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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Long time Florida Superintendent has grave concerns about the future of public education

From the Orlando Sentinel, By Dave Weber,

SANFORD — Bill Vogel has grave concerns about the future of public education in Florida as he ends nine years at the helm of one of Florida's highest-achieving school districts.

With local control largely lost to the state Legislature and governor, Vogel says, school boards across Florida are being marginalized to the point where they have little say on how to run their own schools.

Vogel, superintendent of Seminole County schools, has a reputation as a vocal leader in public education — and he has been speaking even more forcefully as he heads toward retirement at the end of the month.

Over-testing; a misguided teacher-evaluation system; inadequate funding; charter schools; and the push to privatize public education and finance religious schools with tax dollars are on his worry list. A crisis looms, he says, that could topple public faith in how the schools measure student success.

"The credibility of the entire education-accountability system is at risk," Vogel said.

At the core of his concerns is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — a simple exam originally designed to help teachers measure what students have learned and correct their academic shortcomings. The test, he says, is increasingly being misused.

Assessments such as the FCAT now drive curriculum and narrow the focus of education to reading, writing, math and science, Vogel said. That makes it difficult for Seminole to pursue its "Triple 'A' Experience" for students that emphasizes a balance of academics, arts and athletics.

But Vogel's concerns will be largely academic in a few days as he wraps up a 44-year career in Florida education and hands over the reins to successor Walt Griffin.

Vogel, 65, stumbled into education while a senior history major at Rollins College in Winter Park. During a stint as a substitute teacher at Edgewater High in Orlando, he found his calling.

After graduation, he took a teaching job at Osceola Junior High in Kissimmee but quickly moved into administration and worked his way up the ranks to assistant superintendent. In 1996 he became superintendent of St. Lucie County schools and returned to Central Florida in 2003 for the Seminole superintendent's job.

During his tenure in Seminole, Vogel's reputation as a statewide leader in education has flourished.

"Bill has served exceptionally well not just as superintendent in Seminole County," said Bill Montford, a state senator and former Leon County superintendent who heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents in Tallahassee. "Bill has been influential in public education in Florida for years. He is well-respected."

Montford said Vogel "knows education" and has the professional and personal skills to make strong, clear statements on important topics.

That's what he has been doing during the heated debate over using FCAT and end-of-course exams for purposes such as deciding whether teachers should get pay raises or even keep their jobs.

"We have an accountability system that is going to fall apart like a house of cards," said Vogel, criticizing state leaders for "making up the rules as they go along" without listening to educators.

"It has gone too far. The whole system needs to be reviewed," Vogel said.

Case in point, said Vogel, was the Florida School Boards Association's recent call for state officials to stop using the tests to define the success or failure of students, teachers, schools and entire school districts.

Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson quickly chided the group, saying that, although it had the right "to express its opinion about Florida's accountability system," school boards also "have the obligation to implement the education laws approved by the Florida Legislature."

Once more, Robinson made clear that state officials know better, are in charge and will tell the districts what to do, Vogel indicated.

"I was disappointed in his response," Vogel said. "He missed an opportunity to bring school-board members and superintendents together to discuss a very important issue."

But Vogel is used to disputes and unexpected challenges. All has not gone smoothly during his years in Seminole.

Early on, there was a legal battle over school rezoning involving Lake Brantley High School when some students were moved to Lyman High.

Later, hurricanes damaged some schools and ripped the roof off the school-district office, requiring millions of dollars in cleanup and repairs.

And when the economic bust came to Seminole, declining student enrollment left the district with more than 9,000 empty classroom seats and the continuing prospect of closing schools. Falling revenues from local taxes and the state have forced budget cuts that Vogel says are beginning to reduce quality of the schools.

Still, Vogel has served the district well through good times and bad, said Sandy Robinson, who was on the School Board for 20 years before retiring in 2010.

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