From the Orlando Sentinel by Kathleen Oropeza
Florida's school grades are not statistically valid. They're not true. They are not measuring what is "real."
This disturbing admission from the Florida Board of Education last week is made more scandalous by the resignation of Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett. Now, districts must deal with his "safety net," which spares 155 schools from being deemed an F and leaves 107 on the chopping block, facing sanctions and potential closure.
Bennett, handpicked by Gov. Rick Scott, came to Florida fresh from being fired by Indiana voters. He was caught red-handed manipulating the Indiana A-F school grades in official emails to favor a major political donor and for-profit charter-school developer.
Scott, aided by former Gov. Jeb Bush, made disgraceful choices in appointing Bennett and his predecessor Gerard Robinson. Both men manipulated data for political convenience and resigned, unable to defend the indefensible.
For 15 years, Florida politicians have held up our A-F school-grading system as the education-reform gold standard for the nation. A whole expensive, unpiloted system was built on viewing our neighborhood schools, filled with our sweet children, as A's or F's.
School grades are the single high-stakes arbiter of property values, teacher pay, school funding and quality. Dozens of states have been lobbied heavily to adopt Florida's A-F school-grading system as the foundation of their reform agenda. Now this same system has been exposed as invalid. Worse, it's deliberately rigged by the reformers themselves to permanently keep certain teachers, children and schools from ever rising above an F.
As parents, we teach our children empathy for others and the importance of fair play. How do we tell our children that although their grades are improving, their school is an F? How do we explain that a school grade is not true, but arbitrary?
It was deeply disappointing to hear Board of Education members insist that it would be better to let 25 F schools balloon to 262 F schools because those students need the "truth." Where's the truth in a statistically invalid system? Will there ever be any truth when we need task forces and emergency meetings to flip the facts? Our children deserve so much better than this.
Our governor-appointed Board of Education routinely uses its considerable power to shape outcomes. Who can forget the FCAT Writes disaster a year ago, where student scores went from 1's to 5's in one phone call?
Then there was the No Child Left Behind waiver crisis last summer that threatened to throw hundreds of schools into F status because of Florida's choice to record English language learners and exceptional-student education test scores in a punitive way. The solution to that self-induced drama was another "safety net."
Sadly, teachers and school leaders have warned politicians, the Board of Education and profit-driven policy influencers for years that Florida's A-F accountability system is a house of cards. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, politicians stick to the script, rigidly intent on hawking Florida's "good news." Such blind faith exposes the lie. Florida's A-F school-grading system cannot be a model of success on one hand while seeking to rapidly grow the number of F schools on the other.
Education reform is a political tool. Using data manipulation, Florida politicians and their appointed boards can create one crisis after another, doom children, deceive parents, destroy teachers and pass radical laws that give for-profit charter developers and others unfettered access to our public tax dollars.
Manufactured crisis is exhausting. Bennett's solution to reduce the number of schools hurt by failed metrics is a short-term fix for a deep problem. Florida's A-F school-grading system has lost credibility and needs to go.
Florida must return to an elected commissioner of education who answers directly to us. The people of Indiana used their votes and got it right. The last thing Florida public education needs is an appointed reform puppet.
Our children deserve a leader who believes in them and will fight for them, and who views the job through the powerful lens of love. It's time for the state to stop wasting our money tweaking a fiasco and start showing some empathy for the real human beings who are the heart and soul of our schools.
Kathleen Oropeza is co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, a nonpartisan Florida-based education advocacy group.