Editor’s note: As we reported last night, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett made newsworthy comments yesterday when he spoke at an all-boys magnet school in Tampa. He suggested school choice wasn’t a matter of public vs. private, and credited Florida school districts – Hillsborough’s in particular – for expanding magnets, career academies and other quality choice options. Here are his full remarks, edited slightly for length and clarity.
The overview I want to give you about Florida’s choice framework is one that is, in my opinion, a true blueprint for our country. And I want to take you on this little journey. So just bear with me for a moment.
For many years, we said choice was about competition in education. And competition will raise all tides, right? The rising tide of competition will raise all the boats. And I can tell you, Florida has kind of changed that discussion. Again, being from Indiana, being from a state that tried and worked very hard to champion very similar policies, while competition in the educational system is good, the issue of choice here in Florida personifies the importance you put on what I believe to be the most important social justice issue in education. And by that, I want to do a little scenario.
If my wife and I didn’t have grown children, and in December when I was appointed, we would have gotten in our car, we would have driven to Tallahassee, and we would have driven around the community of Tallahassee, and we would have found the school that works best for the Bennett children. And the reason we could do that is frankly we could afford to. We could afford to live anywhere we wanted, send our kids to the school that we thought best fit their needs …
And my point in this is, Florida is leading the discussion that all parents, regardless of the color of their skin or regardless of how much money they have, should have the same choice as Tony Bennett or MaryEllen (Elia, the Hillsborough superintendent). And that is a very different discussion in choice. And it is a discussion that I see is transcending what I believe can be really the first round of choice. And the first round of choice was frankly privates and charters against the public schools. Virtual schools against the traditional bricks-and-mortar buildings.
And I think MaryEllen in Hillsborough is an example of how we have taken that discussion in a completely different direction. Because this school (Franklin Middle Magnet and its Boys Preparatory Academy) provides a choice for children. This district provides a culture and a climate where choice is accepted and encouraged, and the opportunity that all children should have the same choices that Tony or MaryEllen have. They live that way.
So we’re now talking about choice – not just private schools and charter schools and virtual schools – we’re talking about public school choice. We’re talking about creative leaders like MaryEllen, like the team here, creating educational opportunities for children within the district. And really going to what we all heard was the purpose of choice to begin with, to provide incubation for innovation for our public schools. So I am very encouraged.