Thursday, June 30, 2016

School Yard Brawl

How good are the Collier County Public Schools? That’s the key question as we consider how to vote in the bitterly contested school board election.
Some feel our education system is just fine. The district has an A rating from the state and boasts better-than-average graduation rates. Over half of the seniors took advanced courses this year, job placement was good and scholarships for college were at an all-time high.
Two of the school board candidates agree. Stephanie Lucarelli, running for the District 2 seat, and Erick Carter, contesting the District 4 seat, support the status quo, including use of government tests and acceptance of federal money. Neither sees a reason for an internal audit. And both wholeheartedly support Superintendent Kamela Patton.
Others see things differently. Detractors point to uneven test scores and a dumbing down of state ratings. They cite national assessments that indicate only 56% of our students are proficient in reading and 64% in math, and only 34% are college ready.
The other two school board candidates feel these are real problems that must be addressed. To do that, Lee Dixon (District 4) and Louise Penta (District 2) would get government out of public education. They would seek more local control over standardized testing and choice of textbooks and would give parents a greater role in establishing policy. And they would impose an internal audit.
The differences between the candidates are very clear.
That’s the local scene. How about Florida in general? How is it doing in public education? Compared with other states, we usually end up somewhere in the middle. In an interesting assessment last May, a cross-section of the nation’s school districts was graded on academics, overall educational experience, culture/diversity and resources/facilities. No Florida district made the top 20.
And the U.S. in general? We’re still way down the list in global testing — 24th in math and 17th in reading. Martin Feldstein of Harvard, in an evaluation of the U.S. economy, sees our education system as a serious detriment. He recently wrote, “The education for most K-12 students falls short of global standards, and we fail to provide useful education and training for many high-school graduates. The nation needs to address these problems in the coming decade.”
How do we do that in Florida? The easy answer is throw more money at it. Not everyone buys that. A circuit judge, ruling in a case that sought more school funding, recently found that the legislature was already doing enough. Leon County Judge George Reynolds praised the state’s work on accountability, teacher training and evaluation. “The weight of evidence shows the state has made education a top priority in terms of … education policies and reforms, as well as education funding.”
The question of per-student costs has dogged Collier schools for years. Detractors complain it is among the highest in the state, while supporters say you can’t just divide total cost by student population. Recent letters to the Naples Daily News argue you must take into account redundancies, unspent fund balances and non-general fund accounts. That takes $21,500 per student down to $8,800 per pupil. Detractors say that’s accounting gobbledygook.
Then there’s the issue of minorities. We are told our cost-performance rating is poor because of the many Hispanic students who struggle with the English language. In Collier, half of the public-school students are from homes where English is the second language or isn’t spoken at all. No wonder, we are told, costs are high and test scores lag national averages.
What about effectiveness in preparing graduates for the workplace or for college? Last year Lydia Galton and I evaluated this for the Collier Citizens Council and concluded, with some caveats, that the Collier public schools do a better-than-average job.
Finally, there is the political overlay. The Collier Republican Executive Committee endorsed Louise Penta and Lee Dixon, and many Republicans will vote accordingly. Civic groups heavily populated by Democrats support Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter. Party loyalty is strong in Naples and will have a big effect on the voting.
So what’s the answer? How good are the Collier schools? I have my opinion, and I know how I’m going to vote. Do you?

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