When Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus unveiled its priorities for the 2020 session at a media conference Tuesday in the Capitol, it was unsurprising that PreK-12 education was among the first mentioned. What raised eyebrows, though, was the group’s acknowledgement that school choice should be a part of it.
“We believe in investing in public education,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, the group’s chairman who also serves as the ranking minority member of the House Education Committee. “And we also believe in school choice.”
For many Democratic politicians and African-American leaders, school choice is the limburger cheese of the education deli (despite the fact that many of their constituents support it). So for Antone to publicly offer even a thin slice of it was newsworthy.
That’s probably why he quickly qualified his statement: “But in terms more so of school choice, in the public school system.” He likely was referring to magnet schools, perhaps also charter schools, although the latter have become politically volatile.
Still, that “more so” seemingly leaves the door cracked ever so slightly to other, more controversial, choice options, such as vouchers and education scholarship accounts (ESAs).
Some members of the caucus support opening it wider.
Rep. Wengay Newton, whose wide-ranging district includes South St. Petersburg and parts of Manatee, Sarasota and southern Hillsborough counties, was one of five caucus Democrats who voted in the 2019 session for SB 7070, the bill that created the new Family Empowerment Scholarship.
“School choice is a black choice,” Newton said Thursday. He sees it as a tool to help close the “school to prison pipeline,” whereby black students are statistically more likely to receive harsh discipline in public schools than their white counterparts. He cited Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data from 2017-18 on the number of school-related arrests for children of color in the Tampa Bay area – 603 in Hillsborough, 458 in Pinellas, 206 in Manatee and 91 in Sarasota counties. Many are younger than high school age.
“If an African-American kid gets in a fight in the southern part of St. Pete, that will result in them being sent to juvie jail,” Newton said, “but if it happens in an affluent part with a white kid, it will result in a suspension.”
Newton sees education choice as immediate relief for minority children who can’t wait for an unfair system to change.
“Parental school choice is a jet ski, while a traditional school is like a cruise ship,” he said. “If a kid falls off a cruise ship it might take 20 miles to turn around and rescue him. A jet ski can do a quicker response.”
To critics who charge that private school vouchers drain funds from public schools, Newton responds that tax dollars already are being spent on privatized juvenile justice. He would prefer those dollars provide low-income and minority students with education opportunities that will keep them out of the system.
“I told our chairman (Antone) that we can’t shackle black kids to this system,” Newton said. “If you’ve got cancer you need chemo. Robitussin isn’t going to do it.”
Newton said Antone’s rhetorical nod to choice, however modest, was not the result of any compromise negotiations with the caucus’ pro-choice members. Rather, it was an acknowledgement of the diverse opinions within the group.
“He’s saying you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your district,” Newton said. “He’s letting members support other options. He wasn’t binding every member to support only public schools.”
He said that although a majority of the caucus has yet to support expanding choice, they have no desire to take it away from the nearly 120,000 students currently attending their chosen schools on the Florida Tax Credit and FES scholarships, some 35,000 of whom are black.