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Richard Corcoran's School Choice Agenda Riles Local School Leaders, Unions

From the left Appropriations Chairs Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, begin the compromise process as full conference committee met June 11, 2015, while finalizing key portions of the state's budget within Criminal and Civil Just
Mark Foley
Florida House of Representatives

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran isn’t shy about his support for charter schools and the state’s private school voucher program. He championed school choice policies during his stint in the legislature. But his placement as chief of the state’s education system, is beginning to worry public school leaders. Recent comments about the future of public education has raised alarm bells for supporters of traditional public schools. 

When Richard Corcoran was Speaker of the House, he pushed through an aggressive expansion of charter schools and voucher programs.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis named Corcoran to lead the state’s public school system, traditional school advocates worried about what it would mean. Florida had about 2.8 million kids enrolled in public schools last year. Now, though, Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna worries those fears are being validated.

“I met several months ago with the commissioner of education and he made no bones about it. He sees nothing wrong with cutting our traditional public school system by two-thirds.”   

Corcoran wasn’t able to be reached for comment. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education sent the following statement:

“Every parent deserves the opportunity to choose the educational environment that best serves their child, whether it is a traditional public school, public charter school, private school, magnet school, home education or virtual school. Since children have different learning needs, it is vitally important that parents and guardians have a wide range of available school choice options so they can make the best choice possible for their child."

"He sees nothing wrong with cutting our traditional public school system by two-thirds."

“Well, it’s certainly about choice," says Columbia University's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education's Sam Abrams.

"The policy makers who push for charters and vouchers do believe that parents should have more choice. This goes all the way back to 1955 when Milton Friedman made this argument…and Libertarians in particular have been beating this drum ever since.”  

Data Doesn't Tell The Full Story

While charter schools in Florida are considered public schools, they’re still privately managed. Florida had about 296,000 students enrolled in charters in the 2017-18 school year. Another 108,000 attended private schools through the state’s corporate tax scholarship program. School choice supporters often point to studies showing those students do better than their traditional school counterparts, and that’s been the argument in Florida now for years.  

“If you get better results from charter schools you have to look at the results carefully," says Abrams.  "There’s screening going on and that means under-performing students aren’t getting in in the first place. They can be cancelled out. And you have to ask yourself, what is the impact of under-performing students, esp. those with emotional/behavioral problems. That’s the problem with all this choice. Severe segregation." 

That’s bad for the quality of education systems, unless there are significant controls. Abrams points to the Netherlands, where 70% of students use vouchers. 

"But all the teachers have to be certified, the curricula have to comport with national standards…and the teacher salaries are on a national ladder so you can’t drive down teacher salaries as is the case where you have charter and privates where teachers don’t have to be certified.” 

Schools in the Netherlands’ schools have registration, not admissions offices, meaning they can’t discriminate or cherry-pick students. That’s been a constant source of criticism against such schools in Florida.

Abrams says there’s little dispute over whether privatization in public education gives parents more choice. It does. But he notes teachers, and schools often come out on the losing end, something teacher’s unions like the Florida Education Association have railed about for years.

“We have folks who are in our legislature talking about charter schools and voucher schools. They’re trying to create a parallel school system. And these are the have’s and have-nots," says FEA President Fedrick Ingram

A "Separate System" of Public Education

“We’re telling this legislature, and we’ve been telling them for the better part of two decades that one, your accountability program isn’t working for black and brown children. It is labeling them in a way that’s negatively impacting their opportunity, their hope and their families. This is far beyond math and science. This has a subliminal effect on business, commerce and housing. We’re re-segregating our entire fabric in Florida by this advent of charters, vouchers and private schools.” 

Earlier this year choice advocates scored a big win in long-running lawsuit.

At issue was whether the Florida legislature is upholding a constitutional mandate to adequately fund a safe and high-quality system of public education.

The group Citizens for Strong Schools argued Florida is funding two separate systems of public education through its use of charter schools and private school scholarships. They said such programs take money away from traditional public schools, but the courts ruled there was no correlation between funding and student performance on national measures.

While Commissioner Corcoran envisions a system where most students attend charter and private schools, Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna wonders what happens to those left behind.

“They’re only going to slowly bleed to death our schools, and as resources go away it makes it harder for us to serve kids, especially those with special needs which a lot of these private schools, they don’t have to abide by the same rules because they’re not receiving federal money. For us, money is money."

rocky hanna in a red shirt speaking at podium
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Rocky Hanna addresses a group of reporters at a press conference.

Growing Unequal

Choice advocates point out the state’s corporate tax scholarships largely goes to minority students, seemingly countering the segregation narrative. And Corcoran has noted that the focus should be on the student, not the system.

While the number of students in a district may fall, the district’s costs don’t—leading to crumbling schools, budget cuts and program losses.

Florida’s schools are already re-segregating as families flock to schools and zip codes perceived to be better. And the loss, says Columbia University’s Abrams, only amplifies segregation.

“They’re taking with them their voice for better teacher pay, smaller classes, microscopes and computers, science labs—they’re taking with them their counter-veiling voice for such improvements… I We have an exacerbating problem with choice. We already have a problem with 0 percent students going to private schools… so you’re leaving behind more and more and concentrating children without such parents, weaker transcripts and more behavioral issues. It’s a huge problem."

A 2017 report from the LeRoy Collins Center notes Florida’s path toward re-segregation of public schools. It comes at a time when the state’s corporate tax scholarship program could soon top $1 billion while traditional public schools continue to serve the vast majority of the state’s students.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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