Romano: Florida should not make fairness a moving target

Published April 14 2018
Updated April 14 2018

The program I want to tell you about makes perfect sense. In many ways, it is fair and compassionate. Practical and wise.

It is also an excellent example of Tallahassee’s pick-and-choose style of justice.

The Legislature was gung-ho on passing a bill this spring that would make it easier for students at private schools to take dual enrollment classes at state colleges. Nothing wrong with that.

The dual enrollment program allows students to get a head start on college courses, and it saves families a bunch of money because they do not have to pay for any of those credit hours.

But here’s where it gets shady. The bill for public school students is paid by the local school district. In Pinellas County, for example, the School District sent about $1.4 million to colleges during the 2016-17 school year.

Private school students are also allowed to participate for free, which makes sense since their public school friends do. But unlike public schools, legislators don’t want the private schools to be billed.

Their reasoning is it would be a burden on some private schools to handle the cost.

Um, yeah. Kind of like the juggling that comes with a $1.4 million public school bill.

You see, this is where leaders in Tallahassee like to play hide-and-seek with the concept of fairness.

They are adamant that private school students be treated equally. Okay, that’s admirable. But shouldn’t they have the same convictions when it comes to public school budgets? And the colleges that will now have to absorb the costs of the dual enrollment program for private schools?

"The dual enrollment concept is a good one. I have no complaints there,’’ said Pasco-Hernando State College president Timothy Beard. "We just need to ensure that the state colleges have the resources we need to continue providing a quality education for as many students as possible.’’

The numbers we’re talking about are not enormous. PHSC took in about $95,000 from private schools for dual enrollment last year that it stands to lose going forward. St. Petersburg College and Hillsbor-
ough Community College were already allowing private schools to participate for free.

The larger issue is legislators continue to play favorites.

They’re enamored with the idea of boosting the reputation of universities, and so they’ve added about $375 million in spending for them in the past two budgets, while cutting state colleges by about $20 million.

As for K-12 education, they constantly criticize public schools, dramatically underfund them compared to the rest of the nation and burden them with regulations.

Private and charter schools? Not so much.

Private schools do not have to hire certified teachers. In fact, they don’t even need college degrees. They also do not have to adhere to curriculum standards and do not have to participate in the state’s obsession with high-stakes tests. Private schools are barely monitored — officials visited about 1.1 percent of them last year — even though they are collecting about $1 billion in state voucher money.

And yet, when legislators are told that private schools might have trouble coming up with money for dual enrollment programs, they immediately rush in with a solution in the name of fairness.

Meanwhile, public schools have to pay their share of the bill, and state colleges are now being asked to pick up the slack.