Darryl Rouson: The reality of today’s Florida education market

ST. PETERSBURG –A lawsuit recently filed by the Florida Education Association has opened what I hope will be a much-needed public discussion about the direction of public education in Florida.

The FEA lawsuit seeks to end Corporate Tax Credit scholarships, offered to about 70,000 students from low-income Florida families to attend private schools. If the union’s suit, which has been dismissed, succeeded, these 70,000 children would have been evicted from their schools. The average income of these families is $25,000; over 70 percent of them are black and Hispanic.

My view is to support parents seeking what they believe is the best education for their children. Some seek alternatives and choices offered by charter and private schools while other parents want their children to receive a public school education. With that in mind, I will continue my strong support for public education, including increased funding, as well as supporting CTC scholarships and charter schools.

During the 2015 Legislative Session, I will file a bill to restore funding of our public schools to 2007 per-pupil levels from revenue generated by the Internet sales tax, already on the books, collected and earmarked for grades K-12. After all, my favorite teacher growing up was a Pinellas County public school teacher — my mother.

As a parent and a state legislator who represents a district that is 47 percent African-American and 19 percent Hispanic, I see daily the challenged education system and understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

For example, there is a private school in my district founded several years ago where enrollment has grown to 61 students. Parents of these students had a choice, and they made the decision to attend a private school instead of a challenged and often failing public school. Of the 61 students who attend this school, 59 receive CTC scholarships. If the FEA lawsuit succeeded, this school would have to close its doors, returning the 59 African-American students back to the schools from which they fled.

The CTC scholarships serve less than 3 percent of Florida’s K-12 students, and the program costs less than 2 percent of the state’s K-12 budget. According to studies of test scores by Northwestern University, these children are the worst performers in our public schools. Once on scholarship, they show gains equal to children of all incomes — even wealthy ones.

The state constitution says providing an education to our children is a “paramount duty.” But today there are options. “Public education” used to mean one thing: district schools that were fairly uniform, with children assigned to them by neighborhood. The definition of public education is changing rapidly. In Florida, over 40 percent of students funded by taxpayers now don’t attend their assigned district school. We have magnets, virtual schools and dual enrollment with universities and community colleges. We also have programs where children attend private schools, utilizing McKay Scholarships for special-needs children.

In Pinellas County, for example, charter schools offer parents another option to educate their children. Sadly, Pinellas County schools had just a 56 percent graduation rate for black males one year ago. All of us share the blame for tolerating this failure.

Are there problems with charter schools? Absolutely, as we know there are with public schools as well. Are there different standards? Certainly. Well, then, let’s fix that, and provide a standardized testing system for everyone who receives state funds or credits.

Pinellas County schools had its first enrollment increase in years because of aggressive marketing to attract students with invitation-only open houses and direct mailers. Even with this, the bulk of the increase was in charter schools — 171 versus just seven for traditional programs. This shows competition works and can help improve the whole education system. The Pinellas school system also recently announced five more magnet programs with plans for more. Many of these schools are replicating successes used in Pinellas private schools. An open approach helps identify best practices such as sending tablets and iPads home with students, tailoring education uniquely to each student. For instance, some private schools in Pinellas focus on technology and some on languages, such as Canterbury School, which has intensive programs in Mandarin and Spanish.

This is the reality of the education market today.

Education is not the same today as when my mother taught, nor will it be the same when our children teach. Nor should we want it to be.

Let us embrace technology, choice and also be strong advocates for our public schools so all children in Florida can receive the best education.

State Rep. Darryl E. Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, represents District 70, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

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