Ritchie is wrong: Florida education isn’t broken | Commentary
Lynn Norman-Teck – Guest columnist – Orlando Sentinel – January 29, 2019
In consecutive columns recently, Lauren Ritchie portrayed the public education landscape in Florida as some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland, where rag-tag supporters of traditional schools struggle to survive while the warlords of school choice roam freely, hijacking scarce resources. (“Charters? Fix public schools instead,” Jan. 19; “Lake County grasping for money to fix schools,” Jan. 24)
According to Ritchie, Florida’s education system is “truly messed up” and schools are “upside down,” because “for decades, the quality of education has been poor,” which has produced a “sad academic performance.” It’s “impossible for schools to succeed” because legislators have created “an expensive, alternate universe of learning” – i.e., charter schools and vouchers – “that sucks dry funds for traditional public schools.”
The facts don’t support this bleak outlook.
According to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2018 report on the nation’s public schools, Florida ranks fourth in academic achievement, behind only Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia. This despite the fact that it has a far higher rate of low-income students than any state in the Top 10. The latest ranking is Florida’s highest ever.rankings on a combination of measurements, including high school graduation rates, results on Advanced Placement exams, and reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Its analysis accounts for both student proficiency and progress. The Florida Department of Education notes that the state last year outperformed the nation in every measure of achievement gains, poverty gap and Advanced Placement – 14 of the 18 achievement measures overall.
No question there’s room for improvement. Still, that doesn’t look like a system that’s been broken for years, or which makes it impossible for schools to succeed. Furthermore, that top-tier ranking doesn’t correlate with Ritchie’s belief that Florida being 44th in the nation in per-pupil spending is an anchor on achievement.
Clearly, Florida is making progress, especially in relation to the rest of the country – improvement that’s occurred as the state has expanded education choice options for families, including charter schools, which now number more than 650 and serve nearly 300,000 students.
And they are serving them well. According to a 2018 report from the FLDOE using data from the 2016-17 school year, charter school students outperformed their traditional school counterparts in most categories. Achievement gaps between black and white students were narrower in charter schools, too.
Oddly, Ritchie cites New Orleans, which after Hurricane Katrina replaced virtually all its district-run public schools with charter schools, as a cautionary tale for Florida legislators. She singles out a dispute involving a district-run high school that had become a charter school and now is in trouble academically and financially.
Talk about missing the forest for the tree. Thirteen years after Katrina hit the city, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, formed by Tulane University to study the charter school experiment, found that students are scoring higher on standardized tests than before the changes; graduating high school at higher rates; staying in college longer; and more likely to finish with a degree. In addition, the achievement gaps between low-income black students and higher-income whites have shrunk.
A September 2018 poll by The Cowen Institute at Tulane University found that 61 percent of New Orleans parents and residents believe charter schools have improved public education. Over the years, a majority of white and black respondents have consistently stated that the impact of charter schools has been positive.
Finally, Ritchie repeats the myth that charter schools drain funding from district-run schools. According to a 2017 report by Florida Tax Watch, taxpayers spent $10,308 per pupil in district-run district schools in 2015-16. By contrast, charter schools – which are also public schools — received only $7,307 per pupil, or 71 percent of district spending. The state in recent years has provided charter schools with more funds for construction costs, but those dollars pale in comparison to the capital funding that districts can tap through local property taxes – and which not all share with charter schools.
Ritchie raises valid concerns about the fairness of the state’s district funding formula and too much micromanagement by the Legislature. Not only is education choice not an obstacle to making those changes, it should be part of the solution. Indeed, Ritchie envisions giving “everyone from school employees to students and parents” more power in deciding where to spend education dollars. What a wonderful idea!
Lynn Norman-Teck is executive director of the Florida Charter Schools Alliance and a charter school parent.