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Columbia County Observer

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Lousy Education Policy Blurs Line Between Public – Private

“Can’t we all just get along?” The immortal words of police brutality survivor Rodney King might make for great TV, but they’re a lousy statement on education policy.

And yet, those words nearly jumped off the page as I read Trey Csar’s recent apologia for public school privatization. Csar is president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, an organization ostensibly created to help improve public education in Duval County.

While JPEF has done some good work – work I’ve covered for Folio and Context Florida – make no mistake: its mission is ultimately aligned with those who want to blur the line between public and private education, and to further mask the fact that taxpayers are funding a “broad array” of various privatized entities. Hence all the talk in the JPEF report about an increasingly complex educational landscape.

Csar would like traditional public school advocates like me to chill out and get comfortable with the idea of publicly funded, private schools as part of the ever growing, wishy-washy hodge-podge of school choice. Never mind that JPEF’s own report concedes that money going to charters and vouchers is draining precious dollars from the district’s scale operations – to the tune of $51 million last school year.

Collegiality is one thing. Sitting in a room with Trey and the other professionals at JPEF and talking about education is, nerdily enough, one of my favorite things to do.

Admittedly, private schools, whether publicly funded or not,  play a significant role in educating Jacksonville’s children. And understanding why parents choose private schools can absolutely help public schools retain students. In that sense the JPEF report is informative and helpful.

But, please don’t ask me to pretend that publicly funded private voucher schools are a legitimate “choice” in Florida when a court of competent jurisdiction has yet to say they are. We’re all adults here. We can retain our differences of opinion while continuing the “remodeling” of education that Csar proposes.

The issue is up for trial, and Florida’s constitution appears to forbid delegating education to non-state entities. The Florida Education Association has sued to have the voucher program declared unconstitutional.

The voucher program rests on one of three Big Lies manufactured by the reform industry.

The first lie, that private is better, is debunked when research controls for socioeconomic and other demographic factors. Research also shows that conservative Christian schools fare worst of all – a statistic that should terrify all Floridians, given that 80 percent of vouchers go to religious institutions.

The second lie, that teacher unions somehow damage student progress, is wholly unsupported by any research whatsoever.

Lie number three, that money doesn’t matter, has been soundly refuted by research.

The people who run Step Up for Students, the “scholarship-funding” organization, want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the state to keep its hands off when it comes to rules about teacher certification, physical facilities and Florida’s uniform accountability program, but they’ll take the corporate tax dollars.

Translation: “We want to be considered public, except when we don’t.”

Meanwhile, questions about quality loom.

The researcher commissioned by the state to evaluate the voucher program finally stopped comparing apples to oranges. Unfortunately, the Florida legislature didn’t give Prof. David Figlio much to work with: He’s stuck with a test that is not designed to measure “gains,” in the strict, empirical sense. So now he compares Florida’s voucher students to other students outside of the Florida system, which leaves parents without meaningful data upon which to judge voucher school quality.

“Parents are voting with their feet,” Florida’s Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand said, regarding school privatization, in a public radio interview last year.

The divide between public school advocates, like me, and privatization proponents, like Chartrand, is less ideological than empirical. Csar, who was hired by Chartrand, is stuck in the middle, between science and a hard place.

Still, the empirical gaps don’t diminish the work that JPEF has done, including its most recent report regarding public and private school choices in Jacksonville. The report looks closely at the factors parents consider when choosing a school. It’s good for the district to know the points at which enrollment drops off most, i.e., when students enter sixth grade and ninth grade. It’s important to know what parents want when they’re looking at schools.

Chief among parent concerns are “quality of teachers and staff.” While this fact is useful, JPEF avoided any attempt to measure and compare relative “quality” among the myriad “choices” parents have.

The single academic outcome indicator that JPEF used, reading score losses between fifth and sixth grades, didn’t distinguish between private, private-voucher, charter, magnet or traditional neighborhood schools. It simply showed that students who change schools between fifth and sixth grades, i.e., most students, lose FCAT gains. Indeed, the outcome listed was limited to schools that administer the FCAT, i.e., traditional neighborhood, magnet and charter schools.

While JPEF’s report on choice provides useful information that may inform public school policy, it’s hardly the last word on the value of any given choice. Quality may be chief among the factors in parents’ decisions about schools, but, so far, only the public system provides an objective, fungible measure by which to gauge that quality.

Meanwhile, as former Gov. Jeb Bush leans into the 2016 presidential race, his high-stakes-testing-plus-privatization reform crowd would like us to ignore an important external measure of quality. Florida’s schools have taken what Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout calls a “nosedive” in national rankings, from 6th to 28th in a mere two-year span.

The overriding question is whether all the focus on “choice” had anything to do with that nosedive.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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