At Spotlight Tampa Bay forum on education, strong views and a standing ovation

The discussion flows when students and thought leaders weigh in on the last two years in Florida schools.
The Tampa Bay Times Community Spotlight event on education was held Tuesday at the Tampa Theatre.
The Tampa Bay Times Community Spotlight event on education was held Tuesday at the Tampa Theatre. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 3

For more than two years, Florida’s education battles have drawn national attention with debates over book bans, gender issues, sexual orientation, indoctrination, school vouchers and teacher shortages.

The clamor spilled onto the Tampa Theatre stage Tuesday evening during a two-hour community conversation titled “Conflicts, Challenges and Culture Wars in Florida’s Classrooms.” It was the second event in the Tampa Bay Times’ Spotlight Tampa Bay series, and it brought many in the audience to their feet at the 90-minute mark.

A crowd of just over 200 gave a standing ovation for five area high school students enlisted by the Times to share their experiences, along with their reactions to the adult panelists who spoke before them.

Times education reporter Marlene Sokol was to guide their discussion with questions. But the group decided backstage it would be better if they took the reins themselves, and Sokol let them proceed to the delight of the crowd.

The students touched on some of Florida’s most controversial education laws while inviting the audience into a world adults don’t often see.

“The conversations that we have as students — they don’t look anything like the school board screaming matches that you’re seeing on TV,” said Eliza Lane, a senior at Palm Harbor University High, who last year led a protest when Pinellas County school officials temporarily banned Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye.”

“Limiting access to information has never made the world better,” Lane said.

Gaither High School junior Moses May railed against state laws that limit what teachers can say about sexual orientation and transgender issues, and rules that largely prevent school employees from keeping student information from parents.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing for a teacher to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not in my contract to talk to you about. And if I talk to you about it, I’ll get fired,’ That would scare me,” said May, who is president of Gaither’s Gay-Straight Alliance and plans to be a theater teacher.

But amid the criticism and disagreement, the evening ended with some general ideas for solutions.

Young people should be more involved, several panelists said, but they could use an assist from the adults who run local school systems. That includes fewer school board meetings during the day, when kids are in school.

More parents should run for school board, some of the panelists said, and more voters should make their way to the bottom of the ballot. That’s where the school board races are.

Two panelists agreed that someone needs to offer a trusted, reliable clearinghouse where families can shop for school choice options instead of the scattered landscape they face now.

The other student panelists, all seniors, were Calina Levy of Wiregrass Ranch High, who started an Instagram page where students discuss school issues; Jasmine Walker of Armwood High, who leads a student group that pairs upperclassmen with struggling freshmen; and Isabella Rivero, who will graduate soon from Winthrop College Prep Academy, a charter school in Riverview.

Rivero chimed in on a major topic of the evening, school choice, saying she likes her small senior class of 150 students. “We all know each other. We’re very close, and that’s not an experience that I would ever get in a (regular) public school,” she said.

The adult panel, moderated by Times education reporter Jeff Solochek, featured a diverse group of education advocates.

Erika Donalds is a former Collier County School Board member who leads a charter school company, OptimaEd, and sits on advisory boards for organizations including Moms for Liberty.

Goliath Davis is a former St. Petersburg police chief and deputy mayor who is an advocate for education in Pinellas County, with a focus on Black student achievement.

Andrew Spar heads the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, and is a former music teacher in Volusia County.

Monica Verra-Tirado is a program coordinator with Pasco County Schools and a former chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Hillsborough County school system. She also has worked for the Florida Department of Education.

“The culture wars aren’t happening in the classroom,” Verra-Tirado said, kicking off the first panel. “Our teachers are just desperately trying to teach our kids to learn and move and have a safe environment, I think. Does it affect the classroom? Absolutely.”

Davis blamed Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies for igniting the culture wars, saying the drumbeat of proposals has hurt schools and eliminated the safe spaces students once had to speak with teachers about private matters they feared sharing with their parents.

“What’s wrong with acknowledging the fact that we are diverse?” Davis asked. “And what better place to have individuals discuss, debate and come to some resolution about these diverse issues than in a schoolhouse where you have teachers who can facilitate that?”

Donalds countered, saying the laws are beneficial. “Parents do not want secrets kept from them about their children,” she said. “I gave you my child for the day to teach them how to read and do math, not to teach them things that are contrary to my values and then keep things from me that are important to me about the health and well-being of my child.”

She also spoke of the journey that led to her becoming an advocate for school choice. It began, she said, when the second of her three sons didn’t do as well in their zoned public school as her first son.

“And it wasn’t because the teachers weren’t trying their best. It wasn’t because he wasn’t smart enough,” Donalds said. “It just didn’t fit him.”

The boy ended up at a private school with a classical curriculum and a type of teaching that better fit him, she said. It also started her thinking about other parents who found themselves in the same position. “And so my story is what informs my point of view.”

Spar sounded a call for less micromanaging from Tallahassee and for Florida to invest more in its traditional neighborhood schools. “If we want kids to learn, then why do we say we shouldn’t invest in our public schools in the community where parents are, where kids are, where … families are?”

Amid all the roiling debates, there is still much to like and be proud of, several panelists said after Solochek asked them to ponder what made them happy about Florida education. Spar and others urged people to visit public schools and they will see amazing things.

The next Spotlight Tampa Bay will focus on climate change. It is set for May 21 at The Palladium in St. Petersburg.