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Sunday, January 30, 2011

School Reforms don't make the grade

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Scott Maxwell

We're hearing some interesting ideas for "reforming" schools nowadays — from a legislator's desire to grade parents to gubernatorial advisors who want taxpayers to cut checks for home-schoolers.

So I thought maybe we should look closer at these ideas — and run them by the region's top school officials.

Let's start with the home-schooling.

Gov. Rick Scott's educational advisers are talking about redirecting public-school money to parents who home-school their kids.

Want specifics? Too bad. Our governor isn't much into such things. Scott's office didn't respond to a request for more details.

But let's think about this for a minute.

You take a dirt-poor mother of three and offer her vouchers — say $5,000 a kid — if she wants to "home school" her children.

So she can send them to public school and get nothing. Or she can keep them at home and collect 15 grand to spend on who-knows-what.

"How would we know that money would be used for the student?" asked Osceola School Board Chairman Cindy Hartig:

"Think of the drugs you could buy with that," said Seminole County School Board Chairman Dede Schaffner.

Obviously the majority of parents wouldn't do such a thing. But the bigger question is still there: Where's the accountability?

We have politicians obsessed with standardized tests to prove results. And yet now they're talking about just giving school money to anyone who wants it?

The real goal seems to be the continuing effort to de-fund traditional public education in this state. Lawmakers would rather give money to private schools, charter schools, virtual schools — apparently even home schools — than meet the constitutional requirements of a properly funded school system.

"Public education would lose," said Candace Lankford, the Volusia County board member who leads the Florida School Boards Association. "And students wouldn't necessarily gain."

Parents are, of course, free to home-school their kids. But they shouldn't expect to tap into money that was collected for public schools. (And by the way, the same goes for you retirees who attended public schools up North but gripe about paying taxes for schools down here. It's called a society. And you're part of it whether you like it or not.)

Now, on to grading parents.

The concept behind Polk County Republican Kelli Stargel's bill is decent enough. She wants more parents to be involved with their kids' education.

Amen. Who doesn't? President Barack Obama gave voice to that sentiment just last week, saying in his State of the Union speech that "responsibility begins not in our classrooms but in our homes."

But Stargel's demand that teachers start labeling some parents "unsatisfactory" is unsatisfactory itself.

Most school officials were troubled by several aspects of the proposal — including the presumptuous nature of a teacher, who may know nothing about a parents' work schedule or home life, labeling parents a failure.

Volusia County schools Chairman Stan Schmidt (also a Republican) doubted the bill would even be taken seriously. "What would happen to parents who receive poor grades?" Schmidt asked. "Is the state willing to fine the parents? Require them to take parenting classes? Take away the children?"

And while we're asking questions, I have another one for Rep. Stargel: Why are legislators in this state obsessed with butting their noses into other people's business?

You people scream bloody murder about "federal intrusion" — but try to control everything from term limits for city councils to tax rates for county commissions.

And now you're trying to dictate policies that should be set by local school boards.

You have more than enough of your own problems.

Besides, the latest test scores and graduation rates suggest things are actually improving in Florida's schools.

Leave the school policies to those who were actually elected to handle them.

As Seminole's Schaffner said: "We are the closest to the issues. Let us do our job."

If Tallahassee lawmakers want to do something productive, they could properly fund our schools in the first place. That would be better than ideas that are heavier on shtick than substance.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at or 407-420-6141.

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