Give every kid a fighting chance to succeed in school

I was just finishing the ninth grade in Winston-Salem, N.C., when Brown v. Board of Education struck down the false belief, and consequently the policy structure, that schools could be racially separate but equal.

That landmark decision 60 years ago opened the pathway to better schools for all children. It gave parents, especially black parents, opportunities that were previously unavailable, and gave students like me an increased sense of hope and excitement about the future. It was a huge step forward, but in many ways we are still fighting for equality in education six decades later.

A national policy report card released by StudentsFirst last month gives Florida education policies high marks in many areas. It also outlines other areas where the state needs to improve; specifically the areas of school choice and wiser spending.

While the law today doesn’t force kids to attend a particular school because of their race, it does force many of them into schools based on where they live. And where they live is largely determined by how much money their parents make. So in many ways, our kids, particularly those of color or from low-income families, are still separate and unequal.

For most kids, there are only two ways to get out of a low-performing school. Be lucky, or be rich. Parents who make six-figure salaries can usually buy school choice. They can send their kids to private schools or move into the neighborhoods with the best public-school districts.

The rest have to rely on the luck of the lottery for a public charter school or hope their kid gets picked for one of a limited number of vouchers or scholarships that would allow them to escape their circumstances.

Those are good options, but right now they’re too limited. They aren’t reaching all the kids who need them. And for many parents, they’re not enough to get their child out of a low-performing school and in front of a great teacher who can help that child learn.

We need more quality public charter schools, and we could get them, but under our current system in Florida, the best charter school organizations are only allowed to grow at the rate of one school a year. Some local school boards also make it difficult for anyone to open a public charter school in a district despite parents’ demands for better options.

In addition to better options, Florida parents and policymakers also need better information. Better information allows us to make better decisions, particularly on how we spend limited education dollars.

There never seems to be enough money to pay for everything we want in our education system. So we need a way to distinguish school spending that works from school spending that doesn’t.

The state already has the financial and academic data we need at the school level. It’s time we connect that data so we can see what’s really going on with spending in individual schools and districts.

This kind of fiscal transparency will help level the playing field for our kids. It will allow parents and policymakers to have a clearer picture of where our dollars are doing the most good and where they are being wasted.

We’ve come a long way in civil rights since Brown v. Board of Education, and Florida has been a national leader in education reform for several years. But we still have a lot of work to do. We can’t wait another 60 years to figure this out. Our kids need us to fix the education system now. With a focus on expanding education options for parents and spending education dollars wisely, we can overcome the barriers that exist today in education and give every child a fighting chance for success.

T. Willard Fair started Florida’s first charter school in 1996, served on the Florida Board of Education, and has led the Urban League of Greater Miami as president for more than 50 years.

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