Pinellas schools superintendent weighs in on Scott, vouchers

01/14/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Florida governor Rick Scott appears to have put education reform at the top of his list. Public educators throughout the Sunshine state aren’t gung-ho about how he wants to tackle education woes, but the head of Pinellas County Schools says the governor might not get too far.

In Pinellas Park last night, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Julie Janssen told a banquet hall full of card-carrying Pinellas Democrats that politics really aren’t her thing. But that didn’t stop her from criticizing Governor Scott’s plans for education. Janssen said the voucher system, for one, really only benefits a few people.

"It is a great program for businesses because it is a way to have a clean tax break."

The voucher system uses large corporate donations to fund scholarships to private schools. Scholarship recipients can apply the money to the school of their choice. She said public education budgets are already struggling, and making every student eligible for a school voucher would divert even more money from Florida public schools.

"It takes funds away from public education. It really funnels off taxpayers money into organizations that have absolutely no accountability."

She added that the system probably wouldn’t benefit those students whose parents aren’t involved in their children’s education.

"What happens to those students who's parents never participated in their education? Where do those kids go? I'm not so sure that I have that level of trust to say it's all going to work out because right now some of those same issues we're dealing with '...' there are kids in our schools that no one involved with their education at all."

Governor Scott has said he favors the voucher system because it is forces schools to compete for students, and makes teachers more accountable. Janssen said she thinks a lot of things would have to be in place before the governor could implement the system statewide, so she’s not extremely worried at the moment. But one issue is of immediate concern to Janssen.

"The class size requirement that, I think, what is sad for me is that I think the people that voted for that a few years ago really didn't know the full impact. I think many people went to the polls thinking we had kids in classes of 70 or whatever but we were floating right around 30 in most classes, 35 in the electives and so to reduce that on the secondary level to 25, I don't know any data or any study that says 30 kids in a class is a lot worse than 25 in a class."

Janssen spoke at a Greater Pinellas County Democrats event. While she wasn't willing to take on politics directly, school board member Linda Lerner was when an audience member asked if Florida should have a state income tax to help fund schools.

"I would support it. I think in the environment we have now it just wouldn't fly. It wouldn't do us any good to push it. We do have to talk about the needs of public education. You know what? You pay now or you pay later. We educate our kids well or we're going to pay more later. We get kids who are in the juvenile justice system, just starting that system, we pay now for the extra programs or we're going to pay a lot more when they're in prison."

After the meeting Janssen said she doesn’t think the governor’s criticisms on the current education system are all that fair.

"Everything is an attack on us as if we're failures. If you're in the field, you know better. You know differently, and no one's asking us."

At the request of Scott, educators from counties across the state will meet in Tampa next week to discuss ways of measuring teacher performance. Janssen said it will deal largely with reforms Hillsborough Schools have implemented as a result of a Gates Foundation Grant.

"It's kind of a workshop for Hillsborough to show what they are doing. It's really teacher evaluation. You're invited to come. We have an evaluation that we've already put together very similar to Hillsborough, but that is what it's about. It's for Hillsborough County to show the process that they use to get where they are and that's been paid for by the Gates Foundation."

While party politics for the most part stayed out of last night’s education discussion, they dominated the second half of the Pinellas Democrats’ meeting. As has been done often since the midterm election results rolled in, the Democrats speculated on the reasons why Democrats did so poorly on November 2nd. Former State Representative Bill Heller, who lost his seat to Republican Jeff Brandeis on that day, said timing was a factor.

"Still the big issue is the economy and jobs. Even if you just look in my district 52 and my successor has to worry about now, you go and look at the restaurants that have closed, you look at the other kind of retail areas and the strip centers and so forth, there are nobody in them. Somehow we've got to change that. But I think if the economy was better, people would feel better. I really do think that when people feel better Democrats have a better shot."

He added that the Republicans’ use of the president’s health care overhaul in their campaign messages, regardless of its relevance, worked for GOP candidates running at all levels of government.

"I think when the health care legislation came up, if the President had gone ahead and really moved fast, quickly with it instead of waiting for a recess to come, everybody goes home and starts holding town meetings and then you start getting in there about death panels, and you get in there about all kinds of other things. Once that kind of momentum gets going and the bad messages or the bad tones get set, it's very hard to overcome that."

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