The good, the bad and the ugly of school choice
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01/11/12 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

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Florida lawmakers are pushing to expand public education options for students. Some education advocates who prefer more traditional approaches warn doing that filters public money into private hands.

Governor Rick Scott signed an education bill last March during a ceremonial tour of charter schools.

"We have to have legislation that expands school choice; expands charter schools. We must give parents, as we all know charter schools are public schools run by a third party. They can be more innovative, but it clearly creates a competition so parents have more and more choice."

Charter schools, like the Pepin Academy in Tampa where Scott made those remarks, are publicly funded, but privately operated. Supporters of the public-private partnership within education say it makes schools more efficient. But public education advocate Susan Smith says it’s just another way for corporations to profit from tax dollars.

"Charter schools are public schools but they’ve found a way to divert the public money to these for profit corporations because they hire management companies to do the work. They sign long-leases so public tax dollars are diverted in those ways."

Patricia Levesque is executive director of an organization created by former Governor Jeb Bush called the Foundation for Florida’s Future. Levesque said charter schools and other public-private partnerships have been successful.

"In healthcare and in almost every other government service, the private sector helps provide the service. In education, we should be doing that very same thing, and we are."

Levesque got involved in education reform because she’s a mom. She said her two children are completely different and their educational needs are just as different. As a parent, she thinks being able to choose where and how a child learns is crucial.

"In the future, we should be able to customize education so that one child’s day could start off in the public school system, then doing some dual enrollment, then taking some online classes, then working in the afternoon, but another child may need to have an environment where 80% of the day is learning instruction online. Or another child may need a charter school that is doing a completely performance arts based curriculum because that’s going to be the best way to teach that child to do reading, writing and math."

And Florida isn’t the only state swinging away from traditional public schools. Jonathan Butcher, education director for the conservative-leaning Goldwater Institute in Arizona, calls it “one size fits all education”. Butcher said Arizona has implemented school choice options like charter schools. One of them gives parents up to 90-percent of their child’s per pupil funding instead of putting it directly into the public school system.

"With the education savings account program, you have parents now customizing, really, an education for their child."

That program is still limited; only special needs students qualify. Butcher said the program has been a success so far, but acknowledged there’s not a lot of ways to track the students’ performance.

"The students who participate in it attend private schools and private schools largely are not, they’re not required to report any kind of achievement results."

Kathleen Oropeza co-founded an organization called Fund Education Now that advocates for investments in public education. She said it’s not just a question of accountability.

"They can take a profit on the child per pupil funding amount so your child is actually losing funding by inviting all these for profit entities into the picture and the classroom is losing funding."

Last year, Governor Rick Scott signed a budget that cut per pupil funding by almost 8-percent. Oropeza said even though Scott plans to restore a billion dollars of that this year, funneling money into for-profit organizations will take its toll on students.

"We are, Florida is consistently near 50 in funding. We have witnessed our ACT and SAT scores flattening out because of all the narrowed curriculum that these high stakes tests have created. Right now children in our schools are learning, basically, math and reading. It’s a narrow curriculum that is not going to lead to the creative, innovative thinkers that we need."

School districts like Pinellas and Hillsborough do offer choices to parents and students. Public schools from elementary through high school offer programs that specialize in a multitude of learning curriculum. But the Foundation for Florida’s Future’s Patricia Levesque said those programs might not work in some places.

"If you have a school district in north Florida that only has 1,000 students, how is that school district ever going to be able to offer AP Chinese or aerospace engineering as an elective? Well, they won’t be able to because they may only have one child who wants to take that course."

Florida also has a program that allows children to participate in virtual learning programs. Their classes would be completely online. One problem Oropeza from Fund Education Now has with the program is that it takes away personal interaction.

"We established the opportunity for virtual charters last year as a result of legislation that passed and so, there is no accountability, there is no place the children are going. We’re talking K through 12, so little kindergarteners and first graders sitting in front of a computer."

Oropeza said virtual classrooms are also another loophole for politicians to give public dollars to the private sector. But public schools advocate Susan Smith said proposed legislation may take away the need for loopholes all together.

"There is an amendment that is probably headed for the ballot in 2012 that will repeal the Blaine amendment and allow our tax dollars to be diverted into religious schools and other private schools."

Oropeza’s foundation is suing the state based on last year’s deep budget cuts. She said the state is constitutionally obligated to provide adequate funds for public schools and they aren’t doing that. A judge denied a request from the state to dismiss the case. It will be heard in the Florida Supreme Court.

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