Word for word: Tony Bennett on school choice, school districts and social justice

Editor’s note: As we reported last night, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett made newsworthy comments yesterday when he spoke at an all-boys magnet school in Tampa. He suggested school choice wasn’t a matter of public vs. private, and credited Florida school districts – Hillsborough’s in particular – for expanding magnets, career academies and other quality choice options. Here are his full remarks, edited slightly for length and clarity.

Bennett

Bennett

The overview I want to give you about Florida’s choice framework is one that is, in my opinion, a true blueprint for our country. And I want to take you on this little journey. So just bear with me for a moment.

For many years, we said choice was about competition in education. And competition will raise all tides, right? The rising tide of competition will raise all the boats. And I can tell you, Florida has kind of changed that discussion. Again, being from Indiana, being from a state that tried and worked very hard to champion very similar policies, while competition in the educational system is good, the issue of choice here in Florida personifies the importance you put on what I believe to be the most important social justice issue in education. And by that, I want to do a little scenario.

If my wife and I didn’t have grown children, and in December when I was appointed, we would have gotten in our car, we would have driven to Tallahassee, and we would have driven around the community of Tallahassee, and we would have found the school that works best for the Bennett children. And the reason we could do that is frankly we could afford to. We could afford to live anywhere we wanted, send our kids to the school that we thought best fit their needs …

And my point in this is, Florida is leading the discussion that all parents, regardless of the color of their skin or regardless of how much money they have, should have the same choice as Tony Bennett or MaryEllen (Elia, the Hillsborough superintendent). And that is a very different discussion in choice. And it is a discussion that I see is transcending what I believe can be really the first round of choice. And the first round of choice was frankly privates and charters against the public schools. Virtual schools against the traditional bricks-and-mortar buildings.

And I think MaryEllen in Hillsborough is an example of how we have taken that discussion in a completely different direction. Because this school (Franklin Middle Magnet and its Boys Preparatory Academy) provides a choice for children. This district provides a culture and a climate where choice is accepted and encouraged, and the opportunity that all children should have the same choices that Tony or MaryEllen have. They live that way.

So we’re now talking about choice – not just private schools and charter schools and virtual schools – we’re talking about public school choice. We’re talking about creative leaders like MaryEllen, like the team here, creating educational opportunities for children within the district. And really going to what we all heard was the purpose of choice to begin with, to provide incubation for innovation for our public schools. So I am very encouraged.

Doug (Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students) and I have had a conversation to share just a quick, one-phrase soundbite on how much this state is framing this discussion. In Florida today – what is it Doug? – over 40 percent? (Doug calls out 43 percent) 43 percent of the children in this state go to a school other than their boundary school. Think about that. 43 percent of the children in our state go to a school other than their boundary school.

That represents a myriad of choices. Not just what John Kirtley (the chairman of Step Up For Students) and I believed what was important x number of years ago. It now includes the opportunity for creative superintendents to create choices in their district. And it creates an opportunity for superintendents and communities to work together with all of the educational providers to ensure all of our children are served. And at the end of the story, that’s the most important thing.

Because I would maintain that wherever a child goes after school, most people don’t care what school they went to. They care that they were prepared. They care that they were prepared for a 21st Century. So MaryEllen I applaud you. You are a rare bird in this business (“People have used other words,” she responds, sparking laughter). Don’t forget, I just came off the Nov. 6 election. (More laughter).

So I just want to say that the overview of the Florida choice framework is one of a national model. It’s one where a state has embraced the social justice of providing all children an opportunity to go to school and live the American Dream. And so our goal is to make sure that all choices are quality choices. That all children have quality options. And that all schools prepare our children for the 21st Century.

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