Florida’s Duval County School District is losing students to charter schools, and the district’s entrepreneurial superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, is fighting back.
But his efforts to regain lost market share raise an important question: Should districts place maximizing student enrollment over ensuring all children have access to the learning options that best meet their needs?
Most school boards and district superintendents want to maximize district enrollment, but this is not the best way to ensure student success. K-12 students today are incredibly diverse. School districts have never been able to meet the needs of all students, which is why parents are demanding more school choice options and flocking to charter schools, private schools, virtual schools, and homeschooling.
The Duval school district is the sixth largest in Florida and 22nd largest in the nation. Its enrollment has dropped from 126,873 in 2003-04 to 119,188 today, while enrollment of charter schools within the district has increased from 609 to 7,795 over the same period. Duval’s private schools now enroll more than 24,000 students.
That Duval parents are choosing non-district schools in increasing numbers suggest these schools are adding value to the community’s K-12 education system. Ideally, we’d expect the community’s top public educator to celebrate this success, but Vitti, like most district superintendents, sees these schools as competitors to be defeated and not assets to be nurtured.
According to Jacksonville’s daily paper, the Times-Union, “Vitti’s fight is two-pronged. The district must determine how to retain students whose parents are thinking of moving to a charter, while also convincing charter-school parents to return to the school district.”
To help recapture lost enrollment, Vitti instructed his principals to call charter school parents and convince them to return to district schools. “The superintendent has decided that principals will be rewarded for successfully bringing back students who were slated to join a charter,” the Times-Union reported. “The reward could be reflected in their evaluation, he said, or by extra pay.”
School districts are the only charter school authorizers in Florida. The Duval district is responsible for reviewing, approving and managing charter school contracts, but may soon begin paying its principals to help put these same charter schools out of business. This conflict of interest is harmful. It undermines public education and the public good.
Having Vitti oversee and regulate what he perceives to be his competition is like asking a Super Bowl team to referee the game while playing it. Despite the team’s best intentions, it will not referee the game as well as referees with no stake in who wins.
School districts can be competitors or regulators. They can’t be both. My vote is for regulators.
School districts have owned and managed public schools for 150 years, and the results indicate they are not well suited for this task. Public education would be improved if, instead, local school boards regulated their communities’ schools.
The future of public education will include an increasingly diverse set of education providers customizing instruction to meet the unique needs of each child. This expanding pluralism in school choice needs to be well regulated, and school boards, in partnership with state government, are the most logical entity to provide this oversight.
If every current Duval district school was turned into a charter school, the Duval school board and Superintendent Vitti wouldn’t have to worry about beating the competition. Instead, they could put all their energies into ensuring the academic and social needs of each student were being met.