Coleen Conklin isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. A serious advocate for public schools, Conklin raised the possibility of a lawsuit targeting Rick Scott and the legislature in April 2011 for failing to fund education. She even toyed with the idea of taking on powerful state senator John Thrasher this fall but decided to run again for the Flagler County school board seat she’s held since 2000. Conklin granted an extensive interview with FlaglerLive. Lets look at some highlights.
On charter schools:
Charter Schools are public schools. They provide parents with a choice. The movement was originally designed to give parents and educators an opportunity to come together and give students whose educational needs were not being met an educational alternative. However the concept has evolved into a corporate cash cow. We have seen our own tax dollars used to purchase, build and pay for buildings that become part of the corporate entity. Those dollars have been used to pay CEO’s millions of dollars. No one should be making a profit on the backs of our students! We have little to no control over their curriculum or finances. We struggled greatly with our first charter school and were disappointed by the management company but most of the teachers, students and parents were an inspiration and only wanted the best for their students.
We have added charter schools to the menu of choices for parents in Flagler County. I would like to see the state legislature allow school boards to put forth their own charter schools for approval. I cannot fathom why we would be held back or left out of the educational reform game.
I truly believe no one in education has an issue with learning gains or accountability. We would all agree that students should walk out the door in June showing academic growth over the course of the school year. And teachers, who are not effective, in my opinion, need to leave the profession prior to committing what I call educational malpractice. However, testing, testing, testing our students will not make them smarter. Forcing teachers to teach to a criterion referenced test will not provide our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Diagnostic/standardized tests are critical tools to measuring student learning gains, proficiency, and areas of student academic weakness. Student success and high standards will continue to be my expectation for Flagler County Schools. However, I do not support them being used as a political billy club.
Conklin’s answers are reflective of the opposition to the Florida legislature that’s emerging from the ranks of the state’s local school boards. When they go head-to-head in the arena of policy particulars, people like Conklin run circles around legislators who are limited to thematic talking points and broad platitudes like “accountability” and “choice.”
It’s turning out that school board members like Conklin pose the biggest threat to Florida’s current education policy makers and shakers. They’ve been making themselves available to the media and writing extremely effective opinion pieces in the state’s newspapers which are easily circumventing the attempts by a small number of Jeb Bush loyalists to defend the status quo.
An extraordinary public encounter between polar opposites occurred in May at Flagler Palm Coast High School. It was Thrasher and Conklin during the former’s visit to the school. After Thrasher’s meeting with FPC’s principal, Jacob Oliva this exchange was reported by FlaglerLive when Oliva shared Flagler’s desire to open its own charter school:
“We’ve worked with the problem solving community to get their endorsement,” Oliva said, “we’re working with all these people to get their endorsement, and we want to be able to set it up kind of as our own school, and then we hit a bunch of roadblocks.”
Conklin explained: “We need to be completely free from the teachers’ contract to do some of the things we’re talking about doing, and the flexibility to really develop a brand new schedule. I mean, talk about breaking the mold. These guys have some really great ideas, and the fact is, we need some planning dollars and they’re just things we would need very much like a charter school needs.” Conklin had provided a print-out of the district’s shrinking finances in the past four years.
At that point, Thrasher mentioned Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future—the Jeb Bush-led conservative organization at the source of broad, often radical education reforms in a dozen states, Florida included, that emphasize standardized testing, online schooling, charter schools and the channeling of public dollars toward private schools, all usually at the expense of the traditional public school model. Conklin, who does not usually see eye to eye with Thrasher on most issues, was taken aback by his dropping Levesque’s name, but he did so immediately after Conklin had mentioned money: in other words, don’t look to the Legislature for more of it.
That a powerful state senator like Thrasher would totally acquiesce to a lobbyist like Levesque on funding should be a frightening revelation to taxpayers. Never has there been a better example that demonstrates that Jeb Bush – to whom Levesque answers – calls the shots on education policy and funding. Small wonder Thrasher and his legislative colleagues have left defending Bush’s Florida system to Levesque. Even for a well-funded operation, its difficult to defend the indefensible. With a indisputable grasp of policy and facts on the ground, school board members like Conklin are acquiring the high ground.