Why school choice? Because ‘different children have different needs’

redefinED staff

Editor’s note: This op-ed by Steve Knellinger, a longtime former public school educator and now private school administrator, ran this week in the Tampa Bay Times. Here’s a snippet:

diversity in applesMore than 30 years ago, parents in Pinellas County showed up at meetings to protest a new school choice program. Schools said they couldn’t compete with it. Critics raised fears of cherry-picking the academically and athletically talented students. But in the end, the program got a green light. Now it’s such a vital piece of the school system, parents would fight to keep it.

The fight back then was over the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, the first IB in Florida. It became a bona fide star in the Pinellas school system and helped usher school choice into the district. I bring it up now because of the school choice concerns with Florida’s tax credit scholarship program.

Lawmakers want to modestly expand the program, which now serves about 60,000 low-income children in 1,425 private schools across the state. The teachers’ unions, the PTA, and the Tampa Bay Times editorial board object. I know there is some controversy, and I know there are some issues like testing where people can respectfully disagree. But I also know the program works for most of the struggling children who choose it, and, like IB and so many other choice schools, is an asset to public education.

I know because I’ve been an educator for 44 years, 39 of those years in public schools. I know because I witnessed that IB controversy. And I know because I am now the lead administrator at St. Petersburg Christian School, where some of our 450 students in grades K-8 are on scholarship. They represent less than 20 percent of our school population but are involved in 100 percent of the academic and athletic curriculum.

Like the IB program, the tax credit scholarship program is needed because of something we all know: Different children have different needs. We’re now comfortable with the IB program at St. Petersburg High because we’ve accepted the fact that high-performing students need more options to reach their full potential. It’s only a matter of time before we fully realize the same is true for the students who struggle. In fact, in all probability, they’re the ones who need the most options. Read full op-ed here.

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