Takeaway from Wednesday’s Hot Topics about school choice: The speakers pretty much fired up LWVOC members about getting involved with what one speaker called a bad business model.
Pat Hall, Education Committee chair of the LWV-Hillsborough County chapter, was speaking about Florida’s charter schools – not all of the more than 600 of them but most of them.
Charter schools in Florida are awarded taxpayer dollars but are not held accountable for how the money is spent as traditional public schools are.
Hall, a watchdog over Hillsborough County schools, mentioned that the county on Florida’s west coast has a successful charter that caters to special-needs children but that most are for-profit and that audits by the school district are superficial. “They [charters} take the money and don’t spend it on the children,” she said.
Moderator Bill Sublette, Orange County School Board chair, introduced panelist Nancy Ellis, director of UCF’s Center for Community Partnerships, as a rock star, but it turns out all of them were – besides Hall and Ellis, the other speaker was Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group FundEducationNow.org.
Oropeza talked to the rhetoric espoused by charter-school supporters who say public schools are failing. “They are not failing,” she said, but charter backers are “using vulnerable children to drive the narrative. Private organizations want to get their hands on all that public money.”
Ellis said that while charters can be good in specialized areas, they need, regulations, requirements, criteria, accountability, transparency. She said there is evidence that children leaving charters lag behind those in the public schools in which they enroll.
As regarding Orange County public schools, Ellis singled out the Evans High Community Partnership School that is working with students in a high-risk community (poverty, parental neglect, crime, violence, hunger, etc.) – the program is about teaching but also about health care, mentoring, character development, parental involvement. It helps kids “who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders,” she said. (Sublette pointed out that there is also a Community Partnership school in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood.)
The Community Partnership schools, Ellis said, show that public schools can bring in services for both children and their families. Charter organizers “prey on people who want the best for their children but don’t really know what they need.”
Hot Topics speakers hit a lot of hot buttons and had suggestions about how League members can get involved. Ellis said the public should track state budgets to see where the money, including lottery dollars, is going. Hall recommended going to meetings of charter governing boards. Oropeza suggested careful consideration of the proposed Amendment 8, which, she said, “would destroy local control of schools.” Oropeza said that “as voters, we need to turn this around.”
And Hall summed it up: ”We need to get new faces in Tallahassee.”