An advocate for choice, from the school board to the state House

Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville

Editor’s note: This profile is part of a series on Florida legislators who help shape education issues. See previous entries herehere and here.  

Jason Fischer got involved in local school board politics when he and his wife observed the lack of a variety of school options for their children in Duval County.

“We were disappointed about the (performance) of the school system and its future and started getting involved in education,” said Fischer in an interview.

Fischer, now a member of the state House of Representatives, met with other parents and students struggling in the school system. He began to eye a run for the Duval County School Board, where he won a seat in 2012.

Duval County shares its borders with the city of Jacksonville, Fla. It’s one of the largest school districts in the state. But affluent parents often flock to its southern neighbor, St. Johns County, which is home to Florida’s highest-scoring school district.

Fischer wanted to make Duval a more attractive option. But to do that, he would have to work against the grain.

“I am proud to be part of the movement to empower parents and raise student achievement,” he said.

Fischer served four years on the Duval County School Board until 2016, when he ran for the state House. Colleagues and others who worked with Fischer say he helped pave the way for more school choice options.

Indeed, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, an education reform nonprofit in Duval County, published a report in 2014 on the growth of school choice options. The report found that in 2009 there were nine charter schools in Duval County. By the 2014-15 school year, there were 34.  A big batch of those was approved in December 2012, right after Fischer took office.

Trey Csar, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, said during Fischer’s time on the board, magnet schools proliferated in the district, as well.

“Rep. Fischer has always been very supportive of school choice — from back when he was a candidate through his service in the House,” Csar wrote in an email.

Fischer said he was focused on students’ academic gains during his time on the board. The district’s overall state letter grade improved from a “C” to a “B.”

“That is the most important thing we should be focused on as school board members,” he said.

Making a difference in Tallahassee

Now he’s a freshman in the Florida House. Republican colleagues say Fischer’s school board experience helps inform the Legislature’s work on education.

“His knowledge of education, being a former school board member from Jacksonville, has been essential for us to work on key issues that will positively impact every student in Florida,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, a fellow up-and-coming legislator.

Fischer helped shape HB 7069, a massive education law that, among other things, created a new Schools of Hope grant program aimed at attracting high-performing charter schools to struggling areas. In Duval County, Fischer had a front-row seat for the growth of KIPP Jacksonville, arguably Florida’s original School of Hope. He has twice sponsored appropriations to help the charter schools pay for their extended instructional time. However, that money received a line-item veto last year.

After lawsuits erupted around the law’s provisions requiring school districts to share local property tax revenue with charters, Fischer advocated for an approach in which the state, rather than districts, would foot more of the bill.

This year, he sponsored two high-profile education bills that didn’t pass.

One would have imposed term limits on school board members, a proposal also advancing through the state Constitution Revision Commission. Fischer argued the proposal would help more outsiders get elected.

“Term limits for school board members will help create a system that will encourage innovation,” he said.

The other would have allowed children in jeopardy of not grasping performance standards in the state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program to re-enroll for an additional year. The VPK program was established in 2004 and is available to 4-year-olds. It remains one of the state’s most widely used and broadly popular educational choice programs, serving nearly 160,000 students.

Both proposals could be worth watching in future years, as Fischer rises in prominence. He serves as vice chair of the PreK-12 Innovation Committee and sits on the PreK-12 Appropriations Committee.

“In politics, it is critical that we have people of high intelligence, moral clarity and have the willingness and courage to lead,” Donalds said. “Rep. Fischer meets all these characteristics.”

Desire to serve

Growing up in Jacksonville, Fischer graduated from the University of North Florida with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering.

He began his career working for Florida Power & Light. In 2006, he worked as a civilian engineer with the United States Navy. From there, he worked at CSX and now works in business development for URETEK Holdings, an engineering firm, in Jacksonville.

When he first got elected, Fischer said he viewed himself and fellow school board members as managers of a portfolio of educational options. He said the board became more friendly toward charter schools, and also focused on school choice options within the district.

Scott Shine, a Duval County School Board member, served with Fischer from 2014 to 2016. He said Fischer was a staunch defender of school choice — even when it went against the grain of school district politics.

Fischer tried to pass a School Board resolution against the lawsuit challenging the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships but couldn’t get support from fellow board members.

“He always spoke about the truth of this issue,” Shine said of school choice. “He was viewed as a revolutionary. He was an outsider in the education world.”

Coming from the private sector, Fischer said the biggest challenges in public education are bureaucracy and resistance to change.

“Education is still one of those industries that is untouched by the technological innovation wave that has been disrupting all markets,” he said. “When I look at school choice, I see it is market-based. It uses freedom to solve the problem.”

At the same time, Fischer said he does not think school choice should be such a divisive issue.

“I think that is what people get stuck in,” he said. [Some people say] it is one or the other, [charter schools or district-run schools]. You can do both. Through choice, we can make sure everyone has an option that fits them.”

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