TAMPA — Advocates of charter schools argued for diversity in education while supporters of traditional public schools charged that state funding is stacked against them during a forum Friday titled, Choices in Education.
The forum encapsulated the controversy in Florida over diversion of state money from traditional public education to charter schools and private "voucher" schools where students attend with tax subsidies for tuition.
The charter and voucher approaches to education must be necessary, their advocates argued, because they're popular with parents.
Public school advocates responded that their schools are required to carry burdens the charter and voucher schools don't have — busing students, state-mandated testing and students who pose a challenge to teach because of home backgrounds, uninterested or absent parents, handicaps and language difficulties.
"We're competing for scant resources for the most important thing in the world, which is our children," said Melissa Erickson of the Alliance for Public Schools, when asked to explain public school advocates' opposition to charters and vouchers.
"When systems are set up that are unequal and have different sets of accountability, in a way that the competition isn't fair, that's what brings out the negativity."
"Parents are voting with their feet," responded Doug Tuthill of Step Up for Students, an organization that administers tax credit-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to low-income families.
"Children are very diverse. Teachers are very diverse," Tuthill said. "We have to develop a public education system that's pluralistic. … The challenges of equal opportunity and poverty are so profound we can't afford to tell people, 'I'm sorry, I don't need your help.' "
The forum by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club included six educators representing traditional public and private or charter schools, which are privately run schools built and funded by the state.
It didn't include anyone representing what public school advocates call the "for-profit education industry," a group of real estate developers, builders and school management companies that specialize in getting state money to build and run charter schools.
In some cases, said Tiger Bay Club member Sam Bell, a prominent Democratic lobbyist and former legislator, those companies take state money to build a school which then fails but they still own the building.
Club member Elizabeth Strum of Carrollwood said her neighborhood has been "targeted" by charter school builders even though it has highly rated traditional public schools that are under capacity. She said they want the profit from public money for building and operating the schools with students from an economically healthy neighborhood.
But Lincoln Tamayo, head of school at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, said his school in Ybor City lifts the performance of students who have previously been failing in public schools. Academy Prep consists entirely of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, is 87 percent black.
"It should be a matter of great public policy to provide every alternative possible" in education, Tamayo said.
Contact William March at [email protected]