Education is key issue at town hall

Education was a recurring theme during a recent town hall meeting that featured U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, State Rep. Danny Burgess, and State Sens. Wilton Simpson and Tom Lee.

About 100 residents gathered inside the Pasco Middle School Auditorium on Aug. 22 to voice their thoughts and concerns with their local representatives, via a question-and-answer-style town meeting that lasted more than two hours.

The state’s public education system was among the key topics.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican representing Florida’s 12th Congressional district, addresses constituents during an Aug. 22 town hall meeting at the Pasco Middle School Auditorium. Other featured speakers were State Rep. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio; State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby; and, State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. (Kevin Weiss)

One speaker, Lisa Mazza, a third-grade teacher at Wesley Chapel Elementary, expressed concern over the recently passed HB 7069 and its charter-friendly measure that allows charter schools statewide to get a proportionate share of school district construction money, through a local property tax.

The 274-page bill, signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott, has been controversial, drawing criticisms from many of Florida’s traditional public school leaders and teachers for its various pro-charter measures.

Besides charter construction funding, another measure in the bill that has been divisive is the “Schools of Hope” program.

“Schools of Hope” sets up new rules and new funding to encourage charter schools to move into areas where the nearest traditional public schools have persistent low ratings.

The bill allows such “schools of hope” to open up either in the attendance zone of, or within 5 miles of, a local traditional public school that has earned either an F or D grade from the state for three straight years.

The “hope” schools would be run by charter school operators, certified by the state as having a record of serving students from low-income families, and raising student performances above the county and state averages.

The bill sets aside $140 million that could be used to support and subsidize “schools of hope.”

Burgess acknowledged he wished there was more time to review the bill, but ultimately expressed his holistic support for charters and school choice, suggesting it’s “in the best interest of all the kids.”

He pointed out Florida has more than 100 failing traditional schools, labeling the issue “a state of emergency.”

“This was our ‘Hail Mary’ to the children,” said Burgess, himself a “proud product” of the public education. “It’s a shame that we had to do something, which is why we put in the ‘schools of hope’ provision.”

Wilton Simpson, who also supported the education bill, celebrated the “hope” schools initiative, as a solution to help kindergarten through 12th grade from low socio-economic backgrounds.

“The only way you’re going to break generational poverty…is through the education system,” Simpson said. “…Clearly, the current system that we have has not, and we’ve had to something that’s a little more aggressive…”

Tom Lee added that expansion of school choice is “a healthy thing” that will inject competition into the public education system.

“I think it’s transformative, not so much for the students that left the (public education) system, but for what it’s done in the system to cause it to react, to compete,” said Lee.

“Parents are taking their kids out because they fear — rightfully or not —that their children are going to underperform and underachieve, and not be prepared for a very competitive world they’re entering into.”

Lee also said initiatives like eliminating burdensome testing and developing gifted programs in elementary schools should be implemented to “reinvigorate” and “recharge” public education.

Said Lee: “While we need to make sure we’re creating opportunities and competition to the system, we’re not abandoning the public education system, because it serves a vital purpose in this country for a vast majority of kids who have no other option.”

Gus Bilirakis, meanwhile, offered less overall support for charter schools, saying they “need to be held accountable” and scrutinized just as much as public schools.

An alternative to charter schools, he said, is creating more fundamental schools. Fundamental schools mirror charter schools in their focus on strict discipline, but are free and operate through the school district.

“I think the fundamental schools are terrific; I think we need to expand the fundamental schools,” Bilirakis said.

Besides the divisive charter school provisions, Burgess made mention to some of the education bill’s more popular provisions, including:

  • Mandatory recess for 20 minutes at most public elementary schools
  • Elimination of the state’s algebra 2 end-of-course standardized exam
  • Expansion of the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program from $49 million to $233 million
  • Requirement of college students, starting in the 2018-19 school year, to demonstrate “competency” in civic literacy, either by passing a course in the subject or a test

“There are ways you can look at that bill and say, ‘That makes a lot of sense,’” Burgess said.

Another speaker, Beverly Ledbetter, an instructor at Saint Leo University and longtime public school teacher, expressed concern over teacher shortages afflicting Florida and Pasco County.

She stated the county has over 100 teaching positions currently filled by substitutes, and many educators are frustrated with low salaries, increasing work demands and job insecurity.

Bilirakis said the problem simply comes down to compensation.

“We need to incentivize teachers to go into the field and to go into the Title I schools, financially,” Bilirakis said.

“We need to put teachers on a pedestal. There are some countries, in southern Europe, northern Europe, where teaching is considered the top profession. I think that’s so very important.”

He also suggested encouraging more veterans to become educators.

“Who better to teach our children than the veterans?” Bilirakis said.

Lee, however, said wholly fixing teacher shortage is “a very complicated problem.”

He explained: “We struggle in the legislature to try to figure out how to advance teacher pay in the environment we have to operate in, which is the union construct, where we can’t do performance pay outside the collective bargaining, sometimes. From my perspective, we’ve done too much to inhibit the kind of performance we want from our best teachers, at times.”

Elsewhere, the topic of additional public school funding was raised, with a reference to Hillsborough County Public Schools’ current struggles to repair faulty air conditioning units, district-wide.

Simpson presented one idea: spend less on building schools, and allocate more for capital outlay improvements.

He noted there’s a bill under consideration for next year that would modify or ease some of the strict building requirements, such as State Requirements for Educational Facilities (SREF) that cost school districts “millions upon millions of dollars.”

“Does it really take $25 million to build an elementary school and does it take $75 million to build a high school, or does it take some fraction of that? In the public school education system, we are putting our dollars and priorities in the wrong place,” he said.

Published August 30, 2017

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