Do Florida's school grades matter? Or not?
During debate over a bill that would expand charter schools' reach, Florida House Education Committee members took great pains to ensure that any charter receiving two consecutive F grades from the state would remain subject to closure.
Some then took issue with a portion of the bill that would grant charters easier access to "critical needs areas" where the traditional public schools have earned a D or F in four of five years.
Chairwoman Rep. Marlene O'Toole couldn't let the distinction pass without comment. She observed that, unlike the charters, traditional publics could remain open endlessly regardless of their results.
"What should we do about the public schools that can be an F for ever and ever?" she asked.
Rep. Joe Geller, ranking Democrat of the House K-12 Subcommittee, took the bait.
"Maybe we need to be tougher on those," Geller said. "Maybe we need to look at something more radical than bringing in a new principal and new team if we've got that kind of failure."
But really, he continued, the school grade isn't representative of a school's performance, but really a proxy for social and community situations such as poverty. "Sometimes, what we think we're measuring is the wrong thing."
Republican members who regularly champion charters and choice jumped all over Geller's comment.
"You are so quick to be okay with closing a school based on two F's only for a charter, never for a public," said Rep. Erik Fresen, chairman of House Education Appropriations. "There's always a criticism with the school grading system, but for whatever reason it becomes the one factor you want to hang everything on when it comes to a charter school."
Rep. Manny Diaz, who heads the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, suggested the time had come to look at treating continually poor performing traditional schools differently. He favored offering more choices to families.
"The truth is, we need to provide them options," Diaz said. "I think we have to stop looking at protecting the status quo. Our job is not to be on one side or the other, but to provide all the options."
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, the Education panel's ranking Democrat, wasn't ready to concede the point. He said he supported charter schools, preferably ones that offer something traditional schools can't or don't, but he didn't want to give up on the existing public schools in struggling neighborhoods.
"Are we saying we just turn our back on our neighborhood schools?" he wondered. "There needs to be a balance."
The charter school bill passed 11-4. Members reached no agreement on school grades, the 2015 version of which are due out around Feb. 9.