Romano: Time to throw out Bush-era education reforms

Published Oct. 4, 2015

For the longest time, it seemed educational reformers could do no wrong. They had the theories, they had the platform and, most importantly, they had the power.

So George W. Bush's Texas Miracle begat the nation's No Child Left Behind law, which was around the same time Jeb Bush's accountability crusade took hold in Florida.

They were our models for education. They were going to revolutionize schools and rescue generations of students from despair.

And yet today, they are being attacked from all sides.

The U.S. Senate and House have passed separate bills that would revamp the No Child Left Behind law and return more authority to local school districts.

Around here, the state School Board Association on Thursday called Florida's accountability system broken. That came a few days after the Florida PTA called the system a mess. And that came a few days after the Florida Association of District School Superintendents announced it had lost confidence in the system.

So is it time to finally admit the Bush-era reforms have failed?

The answer is yes, but with a caveat.

The big-picture philosophy behind some of these reforms is sound. Some level of accountability — for everyone involved — is necessary. Standardized tests and a comparable curriculum can also help make sure students across the nation are learning similar things.

The problem, particularly in Florida, is lawmakers took reforms to an absurd extreme. They turned accountability into a weapon, and that turned schools into sweatshops.

The Legislature heaped so much responsibility on a handful of tests that teachers feared for their jobs, districts worried about funding and everything else became an afterthought.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, acknowledges missteps along the way, but says the Legislature has corrected many of the problems in the past two years.

What lawmakers have not corrected is their perception problem.

Leaders in Tallahassee have zealously protected the Bush legacy for far too long. They have been slow to listen to parents and educators, and even slower to compromise.

So when Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart tried to justify a mistake-riddled launch to a new state assessment this year, no one wanted to listen.

Instead, it seems the tide of unrest has finally reached local shores.

Where critics once seemed to be on the fringe, they are now showing up in greater numbers and in more visible positions. Calls for the state to overhaul the accountability system may not be heeded, but they are being heard.

"It sounds great when someone says 'Let's blow up accountability.' It indicts a lot of people, and probably makes for a good article,'' Legg said. "But the reality is the superintendents have helped craft every piece of legislation that has gone through Tallahassee recently. They have been in the room every step of the way, and now they turn around and say we need to overhaul everything.''

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Except it's not just superintendents saying it. Parents and teachers are saying the same thing. So are school boards. So is Congress. Really, at this point, it doesn't even matter who is responsible. The Legislature? Superintendents? Bush? Who cares? Assigning blame isn't as important as finding solutions.

And it's clear parents want control of education back in local classrooms. Not in Tallahassee. And not in the corporate headquarters of some anonymous testing company.

You want real reform? Give public schools back to the public.