Michael Gamble: Invest in public schools


Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 11:00 p.m.

You have to hand it to the folks who want to give your tax dollars to private schools — they are relentless.

Just when you think the issue has been put to rest by the text of our state constitution and voters at the ballot box, they come right back and try to make the case that we should give public money to private institutions. Never mind that these private schools don't have to follow the same requirements as our public schools.

The column by Jon East of Step Up for Students (Sun, April 15) was a prime example of the state and national movement to give taxpayer money to private schools. East would have us believe that giving public funds to private institutions is no big deal, and he lumps these vouchers together with charter schools and magnet programs in our public schools. As someone who has worked at schools with magnet programs on the east side of Gainesville since 2005, I take exception to that.

Please allow me to give a school-level view. Here in Alachua County we are fortunate to have a number of excellent public schools from which to choose. We are rich in teacher talent and have magnet programs at the elementary, middle and high school levels that offer a challenging curriculum for college-bound students as well as diverse vocational magnet programs. Nearly all of our magnet programs are part of and enhance neighborhood schools.

There are a number of charter schools in Alachua County that fill a niche for certain students. Two of them are located on the same block as my school. However, unlike neighborhood public schools, charter schools may choose their students. They may also remove those who aren't succeeding. It is our mission to teach all students, regardless of their background. If your family moves to our neighborhood, our school is required to accommodate you.

Providing high-quality education for all students requires a significant financial investment. What we are seeing on a national and state level is people wanting to get a piece of the action under the guise of "putting students first" or "stepping up for students." Some of these lobbying efforts are supported by deep-pocketed corporate interests, such as the Walton Family Foundation.

Why can't we put students first by directing these resources to neighborhood schools? As Kathy Kidder of the League of Women Voters noted in her excellent piece of April 7, more than $1.6 million was given to private and religious schools in Alachua County in 2010-2011. In this era of limited resources, $1.6 million is hardly small potatoes.

I'm more than a little skeptical about East's assertion that students who are given taxpayer money to attend private schools "are achieving the same gains in reading in math as students of all income levels nationally." How can we tell if they don't take the FCAT? The FCAT is a criterion-referenced test, which means students are judged on what the state thinks they should know. It is different from a national, norm-referenced test such as the Stanford Achievement Test, which measures how students compare to their peers who take the same test. It really is an apples to oranges comparison.

Along the same lines, can someone please explain how it makes sense to declare that some schools are failing based on their students' performance on the FCAT, therefore we should give money to schools where students don't have to take the FCAT? Two years ago I posed this question to a then-state senator. I didn't get an answer, unless you consider "Uh-huh" to be an acceptable answer.

The most mendacious statement in East's essay was, "That's why a scholarship for underprivileged children strengthens, not competes against, public education." Really? The fact is that the pie is only so big; in fact, for several years it's been shrinking. Giving more pieces to charter schools and private schools leaves less money for our public schools but rarely results in savings because the students come from all over the district. It also means less money is available for guidance counselors, media specialists, tech support and deans for the kids who most need these services. Who thinks that our public schools will get better if we continue to cut their funding? How is that strengthening them?

If you take a close look at the record of groups who are pushing to give more public money to private institutions, they have long been opposed to public education and especially to experienced, unionized teachers. Their new mantra is that they believe all families should have a choice.

Our school district has done an excellent job of providing a number of choices for Alachua County residents within the framework of public schools. This best serves all of our students.

Michael P. Gamble is principal of Howard Bishop Middle School in Gainesville.

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