Did they really say that (about education reform in Florida)?

As you know, we keep tabs on what’s written and said about school choice and ed reform, particularly in Florida. This week has been a doozy when it comes to head-scratching statements. Today we highlight a few and offer a quick response …

In just a few years, Orlando-based Fund Education Now has become the leading parent group in Florida. Aggressive. Media savvy. Super effective. I respect its members for their passion. I sometimes agree with them. But there are times when the rhetoric is at odds with reality.

After this week’s FCAT fiasco, the group wrote in an action alert to members: “These abysmal FCAT Writes scores are proof that Tallahassee’s ‘education reforms’ are an unmitigated disaster.” I agree the state raised the bar too fast and too fast on some of our standardized tests. But have the state’s policies as a whole flat-out bombed?

In the past four years, Florida has ranked No. 11, No. 8, No. 5 and No. 11 among all 50 states in Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report. And contrary to some critics’ claims, that’s not just because of policies on paper that sound good; it’s also because the state has moved the needle on student achievement, particularly for low-income kids. On the K-12 achievement portion of EdWeek’s rating – which considers performance and progress on NAEP, AP and graduation rates – Florida finished at No. 7, No. 7, No. 6 and No. 12 over the past four years. In 2011, it finished in the Top 10 in eight of nine progress categories. It finished in the Top 3 in six of them.

The reason Florida tumbled out of the overall top 10 this year is because of budget cuts, and because its NAEP scores have stalled in reading and math. That’s troubling when the state is still nowhere near where it needs to be. I think that’s what led the state Board of Education to be too bold in raising the bar.

But Florida’s policy makers, like them or not, have been more right than wrong in the past decade when it comes to standards and accountability and school choice. To deny there’s been progress is good for stoking fury and mobilizing troops. But it’s unfair to the teachers who made it happen. And it could undermine changes that really did make things better for kids.

In an op-ed Sunday, syndicated columnist Bill Maxwell describes what he sees as another round of teacher bashing in Florida and blames “conservative lawmakers who dominate Tallahassee” and are gunning to privatize public schools. The prompt for his outrage: A cost-cutting decision by the Pinellas County School District to curb the use of individual printers by teachers.

I, too, think Florida’s public schools are underfunded. (I’ll have to explain some other time.)  I‘m also bothered by the printer decision. But anybody who pays any attention to the Pinellas County School District (I live in Pinellas, I covered the district as a reporter and both my kids will be attending public school there in the fall) knows “conservative lawmakers” are far from the only reason it has money problems.

The district is notoriously top heavy in administration. It pays out $10 million a year for unused sick leave. By the local teachers union’s own admission, it has been overstaffed for years. It can’t find money to offer decent amounts of differential pay to teachers in high-poverty schools, but for years has quietly doled out lucrative supplements to teachers in its marquee (and very segregated) magnet programs. The day before Maxwell’s column ran, the Tampa Bay Times, in a fascinating front-page story, called attention to how the district unloaded valuable surplus property for next to nothing at auction.

And yet, the printer flap is the sole fault of conservative lawmakers?

Earlier this week, the Miami Herald published a story about how momentum is building for a nationwide petition drive to curb standardized testing. The story noted that Parents Across America, a group with a strong presence in Florida, is helping to lead the effort. It then added:

“Parent activists won a major battle in Tallahassee this year, defeating the controversial parent-trigger bill, which would’ve let parents in failing schools petition for them to be overhauled or converted into charters.”

Hmm. It’s a major victory for parents when parents kill a bill that would have helped parents overhaul failing schools?

It’s clear which side won the spin war.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.