Two months before the start of the next legislative session, new Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers have been handed a gift in their bid to continue an aggressive makeover of state schools: a Top 5 ranking for those schools from a credible, independent, closely watched source.
Florida's education system is No. 5 in the country, according to the latest annual "Quality Counts" report, released this morning by Education Week, the newspaper of record for American education news.
Yes, you read that right: No. 5 in the country. In fact, it's up from No. 8 last year and No. 11 the year before. And now in the same rarified air as school systems in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia.
"I congratulate Florida's teachers, students and parents, all of whom play a vital role in continuing to improve the education of our state's children," Scott said in a statement. "I have every confidence that Florida can be the number one school in the nation if we set clear goals, measure results and then enhance what works and either fix or get rid of things that don't."
Like anything major having to do with Florida education, the results quickly bogged down in the spin cycle.
Competing camps took issue with what education changes led to improvements — school grades? vouchers? the class-size amendment? — and whose agenda the report would boost.
Those who supported Bush's vision of reform took the latest ranking as validation.
They pushed through a far-reaching agenda that many in Florida's education establishment resisted at every turn and now, in their view, a non-partisan report is saying, "I told you so." They also saw a green light to keep pushing changes, including the big enchilada for the coming session: a massive scramble of how teachers are hired, fired, paid and evaluated.
"We'd be silly to sit here and accept the status quo," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who sponsored Senate Bill 6, the polarizing teacher tenure bill that was vetoed last year by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. "No. 5 is great, but we want to be No. 1."
Critics saw cause for caution.
It's tough, if not impossible, to pinpoint what policy changes made a difference, they said. And if the current system in its entirety is working, lawmakers shouldn't risk it by winging radical changes like gutting teacher tenure or giving vouchers to all, as Scott's education transition team has recommended.
"Because we're doing better doesn't necessarily mean that the constant change we see is going to continue to reap benefits," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union.
Education Week ranks states in six broad areas, looking at a comprehensive list of statistics and policies. It awards a grade and ranking for each. Florida earned a B- overall. No state earned higher than a B+. In K-12 achievement, Florida earned a C+. But that was higher than the national average of D+ and enough to put it at No. 6.
So how could Florida schools — long the butt of jokes — rank higher than any of its college football teams?
In a word: improvement.
In most of the academic categories considered by Education Week, Florida students are in middle of the pack or worse when it comes to overall performance. In eighth-grade reading, they're No. 30. In graduation rates, they're No. 44.
But Education Week gives points for progress, and there Florida students rack up Top 10 finishes like Florida State once did on the gridiron.
Between 2000 and 2007, only one state improved its graduation rate more than Florida (Education Week uses its own formula, not Florida's.) And between 2003 and 2009, no state made a bigger jump in eighth-grade reading (Education Week uses a highly regarded national test, not the FCAT.)
"These gains are meaningful," said Roberto Martinez, a state Board of Education member from Miami. "I don't want anyone to think I'm satisfied. But to ignore them is a disservice to teachers who are working very hard and students who are working very hard."
Unlike past years, there were no immediate suggestions that this year's rankings were a fluke. But another debate began in earnest: What made the difference?
Critics of Bush's agenda pointed to the class-size amendment, which voters narrowly passed over Bush's objections in 2002. The smaller class sizes it mandated were fully phased into most schools last fall.
"I don't think you can make an argument (about progress) and not factor in the class-size amendment," said Damien Filer, political director for the left-leaning Progress Florida and a leader behind the class size push.
Oh please, said Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa CEO who sits on the state Board of Education and once served as chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Class size has never been proven out in any independent study to be impactful" beyond early grades, Shanahan said. She pointed to what she called the "Florida program," a cocktail of changes that included school grades, vouchers and holding back third-graders who aren't reading well.
Still, the report alone probably won't change people's pessimistic views of Florida's public schools, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "People will say improvement is great … but the raw scores still show we have a long way to go."
Times staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.