Election 2018

Editor’s Note: The Apopka Voice will begin its 2018 election coverage next week with features on local candidates, and continue through Election Day on November 6th. 

Opinion

By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

An open letter to Rep. Ron DeSantis, Mayor Andrew Gillum, Senator Bill Nelson, Governor Rick Scott, Debra Kaplan, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, OCPS board member Christine Moore, Patricia Rumph, Melissa Byrd and Eric Schwalbach.

Candidates,

In just about a month, five of you will be heading to Congress, the Governor’s mansion, the Legislature, the Orange County Commission and the Orange County Public School Board. All of you have a diversity of issues, most of you have education pretty high up on your list of priorities, and some of you have big ideas as it applies to Florida’s schools.

I have a suggestion for all of you – think bigger.

Today is World Teacher’s Day, and in honor of this event, I’m going to share a story about an educator who is doing amazing things at a public high school in Greenwich, Conn.

In her book “The Class,” Heather Won Tesoriero spent the entire 2016-17 school year with a life-changing teacher named Andy Bramante, and his group of world-changing students in perhaps the most innovative classroom in the United States.

In “The Class”, Tesoriero writes:

Andy’s science research class is unlike any other class at Greenwich High, a Connecticut public school behemoth with 2,560 kids. There is no curriculum, no tests, textbooks, or lectures. Students pitch individual projects that they work on the entire school year with the goal of taking their discoveries and their inventions out on the national and global science fair circuit. This is not the stuff of vinegar volcanoes and ant farms. Kids tackle problems like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, heart disease, cheap water filtration, and carbon dioxide capture, sometimes making discoveries that elude adult scientists three times their age.”

No curriculum, no tests, and no textbooks yet they are taking on the most significant issues our world is facing with expert-level approaches. How is this possible if we can’t measure our students’ performances? And how can a public school afford such a class?

Perhaps investment is more important than tests.

Connecticut is a small state with a $40.2 billion state budget, but they spend over $17,000 per-student each term and pay their teachers an average of $73,147 per year. Both of those figures are in the top five of what states spend on its students and teachers.

In contrast, Florida is a large state with an $88.7 billion state budget, yet it spends about $9,000 per-student each term and pays its teachers an average of $47,276 per year. Florida’s per-student budget ranks 42nd among other states, and its average teacher salary ranks 45th.

It defies logic that a state the caliber of Florida, the third largest by population and home to a booming economy, could rank so far down the list in education. But this is not a poison-pen-letter about the state budget. I’m calling on all 10 of you to consider the benefits of crazy, out-of-the-box spending on Florida’s students and teachers.

When it comes to education, think big.

Not just bigger than your opponent, but implausible big. You’re not going to double the education budget of Florida, but that’s the place to start the conversation. What would doubling the budget do to unharness the future intellectual capital of Florida?

 There are plenty of conservative vs. liberal debates floating around. Should the government raise taxes and fund projects that benefit society, or should they lower taxes and let people keep more of the money they’ve earned? Will the economy expand if Washington and Tallahassee spend aggressively, or should they cut spending and reduce the debt? Should lawmakers focus more on the environment, worker’s rights and the minimum wage, or lift un-needed sanctions on businesses?
 Those questions seem to be up for debate and probably always will be, and for short-term to mid-term fixes, both approaches may be right at different times. But is there a silver bullet to fix all issues if given enough time?
How about a long-term approach to increasing the education budget?
A steady flow of well-educated high school and college graduates into the Florida workforce could be the rising tide that lifts all boats. It could be the “teach a man to fish” principle in action. An incredibly effective school system could be the springboard to success we have searched for. But I’m not talking about subtle changes.
This would take a monumental new outlook in constructing the budget.

 Schools would be palaces. They would be architectural masterpieces that would invite and inspire students. They would define the communities they serve, and students would rather be at school than any other place in the world.

The competition for Teacher of the Year would be fierce, and the prize would be significant… like winning the Nobel Peace Prize significant. Teacher salaries would be six-figures and more of the best and brightest college graduates would apply. There would be no more teacher shortages, in fact, these would be the hottest jobs in the state.
Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is calling for a billion dollar increase to the state’s education budget, which is a little over $21-billion. Well, I’ll see your billion Mayor Gillum, and raise you a billion more… every year for the next 20 years, or every year until Florida ranks first in teacher salaries and per-student spending.
What if Florida’s goal was to become the number one state for education?
I know what some of you are thinking. These lofty goals are starting to sound like a socialist utopian notion that would eventually bankrupt the state. To this, I would say thank you for reading as far as you have, and I would respectfully push back and say this is a very pragmatic, capitalist investment into our economy, our healthcare, our environment, and just about every aspect of our future.
The result might be higher taxes, but a generation of well-educated students pouring into the workforce and our communities would pay this state back in every way imaginable. The economy and the state budget would not suffer from an investment in intellectual capital.
 Thanks again to all of you for running for elected office. It’s not easy to withstand the criticism and attacks that all of you have experienced by now. Be safe on the campaign trail and remember that no politician ever lost a vote by talking more about education.
 And for the five of you who are elected, I would ask that you think bigger when it comes to Florida’s teachers and students. One day I’d like to write a column about a life-changing teacher from Apopka or Wekiva High School, and a group of world-changing students in perhaps the most innovative classroom in the United States.

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