School grade ‘safety net’ vote opens new rifts

07/21/2013 7:32 PM

07/22/2013 11:34 AM

The state Board of Education’s decision last week to inflate school grades for a second year was widely praised by parents and educators, but it also exposed a hard-to-miss rift between the closest allies of former Gov. Jeb Bush and those who back Gov. Rick Scott.

The 4-3 decision to reduce the number of F schools in the state by almost 60 percent was divided along Bush-Scott lines, with Bush allies against.

None of the seven board members nor Education Commissioner Tony Bennett would to speak with the Herald/Times about last Tuesday’s vote.

Their silence, however, has fueled speculation about the motives on each side. Scott allies have been accused of padding grades to help Scott’s reelection prospects.

Bush’s closest allies — including former chiefs of staff Kathleen Shanahan and Sally Bradshaw, and John Padget, whom Bush appointed superintendent of Monroe County schools — face questions about trying to punish public schools to help make the case for private and charter school expansion. Bush’s private Foundation for Florida’s Future lobbied against the change.

“The focus should be on the students, and the adults became the focus of the conversation,” foundation spokeswoman Allison Aubuchon said Thursday. “I think it was really important to send the message that students should be the priority, and the board was not unanimous in its decision.”

The changes will prevent any individual school’s grade from dropping more than one full letter. That would reduce the number of failing schools from a projected 262 to 108. In 2012, 53 schools received F grades.

The slim majority that voted in favor of padding the school grades were all appointed to the board by Scott — Gary Chartrand, Ada Armas, John Colon and Barbara Feingold.

The vote allows Scott to claim victory and show he is listening to public-school advocates who argue the grading system has become too complex and no longer reflects the real value of a school. He also avoids an embarrassing explosion in the number of F schools as he begins to campaign for reelection.

Florida Education Association president Andy Ford praised the board’s actions, saying the “safety net” was the only fair option. He said Scott and his appointees on the board are being forced to make choices about how much of the Bush legacy to embrace.

“Things are totally different than they were, and just to keep something in place because you liked the former governor doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense if the people today want something different,” Ford said.

Bush declined to comment.

Scott’s office would not say whether the governor reached out to members of the Board of Education prior to the vote. But a congratulatory statement from the governor was included in the press release announcing Tuesday’s vote.

That caused Florida Democrats to pounce, accusing Scott of lowering education standards in the name of convenience and politics.

“This year alone, our public school system would have seen a 650 percent increase in F-rated schools had they not changed the math at the last minute,” the Florida Democratic Party said in a statement. “Florida’s students cannot afford another four years of Rick Scott’s education policies.”

Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Democratic Party, accused Scott of “moving the goal posts” and said Democrats would spend the coming months reminding voters that the governor didn’t start out as such a fan of public schools.

Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who hopes to be the Democrat running against Scott in 2014, has a different take. She said she agreed with the Board of Education’s decision to pad school grades and wonders whether Bush’s allies are too beholden to for-profit management companies that could benefit from more failing schools.

For the past two years, Republicans have sought changes to state law to allow parents to decide whether for-profit management companies can take over habitually failing schools. The proposal, a so-called “parent trigger,” has so far been unable to pass the Florida Senate.

“It’s just too coincidental to me that the people who voted against changing it are the ones who supported the parent trigger [bill],” she said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Tia Mitchell at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

This story was changed after its initial publication.

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