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  1. Opinion

Betty Castor: Florida's public schools deserve support

Betty Castor, former state senator and USF president, is chairing an oversight committee that will supervise spending of a half-cent sales tax to benefit capital projects in the Hillsborough County Public Schools. Three headshots of Castor taken on Sept. 26 at Rampello K-8 School. Another with Sheriff Chad Chronister, who is vice chairman of the oversight committee.
Published Mar. 1

This is a crucial year for traditional public schools. If the past few years are any indication, there will likely be fierce competition for money with those who favor privatization. However, there is no doubt that citizens support their public schools. In county after county, including all of the counties in our Tampa Bay area, voters have approved public referenda to provide new, safe school facilities or operating funds. Eighteen such issues were passed statewide in the last year. Now that the public has spoken, the governor and the Legislature should prove they are listening. Gov. Ron DeSantis' initial public-school budget recommendations appeared positive. While last year's increase in base student allocation ended up as a paltry 47 cents per student, the governor is seeking a sorely needed increase of $50 per student. While many public school advocates were initially pleased, he has left many confused by his recent recommendation for a new voucher program.

This so-called "equal opportunity scholarship" would divert public funds directly to students attending private schools. Not only is this a dramatic departure from current policy, it is also unconstitutional. The diversion of funds would cut into our scarce resources for students currently enrolled in traditional public schools.

Florida already ranks at the lower end of the 50 states in per capita spending by state governments and per capita spending of personal income. If we continue to siphon off funds directed to current students and school districts, we will fall further behind. Florida's districts could use those proposed new funds to recruit and retain qualified teachers, purchase technology for classrooms and provide modern equipment for workforce training.

Why not reduce the costs of our burdensome testing programs? Although neither the governor nor his commissioner of education has yet signaled a change, no issue is more critical to students and families than the arbitrary and unfair high-stakes testing that permeates all instruction. Testing has been used to sort students, retain many at grade level and prevent others from graduating.

Florida is one of a small and declining number of states that continue to use a single test as the only measurement for high school graduation. There are alternatives. Students should be evaluated using diverse measures, including course grades, teacher evaluations and industry certification as an alternative to a high stakes test.

In the early grades, testing should be diagnostic, not used for wide-scale retention. Teachers, whose evaluations are based in part on student test scores, are often forced to teach to the test at the expense of more meaningful curriculum. Our students don't deserve these arbitrary barriers. Thankfully, some thoughtful legislators are exploring alternatives to this punitive and costly high-stakes testing.

Choice continues to be the watchword of proponents for more charter schools and vouchers. While their mantra is choice, they ignore the reality that there is plenty of choice in traditional public schools where students participate in magnet schools, dual enrollment, honor programs and career training. The vast majority of the 2.8 million students in Florida are enrolled in traditional public schools. They are taught by certified teachers in districts whose funds are audited and whose meetings are public.

Good charters also are those with local boards and transparency. However, too many use for-profit management companies with no real ties to the community and little accountability. According to Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based research group, 373 charters have closed since 1998, an average of 20 a year. When they fail, it is a terrible loss of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, it is reassuring that the governor would like to ban "bad actors" among the charter providers.

The tax credit scholarship supporters also have convinced the Legislature to permit the tax credit scholarship program to expand. Some of those schools perform well with quality staffs. Others do not. One third attend only one year and then return to public schools where they lag in performance in reading and math compared to traditional students.

The Department of Education website indicates that two-thirds of the schools are small and religiously affiliated. There are presently no requirements for certified teachers. Yet proponents oppose even modest safeguards that would help to provide transparency to the public. The tax scholarship program as well as the governor's new scheme for vouchers need more legislative oversight.

Students in traditional schools require greater support and the resources to help them succeed. Our leaders in Tallahassee should welcome information and support suggestions from those who represent the majority of students in Florida. The ultimate goal is an open, fair and productive system that helps our students to achieve their fullest potential. The voters expect as much.

Betty Castor, former teacher, Hillsborough County commissioner and state senator, served as Florida's commissioner of education and later as president of the University of South Florida. Castor has been president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She currently chairs the board at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.

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