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Changing of the Guard in Florida

How will the state’s new education commissioner and governor impact K12 momentum?

Before and during the tenure of Florida's former education commissioner, Eric J. Smith, the state made bold moves toward incorporating charter schools, began corporate "scholarship" programs that provide funding for students to attend private schools, implemented class-size caps that voters approved via referendum, and earned $700 million in federal money through round two of Race to the Top.

Smith resigned June 10, and according to what state board of education member Kathleen Shanahan told the St. Petersburg Times, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott did not force Smith out—but he did not embrace him either.

Gerard Robinson was chosen by the state Board of Education to continue the state's reform efforts. Known as a proponent of charter schools and school choice, Robinson, who held the same job in Virginia, helped to spur the Virginia General Assembly to create both public charter schools and college laboratory schools while expanding public school virtual learning programs through the Opportunity to Learn legislation. In his previous role as president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a nonprofit that advocates for parental school choice policies for low- to moderate-income African-Americans, Robinson worked to open new small schools with grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and expanded the alliance's work in the southern United States.

When Robinson arrived in Tallahassee on Aug. 8, he was familiar with the hot-button issues that faced him but was still mapping out how to move forward. He has some rough ideas: plenty of high-quality school choices for parents; merit pay for teachers, provided it's based on rigorous evaluations and not just scores used for the state's A-Plus system or No Child Left Behind; balancing voters' wishes on small class sizes with possible waivers when district budgets are strapped; and carefully triaging which budget holes the state's Race to the Top funds will fill. "Gerard brings to Florida a long and remarkable set of accomplishments in innovation and proven results that will help us continue putting children first, improving our schools, and ensuring Florida has the best-educated workforce," said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement when the state board of education approved Robinson's selection. "His leadership as an experienced education reformer and advocate for school choice and closing the achievement gap is exactly what Florida needs to reach the next level of education reforms that will benefit both our students and the businesses of our state."

William J. Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS), says he looks forward to working with Robinson. "He has already shown that he is eager and receptive to our ideas and especially our concerns, and we have every reason to believe that he will take our suggestions and concerns into account," says Montford, also a Democratic state senator who represents various counties in north Florida that includes the state capital of Tallahassee. "We see him as part of our team, and I'm confident that he sees the 67 school superintendents [in Florida] as part of his team too."

Montford does not expect his members to agree with everything Robinson proposes. "The question is, how do you deal with those disagreements to do the best for our young people?" he says. "We believe he will have the leadership style to embrace our ideas and concerns and give them thoughtful consideration."

Florida has gained notice around the country for major changes to K12 education enacted under former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. The state began grading schools' performance in 1999, long before No Child Left Behind took effect, ended social promotion of elementary school students, and launched more than 400 charter schools. On the state's A+ Plan for Education, the percentage of schools receiving an A or B rating rose to 79 percent in 2009 from 21 percent in 1999. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state's fourth-graders reading at or above grade level rose to 70 percent in 2007 from 53 percent in 1998. Graduation rates rose to 76 percent in 2008-2009, up from 55 percent in 2000, the lowest percentage in the country at the time.

Quality Options

With just a few weeks on the job, Robinson says he favors options but knows most children will be educated in traditional public schools and is concerned first and foremost about quality. Noting that he denied three-quarters of the charter school applications that came before him in a prior role as a member of the Georgia Charter School Commission, Robinson says he wants to make sure would-be operators have both high educational and financial standards, and that whatever distinguishes them "is meeting a real need."

"I don't want to see the expansion of charters for the sake of charters," Robinson says. "I'm not a rubber-stamp guy. I'm much more interested in having good schools, not just different types of schools with different names."

Robinson said the same thing over the summer when he met with attendees at the Florida Association of School Administrators conference, says Ronald Blocker, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools. "He shared with us that he is a huge proponent of school choice, but he would want responsible choice and responsible options," Blocker says. "That to me was not only enlightening, it was encouraging. I've long wanted a level playing field and accountability to go both ways."

