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Some Duval School Board Members Oppose Charter Bill By Jacksonville Representative

Kevan Westenbarger

A former Duval County School Board member and current state representative is co-sponsoring legislation that some school board members and the superintendent oppose.

Jacksonville Rep. Jason Fischer’s “Schools-of-Hope” bill would encourage private charter companies to replace struggling neighborhood schools.

Duval School Board Chair Paula Wright said Wednesday Fischer owes it to Duval Schools to abandon the bill. Wright asked for the public’s help at a board meeting earlier this month.

“Derail this,” she said. “This could really impact our district. It is important that you contact your legislators.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is on the same page, writing a letter to senators urging them to reject Fischer’s House bill.

“I think it has the potential to create massive disruption, discontinuity  in communities where our children are in concentrations of poverty,” he said in an interview with WJCT last month.

The House bill gives districts less time to improve D and F schools before the state intervenes. It also offers public money to charter operators to open within five miles of a failing school to replace it.

Charters are privately run public schools, and the district doesn’t choose their curriculum, teachers or principals, but their grades and graduation rates are included in district performance grades.

Vitti said, under Fischer’s bill, Duval might have to close three middle schools — Northwestern, Ribault and Matthew Gilbert — if the schools don’t receive a C grade this year. The students could be rerouted to other schools or a charter could serve them.

Fischer said he helped craft the legislation because a traditional public school system isn’t serving all kids.

“For far too long people have been doing the same things, the same way and expecting to get different results,” said Fischer in a phone interview Thursday.

But Vitti argues research doesn't prove charters always outperform neighborhood schools. He said there are more than 200 KIPP charter schools around the country  and while they’re highly regarded, even a KIPP Elementary in Duval received a D grade last year.

“It faces the challenges that traditional public schools face, which is scale,” Vitti said. “They have to find leaders and teachers that can effectively work with students.”

Vitti said more money should be spent on teacher training and development, while incentivizing the best ones to continue teaching in low-performing schools.

But Fischer points out the legislation would require charters have a proven track record of raising student achievement. He said traditional schools would still get support for teacher and principal development, even if some of them have to close.

“I’m going to fight for this bill and it doesn’t matter who's opposed to it,” Fischer said. “I care about the kids that are involved, the kids that aren’t being served.”

Duval County School Board member Scott Shine said Thursday he’s not against school choice or charters, but he does have some concerns with the House version of the bill. He said the legislation might cause Duval to close some schools and merge students from underutilized buildings, which he said he supports.

On Thursday, Vitti emailed board members saying a Senate versiongives failing schools more options, like extending the school day for an hour or partnering with a nonprofit to offer student supports like health services, drug prevention, and food banks.

“Overall, this is a vast improvement to the House version,” he said in the email.

The House and Senate are working on a compromise.

Photo: "Chalkboard" used under Creative Commons

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.