1. Opinion

Column: Florida schools need course correction

Published Sep. 20, 2013

Education is the key to nearly every major challenge confronting our state. It defines our workforce and, therefore, the opportunities available to our citizens. A strong and robust public school system can be a great equalizer, giving all children the same footing as they prepare for the future.

But like so many issues, too often the debate over important education issues devolves into partisan food fights, and too often the origin of an idea is more important than its merits.

Education is too complex and important to be marginalized in this manner. And over the last few years, management of Florida's public schools has been an unmitigated disaster. In addition to cutting school funds during the current governor's tenure, Florida has had four different education commissioners in less than three years, and countless missteps, including once having to redo school grades because so many schools were rated poorly.

We need to right the course of public education. Here's a start.

First, Gov. Rick Scott needs to get off the fence and lead Florida's embrace of the national Common Core Education Standards. These standards have been adopted by 45 states and will allow our children to be equal to their peers nationally. Further, these standards — which cover language arts and math — are much more in depth than the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test and our own Sunshine State Standards. That is why as governor I supported the movement to Common Core.

Tea party and other outliers have called for a rejection of these standards because they were promulgated under the umbrella of a "national" effort. Truth be told, their opposition probably has less to do with education than the fact the standards, started under President George W. Bush, were finalized while President Barack Obama was in office.

This is a nonsensical reason to reject them. Scott needs to stand with Florida students and no one else. This is not a time for rank partisanship.

I completely agree with former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and bipartisan leaders across the country that the Common Core standards are simply better than what we have been relying on, and Florida students deserve the best.

Second, the Common Core standards are just that — standards — and how we implement them will be critical. We have to make sure we don't use them to stifle innovation and that they are implemented thoughtfully and deliberately.

So while I believe it important that we adopt these standards, we also need to make sure that the testing instruments we use to measure them are not overemphasized in our schools.

I've always supported testing, but testing is not teaching. Teachers should not be spending all their time administering tests, nor should tests be so important that schools become test-taking factories where teachers only teach to tests. And focusing on testing shouldn't come at the expense of programs like art, music, wellness and fitness, and subjects not on the tests.

Third, we must be sure that teaching remains a profession. While I do believe we need to figure out how to pay our best teachers to ensure they remain in the classroom, the state's most recent rush was a disastrous idea.

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As governor, I vetoed a similar merit bill because it was clearly flawed, demeaned the profession and shortchanged our students. Scott disagreed and adopted the measure without pause the following year. The results were, unfortunately, as expected. Today many Florida teachers are at risk of having their pay impacted by the performance of children who are not even in their classrooms or subject areas.

As Florida moves to adopt the Common Core standards, if we want to create a truly world-class school system in Florida, we are going to have to pay teachers more to ensure we recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers. You pay for a cheap education forever.

As a product of public schools, and the brother of public school teachers, I know that our schools are the best way to guarantee every Florida child reaches his and her fullest potential. But in order to keep that promise to our kids, we are going to have to do better at managing our schools. We also need to let teachers know that they do matter.

As citizens, we should accept nothing less. Too much is at stake.

Charlie Crist is the former Republican governor of Florida and previously was elected as a state senator, education commissioner and attorney general. He is now a Democrat. Crist wrote this column exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


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