1. Opinion

For-profit schools not the answer for Florida

Published Mar. 7, 2012

For generations, public education has been where the American dream begins. At a public school, all students — no matter who they are, what skills they start out with or where they come from — have a chance to learn and the opportunity to succeed.

As longtime advocates for quality education and as parents of school-age children, we're alarmed that Florida politicians are chopping up our piece of the dream.

Our state is engaged in an unprecedented effort to dismantle public education, and the attack has just kicked into an even higher gear. The Senate could vote as early as today on a misguided "parent trigger" bill (SB 1718). And the state is pursuing radical changes in assessment rules that will give many more schools "failing" grades.

The abandonment of equal opportunity for Florida students is the wrong solution to a real problem. Although we are far from the poorest state in the nation, we rank near the bottom in per capita funding for K-12 schools. This is a values issue: Do we want to invest in the future of our children?

Under Gov. Rick Scott and leaders in the Florida House and Senate, the answer is a clear "no."

While Florida is in the cellar in spending on our students, we are second when it comes to schools operated by for-profit educational management organizations. We have 150 of them, right behind Michigan with 181. The politicians selling these outfits never mention that private operators have little or no accountability for the public money they spend, or for academic standards they achieve — or fail to achieve.

Nationwide, students at 52 percent of privately operated schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards, as defined by the U.S. Education Department.

Does it make sense to turn even more Florida schools over to an industry that fails more often than it succeeds? Does it make sense to turn schools over to firms that are skimming profits? Terry Osborn, dean of the College of Education at University of South Florida, was recently quoted as saying, "In schools, you're not going to end the day with a profit; if you do, that's money that could have been spent in the classroom helping students learn."

We agree, but for Florida, it's a one-two punch. First, the state Board of Education voted to institute a radical new grading formula that will give more schools failing grades, imposing arbitrary requirements on students who are not native English speakers or who have learning disabilities.

If it stands, the result will be that hard-working teachers who work in challenging schools where it requires extra initiative to help students learn will be rewarded for their effort with a demoralizing D or F.

The second punch is then thrown in the form of the so-called "parent trigger" law. It would allow "parents" at a newly classified "underperforming" public school to petition for a takeover by a charter company, including for-profit ones.

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The bill is misnamed as "Parent Empowerment" legislation; it's really the "corporate empowerment bill." More often than not it will be petitions circulated by private interests rather than parents themselves. There would no longer be a publicly elected board to monitor the expenditure of public funds, teacher performance or student achievement. Parents will have to take their concerns up with corporate leadership — often out of state and out of reach.

While private charter school companies may be hard for parents to reach, that doesn't stop them from reaching into our pockets. The Senate version of a new charter school bill, now waiting reconciliation with a House bill, allows private school operators to dip into public funds for new school construction. It also conveniently eliminates a requirement that charter schools report teacher evaluations. Public schools have to make these reports. Why should charter schools be exempt?

Could it be that private school operators want to get their hands on as much public money as possible without any accountability?

For two centuries the pathway to the American dream has been hiring great teachers, giving them the resources they need, and creating a chance for children to learn. Turning our back on this proven tradition may help the bottom line of the booming for-profit education industry, but it won't do a thing for Florida children and families.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins is executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. She is also the mother of two elementary school children in Hillsborough County. Melissa Erickson is president of the Hillsborough County Council PTA/PTSA. She is a former teacher and the mother of a high school student in Hillsborough County.


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