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Jacksonville Superintendent: 'Schools of Hope' Are A Fast-Track To Closing Community Schools

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitty
Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitty

The state Senate is considering a $200 million program passed by the House that would speed up the process for closing underperforming public schools and funding charter schools in their place. One Florida superintendent has spelled out his objections to the plan in a letter to state senators.

Duval County  Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti spent years supervising high-poverty schools in Miami-Dade County before moving to Jacksonville in 2012. He spoke with WLRN about the so-called "Schools of Hope" program and the prospect of luring proven charter-school operators to Florida.

Nikolai Vitti:If you believe that the solution to the problem [of underperforming schools] is more Title I charter schools, supply and demand will never match. In the landscape of options throughout the country, we’re anywhere from 48th to 42nd for per-pupil funding. We’re at the bottom when you look at the 50 states in the country. Charter operators that are trying to do the work of turn-around or improving performance of students that have historically been lower-performing avoid Florida because our accountability system is very rigorous. So the reward is low and the risk is high.

WLRN: What are the lessons of history here? What has been tried before in Florida that we could learn from in this moment?

In the past, when schools did not improve fast enough, there were a number of schools throughout the state of Florida, all in the urban core, all serving high-poverty, high-minority communities, and they were faced with closure. School boards, superintendents, communities did not want to close schools, period.

There’s still a high level of value to these many historic schools, and that’s where the per-pupil funding needs to be weighted to allow districts and schools to offer the type of wrap-around services that overcome poverty - extended learning time, expansion of the arts, athletics, to develop the whole child, access to healthcare and mental health opportunities.

And so if we’re talking about $200 million and how to best spend those dollars, that should be where the investment is, because we’ve actually seen return on investment.

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