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  1. Education

Romano: Be prepared to fight if you believe in public schools

Sand Pine Elementary student Luke O'Brien works on a math unit review on his tablet in Stephanie Sheridan's fourth grade class on Feb. 18, 2015. Tallahassee is dominated by policy makers who want to steer public education funds into private and corporate hands. The same will be true of Washington, D.C., when the Trump administration comes to power. [BRENDAN FITTERER | Times]
Published Dec. 12, 2016

There's a war on the horizon, and you had better be prepared.

Right now, it's confined to courtrooms and back rooms, but there are warning signs that it may soon spill into neighborhoods and homes. And if that sounds melodramatic, I'll gladly plead guilty.

Because America's public schools are that important.

And their future may soon be at considerable risk.

Donald Trump has tapped billionaire Betsy DeVos as his education secretary, which is sort of like putting a vegetarian in charge of the Cattlemen's Association. DeVos has zero interest, or experience, in dealing with public school education, and instead has been a zealous advocate for the privatization of schools.

Couple that with the Florida Legislature's lust for charter schools and vouchers, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran's recent description of the teachers' union as "evil,'' and it's not that hard to envision even more tax dollars being diverted from public schools.

And that's why you should be paying attention.

Until now, the teachers' union has been the only reliable voice pushing back against the defunding of traditional schools. But since the union has a vested economic interest in the fight, it's been easy for Tallahassee to ignore and malign teachers.

So the time has come for more parents to raise their voices in this debate.

Public schools have long been the backbone of this nation, and no attempts at rewriting history or rebranding education can change that. Yet that's exactly what so-called reformers want to do.

America doesn't have a public schools problem. It has a poverty problem. Failing schools are inextricably tied to low-income neighborhoods. Instead of admitting that, politicians have been blaming schools, and increasingly turning education over to the business community.

This is not meant to be an attack on charters. Many charter schools are wonderful community assets. Nor is it a condemnation of the voucher system. That's an experiment still worth exploring.

Instead, this is an assault on zealotry. And ideology. And the shameless deception used by politicians and reformers to fool parents into thinking public schools are the enemy.

Here's the reality:

Other than anecdotal stories, there is scant evidence that vouchers are the remedy for low-income or minority kids. To be fair, there is also no evidence that vouchers, thus far, have been detrimental.

There is concern that current voucher programs are "skimming the cream'' and taking only the most attractive students eligible, which skews the overall impact. Subsequently, increasing voucher numbers could harm children left behind in poorer public schools.

"There is an argument to be made that one needs to move forward carefully and look at real evidence before proceeding,'' said University of Florida economics professor Richard Romano (no relation), who has studied vouchers for 20 years. "Diving in without eyes wide open to the possible pitfalls is a potentially dangerous situation.''

And yet that's what legislators have been doing when it comes to nontraditional educational options.

Florida has been disarmingly aggressive in expanding charter schools, even though roughly one out of every four charters has eventually shut its doors. The result is upheaval for students and lost tax dollars for residents. And politicians still continue to push the idea under the deceptive banner of "choice.''

Meanwhile, the state has saddled traditional public schools with onerous testing requirements that many parents have rebelled against, creating an environment that invites families to flee.

"Our message has been clear: We want parents to have a choice in education, but we want it to be an informed choice,'' Florida PTA president Cindy Gerhardt said. "We want accountability across the board, and we haven't seen private schools using vouchers being held to that level of accountability.''

Make no mistake, public schools will get worse if Florida continues down this path.

The time is long overdue to remind lawmakers who want to divert education funds into private and corporate hands that you are not just a parent and not just a taxpayer.

You are also a voter.

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