Gov. Scott's mixed bag on schools

Published Nov. 11, 2012

The best news about Gov. Rick Scott's newfound embrace of public education: He's not asking lawmakers to change much this coming year. Educators and students, whipsawed by more than a decade of Tallahassee-led reform and with another dramatic round of changes under way, can use the breathing room. But legislative leaders should be circumspect about much of the rest of Scott's plan, from a naive embrace of expanding charter schools to flat funding for public schools. Florida still spends less per student than it did in 2007 and less than when Scott took over two years ago. This state can do better.

Scott's "College and Career First" plan, unveiled last month, came weeks after a highly publicized but private listening tour at schools across the state. The plan has three goals: easing the state's transition to a new assessment system that will better measure college and career readiness; supporting teachers; and greater flexibility for school districts and charter operators.

Scott's pledge to give educators the time they need to transition to the next round of school reform is a good one. The reforms that the Board of Education embraced in 2010 — while Scott was still on the campaign trail — are extensive. Florida is transitioning to Common Core State Standards and course assessments for 2014-15 — a national bipartisan movement that the state embraced as part of its participation in the federal Race to the Top program.

The program will ultimately replace the controversial Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Instead, students will take end-of-course subject tests to assess everything from student learning to teacher performance. But all those tests still need to be written and evaluated. And students, parents and teachers need time to comprehend just how expectations are changing.

Scott's second goal — supporting teachers — sounds good. But his plan is far from what's needed to be transformative in a state of roughly 167,000 full-time teachers. His lack of commitment to increase per-student funding means most school districts won't have money to increase teacher pay. And his other ideas — a $2 million increase in funds for professional development, funding mentoring programs and raising private dollars for school supplies — are fine but too modest.

It's Scott's final pledge that runs the most risk of doing harm. Scott wants to make it easier for existing charter schools to increase enrollment but fails to acknowledge the state needs to tighten regulations to ensure operators are held to account for taxpayer dollars.

The most recent examples: A low-performing charter school that was shuttered in Orlando gave its principal more than $500,000 in taxpayer-funded severance. And in Dunedin, the Life Forces Arts and Technology School enriched its administrators while shortchanging teachers and children. For every charter school that shows promise, others need more oversight and fail children, but Scott makes no mention of needing to crack down on the failures.

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Scott's plan is an improvement over two years ago, when as an incoming governor he expressed support for creating universal private school vouchers and, months later, approved a $1.3 billion cut in school funding. But halfway through his term, Floridians and the public school system deserve more.

It's now up to incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford to do better by Florida schoolchildren.