Of meaningful school choice, “radical new ideas,” a private school experience, and Get. Off. My. Lawn

In the last year, All Saints Academy and the Lake Wales Charter System have hosted screenings of a celebrated education documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Hunt Berryman and I attended the Lake Wales screening on Monday night. I’ll write more about the specific film content in subsequent posts.

But understand this, it is an unrelenting 90-minute indictment of Florida’s rote-test-punish-segregate education model. It’s delivered in the authoritative words of Google executives, the Khan Academy guy, and anyone with a shred of humanity. No one in the Lake Wales audience disagreed with its message. Except Hunt Berryman. This film and new mindset is a 90-minute indictment of Hunt’s approach to education, in which he always chooses the Florida’s DoE and Legislature over our kids.

If you doubt me in this, consider two things:

— The words of the actual filmmaker, Ted Dintersmith. He told us after the movie that every state government he’s visited in America is doing something to improve the innovation and humanity of its education system — except one. Guess which. This is a direct quote: “I’ve talked to a lot of Florida legislators; and I tell them, ‘I know you don’t wake up every day trying to destroy your kids’ education and chase away your best teachers. But that’s what you’re doing.” I think Dintersmith actually gives them too much credit.

— I spent virtually the entire film and post-film discussion grinning and twitching like a giddy Cheshire cat. Hunt spent it scowling and yawning. Ask anyone who was there.

About those radical new ideas

What the film and discussion really portray/advocate is the radical idea of unshackling public schools from their stupid, soul-killing, industrial-era metrics of fact-retention. It advocates putting the classroom experience first. That’s exactly what I’ve campaigned on for six months. It’s what I’ve written about for years.

It’s extremely encouraging that the forces behind both All Saints and the Lake Wales Charter System are on my side, whether they realize it or not.

As I’ve said endlessly, I support a “private school” model for traditional public schools. Free teachers from meaningless standards. Emphasize depth of knowledge, not fact retention. Evaluate students by what they create and how they perform publicly. Develop citizenship through meaningful experience. I’m not saying that private schools do all of these things. I’m saying they can. They have the freedom to do it.

To a lesser extent, charter schools do as well.

Donna Dunson, principal at Lake Wales High School, is doing more to bring a private school experience to a non-enrollment-curated public school than any other Florida educational leader of whom I’m aware. Lake Wales High is “C” school. But no one cares. People are sold on the environment. And that shows the stupidity and fraudulence of Florida’s school grades.

My past criticisms of charter and magnet schools always related to exclusionary enrollment practices. Lake Wales High is a broadly — but not perfectly — inclusive one-town high school. It is probably the best single model I know of what charters were meant to be.

Donna and I are just getting to know each other. We don’t agree on everything. And there’s a big difference between school leadership and system leadership in a time of teacher shortages. I have no idea who she’ll vote for; but I could talk to her forever. She’s a fountain of ideas and charisma. And she stands up in front of her kids every day. She leads from the front. I think she and I agree that environment and experience is everything. Get that right, and meaningful numbers will take care of themselves.

There is no reason whatsoever that talented leaders and principals in traditional zoned schools cannot achieve exactly the same environmental successes given the same freedoms. But the state of Florida today only offers those freedoms and respect of choices to schools with magnet, charter, or private in their names. That must change.

Honoring all school choices

Moreover, I’m deeply encouraged by the reaction of the whole charter/magnet/choice community to my campaign. I received this public comment just yesterday from a McKeel parent.

I’m voting for you. I think that you will be a great force of change for Polk County Schools. My daughters go to McKeel. They always have. I do have a few issues with the school, but I would not like my children to attend school anywhere else. I read the previous incarnation of Lakeland Local. I read lots about your views on charter and magnet schools. And I’m still voting for you.

I think most people in “charter/choice/magnet” community understand that I want to expand school choice to actually include traditional schools. Since the era of Florida school grades began in 1998-99, our state has never considered attending a zoned public school as a legitimate choice — unless that school is rich. But it is a choice, for everyone. If our state and district honored all choices, the kids at Kathleen Middle would not have lost nine of their 11 English/Language Arts teachers after this school year started.

I have never opposed school choice as a concept. I have opposed choice + test + punish + stigmatize + segregate + turnover teachers + repeat. Take away all that stuff to the right of “choice,” and we can do much business together. And choice/branded schools will benefit, too.

Get off my lawn is not an education vision

When I talk to Hunt’ supporters/buddies, and I do, they often twist themselves into salty pretzels of cognitive dissonance. They almost all speak of All Saints and the Lake Wales Charter district in glowing terms because of what they perceive as their forward-looking ideas. Yet, they are stalwart in their support of a guy who wants nothing to do with these “radical new ideas,” like letting traditional schools have private school freedom. And treating kids like human beings. And honoring all choices.

Indeed, Hunt’s awesome attack mailer on me, which I love, specifically attacks me for having “radical new ideas.” It’s like attacking me for being smart. Bring. It. On.

Hunt is spending $60K of the money we taxpayers have given him in the last four years to fight the new education ideas his supporters want Polk County to emulate. And his buddies go right along with it. He’s spending $60K of his taxpayer-subsidized retirement nest egg on a primal scream of rejectionism aimed at people neither of us know or will likely ever meet. He’s like a 21st century King Lear.

How dare this whippersnapper with his research and reason and loud rock-n-roll music make me, the great Hunt Berryman, compete in the marketplace of ideas for the future of Polk education? Get. Off. My. Lawn. You meddling kids.

Sorry, dude. The time of the Scooby Doo generation has come. We value our kids — all our kids — as human beings. That’s our “radical new idea.” I get that you fear it. But we’re not stepping off your lawn. Get used to it.

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