Florida’s new education commissioner is known for his zealous support of charter schools and vouchers and other learning options that some critics see as anti-public school.
But on Tuesday afternoon, Tony Bennett sat next to Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia inside a Tampa magnet school for boys, and praised the growth of choice in district schools across the state.
Florida is transcending the first round of conversations on choice that pit private and charter schools against public schools and virtual schools against “brick and mortar’’ ones, Bennett said during an event marking National School Choice Week. The new conversation, he suggested, isn’t either-or; it’s whatever works to ensure all kids have access to quality choices.
“So we’re now talking about choice – not just private schools and charter schools and virtual schools – we’re talking about public school choice,” he told an audience of about 100 people gathered at the Boys Preparatory Academy. “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.”
Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, a coalition that includes a wide swath of school choice groups. Bennett and Elia sat on a panel with representatives from home-schooling, virtual education, magnet schools, career academies, Florida tax credit scholarships and McKay scholarships.
Most were parents who had lived and breathed school choice, starting with their own children. As they shared stories of searching for schools that practiced their faith or fit their child’s academic needs, they offered numbers that shed light on the choice movement’s impact.