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  1. Opinion

Florida's school grades are really measuring family income on an A to F scale | Column

What on earth is to be gained by labeling schools on the basis of income?

I ask myself that each year when the Florida Department of Education releases grades for public schools and districts, as is expected soon. The answers I come to are never good for kids, parents or communities.

No matter the original intent, the state's system of A to F school grades has turned out to be an excellent tool for measuring socioeconomic status — and for labeling schools with students from low-income families as "failing."

Schools graded A have, on average, just under half of their students living in poverty. For schools graded D or F, the poverty rate exceeds 90 percent.

Florida is one of only 15 states that grade schools, partly because ranking schools A to F appears to have few, if any, tangible benefits for students.

The damage inflicted by a D or F is real and immediate.

The school is labeled and shamed. Students face disruption. Great teachers are moved out. The state can swoop in with mandates that tear a school apart rather than lift it up — compelling "turnaround" and opening the door to corporate takeover.

Make no mistake, some of the best teachers in Florida teach in "failing" schools. These educators go above and beyond to engage students who often lack basic resources. As a band director in a high-poverty school, I knew some of my students came from homes where an instrument could not be safely kept, but those kids kept their eyes on the prize and kept striving. Under our punitive, "gotcha" system, the struggles and successes of these students and teachers are dismissed with a D or an F.

The influence of grades extends far beyond school grounds. Who wants to move to a place with D or F schools? Who wants to locate a business there?

These communities and students don't need labels. They need our help. Establishing community public schools, with wrap-around services to help whole families, is a good step, and the Legislature should be acknowledged for providing some funds for such schools.

But let me come back at my question: What is gained when we label and shame high-poverty schools, setting them on a path toward takeover or closure? Who is helped?

I see one answer: Schools grades are useful to those who promote the wholesale privatization of public schools, to those who would turn poor communities into a hunting ground for folks looking to profit from our kids. Grades can open the door for corporate charter operators, for private and religious schools largely exempt from oversight and accepted educational standards.

If we truly want to help students, let's drop the misguided grading system and do the work, providing the resources and support to build a more equitable, high-quality system of free neighborhood public schools.

Failing schools? Our schools have been failed — by a system that deserves an F.

Fedrick Ingram is president of the Florida Education Association (FEA).

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