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OPINION | School closures? Blame charters, state government and ‘choice’ By Jimmy Peluso

This is our fault. We did this. Our school system is in trouble because our elected leaders chose “choice” for us. You read that correctly, “choice” is the buzzword created in a backroom that doesn’t mean our families get to choose their schools. If they did, they’d choose the incredible traditional schools they purposely moved near. But now their choice is going by the wayside. It’s being ignored. 

People heralded charter schools as the solution to traditional schooling, that is the brick-and-mortar schools where our kids could walk to and receive a better education than we received. The question is, whose kids are charters helping? We consistently see that charters have the means to remove children they don’t want in their schools, primarily those from minority households. In return they get to pick and choose their students. Perhaps that’s what they meant by “choice.” 

Charters are able to build anywhere in our city, including across from or next to a traditional school, without restriction. School Boards aren’t even allowed to deny them being built. And yet, they demand our tax dollars to build and run them — without public oversight by our elected School Board. It’s genuinely insane, and unlike other states where charters exist. Again, this dilutes the choice made by families who want their traditional school (many of them A rated) to remain open. 

Charters aren’t a solution, they are a virus; and a virus can kill its host. In this case the host is our school system, and now we are caught in a situation where we need to close several of our schools? Why? So that charters may prevail, of course. And so the virus is able to continue spreading, whereas our favorite top-rated schools are on the chopping block. 

Let’s not forget state dollars no longer go toward construction of traditional schools but instead only to charters. This pot of money,  called PECO funding, was over $230 million this year, and it’s your tax dollars. So they already receive state funds, whereas traditional schools cannot, and now our local half-cent sales tax dollars are required to go to them too. How is that choice? State leaders chose for you. 

In my City Council district alone we are looking at the potential closures of Fishweir Elementary, Ortega Elementary, West Riverside Elementary, Stockton Elementary, and Westside High. Those are two A schools, two B schools, and Westside High is a C. Who would think closing an A school or B school is a good idea? It makes little sense to me. I similarly can’t imagine why Atlantic Beach Elementary, an A-rated school with national recognition, is at risk of closure. 

There was a time when we could create a system where charters could have been a great compliment to our system; instead they’ve released a disaster on our public schools. 

A great public education system will help develop the next generation of workers, business leaders, innovators and artisans. It provides the community with an educated and prepared workforce. St. Johns County excels in this, and they don’t have a charter in sight. 

So we have ourselves to blame for this mess, but we can find ways to act. I ask you to write your state representative and state senator to seek limitations on what charters can do and where they can go. There are tons of limits on our traditional schools, so why not charters? 

If School Boards were allowed to choose where charters can go, or even deny new ones being built, that would be huge and reduce future cost burdens on the taxpayer. 

We should also seek PECO funding to go to traditional schools in our state, especially given several are in historic buildings, like many here in Duval. All of these are within the power of our state legislators, so speak to them and demand real accountability. With the 2024 elections around the corner, they better answer your calls. 

I believe charters can still be a compliment to our system, like so many states in our country. But it will take political courage and the ability to push back against bad government policy. We can fix it. 

The madness needs to stop before every neighborhood school is taken away in favor of “choice.” Let’s give ourselves the real ability to choose. 

Originally published in JAX TDY on April 24th


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