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School choice is often private

A survey finds that 39 percent of lawmakers with children in grades K-12 enrolled them in private schools.

Published April 6, 2005

By the numbers:

36: Percentage of state lawmakers with kids in grades K-12

39: Percentage of that group who send kids to private school

44: Percentage of Democrats with kids in private school

37: Percentage of Republicans with kids in private school

60: Percentage of education committee members with kids in private school

Nearly 40 percent of Florida lawmakers with school-age children send their kids to private schools, a rate four times as high as that for parents statewide, a St. Petersburg Times survey has found.

The rate climbs to 60 percent for lawmakers on education committees that make key decisions about K-12 policy and funding.

Does it matter?

Some lawmakers say yes.

Lawmakers with children in private schools "know there's a problem" with public schools, said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the House Education Council and has a child enrolled in Catholic school. "They want to fix the problems for everybody else along with their own kids."

Many public school parents come to a different conclusion.

"They are evidently concerned their own children won't get a quality education" in public schools, said Chris Clark, who chairs the School Advisory Council at St. Petersburg's Perkins Elementary School. It's "a vote of no confidence."

Lawmakers are at the mid-point of a legislative session with potentially huge impacts on public schools.

They are expected to dramatically expand the use of vouchers, which allow students to transfer out of public schools and attend private schools at state expense. They are considering an end to social promotion in all grades. And they are pushing to temper the 2002 constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes in return for a small teacher pay raise.

They also are debating a 5 to 6 percent increase in per-pupil spending - a hike that would still leave Florida near the nation's bottom ranks when it comes to education funding.

To do the survey, the Times reached 159 of 160 state lawmakers, either through written or electronic questionnaires or from interviews with the lawmakers or staff members.

Only Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, declined to answer.

The survey found that 39 percent of lawmakers with children in grades kindergarten through 12 enrolled them in private schools. Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, homeschools his children, and Rep. John Stargel, R-Lakeland, enrolled his in a charter school.

Statewide, the percentage of private school enrollment in K-12 is about 10 percent.

The Times survey shows a 60 percent private school rate among members serving on the Senate education and education appropriations committees, and on the four House committees with the most direct influence on K-12 policy and funding.

"Wow," said Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg. "That's pretty significant."

Peterman, whose children attend public schools, said lawmakers who are private school parents bring an important perspective to the debate about improving public schools. But there should be a "balance between those who believe in solid public school education vs. private," he said.

Towson Fraser, spokesman for House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said legislative seniority, geography and political party were the big factors in determining who got committee assignments - not personal school choice.

"One of the boxes was not, "Where do your kids go to school?' " Fraser said.

The Times survey also found:

Most lawmakers do not have children in school. Only 37 percent of House members and 33 percent of Senate members have school-age children.

Democrats with school-age children were more likely than Republicans - 44 percent to 37 percent - to have their children in private schools.

Lawmakers' children who are in public schools are more likely to be enrolled in A-rated schools than the population at large, 59 percent to 46 percent.

Surveys in other states have shown similar results.

In Texas last year, the Dallas Morning News found that 34 percent of state lawmakers with school-age children had at least one child enrolled in private school, and the Los Angeles Times found roughly the same percentage among California lawmakers in 2000. In 2001, a Heritage Foundation survey found that 47 percent of U.S. congressmen and 51 percent of U.S. senators with school-age children sent them to private schools.

Among Florida lawmakers, money is one reason for disproportionate private school enrollment. More than a quarter of lawmakers are attorneys. Nearly a third are millionaires.

Lawmakers with children in private schools offer multiple reasons.

Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, said he chose a private school for his child because of its small class sizes and its location a few blocks from the family's house.

Baxley, the committee chairman, has a son at the public St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind and a daughter at a Catholic school. She gets a solid religious education and more help for a reading disability, he says.

Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, taught social studies and coached football in Miami-Dade public schools for 19 years. Now, two of his children are homeschooled by his wife, and another is at a Catholic school.

Arza, who chairs the House PreK-12 Committee, said that as a teacher, he was frustrated by the vast number of ninth-graders who couldn't read and the high percentage of minority students who drop out. His wife was fed up with the social environment at public schools, where too many kids curse and one of his daughter's friends wore a beeper in elementary school.

"She felt she could do a better job," he said.

Ultimately, those personal decisions factor into policy, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

"Oftentimes, the personal IS political," he said in an e-mail. "While I believe it is possible to send one's kids to private schools and still support the public school system, I doubt that the breadth and intensity of support would be the same."

Some public school parents were less diplomatic.

Lori Lencioni, the PTSA president at Martinez Middle School in Hillsborough County, said she recently attended a fundraiser so that the school could renew the service contract for its copy machine.

Public schools "don't have the basic necessities," she said. "And these lawmakers are off in la-la land."

Even as some of their policies have frustrated public school parents, teachers and school districts, many lawmakers see themselves as reformers.

With Gov. Jeb Bush leading the way, Republican legislators have consistently downplayed the notion that there is a strong link between more money and better schools. Instead, they have highlighted higher standards, standardized testing and the competition created by vouchers and charter schools as keys to improving sluggish academic performance.

Some lawmakers said their experience with non-public schools was a plus, leading them to embrace the idea of giving more parents more options.

"Some of the policies we're passing say, "Hey, let's make sure everybody has access to the educational choices we have,' " said Stargel, who chairs the House Choice and Innovation Committee.

Other lawmakers said their personal education decisions are irrelevant.

Legislators often make decisions about issues to which they are not directly tied. Few of them are farmers, business owners or scientists, yet they weigh in on policies involving agriculture, business and the environment.

It's also true that some lawmakers who are private school parents are lauded as strong public school advocates.

Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, is widely hailed by teachers for his role as a critic of Bush's education initiatives. And Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, has been named Legislator of the Year by the Florida School Boards Association three of the past four years.

Cliff Roberts, the PTA president at Bevis Elementary in Hillsborough, said he doesn't begrudge lawmakers for choosing private schools, and he doesn't think that choice necessarily makes them less of an advocate for public schools.

But those lawmakers must do more homework than public school parents if they want to understand what's going on, he said.

"You lose touch if your children are not there," he said.

Roberts' stretch of east Hillsborough is represented by state Sen. Tom Lee and state Rep. Trey Traviesa, both Brandon Republicans.

Both send their children to private schools.

Times staff writers Matthew Waite and Joni James and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 01:21:41]

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