George Orwell must be proud of the school choice movement. “Choice,” after all, implies that the government is empowering parents to select the best school to meet the educational needs of their children. “Choice” also implies that those mean teachers’ unions are standing between our children and a better life. They say there’s nothing to fear about “choice” if your school is doing its job. After all, it’s only those “failing” and “turnaround” public schools that are losing students to private and charter schools.
This could not be farther from the truth. I, for example, work at a school that earned an “A” grade for the 2018-’19 school year. Now that we have an “A,” everything is turning up roses, right? Not necessarily. You see, current state policy puts even successful public schools at a disadvantage where unregulated charter schools are concerned.
We were forced, for example, to cut a teaching position because our enrollment did not meet its target. This is part of our annual budget process which is based on per-pupil funding. Schools must take an accurate count of their student enrollment during the first 10 days of the school year, and this snapshot determines how much funding they’re going to receive for the entire school year.
This is where the suffering begins for our public schools. If the 10-day count of students falls short of predicted enrollment (funding for approximately 22 students can support one full-time teacher), that school must cut teaching positions. This is what we call the surplus process. School are forced to cut “surplus” teachers and send them to public schools that need to add positions due to increasing enrollment.
This doesn’t bode well for teachers, who are shuffled around in the first month, or for their students, who have to deal with this bizarre turnover when the school year has barely begun. Students need structure in their lives, not the uncertainty of not knowing if their teacher may go bye-bye and their class schedule will be altered.
All this is bad enough, but the most galling aspect of per-pupil funding and the surplus process is what happens once the dust settles from the initial 10-day count. The morning after my school’s principal announced that we did indeed have to do away with a teaching position (science) and revise the schedules of affected students, I noticed a new face. As I teach at a school with “high mobility,” it comes as no surprise that we have students who come and go, depending on their military parents’ orders. In this case, however, it was a student who enrolled at my school after leaving a “choice” school—and that “choice” school will keep the per-pupil allocation even though it’s no longer responsible for the student. It’s after 10 days, after the budget was formalized, after my school was forced to cut a teaching position, after my “A” school lost students.
Did I write “A” school? Yes, I did. Contrary to popular belief, the regime of “school reform” put in place under Gov. Jeb Bush is hurting our public schools across the board. So much for “rewarding good teachers,” as our friends in Tallahassee like to crow proudly. Where is the reward for “good teachers” when they break their backs all year to serve their students and communities, only to see their schools lose students (and funding), which results in those teachers and schools being put at a disadvantage the next school year?
All of this seems to play into the hands of the very lobbyists who have perverted the term “school choice” by channeling that “choice” toward for-profit charter, private and parochial alternatives to traditional public education.
It gets more depressing. The current majority in the state legislature and its for-profit charter school supporters are banking on parents voting with their feet and enrolling their children in charter schools. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, really; years of underfunding traditional public schools has resulted in the surplussing of great teachers from great schools, rising number of permanent substitute teachers, and an inability to recruit new teachers to reverse the exodus of educators leaving the profession. How else would our state legislature explain how they can support a state funding formula that allows public schools to operate on such a tentative basis every year and expect their students’ learning and data to be the better for it?
Former Teacher of the Year, Meeks is a 16-year veteran of Duval County Public Schools. The University of North Florida grad also served in the United States Air Force before he began his teaching career.