Robinson with staff.Montford says his members support charters but want to ensure a level playing field between them and attendance-area public schools. "We know they can be a very valuable alternative," he says. "What causes superintendents concern is how difficult it is to remove charter schools that are not performing. … We've got some wonderful charter schools. They are part of the team." Robinson's background in charters and school choice will mesh well in Florida, predicts Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, of which about 10 percent are charter schools. "The commissioner comes into an environment that's very pro-choice, where charter schools have proliferated aggressively, where even some degree of vouchers are noticeable through the scholarship programs," he says. "The traditional one-size-fits-all model is pretty broken."

By "scholarship programs," Carvalho refers to two programs that enable corporations to get tax savings to fund the education of Title 1 students and students with individual education plans (IEPs)—the latter expanded this year to include those with 504 plans, which apply to students with special needs not acute enough to qualify for IEPs. The program for Title 1 students, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was established in 2001. The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program gives parents a choice between public and private schools; more than 22,000 Florida students with special needs attended private schools on the scholarship last year.

Charter Hype?

The scholarship programs have generated some controversy. Some, like Margaret Smith, superintendent of Volusia County Schools, see them as tantamount to vouchers, given that the corporate tax breaks enable students to attend private or parochial schools. "The term ‘scholarship' is always used instead of ‘voucher' in Florida," Smith says pointedly, adding, "What I would express to our new chancellor is that I would hope he would support public schools. We do the work of accepting all students. I would hope he would work closely with superintendents and talk with them, and I believe he will."

Montford, who voted against the scholarship programs while wearing his state Senate hat, says FADSS is concerned about money being diverted to schools that are not held to the same level of accountability. "That certainly reduces those funds that are available for public education," he says of the corporate tax breaks. "What we have to ensure is that if any tax dollars, including corporate scholarship dollars, are received by a school or program, they need to be held to the same standards, the same level of accountability, the same level of transparency. We should not have two sets of rules. … We owe it to the children, and we owe it to the taxpayers, to make sure those tax dollars are being used wisely."

Daniel Boyd, superintendent in Alachua County, says he's "vehemently opposed" to taxpayer money going to private schools, and he "will listen respectfully" to proposals to develop charters, provided the commissioner cites research showing they're doing a better job. "But I'm not conceding to any agency as far as offering high-quality programs," he says. "Public schools do not select and sort their programs. You can take a charter school that picks and chooses the students they educate, you can take a private entity that picks and chooses the students they educate, and they can look really good."

Charters haven't necessarily been the right fix, according to an editorial in the Palm Beach Post that ran on Aug. 9, Robinson's second day on the job. Headlined "Charters don't match hype," the piece noted that, while 5 percent of the state's 2.6 million public school students attend charter schools, those schools comprise 15 of the 31 schools that received an "F" on the Florida FCAT test during the 2010-2011 school year. Yet the newspaper pointed out that charters had received every penny of the $55 million the state legislature allocated for 2011-2012 to build and repair schools. "Regular public schools got zilch," the Post said. Smith says she's open to charter schools so long as their education is of equal or greater quality and they provide something unique and different. "That's not often the case," she says. "We do have a large number of our charter schools that are not successful. … They need to be held to the same transparency and the same accountability as [traditional] public schools."

Merit Pay

Another hot potato on Robinson's plate will be the early implementation of the Student Success Act, also known as Senate Bill 736, that has effectively ended teacher tenure and has ramped up the link between standardized test results and teacher evaluation and salary, mandating that evaluations be based half on test scores. Such issues are nothing new for Robinson, who says he helped move forward with a pilot merit pay program in Virginia through which teachers can earn up to $5,000 above their base salaries. But Boyd says he's not aware of any district in the country where a program to tie merit pay to evaluations based on test scores has been done successfully.

"In Florida, we're mandated that it will happen, so here we go, marching merrily along," Boyd says. "When you start using these numbers we generate to determine the … value of a teacher, we'd better be right. The legislature seems to think we have all the pieces in place to do this. Those of us in the field have some reservations about it. It's going to be a real challenge for the commissioner to make sure this is correct. The reputations of the men and women in the classroom are at stake."

