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Leon School Board District 5 Candidates Weigh Teacher Autonomy

The concerns of teachers are shaping Leon County’s School Board District Five race. At issue is how much control education have over what they teach. The debate comes at a time when public schools are facing greater competition.

Marcus Nicolas is challenging longtime Leon County School Board member Joy Bowen to represent the fifth district—an area that encompasses Tharpe Street and Godby High School. And Nicolas, a former teacher at Godby and current administrator at Tallahassee Community College, has been talking to teachers to see what they’re dealing with in the classroom:

“Right now in the state of Florida the latest stat... was that 58 percent of teachers feel they don’t have classroom autonomym" he says.

Part of Nicolas’ platform is to increase teacher control over how they teach and when. Increasingly, teachers are growing weary over state and district mandates they say are sucking the fun out of the classroom. And during a recent appearance on WFSU’s Perspectives, a caller named Charlotte had this to say:

"Charter schools have been in the news lately with their mandate to provide innovative education. I understand their appeal to students and parents. But in Leon County our elementary teachers are required to teach a canned reading program and be on a specific page on a specific day. What can we do as a district to make our schools more innovative?” 

Pointing to that, Nicolas says he wants to see more school-based decision making and less from the district:

“That’s what charter schools have gotten right, that’s what we need to start doing. We need to let the teachers do what teacher’s know how to do.”

“I do feel there are opportunities for site-based management that we currently have to allow our teachers to do what they need to do," says Joy Bowen, the incumbent. She says teachers already have leeway but they still have to work within the confines of state mandates.

“It would be great to walk in and do whatever you feel you need to do but there are some guidelines and prescribed understandings that we must follow as a traditional public school system .... our hands are tied in some ways and we’re not allowed. So there are two sets of rules here.” 

A district spokesman says there is no “canned curriculum” but there is a document called a pacing guide used for subjects like reading and math that details when certain things should be taught or tested. What the guide doesn’t do is mandate how teachers teach.  The conversation comes as the number of students in private schools and publicly funded but privately managed charter schools continues to grow. The Leon County School District is trying to stem the bleed by looking for new ways to make its traditional schools more attractive to families and retain students.