Florida schools return to top 10

This year’s Quality Counts report, compiled by Education Week magazine, awarded Florida an overall B- grade, compared to a national average grade of C+.

01/10/2013 8:52 AM

01/10/2013 8:21 PM

Florida’s education system is now the sixth-best in the country, according to a nationally respected ranking system that released annual results on Thursday.

The results, however, showed the state still has room for improvement — particularly in the areas of school funding and student performance.

This year’s Quality Counts report, compiled by Education Week magazine, awarded Florida an overall B- grade, compared to a national average grade of C+.

The results were touted as validation by state education leaders, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott. Florida’s Republican governor and heavily Republican Legislature have aggressively moved to overhaul how children are taught in the Sunshine State. Florida’s reform agenda has been characterized by an emphasis on standardized test scores, a push for greater teacher accountability, and the strong encouragement of charter schools — sometimes at the expense of traditional public schools.

Some of these policy shifts have been controversial. For example: A pro-charter “parent trigger” bill that was narrowly defeated in the Legislature last year. It was in fact a coalition of parent groups who killed the bill, after they successfully argued that the legislation — despite its name — was really intended to enrich for-profit school management companies.

That education battle, and others, are likely to return to Tallahassee this year, with Florida’s national ranking sure to be fodder for the debate.

Florida Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan, issued this statement: “Today’s 2013 Quality Counts report shows that the education reform policies of the past decade have created a system that will prepare our students for the global workforce of the future.”

State Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat and public school teacher critical of Florida’s current education philosophy, had a different take: “I’m sure it’ll be used as propaganda by the party in power.”

This year’s No. 6 spot is up five from the No. 11 position that Florida held a year ago. In recent years, Florida has generally performed well in the annual rankings — placing fifth in 2011, for example. That’s up from a 31st ranking in 2007.

The No. 1 state this year, for the fifth year in a row, was Maryland, which rated a B+. In last place was South Dakota, which earned a D+.

Quality Counts categories in which Florida performed most strongly included setting tough accountability standards for students and teachers, and successfully linking the pre-K, K-12, and higher education tracks so that students can seamlessly transition from one level to the next. Florida received an A in this “Transitions and Alignment” category.

In other quality measures, however, the state got lower grades. Education Week gave Florida a D- in the status of its academic achievement, and the state’s notoriously low school spending earned it an F in that area. Florida’s $9,572 per student funding is 40th in the nation.

Florida’s interim education commissioner, Pam Stewart, took issue with the school funding grade, saying, “What matters most is not how much we spend, but how we spend the dollars we allocate.”

But Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said years of budget cuts have left local schools nearing a “breaking point.” Carvalho complained of a continued “disconnect” between Florida’s success in terms of “accountability demands” and its funding of education.

Carvalho also said Miami-Dade’s achievements — for example, recently winning the prestigious Broad Prize — have helped fuel Florida’s overall gains.

“The state doesn’t get to improve dramatically without Miami-Dade being part and parcel of that success,” Carvalho said.

For those who have criticized Florida school funding as inadequate, the latest rankings were seen as further proof that state lawmakers continue to shirk their financial responsibilities. Florida’s Constitution explicitly guarantees citizens a “high-quality system of free public schools.”

“A high-quality system of public education is an economic driver, and it’s high time that our legislative body understand that and put it into practice,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of Fund Education Now, a parent-formed school advocacy group.

Oropeza said Florida’s overall ranking is benefiting from the flurry of reform laws passed by the Legislature, but she argued that the categories that truly matter are student performance and funding — areas where the state rates much lower.

The overall state rankings are based on a combination of state policies and performance in six main education areas: Chance for Success; Transitions and Alignment; School Finance Analysis; K-12 Achievement; Standards, Assessments, and Accountability; and the Teaching Profession. This year’s rankings are calculated based on updated data for three of the six areas: Chance for Success; Transitions and Alignment; and School Finance Analysis.

Though school funding does not play a decisive role in Education Week’s calculations, Oropeza had a message for politicians who ignore how important that issue is to parents:

“When elections come around,” Oropeza said. “Actions have consequences.”

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