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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

John Thrasher doesn't let facts get in the way of his education reforms

bu Julie Delagal

As a critic of many of Florida’s public education “reform” efforts, I’ve become an admirer of state Senator John Thrasher. While I disagree with most of his K-12 education policy pushes, I’m inspired by the man’s shrewd politics. He should be congratulated on some “nice tries.” (To read Sen. Thrasher’s op-ed, copy and paste this into your browser:,0,827695.story

Nice Try #1 would be Thrasher’s written attempt to help Florida—including the Florida GOP—forget who is actually sitting in the Governor’s mansion. The only thing worse than not getting the party favorite elected in the primary is actually winning the general—with a candidate who, once elected, brings “disapproval” to a whole new level of abysmal. (Mentioning the real Florida governor’s name here would just be cruel.) Had Alex Sink been elected governor, the Florida GOP would at least have someone to rally against, as their national counterparts so skillfully do. (Attn: Florida Democratic Party, are you taking notes or what?)

Thrasher, instead, exalts the man who shall be forever known as Florida’s Default Governor, former GOP Governor Jeb Bush. The good Senator announced in his op-ed that essentially, Bush et al have now solved all of Florida’s K-12 education problems. Clearly, Senator Thrasher would wish to take his rightful place next to Governor Default as the GOP standard-bearer in Florida, to the exclusion of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Former Governor Bush’s education “reform” messages, after all, are intended for a much broader audience than just little ol‘ Florida.Governor Bush has personally trumpeted his “competition is the answer” education policy to organizations in major cities across the nation—organizations that now form the skeleton for a national presidential campaign. Who wouldn’t want to hitch to that wagon? But while the GOP’s “B” team (Romney, Perry, Cain, et al) do their part to sink the party—can “Bush 45” wait until 2016 to ascend? He may have to, because on what Stephanie Mencimer calls his “marquee issue,” i.e., education, Governor Default is indistinguishable from President Obama. It seems that the choice-and-competition Kool-Aid gets served on both sides of the aisle. (See Mencimer’s Mother Jones article here

That brings us to Nice Try #2. It’s a nice try to propagate “choice and competition” not only as the theoretical answer to all our educational woes, but also as a fait accompli in Florida. Here’s where it gets complicated, and where—don’t panic—I agree with former Governor Bush on at least one point. Standards-based education, to the extent that it’s not used to put real, live, Florida teachers out of business in favor “Virtual Simon from India,” can be very effective tools for improving academic proficiency among students. Call me old-fashioned, but in this age of internet-borne expertise (and internet-induced functional autism) I still believe that real-time, real-human master-apprentice relationships—coupled with some kick-ass curriculum fluency—make for the best possible learning scenarios. (See Dr. Stephen Guttstein’s body of science, or Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s.) Indeed, the older I get, the more I believe that relationships are the only things that really matter, and not just in the good ol‘ boy business sense.

For an example of the aforementioned, check out the meteoric rise of one-time Bush travel aide, William Piferrer, up through the Governor’s mansion, through the echelons of the Florida DOE, and into an executive position at NCS Pearson, the curriculum/testing/textbook/digitization company that now determines what “ academic proficiency” means in Florida. Oh, yeah, and Pearson just bought a global online learning company in India. But I digress.

Successful education reform is not a fait accompli in Florida. While we have seen some improvements in education in Florida (which, due to defunding policies, flat-lined this year) Bush’s choice-and-competition-based platform planks cannot be completely disentangled from other initiatives in Florida: Bush’s own push for standards-based education, professional development vis-à-vis standards-based education, and Florida’s class size reduction laws. So, while the latest “competition” study produced by Northwestern’s Economics Professor David Figlio correlates school improvement with an increased number of geographically close private alternatives, it’s a far cry from claiming a causal connection—particularly since he addressed neither professional development nor class size in his latest analysis. (Did I mention that Dr. Figlio’s super-lawyer brother works for Governor-He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named?

Note: This author finds Dr. Figlio to be an honest researcher. Everything one might need to refute the media “spin” on his studies’ outcomes is right there in his studies.(That's a whole 'nother article.) It's too bad journalists don’t read the studies; it's too bad they print what Step Up for Students tells them, instead. The media has also adopted the choice-and-competition movement’s lingo of “donations” and “scholarships,” as opposed to tax-diversions,(which beget charitable write-offs at the federal level,) and vouchers.

More disconcerting to this writer, and ultimately to Florida taxpayers, should be the results we’re getting from those private educational alternatives. Private tax-credit voucher schools in Florida can no longer be compared, in an apples-to-apples manner, with public schools because the Florida legislature threw out one of the apples. That is, public schools lost their norm-reference testing in 2008, ostensibly due to “budget cuts.” But voucher school performance, according to the study done three years ago, was lackluster at best. It found that voucher students performed only as well as their socio-economic cohorts in public schools, i.e., the poorest kids. These are the kids who are most likely to live in neighborhoods where “failing” schools are found. In sum, poor voucher students do only as well as those public schoolchildren who are still, to borrow a phrase, “trapped in failing schools.”

The other private, or quasi-private “choice” alternative, charter schools, are a mixed bag nationally, except in Florida, where they’re much worse. Stanford Universtiy’s CREDO study on charters puts Florida on the short list of states that, for whatever reasons, have trouble producing quality charter schools. Florida’s own data bears this out. For the school year ending in 2011, 15 of Florida’s 31 “F” graded schools were charter schools. To my community’s, and my own, dismay, Jacksonville’s long-awaited KIPP School scored one of those “F’s” during its inaugural year.

If there is one lesson that privatization has taught us in Florida, it’s that, when it comes to children’s academic performance, the public-private distinction is meaningless. But our lawmakers, led by Senator Thrasher and Florida’s default governor, will continue to favor, expand and fund private and quasi-private solutions at the expense of the public school system, indeed, whilst intentionally and systematically defunding our public school system. In Jacksonville, defunding has shortened high school days, decimated school bus service, gutted sports, and dealt a crippling blow to art and music programs. Defunding has also led to cuts in guidance counselors and ESE teachers, and, statewide, to flat-lining NAEP scores. Defunding and other “reform” policies have also tested the incredible resiliency of teacher morale. It’s teachers who deserve the credit for Florida’s public school gains, not mediocre-to-bad “choices,” and not “competition.”

As for Senator Thrasher’s promotion, in the same op-ed, of a twelfth university which may one day gain stature as “Florida Tech,” I’m all for it. Florida is finally embracing science! Well, nice try. But keep hope alive. One day policymakers might use the scientific method—instead of political sound-bites, bought-and-paid-for political “think tanks,” and the well-coached emotional parental anecdote—for deciding education policy. Platitudes about choice, and the art of synecdoche—exalting the personal success story above all else—are not only enormously “nice tries,” they still tend to dominate the political narrative about education. But when have politics ever centered on rational thought?

1 comment:

  1. Slight errors: Gutstein only uses on "t" in his last name. I've caught other minor errors since publication, e.g.,"Thrasher" should be "Thrasher's" in the first sentence. But thank you, Chris Guerrieri, for getting this out there online so quickly. I keep editing and adding to this piece in light of the new article from The Nation magazine on "decoy legislation." Visit me on Facebook or twitter @julieinjax.--julie