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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 3 years ago

Our view


When parents decide where to live, they make choices. And more often than not, the school drives the choice.

If a family doesn’t have the means to afford a private school, the parents search. They talk to other parents — at their church, their synagogue, their new place of employment. They research online. They inspect in person … in search of the best public school for their children.

This is the power of choice. And this search for the right neighborhood with the right school shows the enormous, inherent hunger parents have for school choice.

They want choices. And they want to be freed from an education system whose rulers — the state, legislators, school boards and, mostly, the unions — imprison teachers, students and families in chains of top-down, centralized, bureaucratic processes. Centralized schools that for decades have been costing more and delivering less, what “A Nation at Risk” called “the rising tide of mediocrity.”

Choice. And freedom. And competition.

These are the ingredients that are missing from the March 25 referendum in Sarasota County to extend for four more years a one-mill, local-option school property tax.

To be sure, it is futile to present cogent and compelling arguments against this tax in Sarasota County. Voters overwhelmingly have approved and extended the tax three times. This fourth time will be no different.

This is how it goes:

With each referendum, Sarasota County Public School District officials and supporters of the tax and schools make the case that, in large part because of the tax ($45 million a year), Sarasota public schools can have more money than they otherwise would, allowing them to pay higher salaries to hire better teachers, which leads to better-performing students, which leads to Sarasota County having among the highest-rated schools in Florida.

In turn, this reinforces what Sarasota County’s voting retirees (more than 30% of the population) believe. They are products of what they remember as a successful public-school system. And though largely unaware of how political, intransigent and mediocre (at best) the “system” has become, they still believe funding public education to the greatest extent possible with their taxes is a civic duty and obligation and act of altruism.

For them, the statewide test scores and “A” ratings give them prima facie proof that more money makes a difference.

Add to all of that the analysis of independent consultants who say Sarasota public schools are among the best-run schools in Florida.

It would take million-dollar embezzlements of school tax dollars to persuade voters to defeat the tax. So what if — even after the tax has generated more than $340 million for the school district since inception — math and reading scores in the district have barely moved up the trend line?

The seen and unseen of the tax
What makes it difficult to refute the tax is what parents and voters don’t see. What they do see looks like it makes sense. When you look at how that $45 million is spent annually, it probably looks justified and well allocated. A sampling:

• $10 million to continue funding the 30-minute longer school day;

• $1.6 million to continue funding elementary science teachers;

• $5.9 million for charter schools;

• $3.3 million for guidance counselors and behavioral specialists;

• $1.9 million for assistant principals in Title I elementary schools;

• $4.7 million to continue funding a visual performing arts coordinator, Booker and North Port High performing arts technicians, gifted foreign language teachers, Young Marines program at Venice Middle, elementary school dance teachers;

• $8.7 million to continue funding art and music teachers;

• $2.1 million to continue funding technology support professionals.

But here’s what the parents and voters don’t see: How that $45 million — or for that matter, the school district’s entire $470 million in total revenues — would be allocated if left in the hands of the consumers and customers to decide. How that $10,000 a year in tax dollars per student were to be applied to their children’s education if parents had the freedom to choose.

Of course, the sheer notion of giving parents choice and vouchers and creating competition among the schools sends the system’s defenders into apoplexy. But if you step back from the educational forest and look at the overarching direction of education reform, choice is inexorable:

• After Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, the city’s horrendous K-12 public-school system had to be rebuilt. Today, more than 80% of its public-school students attend charter schools and the rest attend schools operated by the state-run “Recovery School District.” New Orleans no longer has traditional district schools.

The results have been remarkable. Before Katrina, only 35% of New Orleans’ public school students passed state tests; now that figure is 60%. The graduation rate has climbed from 55% to more than 75%.

• Today, more than 30% of American K-12 students do not attend their district’s public neighborhood school, according to Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Instead, they and their parents exercised the right to attend schools of their choice: public, private, and many a hybrid and variant.” Finn cited in a paper a dozen types of different school models that have surfaced in recent years, everything from your standard district public school to virtual schools to homeschooling.

• Today, there are more than 5,000 charter schools in America run by various civic, education, parent and business groups.

• More than half of the states operate state-level virtual schools — Florida being one of the leaders. There also are about 200 “cyber charters” in 25 states with more than 100,000 students.

This movement toward choice is unstoppable.

Technology: End of union power
And giving it even more momentum is technology.

In his chapter in the book, “American Education in 2030,” Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, predicts in “A New Politics of Education” that technology will be “the single greatest force for school choice in the nation’s history: far surpassing the earlier movements for charters and vouchers, generating a vast array of attractive new options to regular public school classrooms — and causing students, money and jobs to flow out of these traditional union strongholds.”

He foresees an explosion of online educational options — more private and public virtual schools and online charter schools catering to all children’s different needs. He predicts the rise of the “hybrid” school in which kids still “go to school” at a physical place and interact face-to-face with teachers and students and participate in art, music and sports. But they will take roughly 80% of their academic classes online.

Teachers will no longer “have the job of teaching a standardized curriculum to classrooms of 30 kids; instead they [will have] a much more differentiated profession — some teaching online, some overseeing large numbers of kids in computer labs, some tutoring kids one-on-one … some in charge of software development, and on and on.”

As technology rushes forward, Moe predicts, it will end the unions’ chokehold on education. Technology, Moe predicts, will generate “new data systems and sophisticated new methods of measuring performance, putting the spotlight on poor performance by schools and teachers, and stimulating powerful coalitions — particularly those speaking for disadvantaged kids in big urban districts — to rise up and oppose the unions for resisting productive change.”

Send a message
You can predict the coming titanic resistance to this monumental choice wave from Sarasota’s education establishment — the tradition-bound school board, administrators and unions. Especially the unions; they have jobs to protect.

But they will lose. Choice and freedom and competition and technology will be more powerful.

And that power, we predict, will make next month’s referendum the last of voters’ automatic renewal of the one-mill, local-option school tax.

If the education establishment has the will to look to the future, it will begin shifting its way of operating — ratcheting down the teacher-seniority and job-protection covenants in the bargaining agreements and embracing mechanisms that give school consumers greater choices and more control over how tax dollars are spent.

We’re not going to advocate either for or against Sarasota County’s one-mill, four-year school tax. To no surprise, it is earmarked to continue the centralized, union-controlled model of delivering education. If you’re happy with that, vote yes. If you’re not — and believe in more choice, send a message.

It’s the unions.

To understand one of the impediments to innovation and improvements in education and the problems that arise from centralization and union control, you might take the time to read through the Sarasota County Public School District’s contract with the teachers’ union. Go to:


2. Click on “Human Resources” on the left side of the site.

3. Click on “Bargaining Agreements” on the left-side of the site.

4. Read them and weep. Unions rule; administrators do not.

Every elected official will tell you it’s not easy getting anything done in government, and it always takes a long time. Kudos, then, to Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta for persistence.

On Feb. 12, Sarasota County commissioners in a 3-2 vote approved a land swap allowing private development on what was previously county property on the northeast corner of U.S. 301 and Main Street.

Commissioners accepted almost $1 million and a parcel of land further down Main Street in exchange so SHD Partners could build a 150-room Kimpton Hotel on the site.

“You’re never going to sell at the top of the market,” Barbetta told the Pelican Press in 2012. “The idea is to get (surplus land) back on the tax rolls.”

Barbetta’s persistence will result in an economic win all the way around — new tax revenues for the city and county and a property that will appreciate and add value to the city’s urban landscape.

Kimpton operates highly acclaimed luxury boutique hotels. This one will include two bars, a fitness center and 6,000 square feet of meeting space, slated to open by June 2016.


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