Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has stirred debate with a proposal he says will help modernize the district.
Vitti is calling for open enrollment in all county schools. He says the district should give parents more choices in how their kids are educated within the district, arguing open enrollment would reduce how many students the school system loses each year to charter and private schools.
The school board is divided over Vitti’s plan, with some members worried that too many parents might withdraw their children from struggling neighborhood schools.
"This proposal is based on this continuing commitment to be child-centric in our decision making process at the district level," Vitti said, speaking to Karen Feagins on First Coast Connect.
"I think most of us would agree that parents are best equipped to make a decision of where their children should go to school," Vitti said.
According to Vitti, gifted students with parents who are actively involved in their education decisions have historically been the sole beneficiaries of the choices offered now through the district's magnet school program.
"The proposal is to say that after the magnet process is over, and parents know whether they got the school they wanted to send their children to or not, we would increase the choice option... and allow parents to leave their boundary or neighborhood school for another school that is not at capacity," he said.
Vitti described his experience at the district's 2014 School Choice Expo in January, which was expanded this year to allow all district schools to participate.
He said he heard from many parents who didn't realize what their boundary school had to offer, but realized after the expo that they were comfortable with the non-magnet option.
Last school year approximately 9,000 children left the district for private or charter schools, costing the district more than $50 million.
"This is not only about empowering parents to make an educational decision for their children, but it's also a business plan to be more marketable in a market that is driven by choice," Vitti said.
"What we tell many parents is, 'if you don't like your boundary school and you're not going to a magnet school then we don't have a better option for you,'" he said. "That's not a good sales pitch, and it's not the customer service related organization that I think we should be."
Vitti said that as the education landscape has changed with the addition of charter schools, magnets schools, school grades and scholarship programs, so too must the district change it's strategy.
He noted a number of new initiatives, including the "Discover Duval Schools" program to bring parents into boundary schools, changing feeder patterns to better match curricula from elementary through high school, and an upcoming investment of "millions of dollars in human capital" to retain and recruit high performing principals for the district's low enrollment schools.
"We have to function with a sense of urgency," Vitti said, responding to critics of his proposed timeline to implement the open enrollment plan next school year.
"If a company is looking at their bottom line, and their bottom line is going backwards, which ours is, if you're looking at enrollment and you're looking at funding just based on kids leaving the system, it forces is to do things differently," he said. "I think for too long we haven't done anything differently, and we continue to lose students."
"There are great things happening in our schools, and we're not telling that story."