Month: August 2015

Published: August 30, 2015

I’m not the only student pursuing a master’s degree at the University of South Florida this fall, but given how much I struggled in elementary school, I may be one of the more improbable ones.

For me, the difference-maker was a school choice scholarship. It gave me a fresh start and an opportunity to try out a different school that fit me like a glove, just like it has done for thousands of other students over the past 13 years.

Yet, despite all the good it has done in Florida, the tax credit scholarship program is in jeopardy because of the Florida teachers union.

The union filed a lawsuit against the program a year ago last week, and it has decided to continue it even though a Tallahassee judge dismissed the case in May, saying it couldn’t prove the scholarship harms public schools.

The union’s appeal this summer means 78,000 low-income kids and their parents, including about 8,000 from the Tampa Bay area, will continue to be worried sick. They fear they will be kicked out of schools they love and sent back to schools where many of them were doing terribly.

I know how tragic that would be. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had been held back twice. My report cards were full of D’s and F’s, and I took out my frustration by fighting with other kids.

The truth is, I was destined to drop out.

But then, thanks to the scholarship, everything changed.

When I reached sixth grade, my godmother enrolled me in a different school, a private school in Jacksonville called Esprit de Corps Center for Learning. She used the scholarship to pay tuition.

The atmosphere at my new school was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was expected to make honor roll, and everybody celebrated when, eventually, I did. People believed I could do it, so I started believing it, too. Learning became fun. Knowledge became a gift.

In the end, I became a good kind of statistic — the first in my immediate family to go to college, and the first to earn a bachelor’s degree. . . .

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Nearly a year into a lawsuit to evict 78,000 poor, mostly minority schoolchildren from their schools, we tend to forget that these students aren’t the only ones who will suffer if the teachers union wins. Perversely, so will public school districts.

They’ll get nailed in the pocketbook.

The financial impact is undeniable. After adding 38,469 new students last year, Florida public schools are projected to grow by another 100,000 over the next five. Now, imagine returning 78,000 scholarship students in one fell swoop — students who are disproportionately black, Hispanic and urban. Some 187 ZIP codes across the state contain at least 100 scholarship students each, 16 have more than 500 each, two side-by-side ZIP codes in west Orlando have more than 1,600 combined.

Building new schools to handle all these scholarship children would cost $2.6 billion. Even if school districts had enough spare room to absorb half these students in existing classrooms, the tab would exceed $1.3 billion. …

Gary Chartrand is former chairman of the Florida Board of Education.

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