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Saturday, Dec 20, 2014
Editorials

How to win back Florida educators

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The past few weeks have been a debacle for Gov. Rick Scott, who has made winning over Florida’s teachers and parents an important component of his 2014 re-election strategy.

In an effort to score points with teachers after a very shaky first year in office, the governor proposed $2,500 across-the-board teacher raises. When the Florida Legislature balked at the details, Scott backed off the across-the-board requirement and agreed to a watered-down version of his “I love teachers” agenda. Teachers have yet to see those raises.

Next up as part of his “showing teachers some love” strategy: issuing debit cards for teachers to buy essential school supplies without digging into their own pockets. Yet the debit cards were not available prior to school starting and actually slowed down teachers’ ability to purchase those items.

But what could he do to show he cared without spending more tax dollars? How about a listening tour with no discernible results? Listening should involve seeking opinion from those in the field and an attempt to implement some of those suggestions.

These were the governor’s corrective steps to make up for the bad blood stemming from his early antagonistic acts toward teachers. During the 2011 legislative session the governor cut $1.3 billion from public education. In 2012 he replaced $1 billion of that and was disappointed that teachers and parents didn’t credit him with an increase in “new” education funding.

One of Gov. Scott’s first acts upon being elected was to support and sign into law a new version of the bill educators had successfully defeated the previous year that tied teacher performance and raises to student test scores.

Then last year he supported the so-called “parent trigger” bill that had been defeated previously as well. Fortunately, the Florida Senate once again stopped it from reaching his desk for his signature.

In his official duties as governor, he has the honor of presenting awards to those selected as Teachers of the Year. As these outstanding educators arrived at the Governor’s Mansion, they were asked to comment about the governor on camera. These videotapes were edited and used by the Republican Party of Florida as promotional or campaign ads touting the governor.

Which brings us to the past few weeks. After his third education commissioner in as many years resigned, he hastily called a three-day summit. He cherry-picked 36 participants for the Florida Education Accountability Summit and asked for the esteemed, but not diverse, group to consider four issues:

State standards (whether to adopt national benchmarks known as Common Core);

Assessments (whether to join a 20-state consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, to develop new assessments in math and English and replace FCAT);

School grades (addressing a flawed system), and

Teacher evaluations (a system viewed skeptically by educators).

Some frustrated parents and teachers have referred to the summit as a farce.

With these hotbed issues being discussed amid intense media coverage, you would think Scott would have played a pivotal role at the summit. But not only did he not moderate the discussions, he didn’t even attend — not even for a brief appearance or welcome.

However, he did attend a private meeting a day after the summit to discuss education policy with three proponents of Common Core standards and the current school grading system: former Gov. Jeb Bush, state Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand and state Sen. John Thrasher. Absent from the meeting was the interim education commissioner, Pam Stewart, who had led the education summit.

In the spirit of cooperation, let me offer five suggestions to the governor to restore confidence among Florida’s education community:

Appoint a well-respected educator from Florida’s public schools to serve as education commissioner. Stop looking outside the state and tap into our talent;

Return control to locally elected school boards, recognizing that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work any better statewide than it does nationwide;

Stop changing education policy every year and allow teachers to focus on teaching rather than jumping through ever-changing hoops, paperwork, standards and bureaucracy;

Do away with all the gimmicks: parent trigger, merit pay tied to student test scores and grading schools based on a flawed formula, and adopt state Rep. Debbie Mayfield’s bill, which prevents implementation of Common Core until the state Board of Education determines how much the new standards will cost and holds numerous public hearings.

Objections to adopting the Common Core standards span the political spectrum. Libertarians and the tea party movement believe it’s an overreach of the federal government that takes away local control. Opponents on the left believe it is a huge profit-making enterprise with too much emphasis on testing.

Let’s take a breath and refrain from jumping into another costly change without proper vetting and meaningful and inclusive public input.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. Contact her at pdockery@floridavoices.com.

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