion? Or what is the answer?
Which question in particular keeps you up at night about charters?
This was a group where the leader of the charter school was spending money to a religious organization for materials, plus was apparently paying for consultants and other things that had nothing to do with putting money in the classroom.
Right. So, when you look at the charter schools that have closed going back to 1990, there are about 700 (nationwide). Financial malfeasance is one of the top two (reasons). The other one is governance issues, but some of that is money. There are a couple of ways to address that. … When you have financial management problems … there are things you can actually catch in the applications process. So there are things we have done that are pivotal in a previous life of mine is, we would actually look at the financials of the person who was going to become the principal and the treasurer. … No. 2, we can do a better job of screening applicants. I have said, the easiest thing we can do to avoid having to close a bad charter school is not let a bad charter school open. And the question is, will more oversight help us do a better job of screening and looking at the applications.
Does Florida have provisions that allow it?
The answer is yes. ... There is nothing in place right now that prohibits the local school boards from making decisions. ... We've had charters for a very long time. We know the ones that work, we know the ones that don't work. That's not a new issue. The reason I ask about what keeps you up at night is because there are some of those same challenges in traditional public schools.
Here's the one that keeps me up at night: The accountability of my tax dollars in charter schools. Public schools are quite accountable. We're deep into the FCAT testing season right now. What sort of accountability should charters have?
They do have to take FCAT. And that's the biggest accountability for us. ... No. 2, if they aren't performing well, they can close. That's a heck of a lot of accountability that we don't often see in our traditional schools....
To say that there is no accountability isn't true. The question is, how much more accountability do you want? If the ultimate accountability is that, for example, if we find financial malfeasance close in a day, if that helps out the adults, it helps out the taxpayers because we've shut that down, the question is, what do you do with the students? ... For the bad charter schools that aren't working, they should close. But for the traditional schools that have also failed a number of our kids, we don't see the same level of righteous indignation. I think it's a point that charter schools don't receive an equal amount of funding, even though they're schools like magnet schools and others. So until we actually have true equity in funding, true equity in accountability, it's really tough to say we don't have the accountability piece for charters.
Let's sidestep to vouchers. There is less accountability there. ... Granted the state is investing less. Is there anything you would like to see there?
I support vouchers. I've supported providing public education money to private schools for years. ... The question isn't more, or less, for me. It's what is quality. And more for me is, if parents decide that I'm being double taxed, I'm paying for my neighbor's kid to go to a public school and I'd like to have my kids go to a private school. I'd like to have public money. We have that in higher education. It's called FRAG. We have that in the US Department of Education for years, going back to the GI Bill. So these things have been in place. So for me this isn't a question of should public money go to religious schools. The question is, are they working for kids? One thing I always get interested in is making sure that the schools are quality. ... There was actually a bill in that would make the private schools take the FCAT. Let me tell you why I'm not for taking the FCAT. ... The private school curriculum isn't aligned to what we test on the FCAT. So you're comparing apples to oranges. At the same time, there are the Stanford tests, there are Iowas, there are other tests you can take. So I'm not against assessment. What I am saying is, simply saying because they don't take the FCAT therefore they're not accountable is not correct....
Assume a charter school and a public school perform the same. Which do you pick?
It depends what they offer. If you were asking the question, a traditional school and a magnet school, it would be the same. I'd likely pick the magnet school for three reasons. The magnet school often has a theme. And theme-based schools have focus. I would pick that. No. 2 is, the theme-based school is often science or STEM related, or the arts, and I would pick that. ... Third, you often find the magnet schools are often more selective in their student body than a traditional school. ... So if I wanted my daughter to go to a school that had a more competitive student body - you know, this is competitive - I would pick the magnet school. So when you are talking about charter schools, it's the same question. Is it theme based? Does it have a particular focus? So for me, it's not charter vs. non-charter. The question is, focus vs. non-focus.
Do you think magnet schools in public schools work better as just a slice of a program, or in a whole school?
I personally support the whole theme focus across the board. But I understand we can't do that for everyone. ... It's interesting, when we talk about charter schools, we don't have the same level of concern for magnets. Charters and magnets both are theme schools. Charters and magnets both are public. And charters and magnets both take money. You often find magnets cost more than charters. But yet people say charters take money from public schools. People say charter are creaming the best and brightest kids. I can tell you from looking at the scores, that's not the case. And yet the magnet schools - which is why I would pick the magnet - are taking the best and brightest students, oftentimes with a test. You don't have tests with charter schools. You've got tests here. Although there are tests to figure out where you are, which is different from a test to determine whether you get in or not. So magnet schools historically have been the largest public school choice program in the country, but also been more exclusive than other programs. And yet, all the angst we put on charters. ... For me, it's just a different option in the public school system. ...