"That's a fair criticism," Robinson responds. "Even the researchers who support merit pay say we should" implement rigorous evaluations that go beyond test result comparisons, he adds. Montford, who voted against SB 736 in the Senate, says the state's superintendents are quite concerned about the effects of ending teacher tenure on hiring and retention, although they favor the merit pay provision, provided it's adequately funded. "Superintendents appreciate the legislature giving them more authority and ability to address teachers who are not performing, but at the same time, removing the possibility of tenure for teachers makes it more difficult for us to attract and retain high-quality teachers," he says. "To deny them a sense of security has raised concerns among superintendents in Florida. We've had four or five merit pay programs in Florida in the last 15 years. We've had some good plans. The problem is, they've never been funded."

Carvalho hopes that Robinson turns some attention to the disconnects between the testing evaluation systems of the state government and the federal government, which can produce very different results and baffle district administrators and school boards. Florida schools can receive "A" letter grades but still fail to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, and while the federal system looks at eight different subgroups of students, Florida's has no such breakdown. "There's now a recognition in our state, but also at the federal level, that we need to provide a more congruent and more logical marriage of both accountability systems," he says.

Class Size

On the issue of class size, the new commissioner says he knows a couple of board members have expressed interest in revisiting voter-mandated caps. But voters just reaffirmed their commitment to a 2002 constitutional amendment that requires core subjects to max out at 18 students for K3, 22 for grades 4-8, and 25 in high school. For that reason, other board members look at the system as "the hand we've been dealt," Robinson says, which has become a tougher hand to play in tight budgetary times. Where districts seek waivers, he adds, "we'll take a look at those case by case."

Carvalho hopes to have flexibility to deal with the issue, citing issues like when an AP physics program at one inner-city high school had more than 25 students sign up, but not enough to justify a second full-time teacher. "That puts principals in a precarious situation," he says. The district ultimately provided the additional students the opportunity to take the course online.

Boyd says the legislature "woefully underfunded" the issue, allocating $80 million after the former commissioner recommended $350 million to hire enough personnel to deal with the smaller class sizes. "We struggled all year," he says. "Then they had the audacity to fine us for not meeting [the requirements], even though they didn't fund it."

"The Florida legislature is in a conundrum because they're responsible for adequately funding public education, which they have not done for three decades," adds Blocker, of Orange County schools. "This is forcing them to at least make an admission that they're not putting enough money on the table to hire teachers."

Race to the Top

Federal Race to the Top money will help across the board as the state attempts to implement merit pay, longitudinal evaluation of students, and school choice in lower-performing districts. Robinson says he believes the state will spend its $350 million on supporting contracts to do all of the above; another $350 million is flowing directly to districts. That's not to say the grant has eased everyone's fiscal concerns. "It's rare to hear any educator say we have enough money," Robinson says. "I'm glad to be in a position to have [the federal grant]."

With federal stimulus money running out, Race to the Top will provide "a booster shot that will get us through some initial things," Blocker says. "The burden will be on the Florida legislature to sustain what we put in place." Orange County will attempt to develop "a viable assessment instrument" to evaluate merit pay, he says.

"Merit pay will not happen on its own," adds Blocker. "There has to be sustainability once Race to the Top runs out. Dr. Robinson will have to use his bully pulpit and his political skills to keep the legislature doing what they're doing."

Sustainability greatly concerns Montford. "We know there's an end to that money," Montford says. "And then the question becomes, what do you do? How can you adequately, even minimally, finance that kind of salary structure? Right now, we don't have anyone who's got a plan for that."

Volusia County is looking toward boosts to professional development and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program, Smith says. But Race to the Top funds don't cover all the costs, she adds. Boyd says that Alachua County will use its "drop in the bucket" of $4 million over the next four years to purchase new technology and implement merit pay.

Miami-Dade County has received $73 million from Race to the Top that will help "dole out performance pay tied to student achievement," Carvalho says. "We have tough times ahead from an economic perspective; we're still reeling from the housing bust and depressed state revenues. That's going to be a huge priority for this commissioner into the foreseeable future," he says. "Funding levels are about where they were a decade ago, at a time when accountability requirements continue to increase."

Time will tell whether Robinson and district administrators around the state are able to stretch limited funds to keep class sizes where voters want them and to build on the state's work in implementing school choice and merit pay for teachers—while successfully navigating the tropical storm of controversies swirling around all of the above.

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill.