There can be no argument that the Hillsborough County School Board is struggling to find its footing. The members seem to be flailing about looking for answers to the very real problems they are facing. Serious financial mismanagement led to a near state takeover earlier this year. Fortunately for the school board, the federal government bailed them out just in time with a huge influx of federal stimulus dollars. While the financial mismanagement is serious, it pales in comparison to tragically low levels of academic achievement across the district.
With 39 chronically low-performing public schools, Hillsborough County School Board owns the distinction of having more persistently failing schools than any other district in the state. And, it’s not even close. Their school board has almost twice as many chronically low performing schools as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach combined.
Most of these schools serve predominately economically disadvantaged, minority students. Two out of every three Black students in Hillsborough County are reading below grade level. The high school graduation rate for Black students is 10 points lower than for white students in Hillsborough. There is a 35-percentage point gap in math performance between Black and white students in the district.
How does the school board deal with this unconscionable inequity? Over the past 10 months, we have seen several board members pointing wildly about, consistently looking outward for people to blame instead of looking inward to find solutions. Led by their newest members, the board has pointed the finger at the state Department of Education and the commissioner. They have blamed the Legislature. They have blamed charter schools. A couple of months ago they were on the verge of firing their new superintendent. Their latest target? Parents.
Yes. You heard that right. Parents are now to blame for the district’s woes. Parents, who look around at the educational options offered by their district and choose to send their child to a public charter school, are the newest target.
Responding to board member Melissa Snively’s reasonable suggestion that the school board try to understand why parents are choosing charter schools over nearby district managed schools, board member Nadia Combs said, “Sometimes parents don’t know what’s best for their child.”
Read that again. An elected school board member, who by the way runs a for-profit tutoring company that boasts a “100% acceptance rate” for students applying to local high-priced private schools, thinks that some public school parents don’t know what’s best for their children.
Perhaps that lack of respect for certain public school parents is what fueled the board’s decision to try to close Woodmont Charter School. Woodmont, which is 95% minority, with 100% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch, has been a “B” rated school since 2018.
There are five district-managed schools within about a mile and half of Woodmont. Unfortunately, not a single one of them has earned better than a “C” grade the last two years, and one of them has been a “D” or “F” school for six straight years.
Apparently, a majority of their school board would prefer to force families to send their kids to a failing school than to trust them to pick the school that will serve their kids best.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, is chair of the Florida House Education and Employment Committee.