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  1. Education

Romano: Schools of hope is just one more gimmick set up to fail in Florida

Published Apr. 23, 2017

Competing education plans are about to collide in Tallahassee.

If you're inclined to skip over a bunch of the details, the basic difference is this:

The Senate is looking for a solution to Florida's persistent education gap, and the House is looking for an excuse to create more charter schools.

And hanging in the balance?

Only tens of thousands of kids.

This is how life works in Tallahassee, where ideology often comes before common sense. And in this case, the House's ideology is a long-standing mission to turn education over to private interests.

Everyone agrees education in lower-income neighborhoods is a problem. An elusive and cruel problem. Some communities have handled it better than others, but most agree there is no simple switch to flip.

And yet the House is billing its "schools of hope'' plan in just that way.

Essentially, House leaders want to create a fund of $200 million to attract qualified charter school operators to skydive into low-income communities and compete with struggling public schools.

Lawmakers say public schools have had ample opportunity to correct the problem, and now it's time to let charters have a chance with their innovative ideas.

This would be a fine plan except for a few crucial facts:

• Charter schools in Florida have roughly the same success rate as traditional schools;

• The "qualified" charters the House seeks are very picky about where they go;

• Traditional schools don't get the chance to be innovative because the Legislature has burdened them with too many top-down edicts and regulations.

That last fact may be the most important of all. Florida has spent the last 20 years operating under the banner of Jeb Bush's school reforms, and the education gap remains stubbornly wide.

Or here's another way of saying it: They created the circumstances, and now they are criticizing the results.

I don't say that flippantly. In 1998, Bush was selling his accountability plan, with A-F school grades, high-stakes standardized tests, bonus revenues and school choice, as the solution to the education gap.

"Any fair and objective analysis of the comprehensive components of our A+Plan would reveal that it is designed to destroy the institutionalization of lower expectations for children based on their socioeconomic status,'' Bush wrote to the Times in 1999. "To permit the continued institutionalization of these lower expectations would inevitably and tragically lead to the 'Two Floridas' of which I warned in my State of the State address.''

And yet here we are in 2017 with lawmakers lamenting the problem of disparate educational opportunities.

I'm not criticizing Bush's attempt to find a solution here. I'm just suggesting it's hypocritical of the House to blame traditional schools for carrying out Tallahassee's own policy demands.

Meanwhile, the real question is this:

Can charter schools, which use public funds but operate independently, be a solution?

Yes, they absolutely can. The national charter company KIPP, for instance, has gotten good reviews with poverty-level students in Jacksonville, even if its school grades remain somewhat subpar.

But KIPP is also drawing tons of philanthropic money from the business community to help implement its turnaround strategy. Obviously, that's a wonderful thing. But the state can't count on that money to magically show up in every community overnight. And high-level charter companies are not going to rush into situations without a high probability of community support and success.

This is why the Senate's plan is more appealing than the House's "schools of hope'' gimmick. The Senate doesn't rule out the possibility of charters where appropriate, but it also acknowledges that spending too much money on competing schools could be counterproductive.

The Senate also suggests taking the Legislature's shackles off traditional schools and allowing them to implement charter-like ideas. Public schools could even be turned into charters with individual school districts in charge, instead of inviting out-of-state corporations to take over.

It's time Tallahassee took responsibility for Florida's education gap. State leaders have been following the same script for two decades. They've set the policies, they've doled out the insufficient funds.

If they're not happy with the results, they might want to look at themselves as the cause.

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