Sue Legg was assessment and evaluation contractor for the Fl. DOE for twenty years while on the faculty at the University of Florida. She recently stepped down as Education Director of the Florida League of Women Voters.

This is the first of a series on the effects of school choice, which she wrote at my request.

Florida Twenty Years Later: Undermining Public Schools

Florida has a long track record in school privatization.

Consequently, I recently had the sobering charge to help Louisville citizens understand what lies ahead if their new charter school enabling law is funded. Florida has 655 charters enrolling nearly 300,000 students, the third largest number in the U.S., and it also spends over a billion dollars per year in tax credit scholarships to 2800 private schools. What does Florida have to show for it?

Privatizing schools was sold to the public as a money saving policy. Education, after all, is the second largest Florida state budget item.

Competition from the private sector, it was argued, would increase quality and save money. State assessment scores would grade students, schools and teachers to assure the public that the ever-increasing education standards were met. This competition myth imploded. Education became a battleground over funding, support for teachers, and the impact of parental choice on neighborhoods.

Twenty years later, Florida schools are nearing a fiscal and social crisis. Not only did the legislature cut funding in 2008, it reallocated money to charter and private schools and put a cap on local property tax revenue for public schools.

Student enrollment grew, and the Hispanic population doubled.

A forest of temporary buildings sprouted on playgrounds to add classrooms.

In my district alone, $168 million has been lost in facility funding. Some of our schools have buckets in classrooms to catch the rainfall and use sandbags to block water from entering hallways. Others are so crowded that lunch begins at 9:30 a.m. Many districts are asking for increases in local sales and property taxes to support schools; others already have. Opponents, however, want to prevent communities from increasing taxes.

Building maintenance is only part of the problem facing Florida’s schools. Its per student funding to support instruction is among the lowest in the nation. Its teacher attrition rate is high. The PTA reports that there were 1482 teaching positions still vacant in January 2018. Two thirds of teachers who leave are for reasons other than retirement. One clue is that the NEA ranks Florida 46th in average teacher salary. As a result, Florida now ranks first in the nation (25%) in inexperienced teachers.

Teaching and learning also have changed in many ways. ‘Test Prep’ begins in February for April state assessments. The districts’ versions of choice include magnet schools and student placement based on test scores within and across schools. The increasing lament is that there are ‘schools within schools’ where some students have access to high quality programs and teachers and others do not.

Choice fragments neighborhoods.

Think, for example, of the charter school in south Florida that opened across the street from an excellent public school, thus reducing its enrollment and funding but not its overhead expenses. An ‘A’ school became a ‘C’ school. Schools in south Pinellas County declined and were labeled ‘Failure Factories’ drawing national attention.

What changed? The choice movement adopted a ‘separate but equal’ philosophy undermining the integration reform from the 1970s through the 90s. Charter and private schools siphoned off the higher achieving students. Other parents who could, moved away leaving under enrolled schools with insufficient funds to support needed equity programs for children in poverty.

Florida educators and parents are fighting back. Lawsuits reflect the issues: vouchers, school funding, tax credit scholarships, invalid teacher evaluation system, local district control over school funding and charter authorization, ‘union busting’, merit pay, third grade retention, students with disabilities, state take-over of local schools, teacher certification, and a proposed separate educational system for charters.