‘The train has left the station on school choice’ – Florida BOE Chair Gary Chartrand, podcastED


Florida is a national leader in expanding school choice. And the state’s new top education official doesn’t see the momentum slowing, especially with low-income children.

“The train has left the station on school choice,” Gary Chartrand, 58, told redefinED by phone this week – his first media interview since being elected chair of the Florida Board of Education on Friday.podcastED-logo

“I often say that freedom is abundant in America but it’s not universal. When you’re stuck in a broken system, and you’re poor, and you’re full of despair, and you only have one choice, and that choice happens to be an F school, that’s not freedom. And so I think the school choice movement is bringing more freedom, especially to the most under served children in the state of Florida.”

Chartrand, a Jacksonville businessman, takes a leadership role at an especially sensitive time. Funding, already low compared to other states, has been stagnant. Common Core standards are around the corner. Teacher evaluations are in flux. Criticism of the state’s accountability system is as loud as it’s ever been (which, after the Jeb Bush years, is saying a lot.) And now the board is looking for its fifth education commissioner in eight years.

At the same time, Florida has been a pace setter in academic gains for most of the past decade. Those shaping state ed policy have no plans to ease up on the gas.

Chartrand touched on a number of issues in the interview, which is attached below. Some highlights:

On his priorities as chair:  “I am not proud of the fact that America is 17th in reading, 25th in math and 30th in science in the world. We used to be No. 1. And I believe that if this continues, we’ll undoubtedly lower our standard of living … And so I just have one goal: and that’s a quality education for all. We can do better. We must do better. We got to prepare our kids for a very rapidly changing world.”

On the best way to raise standards: “We’ve got to raise standards incrementally. I get a little concerned at times, and I always use the analogy of, if you can jump on a high bar six feet, you don’t raise it to seven feet and try to get over it. Because you’re not going to get over it. You raise it from 6 to 6-1, to 6-2, 6-3, and that’s how you incrementally improve, to continue to excel. And I think that’s what we need to do at the Department of Education.”

On whether some of the recent criticism of the state accountability system is valid: “Sure. I think we made a mistake on the writing. And we also sent 200 school grades out that were wrong. That’s unacceptable. … I will work with the new commissioner to look at our staffing and look at our department heads and make sure we have the right people in the right jobs. Because we have to hold ourselves accountable first.”

On convincing the public that Florida schools really are making progress: “We need to do a better job of getting the facts out and  making sure that people understand that not only are we improving significantly … but other states around the country are adopting what Florida’s doing. The idea that other states are looking to Florida to try to improve their education system is pretty good evidence that we’re doing the right stuff here.”

On the education quality lawsuit: “We have a legislative body, and we have a department of education, and I’m not sure the courts need to get involved in this. But look, you can sue somebody for anything these days. And evidently it’s gone up there and they’ve ruled on it … I would guess, though, that even though they’re using the quality piece, it’s about funding. Behind all of it, it’s really about funding.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.