Did you hear? Florida has just hired a fox to guard the public school henhouse and the newspapers are lamenting the impending death of “public education” in the Sunshine state. If you’re confused, or if you’re simply not so melodramatic, all they’re saying is that the former Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, just got the job of state education commissioner.
But would it be such a bad thing if those seemingly dire claims were right?
Former Senate President Don Gaetz suggested Corcoran could become the “most disruptive education reformer in our state’s history.” During the state board of education hearing Monday, Corcoran himself said he wants to disrupt the system so that decades from now our children will have the agility to adapt to future economic and technological disruptions that are impossible to predict.
Near as I can tell, Corcoran sees what a lot of the doomsday criers don’t: We might have to break parts of our public school system in order to save public education.
I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence here, but public education and the public schools system are not the same thing. Education is the goal. Schools are just how we’ve been trying to get there. But for far too many students in Florida, and more across the country, schools actually aren’t getting them there at all. And yet, some are going out of their way to protect the system rather than the thing the system is supposed to give us: A quality education for our children.
A few weeks ago my friend Chris Stewart tweeted, “Public education to many is an actual religion, the schools are temples, the teachers priests, the superintendents popes, and taxes tithes.”
I’ll take it a step further: If public schools are a religion, union bosses are the gods. Their word is taken as Gospel and their political might often bends legislatures and schools to their will.
So it’s no wonder that when an education reformer like Richard Corcoran steps into the most powerful education position in the state, the public-school faithful make him out to be Satan himself — the great destroyer.
But disrupting the system doesn’t mean destroying the thing the system was designed to do. It means breaking the things that are holding us back.
We didn’t create the public school system in America so we could kneel at the altar of “neighborhood school zones.” We created it to educate our kids.
When it comes to education, Corcoran is best known for the ‘Schools of Hope’ law he helped pass. As Speaker of the House, he pushed for the ‘Hope’ legislation that would pave the way for high-performing public charter schools to set up near schools that had gotten D or F grades from the state for three years in a row. He championed the bill that would literally give hope to families of students stuck in perpetually failing schools. Schools of Hope give those kids a way out. For that act alone, Corcoran could qualify as public-school enemy No.1 in the minds of those who see traditional schools as the only way to pedagogical salvation.
His detractors would argue that just about any form of choice that doesn’t reside within their existing institution will draw funding away from them and therefore away from “public education.” What they should have said was “public schools.” Even then, the school-funding question is not so cut-and-dried.
In 1996, Jeb Bush co-founded Florida’s first charter school. Since then charter schools have expanded to serve roughly 10 percent of Florida students. Under more than two decades of Republican leadership, Florida’s traditional and charter schools have made significant progress. We’re not where we need to be, but our low-income students perform better than nearly all of their peers nationwide. And Florida is the only state to see an increase in math and reading scores on the Nation’s Report Card when the rest of the country flatlined. And late December we just learned that Florida’s graduation rate went up again, hitting an all-time high.
If the naysayers were right about the threat of charter schools, or having a reformer like Corcoran in the driver’s seat, my hunch is that the trends we’re seeing in Florida schools would have gone the other way.
At a recent education conference, someone reminded the audience that our public schools system was not an institution ordained by God. “And that means we can change it!” he said. Everyone should stop worshiping the false gods of an imperfect education system and stop confusing education with schools.
Corcoran is not a fox and he’s not the devil, but he is keen on disrupting the parts of our public schools that aren’t working in hopes of making them better.