Public school teacher grateful for private school choice

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Heidi Gonzalez is the mother of two children who participate in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the nation’s largest private school choice initiative. She’s also a public school teacher.

“Every kid is different,” said Gonzalez, 35, who teaches first grade in Miami. For her daughter, who struggled in public school, “I needed a school that helped her, that more fit her personality,” she said.

Too often, parental choice critics assume school choice parents and the people who support them are anti- public school. But records at Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers the scholarship program (and co-hosts this blog), show at least 700 scholarship parents are employed by school districts.

There’s no easy way to determine how many of those district employees are teachers, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise if a fair number were. Public school teachers are more likely than the public at large to put their own children in private schools. One of them, in fact, is among 15 parents who filed to intervene in the lawsuit that the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed in August to end the scholarship program. (A hearing on the motion to intervene is set for Friday.)

Gonzalez, who calls the lawsuit “horrendous,” made a facebook video to call attention to it. She credits a tax credit scholarship with her daughter’s turnaround.

Samantha, now 14, hit a rough patch in sixth grade. She was put in a remedial math course, but didn’t feel she was getting enough attention from her teachers, Gonzalez said. She lost interest and began to shut down.

Heidi Gonzalez
Heidi Gonzalez

Gonzalez feared her daughter was hanging out with the wrong crowd, too. She heard stories about students smoking pot at school, and girls skipping and leaving with boys. By the end of sixth grade, she said, “everything was going downhill.”

Gonzalez began researching private schools, and found one she liked. Along the way, she stumbled on info about tax credit scholarships for low-income students.

Now in ninth grade at Miami Christian School, math is still tough for Samantha, but she’s earning C’s instead of F’s and is motivated to keep trying. She’s doing well in other classes, and participating on several sports teams. Gonzalez said class sizes at Miami Christian are dramatically smaller than public schools – Samantha’s in a class of 12 – and after-school tutoring is free.

Gonzalez said the school’s faith component is also important. It builds character and teaches boundaries, she said. Her daughter says if she forgets her gym bag in the locker room at her new school, no one is going to take it. Several times she lost her cell phone, and every time it was returned.

“I was worried she was turning into a little devil, a little nightmare,” Gonzalez said. But “now I have my sweet little girl back.”

Gonzalez also secured a tax credit scholarship for her son, Adrian, who is in first grade at Miami Christian. She said he and his classmates are further along academically than her own students at the district school. “They read better than the ones I have,” she said. “We’re so far behind.”

Gonzalez said it should be obvious she isn’t biased against public schools. She said many are excellent. But she also said many public school teachers are stressed and overworked – a situation she blamed on how education funds are distributed within big districts. She said she doesn’t buy the argument that tax credit scholarships drain money from public schools, or that parents shouldn’t have the ability to spend scholarship money on private schools.

As for the lawsuit, Gonzalez said many public school teachers don’t know it was filed. She described it as a decision made by union leaders without input from rank-and-file teachers.

She also said if the arguments are framed correctly, many teachers don’t oppose school choice scholarships. She asks her fellow teachers this: If your child was struggling, wouldn’t you want the option of a different school? And wouldn’t you want the means to access that school?

Almost always, she said, the answer is yes.