New Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, an ardent supporter of school choice, visited a Tampa showcase and panel discussion on Tuesday to laud the local district for what he called its innovative offerings.
Bennett said some of the choice options developed by Hillsborough schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia "transcend the first round of choice" — private schools and charter schools in a testy relationship with traditional public schools.
"MaryEllen and Hillsborough are an example of how we have taken that discussion in a completely different direction," Bennett told about 60 parents, students and administrators at Franklin Middle Magnet School north of Ybor City. "This district provides a culture and a climate where choice is accepted and encouraged."
School choice, and a growing push for public school reform in general, has generated controversy and opposition from many teachers and traditionalists. Critics say it can divide the educational system, helping motivated families while the disadvantaged languish in poorly run public schools.
Elia, though, lauded Hillsborough's choice menu. "I think choice is one of the best things about education and should be embraced by all," she said. "Woe to all of us if we have to face a world where everyone is the same."
Hillsborough now offers dozens of magnet programs in elementary, middle and high schools, from animal science and medical and science exploration in the early grades to collegiate academies in the upper grades.
There are school choice attractor programs, partnership schools, charter schools, a virtual school and partnerships with private schools.
Elia noted that 50,000 of Hillsborough's 200,000 students attend choice programs. The figure is even higher statewide; Bennett said 43 percent of Florida students are in schools not designated by traditional geographical boundaries.
Students and parents heard from seven representatives of choice programs Tuesday, including the head of a home schooling academy, and from one student who was reluctantly enrolled in Florida's virtual school by her mother.
"It apparently worked," said Kelsey Gray, who is about to graduate from Florida Virtual School and whose sisters are also enrolled in the program. "We're so glad that we got this choice. Mom can say it: She told us so, and it's working out," the youngster said to laughter.
The state Board of Education chose Bennett as Florida commissioner in December. On Tuesday, he called Elia a "rare bird" in public school administration for embracing school choice.
"I would maintain that wherever a child goes after school, most people don't care what school that child went to, they care that they were prepared for a 21st century," Bennett said.