A bipartisan group of state senators recently struck a constructive tone on education priorities, vowing support for increased teacher pay and less testing among other commonsense approaches. Championing public schools shouldn't be a controversial or partisan issue, but too many school choice supporters have framed the future of education as an either/or proposition. That's a terrible way to craft education policy, and it harms traditional public schools where most of the teaching and learning still take place. And that's why it's so helpful for senators to pledge they will be strong, vocal advocates for the system that serves Florida's 2.7 million public school students.
The panel included senators who hold key positions in Tallahassee overseeing education and spending. They addressed the Florida School Boards Association, whose members are bracing for what is expected to be a tight budget year. The lawmakers provided some reassurance, perhaps most strikingly by backing more equity in the state's accountability system that measures public schools differently from charter schools and private schools.
Students in traditional public schools are taught based on statewide standards in various subjects and then are tested on their ability to meet those standards. The test scores are used to evaluate teachers, assigns overall grades to schools and determine students' promotion to the next grade level. Private schools have to test students to measure progress, but those schools can choose what tests to use and the state does not assign them letter grades. Charter schools must follow the same testing protocols as public schools. But they have wide latitude in curriculum design, hiring and operations. They answer to their own boards of directors, with less oversight from county school boards. In calling for more streamlined accountability, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said, "Until such day as we hold everybody to the same set of standards, we shouldn't be spending the same amount of money on everybody."
Latvala acknowledged his position "may not be in vogue in my party." Or, specifically, with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who referred to the state teachers union as "downright evil" for fighting the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that sends low-income children to private schools with private money that otherwise would be paid in state taxes. The union has sued calling the voucher program unconstitutional but has failed to persuade the courts to give the plaintiffs legal standing to move forward. "They (the union) are attempting to destroy the lives of almost 100,000 children, mostly minority, and all of them poor. This flies in the face of research. It defies common sense. It is downright evil," Corcoran said in his first speech as speaker last month.
Corcoran's fondness for school choice is well-known and well-established. His wife founded a charter school in Pasco County. So it was overkill for the speaker to use his pulpit to blast the teachers union yet again. But it's also just another storm cloud in an incredibly hostile climate for public education. President-elect Donald Trump's selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is an overt signal to public school teachers that their work is not valued. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire with no experience in public schools, is a longtime supporter of charter schools and vouchers. She is one of the architects of Detroit's charter school system, which ranks at the bottom nationally in reading and math scores.
Against that discouraging backdrop, the senators' supportive words for public education is encouraging. Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, who heads the appropriations subcommittee on public schools, said he would fight for raises for teachers and longer school days, with extra reading help, for struggling students. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, argued that the accountability system needs to be strong but has become "overloaded" with tests, a complaint echoed by parents throughout Florida. The panel promised to listen to local officials about school tax rates, which determine how much money districts have to work with. None of those positions represents an attack on school choice. They signal a dedication to public education and an appreciation for teachers whose jobs only seem to get harder and less appreciated every year.