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SPECIAL REPORT: States of Debate: A New Dawn in the Sunshine State

Over the last 15 years, Florida has become a battleground for school reform. The second of a three-state series.

When you look at Florida, the state legislature has always been interested in education, and our governors have always been interested in school reform," observes Nikolai Vitti, deputy chancellor of school improvement and student achievement for the Florida Department of Education.

For more than a decade the state's legislators and governors—first Jeb Bush and then Charlie Crist—have pushed one of the nation's most ambitious education reform agendas: grading the performance of schools before No Child Left Behind was even an idea, eliminating the "social promotion" of elementary school students lacking the necessary skills, launching more than 400 charter schools around the state, slashing class sizes, and just this past spring, squaring off over whether to impose "pay for performance" requirements on all public school teachers and do away with the tenure system. And in April, Crist signed a bill that requires high school students to take more difficult math and science courses and pass new end-of-course exams to earn a high school diploma.

Florida may be more known to outsiders for everything from its Indian River citrus crop to the family entertainment megalopolis in Orlando to the Latin-flavored food and culture of Miami. But the state's menu of school improvements and its continuing appetite for school reform have drawn plenty of attention from around the country as well and helped Florida place fourth this past March in the first round of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top initiative.

While Florida ended up behind winners Delaware and Tennessee, the state's education commissioner, Eric J. Smith, promised that Florida will win its share of Race to the Top money in the next round. "With only two winners announced in this initial round of funding and $3.4 billion still on the table," Smith proclaimed, "Florida's race is far from over."

The rise in Florida's educational fortunes, supported by steadily increasing student and school achievement, represents an accomplishment light years ahead of and worlds apart from the state's early days, first as a Spanish colony in the 1500s and as the nation's 27th state more than three centuries later. The nonstop sequence of school improvement measures so far in the 21st century is a ringing counterpoint to the decidedly humble beginnings of the state's educational system in the late 19th century and its wrenching desegregation and unexpected multiethnic expansion during the mid-20th century.

Early Stages

Florida's schools date back to the state's days as a Spanish colony. After Ponce de Leon's unsuccessful search for the fountain of youth in 1513, the Spanish founded St. Augustine in 1565 as the earliest European settlement of the future United States. Today, tourists to St. Augustine can visit what is advertised as this country's oldest wooden schoolhouse, a dark brown structure dating from the early 1700s.

Gov. Jeb Bush leads a rally in support of his A+ For Kids education plan on the steps of the state capitol in Tallahassee in 1999.

Florida did not become an American territory until 1821, in exchange for canceling a $5 million dollar debt owed by Spain to the United States. According to the History of Public-School Education in Florida, a study published in 1921 by education professor Thomas Everette Cochran, there were no public schools on record before 1821, and any elementary education would have likely come from Spanish Catholic clergy.

It wasn't until the 1830s that St. Augustine and Tallahassee became the sites of the first public schools founded in the new Florida Territory. Florida attained statehood on March 3, 1845, and four years later the new legislature created common schools, or public schools, for the state's white children. (Black children and their families were held in slavery until 1865.) The 1850 census listed 69 schools enrolling fewer than 5,000.

In 1869, Florida's ever-active legislature established the educational structure still recognizable today, passing a comprehensive school law that created a public school system and a state board of education, appointing a state superintendent for public instruction (the precursor to the present-day commissioner of education), and authorizing the position of school superintendent for Florida's various counties.

Not that the state was on its way to educational supremacy, Cochran emphasized, as he noted glaring omissions in this first school reform law. "There was no definite standard of qualification for the teachers and the school officers," he wrote. "Inadequate facilities were provided for the preparation and training of teachers. It failed to provide for a tax sufficient to establish and maintain the schools."

The quality of curriculum, school buildings and teacher training had increased by the early 20th century, as had the number of school days, from 100 to 133 by 1921. And while the elementary school population stood below 100,000 in 1892, it more than doubled over the next 30 years. The high school population rose from a mere 700 to more than 7,000 over the same time.

The Challenges of Diversity

Gov. Charles Crist hands a pen to a student after signing a bill in April expanding school vouchers.

Those numbers continued to increase as Florida's population boomed throughout the 20th century. The number of residents multiplied from 2 million in 1940 to 16 million in 2000, thanks to large domestic migrations, including an influx of senior citizens seeking retirement in a warm weather state and surges of immigrants from Cuba and other Spanish-speaking countries seeking a better way of life. In 2000, the number of Hispanics in Florida had reached almost 2.7 million, nearly 16 percent of the entire population.

Florida has been ahead of the curve when it comes to multilingual education, note historians James and Judith Olson in their 1995 book Cuban Americans: From Trauma to Triumph, adding that the state's approach was spurred by the large influx of Cubans who fl ed Fidel Castro's regime after the 1959 revolution. Over the following 13 years, schools in Dade County, which include Miami, invested more than $100 million in bilingual education programs. "

The field of bilingual education was born in those Dade County schools," the Olsons wrote. "When it became clear that Cuban American children were able to become literate in their mother tongue as well as learn English, their success rates in school were dramatic."

The A+ Plan for Education

These developments helped set the stage for an increasingly diverse public school population, which has grown to about 2.6 million, and a dramatic set of educational reforms that began in 1999 and were promoted by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. In that year, the state legislature pioneered the A+ Plan for Education, the only state program in the country to grade schools on a scale of "A" to "F." The grades were based on how students performed on the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which measures reading, writing and mathematical skills.

The percentage of schools receiving A or B ratings soared to 79 percent in 2009 from 21 percent in 1999. And the 28 percent rate of D and F schools in 1999 declined to 7 percent by the end of the 2008-2009 school year, according to Florida Department of Education statistics.

Miami celebrates Caribbean culture with an annual carnival. A large influx of Cubans after the 1959 revolution influenced Dade County schools to invest in more than $100 million in bilingual education.

While these gains reflected achievement on the FCAT, Florida students were also scoring higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2007, the percentage of fourth-graders reading at grade level as measured by the NAEP had increased from 53 percent to 70 percent, ranking Florida 22nd among all states, up from 35th place in 1998.

By using data to differentiate among schools and remediate or sanction failing schools, the A+ program was years ahead of the federal No Child Left Behind law enacted under President George W. Bush in 2002. The state and federal mandates ran side by side for six years, with common goals but often contradictory results. Things got so confusing that by 2006, 75 percent of Florida's almost 2,800 schools earned As or Bs, an 8 percent increase from 2005, but 72 percent of those schools failed to meet the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions of NCLB, also an 8 percent rise from the previous year.

The reason for the discrepancy, say educational observers, is that NCLB requires that as many as nine subgroups—from students who receive free and reduced price lunches to those with special needs—all meet AYP. The A+ program, in contrast, looks at the performance of the entire student population without disaggregating it into smaller groups.

At a 2006 press conference, Gov. Bush parted company with his famous older brother when he told reporters that Florida parents should put more stock in A+ than NCLB results. "With no disrespect to anyone in Washington, D.C.," Bush continued, "I believe our system is the most comprehensive system of measuring how schools are doing based on student learning by far."

The Era of Differentiated Accountability

In 2008, Florida solved the problem of the conflicting standards—and once again proved an educational pioneer—by becoming one of the first six states permitted by the U.S. Department of Education to use differentiated accountability in meeting NCLB requirements. "What differentiated accountability allowed us to do was streamline A+ and NCLB," says the Florida DOE's Nikolai Vitti.

While the new approach to evaluating schools uses the grades of A+ and the AYP standards of NCLB, it is more flexible in holding schools accountable for meeting the needs of the subgroups identified under NCLB. Florida's differentiated accountability program is more forgiving— and more realistic, many educators here say—when it comes to schools along the needs-improvement spectrum.

The business district of Miami continues to grow at the onset of the 21st century.

For instance, if a school misses AYP for two years but has managed to meet AYP for 80 percent of its subgroups and has a passing grade (A to C) from A+, the school itself—rather than the district or the state—is allowed to determine the necessary remediation. Likewise, chronically failing schools—which are placed in the "intervention" category and face a range of sanctions, from being reconstituted as charter schools with new personnel to closing their doors altogether—can exit that endangered status in a single year by increasing their grade to C and achieving AYP for one deficient subgroup each in reading and math.

As part of its differentiated accountability program, the Florida DOE has also set itself apart by establishing a far-flung, multimillion-dollar support system that targets low-performing schools. Under this new system, Florida's 67 districts are grouped into five regions led by executive directors who already had track records of turning around struggling schools when they were hired for the differentiated accountability program. These executive directors work closely with officials at the district and school levels and provide a team of reading, math, and science instructional specialists to sites needing help in these areas.

To judge the results in the first school year of differentiated accountability (2008- 2009), Vitti continues, the new support program is succeeding. He notes that of the 39 lowest-performing schools in the state's support program, almost four-fifths raised their grade by one or more notches in one year, and six went from F to A and met AYP in all of the NCLB categories. Ten of the 12 "intervention" schools, meanwhile, made sufficient progress to avoid being taken over or closed.

Charter Schools Grow, Classroom Sizes Shrink

Florida has also embraced the charter school movement. Michael Kooi, executive director of the Florida DOE's Office of Independent Education and School Choice, says that over the last couple of years the numbers of charters have increased significantly to 410, the third-largest number in the nation and accounting for almost 5 percent of total public school enrollment in Florida. Kooi foresees another 60 or 70 of the schools opening for the 2010-2011 academic year. He also sees another measure of Florida's success in the number of unsuccessful charters, more than 125, that have closed their doors.

"Districts have a pretty good record of closing down nonperforming charters," Kooi explains. "People may say that's not a good thing, but I say it is. We're recognizing schools that aren't working, and districts have gotten better both at supporting charters and knowing when to pull the plug."

Meanwhile, class sizes in the rest of Florida's public schools have been dropping, courtesy of a 2002 constitutional amendment that imposed top limits, from 18 in the early elementary grades to 25 in high school. The requirement has been phased in gradually over the past two years, first as a districtwide average class size, and this year as a schoolwide average class size. The individual class limits take effect in the 2010-2011 school year.

Areas of Concern

Florida's problematic graduation rate has also risen steadily, from 55 percent in 2000 (the worst of any state) to just over 76 percent in the 2008-2009 school year, according to a report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a study by Johns Hopkins University. But the state's graduation rate is still trailing the national average by 10 points, according to the study by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

"We've been improving, but graduation is still our sore spot," concedes Vitti, who adds that a new industry certification program in some high schools may help retain at-risk students and prepare them to work in the trades. "We've tried to create different pathways for kids to be successful. It might not involve college preparation, and we're encouraging districts to come up with more innovative programs."

Teachers and students rally in support of Gov. Charles Crist after he vetoed a controversial teacher merit pay bill in April.

A 2007 collection of papers by university researchers around the state and titled Education Reform in Florida also raised concerns about the ongoing pressure to "teach to the test." "Schools were judged only by their performance on the FCAT," says Kathryn Borman, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida and the book's editor. "Florida's teachers were quite vocal in their disapproval, and students, for their part, bridled under the same restraints."

A Stanford University study released last June, meanwhile, raised questions about the difference that Florida's expanding network of charter schools is making to students' learning. The Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Florida was among the six states in which students' learning gains in public schools exceeded those of their peers in charters, although Kooi counters that the results were skewed since many Florida charters were only getting started.

As all of Florida's schools prepare to limit their individual class sizes as mandated by the state, administrators such as Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia worry that the new numbers are too arbitrary. Elia says she would prefer to identify which classes could accommodate more than 25 students without diluting instruction and others that would benefit from having far fewer students. "A rational approach might be keeping a high school algebra class to 18-20 students, whereas a great AP English teacher can handle a few extra kids," Elia reasons. "Now we'll be dealing with inflexible caps."

The Governor and Legislature Collide

The most recent disagreement over the direction of Florida's public schools has centered on a bill aimed at changing the teaching establishment, and it has raised the question of whether the active and increasingly Republican state legislature has become hyperactive. The new law, proposed this past winter by state Sen. John Thrasher, instituted performance pay for teachers statewide and eliminated tenure for any teachers hired in the future.

Previously, performance pay in Florida had been negotiated with teacher unions on a district-by-district basis, where the approach has largely been well received. In April, Gov. Crist—who later that month left the GOP to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent—vetoed the bill. "This bill has deeply and negatively affected the morale of our teachers, our parents and our students," Crist stated. "They are not confident in our system because they do not believe their voices were heard."

Proving that there never seems to be a dull moment in the making of Florida's educational laws, opponents of class-size limits—arguing that they represent an unaffordable burden on their schools— are mobilizing to repeal it in the coming November elections. And educators, parents and students around the state can only wait to see what next year's legislative session will hold.

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.