Commentary: Sue-happy school districts put lawyers, not students, first

Re-posting an op-ed column from the Orlando Sentinel.

Commentary: Sue-happy school districts put lawyers, not students, first

By Darryl Reaves

Florida school districts are placing their self-interest over what’s best for students while using our tax dollars to create a lucrative payday for lawyers.

Fifteen school districts are diverting what will be hundreds of thousands of dollars from classrooms to lawyers as they file lawsuits to stop the student-centered reforms passed this year by both houses of the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Of course, the state will be required to spend similar amounts defending the law.

Given that taxpayers fund the state and the school district, we are in effect suing ourselves and defending ourselves.

What does this law do that warrants the sue-me, sue-you blues?

The law gives good teachers the pay they deserve, and creates incentives that get more students to take college-level coursework.

It offers children in failing traditional public schools the opportunity to attend high-quality public charter schools. The hard truth is that far too many impoverished communities around the state are littered with failing traditional public schools. The data demonstrates that students forced to suffer in these failing schools are provided very few options to a worthwhile life.

The new student-centered reforms are not anti-public schools, as these districts would have you to believe. Rather these reforms provide all public schools the support they need by equitably distributing construction funds to traditional public schools and non-profit public charter schools. And, the most troubled traditional public schools receive more funds.

But some school district bureaucrats can’t stand the idea of giving students in failing traditional public schools access to better public charter schools and providing all public schools a fair share of construction and maintenance funds.

There is so much misinformation about public charter schools, and it gets frustrating seeing the same myths and lies repeated by those who know better.

First, charter schools are public schools. They simply operate outside the purview of school districts, freeing them from top-down bureaucratic management so they can innovate and provide children with different learning environments.

Public charter schools must give the same tests as traditional public schools. They are graded just like traditional public schools. But they are held to a higher level of accountability because they lose their licenses if they receive two consecutive failing grades. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, can fail our children year after year and stay in business.

Public charter students are outperforming their peers in traditional public schools in almost all tested subjects and often by wide margins.

On the highly regarded National Assessments of Educational Progress, which measures reading and math achievement in fourth and eighth grades, students in Florida charter schools scored higher than their peers in traditional schools.

And a national study by Stanford researchers has shown that compared to their peers in traditional public schools, public charter students received the equivalent of about 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.

According to the Stanford study, “Learning gains for public charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.”

I find it sadly ironic that Pinellas County has joined the lawsuit against the state. The Tampa Bay Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for documenting “failure factories” in low-income, African-American communities.

These schools not only failed students academically, but put them in environments where violence was commonplace.

Children should not have to languish in this situation until a newspaper forces the school district to do something about it.

Florida charter students are public school students. They are simply students who have escaped failing traditional public schools. These students deserve the same respect and support as their peers enjoying successful traditional public schools.

The 15 school districts suing would do better by using our precious tax dollars improving the failing schools under their control, rather than defending their failures.

Darryl Reaves, president of Urban Rural Initiatives Inc., is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. He succeeded his late father - Rep. Jefferson Reaves, Sr., a life-long public school teacher. They both represented the inner-city areas of Miami. Reaves currently lives in Central Florida.