Rick Scott's stance on vouchers scares teachers

Gov. Rick Scott, the scary bald man now in charge of our state, is scaring the bejabbers out of the public-school establishment.

The vouchers-for-all proposal put out by his transition team has the state teachers unions in a panic. The Florida Education Association claims it could start an exodus of students into private schools.

The union apparently has such little confidence in its teachers that it fears families will flee in masse from them if not held captive.

I disagree. I think they can compete. Competition improves the product, be it a car, a computer or an education.

Competition requires choice. So our new governor is on the right track.

I remain amused by liberals who decry vouchers while sending their kids to private schools. Choice is for the affluent, it seems, not the masses.

It took Republicans to pass the state's low-income voucher program, giving poor families at least a semblance of school choice.

But I do have some qualms about all this.

Chief among them is this: We are very good at tracking students and pounding public schools for not educating them, but there is no such oversight in the voucher program. For example, a third-grader who would be held back in a public school because of low reading scores could advance in a voucher school.

Each has its own standards. They do not have to give kids the FCAT. And if they do, they don't have to post their results.

I do not want vouchers to be used as an escape route for parents and kids trying to avoid the more rigorous standards of public schools. That is hardly a fair competition.

This isn't a problem in established private schools, like those parochial schools that take in voucher kids. However, it can be at smaller, less-established schools that rely almost exclusively on voucher students. They have fewer resources. I doubt that they have the same teacher quality. And they can have problems with stability.

We have seen similar problems with a number of failed charter schools.

In the rush to expand choice, we have sacrificed oversight.

This is a particular problem when you have uneducated parents trying to pick the good schools from the bad.

"It is more difficult for them to recognize the schools that are going to be high performing and a good match for their child," says Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas researcher and expert on voucher programs. "Parents with low education want to have school choice. But they also want a set of supports to make an effective choice — sort of Consumer Reports guide for choosing schools that provides objective information from a third party.''

That kind of transparency is not yet available here.

This gets at the heart of the school-reform movement. The driving force behind it was the desire to increase educational opportunities for low-income kids trapped in failing public schools. Shifting some of them to failing private schools and then hiding that failure behind a lack of transparency is hardly an improvement.

I would like to see Gov. Scott take the next logical step in the choice movement. And that is to come up with a system of accountability that ensures kids are getting a rigorous education no matter what choice is made.

Here is one idea. Reformers argue that good teachers need to be paid more and bad teachers fired. The same logic should apply to voucher and charter schools. Those that succeed should get bonuses to encourage them to take on more students, and those that fail should be closed.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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