A debate on traditional public schools vs. charter schools took front and center Friday at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.
For 68 minutes, a group of education leaders of various backgrounds discussed the issue at the Ferguson Law Center.
Speaking out most prominently for charters was Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit group that administers most of the tax credit and Gardiner scholarships in Florida.
He said when it comes to charter schools, the public is voting with its feet, referring to the explosive growth of his program, where there were 28,000 students on Step Up for Student scholarships in 2008, and 115,000 in 2017.
Leading the argument for traditional public schools was Melissa Erickson, the executive director of the Alliance for Public Schools.
She said that she did not fault a single parent for making the choice to attend any school that is available to them. What bothered her, she said, was that the vast majority chose.
“What bothers me is that the majority of parents choose public schools,” she said. “And in these debates and in these conversations, those 86-90 percent of parents’ choice is discounted, and I think that is a problem.”
It’s been a contentious issue for years in Florida, ever since the GOP-led Legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush put the state on the leading edge of a national movement to offer parents alternatives to their neighborhood schools.
The intense acrimony increased this summer after the Florida Legislature’s passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 7069, which included the controversial ‘Schools of Hope’ provision that allows those charter schools to move into areas where traditional public schools have long records of low state test scores.
Tuthill frequently referred to himself as a progressive Democrat who has broken out of an ideological silo to realize that school choice is the best venue to offer a quality education to students who may live in an area where the public schools are poor. He accused critics of suffering from “confirmation bias” and Erickson specifically of having a “myopic” definition of public education.
“I think we need a more pluralistic understanding of public education,” Tuthill said, adding that someone who works for public radio could still serve the public good, just as someone can work for Academy Prep of Tampa and also serve the public good.
“It’s not a criticism of public schools,” he said. “We need to develop a public education system that embraces diversity.”
“We should be partners, not opponents, because we all want the same thing,” said Hillsborough County School Board member Melissa Snively, trying to defuse the animosity between the two camps. “The public schools need to get their game on, and we can do that. Competition is in the educational marketplace.”
Snively told the audience that when advocates for a new charter school apply to the Hillsborough County School District, they need to go through a rigorous process.
“Once it comes to the board for approval or not, we know that it’s been vetted and every ‘t’ has been crossed and every ‘i’ has been dotted,” she said, adding that if the board rejects the application, they can go to Tallahassee to appeal.
Erickson disputed how much local control school boards have in making that determination, saying as long as the ” ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed, they have to say yes.” She went on to say that charter schools don’t need to show a certificate of need to be built, but public schools do in order to get capital outlay dollars.
There were two people on the dais directly linked to charter schools: Lincoln Tamayo, head of school at Academy Prep of Tampa, and Monika Perez, principal of Pepin Academy in Tampa, both critically acclaimed institutions.
Tamayo boasted about the fact that his school is made up completely of students of color—82 percent black and 18 percent Latino, with all of them having qualified for the federal free and reduced meals.
Nearly all the students live miles away from the Ybor City located campus where parents have to find transportation for the kids, yet the 98 percent attendance rate is the greatest of any middle school in Hillsborough County.
Erickson said Academy Prep’s success illustrated part of the perception problem that public schools face in 2017.
“We hold up a few shining examples of charter schools and use them to justify the entire system, and then we hold up a few failing examples of public schools and use them to condemn an entire system,” she said.
The Orange County School Board on Monday joined 12 others in Florida in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of HB 7069.
The suit argues that the bill unconstitutionally forces local school districts to share some local property taxes with charter schools, which are sometimes run by private, for-profit firms, and allows “schools of hope” charter schools to open without oversight from local school boards, among other issues.