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Voucher Suit, Testing Protested At Duval School Board Meeting

Duval County Public Schools

The first Duval County School Board meeting of the new school year was supposed to focus on several local issues, but instead, much of the night was dedicated to controversy over more far-reaching concerns.

Members from two multi-county groups--Florida Voices for Choices andFlorida Parents Reclaiming Individual Children's Sovereign Education (R.I.S.E.)--turned out in force at Tuesday’s meeting.

Tampa-based Florida Voices for Choices took to the podium to protest a recent lawsuit filed against the state’s largest private school voucher program. The suit was brought against the state’s tax credit voucher program by Florida Education Association, the NAACP, and several other PTA and school board associations last Thursday.

The voucher program provides a way for families to pay for private education, but the suit alleges it violates Florida’s constitution, which guarantees all students uniform education and prohibits tax money toward religious institutions. The vouchers amount to about $5,200 per student. Opponents say the program is siphoning money out of the public school system.

But Tuesday, half a dozen parents in the voucher program argued its benefits.

Jennifer Tomlinson, who has two children in private school, said her oldest son was subjected to bullying during his five years in public school and his grades suffered until she was able to enroll him in a private program.

“He’s now in band and he’s thriving in school,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to take something like that away from parents who couldn’t afford it otherwise.”
The voucher program currently serves about 60,000 students across the state, many of whom come from low-income families.

“I totally believe in what the public school has to offer, but as parents, we have the right to choose what is best for our children," said member Tiffany Clark, mother of two private school students.

Florida Voices for Choices is the advocacy arm of low-income tax credit scholarship program Step Up for Students. Step Up for Students founder John Kirtley chairs both groups.

The group began rallying against the suit at the Florida Education Association headquarters last week. Duval County was the first of several school board stops throughout the state, said Executive Director Catherine Robinson.

“We all thought this was a good opportunity for some parents to go and voice their support, not only for the program, but for any school board members who might support the program as well,” Robinson said.

The group did receive support from one board member. School Board Member Jason Fischer attempted to add a resolution on the matter to the board agenda, but that motion was rejected by the rest of the board members.

School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch said accountability was her greatest concern with the voucher system.

"That doesn’t mean that they’re aren’t schools that accept the scholarships and do a great job because there are," she said. " But it’s having that consistency across the state to ensure that all children receive a quality education and that there’s accountability for that."

Both Couch and Board Member Paula Wright are part of the Florida School Board Association, which is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Duval County School Board is not listed as plaintiff in the case.

Couch stated her comments were not representative of the Association.

“I certainly don’t think that school choice is going away anytime soon…We either believe in accountability or we don’t,” she said.

The public comment portion of the meeting was also largely occupied by Common Core and state testing opposition group Parents R.I.S.E. Representatives of the organization showed up in response to recent decision by the Lee County School Board to opt out of the exams which debut in the spring. They had hoped to encourage Duval to follow suit, although Lee County has since reversed its decision.

“Testing is sucking the oxygen out of the classrooms across our country,” said member and retired Ed White High School teacher Annalee McPhilomy.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he shared some of those sentiments.

“We are putting ourselves, as a state, in a very uncomfortable position and the possibility of a perfect storm brewing…where we’re thinking about holding teachers, students, principals accountable to an assessment system that has not been properly field-tested,” Vitti said.

During the night, school board members also unanimously approved the 90-day termination notice for the troubled, new charter Scholar Preparatory Academy.

The notice was recommended by Vitti last month following low enrollment numbers on opening day. Since its original start date in August 2013, Vitti said several issues with the school have arisen ranging from missed deadlines to improper employee background checks.

During the public comments, Scholar Preparatory head Linda Wiggins as well as a parent of a student made appeals to the board not to move forward with the notice.

“We’re working with the district staff to cure the defaults. At this time, there is one default that is not cured and that is the minimum enrollment,” she said.

Initially, the school had a minimum enrollment requirement of 130 students, but that was later reduced to 112 students. Currently, enrollment at the school has fallen just below 90 students.

With the notice passed by the board, the charter school will have 12 days from Tuesday to appeal it.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.