Florida Education Association Bemoans their Self-Imposed Exile

September 24, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Ford, President of the Florida Education Association wrote a piece for the Orlando Sentinel complaining about Florida’s accountability system. Ford’s piece connects the usual dots- complaining about the status-quo while offering no specifics for how a system of academic transparency should operate. Mr. Ford warms up with this doozy of a paragraph:

The former education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, recently resigned after a year on the job. Robinson inherited a flawed and punitive accountability system laden with standardized tests that was put in place 13 years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, overseen by Patricia Levesque at his Foundation for Florida’s Future and endlessly promoted by legislators who favor for-profit schools, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Before I get to the accountability system, let me briefly address the Jeb Bush/Foundation for Florida’s Future conspiracy theory bit. Florida operates as a democracy, complete with elections in which citizens choose their officials who then make decisions regarding K-12 and other sorts of state policy. The voters twice chose Jeb Bush to serve as their governor, but he has been a private citizen since **ahem** 2007.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future does indeed seek policies to improve Florida public schools. This however occurs within a typical system of democratic pluralism in which many groups contend for influence, including of course Mr. Ford’s Florida Education Association. Guidestar reveals that the FEA had revenues more than twenty times larger than those of the Foundation in 2010 (the latest year available).

The FEA’s difficulties originate with their suspect ideas rather than their flush bank account. Ford’s characterization of Florida’s accountability system as “flawed and punitive” is a fine example. This “flawed” system has in fact produced remarkable results, especially for disadvantaged children. The chart below for instance compares the literacy gains on the Nation’s Report Card for Free and Reduced lunch eligible Florida students in 1998 (the year before Florida’s reforms) and 2011 (the most recent results available).

Notice that the “good ole days” in Florida (pre-reform) were a disaster for low-income children. A whopping 37% of Florida’s low-income 4th graders had learned to read according to NAEP’s standards in 1998. A lack of transparency and accountability may have suited the FEA fine, but it was nothing less than catastrophic for Florida’s low-income children. Thirteen years into the “flawed” system, that figure was up to 62 percent. The goal of Florida policymakers should clearly be to accelerate this impressive progress rather than to go back to the failed practices of the past.

Put another way, if Mr. Ford considers this system “flawed” then Florida lawmakers should quickly implement something that he would judge to be “catastrophically flawed.” Note also that Florida’s public school teachers deserve to celebrate these gains as much as anyone. The FEA however opposed the reforms that produced them tooth and nail, costing them credibility (especially when they continue to complain today).

As for “punitive” well…Florida’s school grades have improved along with their NAEP and FCAT scores. Just how “punitive” can a system be when it delivers 10 times as many A/B grades as D/F grades?

If and when the FEA matches coherent child-centered policy with their massive financial and human resources, there can be little doubt that they will exercise a large amount of influence over Florida K-12 policy. Until then they can continue to bemoan their self-imposed exile from the adult conversation over how to provide Florida children with a genuine shot at the American Dream.