Let who we empower define public education

Last Friday, I participated in a panel discussion in South Florida on the challenges facing public school administrators, and I was joined by Karen Aronowitz, the president of the United Teachers of Dade. I always enjoy talking with Karen, but we have divergent definitions of public education which lead us to disagree about how parental empowerment impacts public education.

Karen thinks public education includes only schools that are owned and operated by school boards and covered by collective bargaining agreements, whereas I believe public education includes all publicly funded education programs, including charter schools, virtual schools, special education vouchers, and tax credit scholarships for low-income children. Karen’s more narrow definition leads her to conclude that empowering parents to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs undermines public education when parents choose learning options not owned by school boards. Under my more inclusive definition, public education is strengthened when all parents have access to the learning options their children need, especially if these options are provided through well managed public-private partnerships that extend the purchasing power of our tax dollars.

The size of Karen’s bargaining unit is tied to the number of people the Dade County school board employs; consequently she wants her school board to have as many employees as possible. Parents, especially low-income parents, have other concerns. They want their children to have the best education possible, and they don’t care about a school’s corporate governance. These divergent interests are why Karen and I disagree about how broadly we should define public education. Her union is enhanced by a narrower definition, while the interests of the parents, students and taxpayers are best met with a broader definition.

Teacher unions were once important allies in the struggle for greater social justice and equal opportunity, but they’ve de-emphasized these values as they’ve increasingly put the power of school boards over the interests of families. (In Florida, the lawyer for the state’s teachers union also works for Florida’s school boards association.) Nonetheless, I’m convinced teachers unions will eventually return to their progressive roots and embrace a definition of public education that includes full parental empowerment. Karen’s generation may not be capable of leading this transition, but there is a younger generation of extraordinary teachers in Dade County and elsewhere who will.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.