CLEARWATER — With a fraying accountability system and a skeptical public, Florida needs strong leadership to support the transition to the new Common Core State Standards and to fight "misinformation" coming from critics on the right and the left.
The leadership has to start with Gov. Rick Scott.
That was the message conveyed by many of the 36 participants in a three-day education summit organized after another bruising year in Florida's education system. The state saw another education commissioner abruptly resign, and the Board of Education agreed at the 11th hour to pad school grades. The so-called "safety net" will be considered by the board for the third straight year in October.
"I think we need strong, courageous leadership," said Doug Tuthill, one of the summit participants and president of Step Up for Students, an organization that provides tax-credit scholarships to low-income students.
Scott organized the summit but won't attend, a spokeswoman in his office confirmed Tuesday. He charged Pam Stewart, the interim education commissioner, with leading it, instead relying on communication from staffers who did attend.
No one expects the summit to result in a new set of standards, tests or school grading formula, Stewart said Tuesday. But their talks would inform future discussions by lawmakers and the state board, she said.
Participants broke into teams to discuss each topic, then came back for larger group discussions.
Few at the summit questioned Tuesday that Florida would continue phasing in the more rigorous Common Core standards, which have been approved in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Supporters say the new standards will emphasize critical thinking and provide a better state-by-state comparison of student performance.
Opponents — an unusual mix of tea party groups, libertarians, progressive activists and some Democratic lawmakers — fear a loss of local control and the possibility of excessive testing.
Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade schools, dismissed their objections.
"I do not care about the radicalized right or left," he said, adding that when they agree, the "rest of us" should stay away.
Laura Zorc of Florida Parents Against Common Core was one of the few opponents in the room. She said she was "disappointed" in the discussion. She said there's "major concern" about Common Core and "they just ignored it in here."
Much of the emphasis, instead, was on how to sell Common Core to the public. A recent PDK/Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans don't know what the standards are.
A few in the group suggested using Common Core but changing its name or removing any reference to it. State Board Chairman Gary Chartrand recommended that reading lists for students be screened to avoid potentially upsetting subjects such as socialism and homosexuality. Later, his group suggested that instructional materials be "aligned with Florida's values and culture."
Some fault lines were apparent Tuesday as the group moved into a discussion of school grades and teacher evaluations. Those topics are on deck today.
During one "team" meeting, Carvalho sparred with Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. The two disagreed about how to transition the state's grading formula to the Common Core.
Afterward, in the larger group discussion, State Senator John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, rose when he thought he heard a suggestion to do away with the state's A to F grading system.
"To move away from that at this point in time in the state of Florida would be a very bad idea, in my opinion," he said.
St. Johns County superintendent Joe Joyner said the state needs to be careful when grading schools.
"When we call a school failing, we better be darn sure it's failing," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.