Debate in Public Schools
A Florida TaxWatch Commentary by Bob Nave (Vice President of Research)
My earliest recollection of a debate was watching the 1960 courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, a fictional account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in which famed attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debated Darwinism in a courtroom where a schoolteacher stood trial for the crime of teaching evolution. That same year Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate in American history.
But debate is not just limited to attorneys and politicians, and it is more than just arguing. Debate programs in the schools help students express themselves more clearly, using arguments that are more persuasive. Perhaps the primary benefit of debating is sharpening a student’s critical thinking skills. Debate requires a student to thoroughly research a topic, structure their thoughts, and make a clear and convincing argument in support of their position. This helps bolster the student’s self-confidence and greatly improves their public speaking skills.
The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative
In January 2020, the Florida Education Foundation, in partnership with the Marcus Foundation, announced the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative (FCDI), the mission of which is to create access and opportunities for all middle and high school students to have the best civics education including curriculum, debate programs, and high-quality teachers. The Marcus Foundation has committed $5 million for three years to support the Initiative, and the Florida Legislature appropriated an additional $1.6 million.
Before the FCDI there were 11 school districts that participated in debate. During its first year, 59 teams in 30 school districts participated in the FCDI. In June 2021, the Florida Department of Education announced that 102 schools had been selected to participate in Phase Two of the FCDI, bring the total number of participating schools and districts to 161 and 48, respectively.. Participating schools receive financial support to start their debate teams, including funds to offset educational resources, tournament transportation, coach stipends and membership in the National Speech and Debate Association. The FCDI plans to expand into all Florida school districts by 2023.
“These programs help students develop problem solving, communication, teamwork and analytical skills... It’s so rewarding to watch students grow in their craft and to work with dedicated coaches and volunteers who are passionate about bringing these important life skills to their students.”
—Beth Eskin, Director, Florida Civics and Debate Initiative
The Broward County Public Schools Debate Initiative
Launched during the 2012-13 school year at 15 high schools, the Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) Debate Initiative now boasts approximately 15,000 students in every high school and learning center, every middle school, and in more than 100 elementary schools. The Initiative is a partnership between BCPS and local businesses, whose sponsorships and donations are critical in supporting debate opportunities for BCPS students. These sponsorships range from covering the expenses (e.g., entry fee, travel, etc.) associated with debate tournament to a full year of debate team financial assistance. In addition, BCPS operates a clothing bank where professional attire for debate students in-need is donated.
“Becoming involved in competitive speech and debate saved my life… literally. I was on my way to failure and now I will go on to post-graduate studies after a successful college career.”
—Jamaque Newberry, National Champion in Dramatic Interpretation
Participants in the BCPS Debate Initiative have benefitted academically:
- Literacy scores of participants have increased 25 percent;
- Grade point averages (GPAs) have increased 10 precent;
- 98 percent graduate from high school;
- 95 percent attend a four-year college or university;
- An “at-risk” student’s chance of graduating high school increases 70 percent; and
- First-generation students have a better chance getting recruited and receiving college scholarships.
“Debate has helped me become more independent. It has helped me manage time and based on my interest in debate, I take more interest in my other subjects. I now have a 4.3 GPA. Debate has built me into a better student.”
—Shakoyla Stinson, BCPS Debate Initiative
What TaxWatch Thinks
With more than 3,600 Florida public schools and 2.5 million students, the 161 schools in 48 school districts that are participating the FCDI represents a drop in the bucket. Florida TaxWatch supports the planned expansion of the FCDI to include all school districts by 2023 and recommends the Legislature appropriate sufficient funds for this purpose.
Further, the FCDI currently excludes participation by students in more than 1,800 elementary schools across the state. Educators cannot start early enough to improve students’ critical thinking skills, test scores, grade point averages, and overall academic success. For this reason, Florida TaxWatch supports the expansion of the FCDI to include elementary schools.
The BCPS Debate Initiative model demonstrates an effective partnership between the public schools and the business community. Through financial sponsorships and clothing banks, Broward’s business community is helping greatly to produce better students, better college candidates, and better employees. Florida TaxWatch supports the involvement of the business community in every district’s debate programs. When it comes to the role the business community in ensuring the success of these debate initiatives, there is no debate.