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Changing Course: Scott's Ed Proposals Get Mixed Reviews from Parents and Teachers

February 17, 2011 | WMFE - Florida Governor Rick Scott and other Republican leaders want to change the way teachers' salaries are determined. Scott also wants to give parents more power to decide where and how their children are educated. What do teachers and parents think about these ideas? It depends on who you ask.


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12-year-old Mira Strauss is in math class, but in her case, the classroom is her west Orlando bedroom, her computer is the textbook and her mother, Heather Strauss, is the teacher.  Mira’s 9-year-old brother Xander, on the other hand, attends public school. Heather Strauss says her children are both extremely smart, but that’s where the similarities end.

“My son is an extrovert,” said Strauss, “He has to be around people, he’s extremely social. And if I took that away from him he’d be completely miserable. My daughter, on the other hand, is more introverted.”

So Heather homeschools Mira with Florida’s Virtual School program, which allows Mira to move ahead at the faster pace she needs. And Xander attends a public school, but not the one he’s zoned for.  He goes to a special gifted magnet school program at Blankner Elementary, 30 minutes away from the family’s house.

Part of Governor Rick Scott’s plan would make it easier for kids like Xander to go to schools they’re not zoned for. But Strauss is not so sure the school choice idea will work. For one thing, she says, there’s the transportation issue.

“A lot of parents aren’t going to have that luxury to drive their kids to a better school,” she said, “and so the parents that can are going to take their kids out, and the parents who can’t are going to be stuck in a school that nobody wants to be at, that no funding’s going to go to, and the people who suffer the most are going to be the kids.”

The state gives school districts get a certain amount of money for each student enrolled. Under most school choice plans, that money would follow the student from school to school.

Among teachers, reaction to the school choice idea is mixed.

“We need to teach to the 21st century, and so school choice is an okay thing because that’s thinking outside the box,” said Winter Park High School government teacher Tom Beard.  “As long as you have the stuff to back it up and make sure it’s done correctly, it’s an okay thing.”

He says “stuff to back it up” would include a plan to address the question of what happens to funding for schools when kids transfer out. Beard has another concern that many people wouldn’t think of, which stems from his position as a basketball coach.

“You could see athletes being moved around to perform in athletics because of the school choice issue,” he said, “not what’s best educationally, but what’s best athletically.”

Some experienced teachers say parents already have many choices within the current system.

“You have charter schools, then you have magnet programs, then you have virtual schools,” says retired Orange County teacher Marion Cannon. “Now how much more choice do you want?”

Cannon was a teacher for 45 years and is still active with the Orange County teachers’ union. She sees redundancies in another part of Governor Scott’s education plan -- the teacher merit pay bill making the rounds in Tallahassee.

This week, Orange County announced it's getting money from a federal grant program called “Race to the Top,” which the district will use to craft its own formula for linking teacher pay to student performance.

“It’s 50% percent tests, 25% principal evaluation, and 25% would be a project the teacher would work on and present either to the peer group or the principal or to the entire school,” said Cannon. “I mean, we’re already working on this.”

Winter Park High teacher Tom Beard is of two minds on merit pay.

“You don’t want that teacher that’s 29 years in, waiting for 30 years so they can retire.  You don’t want that teacher that’s two years in that just doesn’t know what they’re doing,” he said.  “You want teachers that have some experience, that know what they’re doing and you’ve got to be able to keep them.”

He says that’s an argument for some kind of merit pay program, but he doesn’t like the idea of tying teacher pay to student test scores. He also wonders where the extra merit pay will come from, with Governor Scott proposing to cut more than $3 billion from the state’s education budget.

The current merit pay bill has cleared its first few committees in Tallahassee.  Lawmakers will debate it early in next month’s legislative session. As for public school choice, last week Scott urged legislators to turn that idea into the next education bill.



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