This opinion editorial first appeared inContext Floridaon February 9, 2016.
What would you think if your neighbors decided one Christmas that instead of getting their daughter a much-wanted hula hoop and their son a long-prized model airplane (that loops the loop), fairness demands that they give their children carbon copies of the same toy?
If you’re like me, you’d probably think, “Surely, it must be possible to give each child a unique gift without showing favoritism toward one or the other.” But if you work in the legalistic bowels of Florida’s educational system, you’d probably affirm the “uniformity” of your neighbors’ Christmas gift-giving.
That’s because Florida’s Constitution has a well meaning, but absolutely nutty clause that says our state’s educational system must be “uniform.” The clause is well meaning because it’s designed to promote fairness and prevent favoritism. But it’s absolutely nutty because it fails to treat Florida students as individuals with unique needs, interests, abilities and learning styles.
Put another way, the uniformity clause fails to account for the diversity of Florida’s students.
Moreover, the uniformity clause sometimes leads to laudable-but-far-less-than-ideal campaigns like the current effort to mandate 20 minutes of daily recess in Florida’s public schools. This campaign is being waged by an impressive group of central Florida mothers who’ve been troubled by the disappearance of recess in their children’s elementary schools.
Generally, I’m sympathetic to their cause because I believe many students — particularly rambunctious boys — need more physical activity during the school day than they currently get. And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not a Johnny-Come-Lately to this effort. When I was a schoolboy, I was a fervent proponent of “more recess.”
Still, the moms supporting more recess gave me pause when they invoked the “uniformity” clause to advance their cause. “We will not accept a ‘recess for some, but not all’ approach,” one of the mothers told NBC’s Today Show. This comment took me aback because I thought, “What about the students who’d benefit more from greater classroom time than from greater physical activity at school?”
For example, when my daughter attended “uniform” public schools in Virginia, she was denied the opportunity to take an academic course in place of a P.E. class — even though she spent nearly 15 hours a week in an after-school ballet program.
Now, I realize it isn’t fair — or desirable — to expect every school to bend to the interests of every student. No school can be all things to all students. But no school should have to be.
Rather than having “one-size-fits-all” education policies handed down by central planners in Tallahassee, wouldn’t we all be better off if education policies worked more like restaurant policies? That is, instead of treating all customers the same, wouldn’t we all be better off if our “uniform” educational system were replaced by an educational free market that offered parents and students a variety of menu options and “learning cuisines”?
In such a free market, parents who wanted more of this or less of that could find schools that accommodated their interests. And parents unhappy with their current options could expect educational entrepreneurs to step in and respond to their needs far more efficiently than the central planners in Tallahassee.
Thankfully, the Florida Legislature has taken an important step toward facilitating the rise of an educational free market. It passed, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a Gardiner Scholarship program that places the per-pupil monies for each student into a personal learning account managed by the child’s parents. From this account, parents can pay for an array of programs and services — whether they’re “bundled” at a single school or “unbundled” and offered by different providers.
The beauty of this program is that it does exactly what most parents do at Christmas — it provides fairness to all while showing a special concern for the unique needs and interests of each child.
Currently, the Gardiner Scholarship is limited to students with special needs. But my hope is that scholarships of this kind will soon be available to all Florida families – including the parents of rambunctious boys who need more recess.