Some time ago, I had a conversation with a think tanker who was working hard as a school choice advocate. I was visiting with him to talk about improving math and science education in Florida, and I was nudged a little off-balance when he asked a question I remember as, “Can we use the math and science issue to strengthen the case for school choice?” I had to pause to give myself a chance to realize that what disturbed me about that question was that – in my view at least – my conversation partner had confused the means and the end.
In my opinion, the end we should all be aiming for is the improvement of K-12 math and science learning (and more broadly all K-12 learning) in Florida. School choice is not an end in itself, but a potential means to improve learning. Asking what the math and science issue can do to strengthen the case for school choice is asking the wrong question. The right question is whether and how school choice strategies can be used to improve math and science learning.
The question of whether charter and tax credit scholarship schools can offer strong math and science programs is easy to answer, and the answer is yes. Exhibit A is the Orlando Science Middle and High School, which is most visible for its powerful competitive teams in math, science and robotics. However, the school’s most important contribution may be its work with students from the impoverished Pine Hills neighborhood, which is close to the school’s present facility. On a recent visit, I met with minority parents and students who had set their sights quite high. In one classroom, I met two African-American seniors who were both planning to major in computer science. Given the demand for computer scientists and the underrepresentation of minority students and professionals in the field, having those two students in the same class is significant, indeed.
Exhibit B is Bishop Moore High School, a Catholic school in Orlando that accepts tax credit scholarships. Bishop Moore adopted an inquiry-driven science learning model developed at North Carolina State University and used in physics classes at both MIT and FSU.
On the other hand, charter schools and tax credit scholarship schools can be shelters for mediocrity, just like any other school. In one North Florida school district, the large charter high school is the only high school in the district that doesn’t offer physics or calculus. At another charter high school I visited in a different part of the state, the school’s faculty didn’t even realize that lacking high school precalculus and physics courses could keep a student from being admitted to an engineering college.
The good news is that both of these charter schools are taking steps to remedy those situations.
What got me started thinking about this topic this week was a widely-quoted comment made by a leader on education policy in the Florida House of Representatives, Manny Diaz. According to the Miami Herald, Rep. Diaz said during a panel discussion on school choice that “there is a fire burning” for further expanding school choice in Florida. I wish Rep. Diaz had said instead that there is a fire burning for improving learning in Florida – including in the opportunity-opening subjects of math and science – and that he is eager to use school choice as a tool to improve learning opportunities. I fear that by skipping that middle step – the improving learning part – Rep. Diaz and his colleagues will confuse the means and the end.