MAXWELL: Schools, vouchers and Republican Darwinism

4/6/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

For 18 years, I was a full-time college writing teacher. My two sisters are Florida public school teachers. The youngest coached girls basketball at Ely High in Pompano Beach, where she won several state championships and inspired hundreds of girls to attend college. The oldest, who completed her doctorate last year, has won many awards for her outstanding work with pupils with learning difficulties. All of our children attended public school, and now our grandchildren are doing the same.

I mention all this from the outset to let readers know that my family and I support public education 100 percent, that we know its value, that we have contempt for the gang of conservative Republicans hellbent on undermining public education in Florida.

Make no mistake: Florida is home to such a gang, disguising its rhetoric to create the impression that it is using tough love to improve our schools.

Unfortunately, instead of being a booster for our schools, Gov. Jeb Bush is a prominent member of this nefarious alliance. His former lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan, now president of Florida Atlantic University, is also part of this group.

The centerpiece of this anti-public school agenda is the voucher, euphemistically dubbed “opportunity scholarships.” The main goal is to give as many students as possible state tax dollars to attend private schools. Bush and his cronies are carrying out this plan with arrogance. He does not have to worry about too much outcry because Florida’s population is growing older and more right wing.

All over the state, private schools _ many of them church related _ are popping up each day. They are grabbing money that is being sucked out of the public school system. I know from personal experience that no small number of these schools are virtually worthless. And these schools are not tested for academic viability like their public school counterparts.

Each legislative session in these Republican times, new bills are introduced that would divert money and students away from public schools. This year is exceptional, though. Some genius introduced legislation that would automatically give vouchers to military children. Another has devised a scheme deceptively called Florida Learning Access Grants. The latter would let any child get a voucher, even kindergartners.

Here is something else Bush is doing to undermine public education: He is trying to pit teachers against one another. He has a new state plan that ties teacher bonuses to classroom results. The scheme offers teachers a bonus that matches 5 percent of their yearly salary if they prove they have outstanding performance. The bonus plan is part of the governor’s 1999 A-Plus Plan, which is intended to bring business principles to public education.

I am glad to report that the overwhelming majority of Florida’s classroom teachers have rejected Bush’s plan. Many see it as one more divisive effort perpetrated by a Republican administration that dislikes public schools.

In effect, teachers in our so-called high performing schools _ those that serve wealthier children _ would receive most of the bonuses because success is determined by a single standardized test. Almost every measure shows that the children of the wealthy perform better in school, making their teachers appear to be superior to and more hardworking than their peers in low-performing schools that serve children from low-income homes.

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of Florida’s teachers applied for the bonuses. The majority see Bush’s scheme for what it is: high-toned cynicism.

Instead of doing the right thing _ at least trying to raise teachers’ salaries _ Bush plays transparent games with bonuses. When the state was flush with money back in the Clinton years, Bush squandered our surpluses and orchestrated a wrongheaded tax cut. He should have had one eye on teachers’ salaries.

Bush and his public school haters would do well to visit Hillsborough County and learn a few lessons about how to use teacher bonuses positively. Like other school districts statewide, Hillsborough has many tough schools that serve the poor. The district wants to give 5 percent bonuses to teachers willing to work in these schools. The hard reality is that too many good teachers will not work in tough schools. Where is the reward? Not wanting to play games, district officials want to pay to help the low-performing schools improve _ not further hurt them with vouchers.

The governor rewards high-performing schools and punishes the others. He needs to visit Hillsborough. He has turned public education into a spectator sport, where teachers are on the sideline watching the system struggle under Republican Darwinism.