Florida’s next education commissioner needs to be explainer-in-chief

Florida’s next education commissioner will inherit a job that makes juggling chainsaws look easy. He or she must get under the hood of a complicated accountability system, ride herd on a historic shake-up of public education, dodge slings and arrows while walking a political tight rope and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

And yet, the job remains so compelling. Florida is the nation’s most promising bridge to an education system that can more fully give teachers and parents real power to help kids live out their dreams. In the last 10 to 15 years, no state has focused more on the low-income and minority students who are now a majority in Florida public schools. Simultaneously, no state has opened the door more to alternative learning options – options that have both empowered parents and multiplied the potential for educators to innovate. The result has been both dramatic and nowhere near enough. The next commissioner must find ways to continue the momentum.

To that end, we hope he or she can nimbly rotate hats long enough to also assume the role of explainer-in-chief. We know this won’t be easy; education reformers in Florida operate in an environment that is particularly tense and, in the past couple of years, has become downright ugly. But we can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, the temperature will drop a few degrees if fair-minded people can be persuaded that not every education idea and not every education reform is a zero-sum proposition. Sometimes, they really can work in harmony with the other parts.

This is especially true with school choice. The sincere goal here isn’t “privatization,” it’s personalization. It’s about expanding options so more kids can be matched with settings that maximize their potential, and yes that includes private and faith-based options.

There’s no reason, and so far in Florida no demonstration, that these options have to come at the expense of traditional schools. It’s entirely possible – and many of us think it’s absolutely necessary – to support traditional public schools at the same time we push for additional options that, for individual students, may work better.

The truth is, the cat’s out of the bag. As Jon East recently noted on redefinED, 4 in 10 Florida students are now enrolled in a school that isn’t their traditional neighborhood school. And most of those options – magnet schools, career academies, IB programs – are offered by public school districts. Meanwhile, the state continues to aggressively push non-district options, too – charter schools, virtual schools, vouchers and tax credit scholarships – less because of ideological leanings than because parents are demanding them in droves.

All of these options have their issues, just like traditional public schools do. All need to be monitored, scrutinized, tweaked and made better. The more we can all constructively do that, the better for our kids. And the better the next ed commissioner can get that message across, the quicker it’ll happen.

(Image from partnersinexcellenceblog.org)

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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.