Education Reform Florida Funding History Racism Vouchers

Billy Townsend: Jones High School in Florida Is Far Better Than the Deregulated, Unaccountable Voucher Schools That the State Prefers

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Billy Townsend served as a school board member in Polk County, Florida. He now blogs about the schools in his state and takes aim at the state’s determination to cripple public schools while shifting more than a billion dollars to voucher schools.

In this article in the Orlando Sentinel, he compares a public high school to the inferior voucher schools that the state wants more of.

He writes:

Six years ago, essentially zero Jones High School students took physics. Today, more than 250 do. That means 250 Orlando-area young people per year now have a better chance of becoming engineers or scientists or doctors. We should celebrate that. Physics is crucial to many educational and professional journeys.

Unfortunately, as a recent former Polk County school board member, I know all too well the rarity of serious growth in Florida’s education capacity. Our state is steadily dismantling education capacity everywhere through its contempt for public schools and indifference to voucher-school performance.

Capacity destruction drives Florida’s chronic educator shortages. It’s one reason Florida has among America’s worst state test score “learning rates,” according to The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University.

Capacity destruction particularly harms children and communities that lack capital. Quite often, these low-capital communities are also historically black communities. A thriving physics program — one that exceeds enrollment for most other wealthier schools in Florida — demonstrates real capital investment in community capacity.

That makes the Jones physics story all the more important — and a powerful counterpoint to Florida’s failed state voucher programs, particularly the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) voucher.

Like many voucher schools, the Jones enrollment of nearly 1,600 is almost entirely Black. A casual observer may see it as “segregated,” in the sense we’ve come to popularly understand segregation. But there is a massive difference between the Jones community-support “segregation” and the “segregation” of schools in Florida’s low-capital voucher-school marketplace.

The Sentinel’s invaluable “Schools without Rules” series in 2017 documented the failures of many voucher schools and how little Florida leaders care about it. It also illustrated how Florida’s testing system and barbaric mass third-grade retention policies drive children into voucher schools in a disfigured conception of “choice.”

But the Sentinel did not delve deeply into the extreme racial segregation of Florida’s voucher-school marketplace, as I did in Polk County.

As of last month, the Step Up for Students voucher marketplace shows 16 Polk County voucher schools have enrollments of at least 76 percent Black children. Twelve of the 16 schools are at least 95 percent Black. Six are 100 percent Black.

Not one of those schools has any accreditation. None of them have any state or local oversight. There is no elected board member or unelected bureaucrat to call when these schools defraud you. More than 800 Black children in Polk County attend these segregated, low-capital so-called schools at any given time.

Moreover, the Urban Institute’s 2017 study of Florida’s voucher marketplace, the only recent study of its kind, found that 61 percent of voucher recipients abandon their FTC voucher within two years. 75 percent abandon the voucher within three years. That’s an extraordinary record of failure and churn. Voucher advocates twist themselves into knots insisting this is not a 75-percent 3-year program dropout rate. But it is.

Many voucher schools resemble the worst of pre-Brown vs. Board of Education American schools — operating in strip mall storefronts with names like “Endtime Christian School of Excellence.” That is the name and description of a very real and very typical voucher school in Lake Wales. Yet, Florida is expanding the roughly $1 billion a year in direct tax money and corporate tax-shelter cash it spends each year to defraud black children and parents – and everyone else.

Runaway voucher spending with no oversight has built zero capacity to actually provide education. That’s because money alone cannot buy education capacity; only consistent, focused effort.

There are very few decent voucher products to buy. And decent private schools, almost without exception, do not rely on vouchers for survival or take many voucher kids. Vouchers do not cover the tuition of serious private schools, which have full-tuition paying customers and endowments and capital and accreditation. Such private schools are also very, very white.

School segregation, integration and equity pose some of society’s hardest, most complex challenges. In my experience as a school-board member and advocate, human beings want to attend schools that reflect their communities; they want to avoid busing; they want equality — or advantage — in resources; they (often) want diversity in faculty and fellow students; and they want to be in the majority of a school population. People want all of this at the same time in the same school.

Jones provides a far better model for addressing that challenge than vouchers. Indeed, I would not call the Jones model of schooling “segregation.” I would call it “community ownership” and Jones is literally a “Community Partnership School.” That means it works rigorously with the Children’s Home Society of Florida, Orange Blossom Health, and the University of Central Florida to provide “wraparound” social services and slowly, painstakingly build capacity for the Parramore/Lorna Doone community and its high school.

Today, the Jones community school model is building capacity in physics while most of the rest of Florida is destroying it. That is a public-school accomplishment to celebrate from a model far superior to the failed voucher model state power prefers.

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