By Rep. Larry Lee
I have worked with Republican Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and I know him to be an honorable man. When he ascended to the leadership of the Florida House, I spoke passionately to him about my desire to advance education priorities that will help end the cycle of generational poverty that ensnares far too many folks in St. Lucie County and across Florida. He listened with empathy and agreed we would work together to get it done.
The speaker assigned me to four education-related committees, including the coveted Higher Education Appropriation and PreK-12 Appropriation subcommittees where I serve as ranking member. I know his commitment to improving Florida’s schools — and helping our most precious resource, our children — is sincere and deeply held. But the legislation approved this past session, especially the highly controversial education “train” bill House Bill 7069, is not the way to do it.
The concept of community, the proverbial “village” that helped raise me up as a child, is rapidly fraying. Children are going to school hungry, tired and ill-clothed, often with little supervision or direction at home. Increasingly, kids are having kids and households are scraping by without the basics of a solid support system.
It is my opinion we are asking too much of teachers today, burdening them with the baggage of students’ insecure home lives combined with too much testing and salaries that are not keeping pace with inflation. Recent years have seen an exodus of talented educators from Florida, who cite a culture of hostility they feel from state leaders on top of their already difficult conditions. That is my reason for supporting initiatives like community schools, with “wrap-around services” which cope with these realities. By leaving the schoolhouse doors open later and providing vital health and social services on the premises, these schools offer a safe and welcoming place for communities to do what they do best: look out for one another and offer a helping hand.
Evans Community School in Orlando, for instance, offers extensive after-school programs, food pantries, social workers, tutoring and even continuing education for parents on-site, in partnership with the University of Central Florida. Once a failing school branded by the state with a scarlet “F,” Evans now graduates 90 percent of its students in one of the area’s poorest neighborhoods and sends the vast majority on to college. That kind of forward-thinking innovation is a sterling example of success in Florida education and we need more of it. We should incentivize the more than two dozen community colleges around the state to engage in similar partnerships and create incentives for the personnel currently working in failing schools — and I mean everyone, from the principal to the janitors and cafeteria workers — to improve, rather than punishing them by depriving them of extra resources reserved for (usually affluent) “A” schools.
Some say our public schools are simply broken and the only answer is more privatization. I agree there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every student and charter schools play an important role in our overall education system. But these good efforts should not come at the expense of public education, which has been the case all too often in Tallahassee, where for-profit school construction is expanding more and more rapidly each year.
There is a tremendous amount of good work being done by our teachers, principals and school boards across the state to help meet the great needs we have. The future of so many families caught in cyclical poverty, and the future of our democracy, depends on whether we lift them up or turn our backs on them.
We must find a way to bring everyone to the table to help improve our schools and it is very important to have the local school districts at that table. Together, we can not only make a difference, but will develop schools and communities of hope.