Florida school board election may be barometer for school choice

Florida has long given folks nationwide good reason to pay attention to school choice happenings at the state level. Now comes a compelling story at the local level.

Glen Gilzean, 31, is seeking a school board seat to help lead the 101,000-student Pinellas County school district.  He’s a former staffer with the state education department; an education entrepreneur whose business helps low income kids; an energetic guy with a solid grasp of education issues. He also happens to openly support school choice options like vouchers and tax credit scholarships.

That support prompted headlines after Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gilzean to the District 7 seat in January. And it was mentioned again when Gilzean announced last week that he’s running to hold on to the seat. It should be kept in perspective.

District 7 has more black students than any other school board district in Pinellas. And as I’ve written before (and will continue to do so), black students in Pinellas score lower in reading and math than black students in any major school system in Florida. The trend lines are upsetting and baffling and don’t get the attention they deserve. They have also spurred growing numbers of parents in Pinellas to embrace expanded school choice options.

Gilzean’s support for choice may put him more in synch with the community pulse than candidates who reject such options. But he’s not a Johnny-one-note. Like many choice supporters, he sees choice as another tool to help kids, not as a silver bullet and not as an excuse to let traditional public schools flounder.

The election is Aug. 14. It will be fascinating to see if school choice becomes an issue in coming months – and, if so, how it’s portrayed and how voters respond. We know choice in Florida has strong support at the state level. The unique election in Pinellas may give us clues about how it’s viewed on the ground.

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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.

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