The Grassroots or the Lawnmower

Florida parents are freaked out. Our school system struggles to support many of our kids, particularly minority students and those living in poverty, and the proposed solutions are not necessarily what they seem. The education policy debate in Florida is controlled by big-money special interests, ideologues and people so far up in the “ivory tower” that they can’t see reality; the traditional public school vs. charter debate pits people who care against each other; and all the while, stacks of cash are spent every year to influence legislators to undercut local school districts, starving them of the ability to properly serve students. Nearly all of us are caught in this game so special interests can benefit—the quid pro quo is appalling to say the least.

There has been a concerted movement afoot in Tallahassee in recent years to defund neighborhood schools under the guise of “school choice.” However, there is no choice when our public schools are not fully funded, and when charter schools play by different rules. A charter school, for instance, can choose its students and even oust those out who are not living up to its standards. There’s no equal comparison to truly accountable public schools, which are required by law to teach every single student who walks through their doors. A peak behind the curtain reveals startling stories of students with the highest need being exploited with sometimes little to no accountability measures to deal with basic consumer protection issues.

To compound the issue, we are in the middle of a serious teacher recruitment and retention crisis. This stems from subpar compensation, inequitable standards and an ever-growing job description without much support. Everyone can remember teachers who changed their lives for the better, but supporting those currently in the profession seems to be a challenge. We all depend on their success and must support them as they prepare our kids for an increasingly complicated future.

In addition, many of our school buildings are in dire need of repair, and most have a growing list of moderate issues quickly adding up. Last year, school board member Lori Hershey led Duval County Public Schools in a search for a funding mechanism for the significant infrastructure issues. The task had been put off for decades; anyone who has been inside some of our schools knows this. DCPS proposed a half-cent sales tax, to be put to the voter in a referendum. Politicians maneuvered behind the scenes to ensure private school management companies got a piece of the pie, stalling the process and leaving children, parents and faculty frustrated.

Rep. Jason Fischer declared his “work is done here” when the Jacksonville City Council killed any chance of a special ballot last year. Now he and Mayor Lenny Curry are inserting themselves in the process yet again, leaning on the Florida Legislature to do the dirty work of forcing the school board into reserving a healthy chunk of our tax dollars for their private school management donors, treating our tax dollars as a bonus instead of much needed revenue meant to fix crumbling buildings. A dig into their campaign and political committees shows massive contributions from those donors, many of whom are based out of state.

Accountability and ethical stewardship of public dollars is absolutely key to good government. We can ensure our public schools are fully funded without waste. Indeed, study after study has shown that Jacksonville voters strongly support additional funding for public schools, which also operate as storm shelters and community centers (unlike charter schools).

The legislature and Florida Department of Education should work collaboratively with local school districts to serve our children and prepare them for the best start possible. Efforts to subvert local control and to syphon public dollars from school district coffers should be seen for what they are: bald-faced money grabs. Any good legislator should work to develop policy solutions with and for the grassroots, not the lawnmower. What our schools need more than anything else is commitment to their success. It takes patience and a willingness to listen with an open mind, but ultimately, we can and will change this and many other debates for the better.


Marcus is a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, District 16.