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Saturday, Apr 29, 2017

Once again, state lawmakers playing politics with our children’s education

Students are taking FCAT, Florida’s unforgiving arbiter of success or failure, for the last time. For 15 long years, FCAT has judged, sorted and doomed the children of Florida. Year after year, politicians ratcheted up the test’s stakes by sanctioning schools, failing third-graders, denying diplomas and tying test scores to teacher evaluations. Years of grade manipulation scandals forced the Florida Board of Education to publicly admit that the A-F School Grades Accountability System is no longer credible in the eyes of the public.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, Florida’s “transition” to next year’s new high-stakes test continues to penalize schools, punish teachers and fail children while pointedly giving a one-year pause on issuing school grades. The single goal of the Accountability Transition Plan (HB 7117/SB 1642) is to preserve the crown jewel of Florida’s education reform agenda: A-F school grades.

This bill foolishly ignores the wisdom of the 67 district school superintendents and the Florida School Board Association. Both groups have repeatedly called for a three-year suspension of the entire accountability system to get it right for Florida’s children after so many years of getting it wrong. That’s integrity.

The real heroes here are the teachers, superintendents and school board members who actually know and love our children. No longer willing to stand by and watch the suffering, they choose to stand together with parents and do what’s right for kids. Their plan, which became SB 1226 by Sen. Bill Montford, establishes an education accountability task force comprised of teachers, parents and business leaders. The bill acknowledges the community’s rightful role in developing any new system. It subjects the new statewide exam to a lengthy field test, and recognizes that Florida students deserve more than the arbitrary tweaks that have left the current accountability system in ruins.

Florida’s children deserve champions who are willing to put their necks on the line and promote a sensible, respectful transition plan. Every stakeholder stood behind Sen. Montford and SB 1226 knowing full well that it would be dismissed and denied a proper hearing. That’s leadership.

For years Florida politicians and bureaucrats have struggled to explain their public education vision. The move to a new test has been plagued by a lack of foresight. For example, it must be taken on computers, yet there’s no meaningful plan to fund technology for all 67 districts.

Even the selection of the new test provider, AIR, was made at the 11th hour and the much-discussed “field test” is the entire state of Utah, not targeted areas of Florida as the superintendents suggested. And because no Florida test exists, Utah is going to bill us $5.4 million to use some of their questions.

Given the fact that the Florida Board of Education has publicly recognized the shortcomings of Florida’s A-F School Grades Accountability System, the only thing on members’ mind should be taking the high stakes out of testing. Instead, they built their entire “transition” around preserving school grades: the weakest link of all.

Florida’s 2.74 million public school children deserve a fresh start developed by professional educators over an extended time free from sanctions and fear. Even though deals have been struck to make sure it passes, the Accountability Transition (HB 7117/SB 1642) is a political maneuver, not a viable plan.

Kathleen Oropeza of Orlando is co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, a nonpartisan, Florida-based education advocacy group working with concerned citizens who demand that every child’s right to a high-quality public education be fulfilled as stated in Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution.