TALLAHASSEE — After a summer of polarizing public debate, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday ordered the state education department to withdraw from a national consortium creating tests around the new Common Core State Standards.
Scott was facing mounting pressure from tea party groups to jettison both the national standards and pull out of a multistate consortium developing exams that would replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in 2014-15.
His decision represents something of a compromise.
The governor did not dismiss the benchmarks, which are already being taught in schools statewide. But he signed an executive order ending Florida's relationship with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, while raising tea party-inspired concerns about federal overreach.
"Unfortunately, PARCC has become a primary entry point for the involvement of the federal government into many of these state and local decisions," Scott wrote in a follow-up letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "The federal government, however, has no constitutional authority to involve itself in the state-level decisions on academic standards and assessments."
Scott also wrote a three-page letter to State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand, recommending a six-point action plan for pursuing higher standards in education. Among the suggestions, Scott asked the education board to hold at least three public meetings on the Common Core "to identify any opportunity to strengthen or risks for federal intrusion in Florida's standards."
The response from education leaders across the state was divided.
Patricia Levesque, a Common Core supporter and executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, said she was "encouraged" by Scott's "continued commitment to the thoughtful implementation of Florida's Common Core standards."
Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said Scott had sent mixed messages.
"Why have public hearings unless you're open to changing things?" Browning said. "That would send a signal to me that the state is open to changing things."
Either way, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho urged state leaders to move "cautiously" and allow for a transition period.
"What we cannot lose sight of is the necessity for high standards and respectful accountability systems that position our children well in light of the new emerging economy," he said.
The Common Core State Standards outline what students across the country should know at each grade level but do not include reading lists or suggested lesson plans. They have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia.
In Florida, the standards and accompanying tests have become a political flash point. Supporters say the new benchmarks emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills. Opponents take issue with the federal government making decisions about standards and assessments, arguing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments.
Republican leaders in the state Senate and House have held firm in their commitment to the standards. But they were among the first to call for Florida's withdrawal from PARCC.
On Monday, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Scott's decision had struck "the perfect balance between states' rights and states' responsibilities."
But former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat, likened the move to a "weedy retreat."
"Never mind that Florida's education commissioner reports to the Board of Education and not the governor," Gelber wrote in his blog. "Never mind that the exams were not being developed by the federal government, but rather by states in a voluntary collaboration. Never mind that if Scott gets his way, Florida parents will never know how their kids perform relative to children from other states."
Critics were also quick to point out that Scott had embraced the PARCC exams as late as August 2012, when he said the assessments would eliminate teaching to the test.
Although the relationship will be severed, Scott noted that PARCC can still compete to win Florida's business as the Board of Education begins the competitive solicitation process to determine which exams will replace the FCATs.
State education officials must act swiftly to select the new exams. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she plans to recommend new assessments to the board by March. That time line, Stewart said, will enable students to begin taking the tests in the 2014-15 school year.
"We are certain we can accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished," she said.
State leaders have the option to adopt tests being used in other states, or create entirely new exams akin to a revamped version of the FCAT.
Broward school superintendent Robert Runcie on Monday cautioned against the latter option.
"If we develop our own system, isolated here in the state of Florida, we're going to be in a situation where we probably won't have an assessment that's credible, that's benchmarked nationally and internationally," Runcie said.
Late Monday, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego acknowledged that there were "a lot of unanswered questions," and expressed concerns about the time line for making decisions. But Grego said there was value in pausing for a moment to let the public air concerns about the Common Core and its associated testing.
"I see this as a potential for bringing people together," he said.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Cara Fitzpatrick, Mary Ellen Klas, Tia Mitchell and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.