Whenever a district school system is in trouble, charter schools and school choice options typically get the blame. Charter schools are not the problem.

Recently in Jacksonville Today, City Council member Jimmy Peluso offered his perspective on school choice and defense of the failing DCPS educational system. Peluso wants to eliminate a parent’s option to send their child to a school of their choosing — and have educational funding follow the student. He seems to prefer a school system that is too often failing its students.

Educational freedom, or “school choice” is nothing new. For decades, parents found choice by selecting homes in good school zones. Or families have elected for magnet schools, private schools, home school, or requested the school district allow a school outside their designated school zone. Some parents paid taxes for decades and paid for their preferred schooling choice. While DCPS advocates were fine with that, they now take issue with state governments assigning taxpayer dollars to the individual student instead of the school. Having funding follow the student is overdue.

When a student leaves a school district, that district gets less funding. What seems to be lost in that perspective is that if there are fewer students that means lower costs. A review last year by the pro-school choice group EdChoice found, out of 74 studies on the fiscal effects of individual school choice programs, 68 found net savings for taxpayers.

Those who are anti-choice don’t understand charter schools — or just don’t want to. Students from all grades are selected via a lottery system and the majority of these students come from Duval County Public Schools. Not surprisingly, most new charter transfer students are behind in every category. Charter schools must catch students up to grade level. This takes time. Anti-choice advocates point to occasional lower school grades at start-up charter schools as evidence that the charter is inferior. That is false. Parents know their children have to catch up to the charter’s higher standards and are invested in the student’s long term success. This is apparent by looking at the grades of other charter schools that have been around longer.

The two charter schools in Duval County frequently referenced by the anti-choice advocates include Jacksonville Classical Academy — with 55.1% minority students with 60.8% students who are economically disadvantaged — and Jacksonville Classical Academy East, with 69.7% minority students and 39.3% students economically disadvantaged. If public charter schools are “picking” their students, as Peluso alleges, they’re doing a good job picking diverse students.

What to do about schools with lowered enrollment? Improve the product. More than 30,000 DCPS students, or 20% of all DCPS students, are attending other options for their education. School choice opponents gloss over why. As one parent recently shared at a School Board meeting: Although many people are moving to Jacksonville, it’s not for the schools. Anti-choice advocates are blaming public charter schools for the potential closing of neighborhoods schools instead of the underperforming schools. Good schools should have nothing to worry about because competition should compel the district to improve to meet the needs of student.

Parents will choose safe schools. DCPS has been plagued with school safety issues, including teachers having inappropriate, even criminal relations with students at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Recently, a Douglas Anderson teacher pled guilty to felony charges of illegal contact with a 16-year-old student. The teacher received numerous complaints and over a number of years but it took someone telling the Clay County Sheriff for his actions to no longer be swept under the rug. DCPS has a self-contained District School Police that avoids reporting many crimes committed at district schools to local law enforcement, evident from the state’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting system. Of 5,975 total incidents reported to SESIR by DCPS, only 2,966 were reported to law enforcement. The type of incidents that go unreported include battery, aggravated battery, use of alcohol, bullying, burglary, criminal mischief felony vandalism, drug use/possession, fighting, and sexual harassment, to name a few. Parents are choosing a safer educational environment for their children. That is not caused by public charter schools.

Parents demand successful outcomes — 1-in-5 is not acceptable. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is an educational assessment mandated by Congress to assess the educational achievement of U.S. students. In 2022, only 22% of eighth graders in Duval were proficient in basic mathematics and only 27% of eighth graders were proficient in reading. Parents are removing their children from schools because DCPS is not achieving proficiency in math and reading. Again, blaming public charter schools is not an answer.

Parents want a no-nonsense environment. DCPS has intentionally violated state law by requiring mask mandates and ignoring class size requirements, to name a couple. There are issues regarding health services not being provided to students, especially diabetic and epileptic students, with untrained staff and outdated medical equipment and medicine. The “health services” that are being provided include emphasis on support regarding social issues and sexuality, with policies that were designed to usurp parental rights. These reasons add to the list of problems with DCPS and why parents are opting for public charter schools and other choice solutions. So, project and deflect — blame public charter schools.

All taxpayers — parents and those paying taxes without children — deserve accountability. DCPS is a $2.7 billion public service. They must streamline costs and create an effective learning environment for students and teachers. Most of us from previous generations are products of public schools. This issue was put on the plate of parents by the district, charting a path speeding toward a cliff. It is the responsibility of the leadership of the DCPS to change direction.

Let us hope that the school district is ready to implement innovative changes allowing district schools to recover. Almost all schooling options, including public charter schools, welcome competition within a thriving district system. DCPS — show parents you can teach children STEM subjects, protect their innocence, and do so cost efficiently, and many will reconsider allowing you to have our most precious love under your stewardship.