School choice “should be embraced by all,” says Hillsborough superintendent

Editor’s note: Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was also part of the National School Choice Week event in Tampa yesterday that featured Florida Superintendent Tony Bennett, and her remarks at the all-boys magnet school may have been even more noteworthy. Hillsborough is the eighth biggest school district in the nation. Here is the heart of Elia’s comments, edited slightly for length and clarity.


The parents of the young men choose to send their sons here. They want their sons to be here. And I know I’m preaching to the choir when I talk about choice, but I think choice is one of the best things about education and should be embraced by all. Woe to all of us if we have to face a world where everyone is the same. …

So one of the things that I think that’s really important, that most of you probably don’t know, is that Hillsborough County has almost 50,000 students that are in some school by choice. So think about that. We’re about 200,000, so 25 percent of our students have chose another school than what would normally be their assigned school. We think that’s important. Obviously you do, right? And I think one of the things we have to do, in generally in reform in education – and again, I’m probably speaking to the choir here – but I think the concept of choice needs to be an integral part of the reform movements we have. So not only students, but also teachers, have choice in the kinds of approaches they take in the classroom.

I want to give you an example. You might not know this, but I started magnet schools, which were really our first choices in Hillsborough County, in 1989. And I was trying to convince parents that a computer was something their child probably would want to learn how to use. … We did a presentation in Hillsborough High School’s auditorium (about a new magnet school) … and a parent said to me, ‘My child will never have to use a computer. Never. So why would I send them to this little elementary school that is down close to downtown when I don’t live there? ’ And I said, ‘Well, what does your child like?’ And she said, ‘They like dinosaurs.’ I said, ‘If every book your child read for the next three months was about dinosaurs, would he be a better reader?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, he eats and sleeps and talks dinosaurs all the time.’ And I said, ‘You want him to really be a good student, you give them the things that they like. Believe me, kids like technology.’ We filled the school that year, and we have since gone on to have … over 35 magnet schools.

The big issue is, no child’s the same. And we’ve got to make sure that we can meet those needs of children and teachers, and teaching the things and learning the things the way they are going to be most successful. So in my world, interest is a huge, huge push for kids. … 

Commissioner, I think you know the kind of job you’re going to be looking at in Florida because it really is a hotbed and an innovator for school choice. So get ready. One of the reasons it’s so successful, we think is there is really a realization among educators that our job is to offer parents and kids the educational environment that works for their child. Now I’m not a Pollyanna to think that happens perfectly every day, everywhere, okay? And so those of you who know that doesn’t happen perfectly every day, everywhere, we just have to keep looking at that being our goal in getting there. And we need to put down the barriers … A child that attends a charter today could attend a traditional public school tomorrow, could be in our Catholic diocese the next day or the next year, and then two years later be back to go to one of our magnet choices in high school. Or to become a robotics person at Middleton (High). They have lots of choices.

And I think it’s interesting if you look at some of the characteristics we see in this generation of new parents and people we’ve heard about and talked with. It’s much more common now to think about what’s special about my child, what’s special about what I want, and try to make that happen for your child. So I really believe it’s an investment in each other’s success, and we’re invested in that goal, achieving that goal, providing the environment that really sparks success for our kids.”

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BY reimaginED staff