They hold public schools in contempt. They think private schools are better. They want to privatize everything. Supporters of school choice, including vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, have long been defined by cartoonish stereotypes. And as a former education reporter for one of the biggest newspapers in the country, I know how hard it is to redefine story lines that are so set in stone, it doesn’t matter how overwhelming the evidence is to the contrary.
Glenton “Glen” Gilzean Jr., the newest school board member in Pinellas County, Florida, the seventh biggest school district in Florida and the 24th biggest in the country, has a rare opportunity to chip away at those perceptions.
Appointed last month by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Gilzean, 29, openly supports vouchers and tax-credit scholarships for low-income children, which makes him as rare among school board members as a mouse at a cat convention. We can’t think of another sitting school board member in Florida who so openly supports private school choice options.
Believing that such options hold promise, of course, does not in any way mean easing up on other efforts to improve outcomes for children within public schools. For many school choice supporters, it has never been either/or. Gilzean can show that in coming months as he weighs in on all kinds of decisions affecting a sprawling district of 101,000 students.
He is off to a good start. He immediately met with black community leaders in Pinellas, many of whom, for understandable reasons, were upset that the governor appointed someone who only recently moved to the district. He appears to have convinced them, for now, that his singular focus is where it should be: on the students. He is also saying the right things. When asked by a newspaper columnist how he justified using public funds for private school vouchers, he said this:
“I am a supporter of student achievement. I recognize that each child is unique and not every child’s needs are met in traditional public school environments. I want every child to achieve academic success regardless of what educational environment is necessary to accomplish that.”
With Gilzean’s big opportunity comes big challenges. He was appointed to serve out the term of Lew Williams, a much beloved board member who died after heart surgery. If he makes any missteps, they’ll be magnified by the comparison. And given that the term expires in November, Gilzean only has a few, precious months to make a splash – unless, of course, he decides to run for the seat and gets elected.
Gilzean represents the school board district with the highest percentage of black students. And it can’t be overlooked that black students in Pinellas struggle more as a whole than black students in any other big urban district in Florida. They deserve every available option to find success. And Gilzean will be the best board member he can be if he both advocates for those options and works to maximize the potential of existing public schools.
If he does that, a broad audience might see that it really isn’t us vs. them.