Rick Scott’s choices erase the traditional lines drawn in public education

Tom Marshall of the St. Petersburg Times wrote this morning that Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s new education transition team in Florida “hints at the ferment under way in public education, as change-minded lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington consider new ways to boost student performance, improve teacher evaluation and offer new options for families.” He’s right.

Consider me biased, of course, because I am privileged to serve as one of the 18 members. But any education team that includes former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and current Tampa/Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia is certain to operate from the vantage point that matters most: What do children and their parents need?

Tom’s story is a reminder that the traditional lines are forever blurred in public education. He even notes the partnership between our Tax Credit Scholarship program for 33,000 low-income children and the school district and teachers union for Tampa/Hillsborough, which is the nation’s eighth largest district. We got together to provide better professional education for teachers in both public and private scholarship schools, and the union president, Jean Clements, was graceful in her explanation to reporters: ““This is not a competition. It’s about all of us doing our best to help children who come from very difficult circumstances.”

Some local union presidents are already drawing battle lines over the participation of former chancellor Rhee, but that’s fruitless. The reality is that this team in large measure reflects the pledge of Gov.-elect Scott to promote a student-centered approach and continue expanding K-12 options, an approach championed earlier this week by Scott’s predessor, Jeb Bush, at a summit that brought together hundreds of educators and policymakers of both parties to map out a blueprint for the future of education. To borrow Scott’s words: “Parents – not politicians, unions or bureaucracies – should have the right to choose among a combination of different educational delivery methods to best suit their child’s learning needs.”

In an environment where we are customizing the learning options, the old dichotomies really do just get in the way. Is a charter school a public or a private school? Its students attend for free on the dime of taxpayers, but the schools are typically run by private boards on private property with teachers and curricula they pick themselves. Does an International Baccalaureate program help accelerated students get into the Ivy League at the expense of other high schools that lose their positive influence?

A child-centered approach means that we consider any learning program that might help a student or group of students. That might be an online class or a back-to-basics school or a scholarship for a low-income student. The key as policymakers is not whether the option is neighborhood-based, magnet, public or private. The key is that it is held appropriately accountable for the progress of the students.

Look at the members of the transition team, and you will see that every one of them believes in opening the doors of education opportunity, and making sure these programs help all children succeed. There shouldn’t be anything controversial about that.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization