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Amid controversy, Gov. Scott, state education leaders to huddle in Clearwater

Gov. Rick Scott says Florida’s education system is at a critical point.
Published Aug. 23, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — After a turbulent summer that saw the state education commissioner resign and angry parents call for a moratorium on school grades, Gov. Rick Scott will convene a group of educators, business leaders and lawmakers in Clearwater next week to hash out Florida's education woes.

"Florida's education accountability system has become a national model, but we are at a critical point in our history," Scott wrote Thursday in a statement announcing the three-day event.

The summit, which begins Monday afternoon, will focus on four main topics: the new Common Core education standards; the tests that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests; the school grading system; and teacher evaluations.

The 36-person guest list is a familiar roster. Included are state Board of Education chairman Gary Chartrand; Florida Education Association president Andy Ford; Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton; Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho; Florida Charter School Alliance board member John Kirtley; and Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.

Three top teachers from Miami-Dade, Orange and Duval counties were also invited, along with representatives from the Florida PTA, Florida Parents Against Common Core and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The move won kudos from Senate President Don Gaetz, a former school superintendent in Okaloosa County.

"I have conveyed to the governor that the Senate looks forward to working with him to build upon the gains Florida's public education system has made for more than a decade, and we appreciate the opportunity to have a seat at the table for this significant event," Gaetz wrote in a memo to the upper chamber.

But some invitees were skeptical.

"If there's not a willingness to admit that the current system has some serious flaws, then we'll be wasting our time," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union.

Scott's summit will cap off a challenging three months for Florida education officials.

In July, superintendents convinced the state Board of Education to approve a "safety net" to prevent school grades from plunging as a result of more challenging exams. But the grades dipped anyway, sparking a statewide debate about the legitimacy of the school accountability system.

Meanwhile, tea party groups and libertarians ramped up their efforts to derail Florida's transition to the new national curriculum standards known as the Common Core.

State education officials held firm on their commitment to the benchmarks. But Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford raised concerns about the national consortium creating tests to accompany the Common Core standards — and implored Florida to craft its own testing plan instead.

No decision was made immediately. Action was further delayed in August, when former state education commissioner Tony Bennett resigned amid a school grading controversy in his home state of Indiana.

Carvalho, who recently expressed concerns with the school grading system, called the summit "a good first step toward tackling the unintended consequences of many tweaks to the accountability system, as well as the challenges ahead."

"There is too much at stake to treat this meeting as anything other than important," Carvalho said.

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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