The first Democratic Party debate of Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign should worry school choice supporters. It showed the campaign is tied up in national narratives about charter schools, rather than the realities facing public education in the Sunshine State.
Two of the four candidates struggled to estimate how much Florida spends on public schools. Those same two candidates said they don’t regularly consult local media outlets.
And many of those local media outlets have shifted their focus away from specific state policy issues to national questions, like where the candidates stand on the impeachment of President Donald Trump — a question of only symbolic significance to someone running for state-level executive office.
During Wednesday’s debate, all four candidates for governor contended Florida’s schools are underfunded, students are over-tested and teachers are under-appreciated. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said the four candidates were all “good Democrats.” And while they had their disagreements, they could likely agree on a new direction for public education.
“Stop investing in someone else’s business, and that’s the charter school industry,” he said. “Take those dollars you’re putting in someone else’s business, and those lobbyists and everyone else who’s enjoying all the fat there, and put it in our public-school system.”
It’s not clear what, exactly, Levine meant when he suggested Florida “stop investing” in the schools that 10 percent of Florida’s public-school students attend. And the charter-schools-as-fat-cats trope has lingered in some state political circles for a while. But his argument echoed the Massachusetts activists who turned the question of whether to expand one of the nation’s highest-performing charter school systems into a party-line battle, and the Colorado partisans working to drum charter school supporters out of the Democratic coalition.
These nationalized talking points are an odd fit for a state where a growing proportion of public-school students attend charters and other schools of choice. Just consider the candidates’ own public education prescriptions.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — one of two candidates, along with Orlando businessman Chris King, who showed an accurate grasp of Florida’s current public-school funding — said as governor he would “make sure we hire teachers at the $50,000 level, starting salary.”
Gillum might be interested in the school system in Florida that comes closest to that benchmark. It’s a charter school system — Somerset Jefferson County — which retooled its budget to prioritize teacher salaries after taking over in a struggling rural district last year.
He and Levine both talked about the importance of vocational education, which they felt is now threatened in Florida.
“What happened to all these great programs to expand vocational skills?” Levine asked.
When some of those programs were threatened in the Palm Beach County school district, educators found a solution. They converted a soon-to-shutter vocational high school into SouthTech Academy, a charter school the district recently deemed worthy of a $15 million investment.
Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, previously a district administrator with Leon County Schools, lamented the erosion of educator autonomy.
“Let’s put education back in the hands of our teachers,” she said. “That’s what I’m committed to doing.”
She could consider talking with the teachers at a North Florida charter school who use their school’s financial flexibility to hire a teachers assistant for every classroom. Or the reading coach in Central Florida who capitalizes on her ability to set her charter school’s curriculum. Or the educators in South Florida who felt a charter school conversion would allow them to better serve students with special needs, but were stymied in their attempt to do so.
While they’re at it, Democratic candidates might want to look at the charter schools that partner with districts in disadvantaged communities, or those set up to serve the children of migrant workers. Indeed, Graham visited an organization that runs a handful of such charter schools and left impressed.
If they set aside the national talking points, and take a fair-minded look at public education in Florida, they might discover charter schools can be part of the solution. And they could look for ways to push the same freedom, autonomy and successful practices developed by charters into more district-run schools.