Former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, now a top official in the federal Department of Education, brought a cheery message about the state of public schooling Wednesday to Florida's school board members and superintendents.
But his enthusiasm fell flat with many in the audience, who suggested his rosy view didn't jibe with the system they know.
During a question and answer session, several board members asked pointedly how traditional public education — something Brogan long championed in Florida — could survive the chipping away of resources for vouchers and charter schools, with state and federal leaders who seem to prefer private options.
Brogan held firm throughout, stressing the importance of local school officials working with lawmakers and others to find and implement changes that will improve education beyond the status quo.
The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act has provided states and school districts an overdue return to local control, as a way to make that happen, Brogan told the crowd gathered at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.
"That thing called education, arguably the most important gift we bestow on our sons and daughters, really belongs best in the hands of the people of Escambia County," Brogan said, using the Panhandle community as his example because its superintendent had won an honor just before the speech.
Accountability must accompany any change, he said, so everyone knows if the efforts are succeeding. But leaders should not fear that responsibility as they use the flexibility granted to them under the federal law, argued Brogan, now U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"We as educators must pick up that gauntlet and have the courage to challenge every basic assumption, and not only demand the best for our boys and girls, but change whatever we believe we have to, to ensure that we get better," he said. "These boys and girls should expect nothing less of us."
He spoke of the need to better maximize the use of technology in the classroom, so that students can receive an individualized instruction that suits their needs. That doesn't mean the decline of teaching, Brogan said, because top notch teachers are the way to make that system sing.
Brogan told the group that, as he travels the nation, he often uses Florida as an example of what's right about public education. The state's education funding system has survived challenges over equity, he said, without reference to the 9-year-old lawsuit currently before the state Supreme Court.
When people want to know more about how to handle increasingly diverse student bodies, he said he tells them, "Go to the Sunshine State."
Public education has become a critical issue in the state, he said, to the point where anyone running for elected office has to be conversant on the topic beyond calling himself the "election candidate."
"Even if two people are fighting over education," Brogan said, "at least they're fighting over education."
As he turned to questions, Brogan quickly learned that not everyone shared his optimism.
"Thank you very much for the flexibility provided in ESSA," said Lee County School Board member Chris Patricca, the first to the microphone. "But I in many ways don't recognize the state that you described. Because it feels like year after year after year our legislature is handing down more and more mandates that are restricting our ability to make education appropriate for the students … and many of those mandates are unfunded."
How can school boards exercise that flexibility and show that courage, she asked, when it feels like their hands are tied?
Brogan spoke of trying to invite lawmakers to be part of the change that districts seek, so they have buy-in and it becomes more difficult to stand in the way.
He said all parties should get rid of their dogma of "you shall" and "you shall never," and collaborate for the common good.
Next up, Sarasota board member Shirley Brown spoke of how some counties are "bursting at the seams" with private schools that receive funding from money donated in exchange for tax credits — money that therefore does not enter the state revenue stream. Yet the schools are largely unregulated, Brown noted.
"Here's a reality check for all of us in the room," Brogan responded. "School choice is here to stay."
As a matter of fact, he said, it has existed for years, both inside districts and outside.
"It's always existed — for those who could afford it," he said. "But now it's become sizable and significant. We can do two things. We can either continue to fight it, or we can embrace and recognize that now we've got the flexibility to make sure that every school is a private school, if you think of it that way."
He rejected the notion that school choice will create a mass exodus from the public system. People should have confidence that the schools are as good as everyone says they are, Brogan said.
At the same time, though, he added, people must recognize the need to provide options for those children that have had none in the past.
"At the end of the day, who is speaking up for the children who are struggling beyond struggling, who are facing challenges of mammoth proportion? Who is going to speak up for the boys and girls, and the mothers and fathers, where two thirds of the children in the school can't read, write or count on grade level?" he continued. "But they don't have any other option because that's where their ZIP code told them they were going to go to school."
The system has been in place for 100 years, he said, and it needs to change. He tied the concept back to his original premise that local control, with parental choice, is key.
Leon County School Board member Darrell Jones stood up to praise Brogan as a longtime supporter of public education. He pointedly asked how Brogan can work for an administration where his boss has said public education is a dead end.
Fake news, Brogan proclaimed.
"The issue that you raised is one that gives me a chance to clear the record," Brogan responded. "The best way to learn what people think is to work with them every single day. The second best way to do it is to disregard what you read in the damn newspapers. Right?
"Everyone in this room is elected or appointed. Every one of you has had your good reputation sullied at least once by something that was written in a newspaper or said on a television, or murmured on a radio talk show. Every one of you. And that includes me."
The truth is, Secretary Betsy DeVos "cares about every single child in the United States," Brogan said, continuing on to defend her character, saying people are creating stories to undermine her.
"Yes she supports choice. But not to the disregard — how do you disregard 50 million other school children?" he said, adding he would not have taken a job working for the type of person described in many news stories.
Brogan called the reports "outright lies and distortions, just trying to tear people down because it's what we do best in America today. We disagree with somebody, take 'em out. Don't debate them. Take 'em out. Rip them to pieces, tear them down, and replace them with somebody we like. Enough said."
"We're listening," Jones responded.
"I understand," Brogan said.
The final question of the session came from Hillsborough board member Lynn Gray, who returned to the topic of charter schools. She noted that school districts are struggling to find enough resources to maintain their buildings, and it seems as if lawmakers are angling to make charters predominant at districts' expense.
"Where would you go at this juncture?" Gray asked Brogan. "I understand you encouraged us to be passionate. And I understand you going to our legislators. But I also am fighting for the stability and for the honor of our public schools to the best of my ability, and I can't do it alone."
Brogan used his time to lament that charter schools have not met the expectations that the Democrat-led Legislature had when it approved the concept into law. He said it is his greatest disappointment that charter schools do not serve as incubators for education innovation, leading the charge for change that district schools can adopt.
"My greatest disappointment continues to lie in the fact that there continues to be a chasm between charter schools and traditional public schools, and people who don't seem to want to blink," Brogan said. "Charter people feel they're under siege. The public school folks believe that is the alternative that may be their death knell, for a variety of reasons.
"But through it all, in most places, we're still not meeting the most important obligation that charter schools were meant to give us. That is, to find out what is different, what does change look like, and does it have a positive or negative impact."
He encouraged greater communication and collaboration among the charters and the districts. "Because as I mentioned, they're not going away."
After the end of the 80-minute session, many in the audience walked away saying they were not surprised by the talking points, and that they appreciated the one-time education commissioner and university system chancellor taking the time to visit.
But they suggested their concerns went largely unanswered, and that the disconnect appeared likely to remain for some time to come.