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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Florida's 2011 top 10 education stories

Florida’stop ten education stories

A lot happened on the Florida education scene over the last year and sadly not much of it was good. Let’s start with the second biggest story of the year, Florida’s top educator.

Gerald Robinson was brought in from Virginia by Rick Scott to be Education Commissioner. Since Rick Scott isn’t really a Floridian himself, I imagine he didn’t think any local educators were up for the job. Commissioner Robinson was already a bigwig in charter school circles, which means he fits in nicely, at least to Rick Scott and the Republican Legislature. The Commissioner has already made a splash here by ignoring educators and increasing the cut scores for the FCAT, as well as announcing that the state never intended to pay for the merit pay mandate they passed last spring. Even though they passed it before he was hired.

As we saw above, Gerald Robinson is directly related to the third biggest story in education these days, a change in the FCAT cut scores. It’s not common knowledge but what it takes for a student to get a score of three in elementary school, which is passing, is a lot lower what it takes a student to get a three in high school. As a result, it makes it seem like the state has a lot of excellent readers in the lower grades and a lot of poorer readers in the higher grades. Educators have long thought an adjustment of the scores; a rise in elementary school and a lowering in high school were appropriate. So what does Robinson do? He goes against what most educators wanted and raises the scores across the board, saying that our children will meet the challenge. I wonder how the additional fifteen thousand students that are projected to fail a grade or the 4500 that won’t graduate from high school feel about the challenge?

I also wonder how this will affect merit pay, which brings us to our fourth biggest story, Senate Bill 736. Senate Bill 736 did four things. It ties teacher’s pay to how their kids do on standardized tests, tests that more kids are likely to fail due to the higher scores.. It takes away teachers’ rights to due process and makes all new teachers “at will” employees that can be fired at the end of any year. It assures the teaching profession will dwindle away.

A few years ago districts were recruiting in Canada, India and the business world because they couldn’t find enough teachers and that was when times were good and teachers were valued. Now that times are bad it makes me wonder who will want to be a teacher even when the economy turns around, because of all the new restrictions/obstacles/uncertainty that burdens teachers now. It also assures more school closings and most of those schools will be in Florida’s poorer neighborhoods.

Where will those children go? Well that brings us to story number five, the rise of charter schools. A charter school was supposed to be a school where innovation and experimentation could occur. Unfortunately, here in Florida many have become little more than publicly funded private schools run by hedge fund managers and real estate moguls. Furthermore, despite the fact that if your son or daughter went to a charter school they were 740% more likely to have attend a failing school, the laws to operate, increase funding, decrease oversight and deregulate them came out of Tallahassee in a fast and furious manner. As a bonus, since a disproportionate amount of minority kids attend charter schools, they have also been called a back door to segregation.

Why are charter schools on the rise despite dubious qualifications? Well, that’s story number six, the cozy relationships many charter schools have with the Florida Legislature. Dozens of legislators take contributions from charter school operators and several either have stakes in charter schools or their family members do. The evidence shows that the amount of money these charter school organizations can contribute to legislators’ coffers dominate the reason for their growth, not what is best for our children.

Speaking of charter schools, story number six is the spectacular failure of Jacksonville’s own KIPP School. The new KIPP School had the lowest score in northeast Florida and it is reported the children there even regressed. So what does the Duval County School Board do? They approve the formation of two more KIPP schools, of course.

Another Jacksonville story is Duval Partners. This hand picked group was created to run our intervene schools. After months of secrecy they finally emerged and announced they would sub contract another education management organization to do it instead. The School Board quickly cut their losses and Duval Partners disappeared into the night. This was just the biggest of a long list of gaffs by the Duval County school board over the last year. These missteps included a beach retreat, paying fifty thousand dollars for a speaker and begging the state to give them one more chance with our intervene schools, right before they gave control and two million dollars to an EMO to run them.

Education cuts also dominated Florida this past year and that’s the eighth biggest story. It probably would have been higher on the list but Florida has been slashing education for a few years now. Despite promising not to cut education one of the first things Rick Scott did when becoming governor was to cut the education budget by 1.3 billion dollars. He further poured salt in the wound by taking three percent of teachers’ salaries, supposedly to shore up their pension fund. Not only do most experts think the pension fund was just fine but the money went to local districts instead and they used the infusion of cash for a variety of things.

It wasn’t just K-12 public schools that were targeted by Governor Scott; it was higher education, too, as his attacks on our university system illustrated. This comes in as the ninth biggest story of the year. Governor Scott wants to transform our university system by taking away tenure for professors, and increasing their focus on technology, engineering and math degrees. Many in higher education think the governor should have taken the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it approach.”

Finally the biggest story of the year is the Republican Florida legislature’s push to privatize public education. They have a two-pronged plan: First, close schools and drive teachers out of the field, which they have done through the FCAT and Senate Bill 736. Then, they plan to divert resources away from public schools into charter schools, virtual schools, and private schools in the form of vouchers. They claim this gives parents more choice, but choice actually means privatization, which will lead to fewer choices in the future, because once public schools are gone they will not be coming back. Research also shows that as a group these “choices” don’t do any better than public schools. What they do have is less oversight. Despite all the efforts of the Florida Legislature, once again public schools have proven that they are the best value around, but how much longer can public schools stand this constant attack?

Some honorable mentions: Steve Wise and his various education related gaffs too numerous to mention here; back door tax increases on the middle class though the rising of college tuition and the diminishing of bright future scholarships; the rise of virtual schools, for the same reason charter school growth has been bad, dubious quality and close ties to legislators; how Florida annually diverts about a half billion out of classrooms to the makers of standardized tests and their related products; how the Florida legislature refused to fund the class size amendment, instead deciding to gut it; Jeb Bush’s continued domination of the education scene despite the fact he uses dubious catch phrases and statistics and finally the appearance of Michelle Rhee, who was brought in to advise the Governor and treated like a rock star while local educators were all but frozen out of the process.

It has been a rough year.

There is a bit of good news. This November if you care about education and Florida’s children you can vote out much of the Florida legislature. I urge you to consider education and our children when making your decision.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

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