Hello from the new guy

Hi everybody. My name is Ron Matus. I’m the new assistant director of policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students, a nonprofit in Tampa, Florida that oversees a tax credit scholarship for 38,000 low-income students. Among other responsibilities, I’ll be editing redefinED, which means I have the unenviable task of replacing the irreplaceable Adam Emerson, who put this forum on the map and is now the school choice czar at the Fordham Institute. I have mountains of homework to do before I can approach the depth and breadth of knowledge that Adam brought to redefinED. But I am pumped about keeping the blog’s spirit alive and finding ways to bring more people into the conversation. I think redefinED stands out for its tone and view. I appreciate its humility. And I know it is absolutely on point in 1) trying to reshape what is meant by “public education” and 2) accentuating the common ground between so many of us who have somehow been segregated into warring camps.

I’m sure I’ll be sharing more about myself in future posts, but for now I think two things are worth noting.

I was a newspaper reporter for 25 years.

I had my first byline when I was 18. I had my last about a week ago. For the last eight years, I covered education for the Tampa Bay Times (until Jan. 1 of this year, the St. Petersburg Times), a beat I found to be fun, fascinating, challenging and humbling. Among the highlights: writing for The Gradebook, the Times’ well-respected education blog. Times reporter Jeff Solochek and I started the blog in 2007 with a common vision. We strongly believed lots of people made lots of good points, no matter where they were supposedly perched on the ideological spectrum, and so we posted accordingly. Provocative report from the Heritage Foundation? Sure. Passionate op-ed by Randi Weingarten? Why not? In other words, we refused to let the blog become an echo chamber. Not all of our readers appreciated that (once, on the same day, I was called “lower than whale poo” and “the tallest midget in the room” for reporting that a teacher running for school board failed her certification exam three times). But I think most of our readers liked hearing “all sides,” which is why the Gradebook continues to grow its audience and is a must-read for school trend watchers all over Florida.

The other noteworthy thing about myself: I’m a parent. And like many parents, I’ve personally learned a few things about school choice.

I have two sons. My oldest is 8, a second grader at what in Pinellas County, Florida is called a “fundamental school.” It’s a species of public school that stresses parental involvement and requires admission through a nail-biting, heart-wrenching lottery. I know my son is getting an excellent education in public school. And I have every reason to believe he will continue to do so until he graduates from public school.

My 4-year-old is in pre-kindergarten. He attends a private pre-school that is associated with a Methodist church, the same school his big brother attended. He, too, is getting an excellent education – paid for in part by Florida’s massive, taxpayer-funded, pre-K voucher system.

I think it’s worth noting that my wife and I paused before choosing the pre-school. Its location was perfect; its reputation, excellent. But it is a religious school, and my wife and I are not religious people. We wanted to be sure academics was first. So, we weighed our options and all available evidence – and, in the end, rationally decided it was a compromise worth trying.

The other day, my youngest told me he learned a new song in school. I was expecting a warbly Valentine’s Day ditty on par with “Mr. Turkey.” Instead I got: “Evaporation, condensation, precipitation, on my mind/It’s all part of the water cycle, and it happens all the time.” I was so proud – of my kid and his school – that I nearly puddled up.

The “compromise” turned out fine. In fact, in hindsight, it’s almost silly that I ever thought it was a compromise at all.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.