Gov. Rick Scott, in Miami, rips federal education standards that ‘punish’ diversity

Florida leaders and the U.S. Department of Education don’t agree on how to assess the test scores of students who are learning English.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott — in full campaign mode after an easy primary election victory the night before — promised to explore “every legal option” if the feds won’t bend on standards he contends ‘punish’ diverse schools. The governor traveled to downtown Miami to make the announcement at Southside Elementary School, where 41 percent of students are English-language learners.

In a worst-case scenario, schools across Florida could be deemed as “failing” under the current rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law. As a result, the state could lose autonomy over how it spends its education budget, and schools could be forced to restructure staff.

The announcement was the latest effort by the Republican governor to put education center stage — while also appealing to a key county’s multiethnic voters — in what is expected to be a tight governor’s race. Ahead of his reelection bid against Democratic rival Charlie Crist, Scott has also announced a historic increase in per-student spending and called for an investigation into the fairness of standardized tests.

Test scores for non-English speakers have considerable impact in Miami-Dade County, where more than 70,000 students get English language instruction, said schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

He called it “immoral” not to “recognize the diversity and the linguistic needs of these young boys and girls.”

At issue is when the test scores of students who are learning English should be factored into accountability measures like school grades. Florida already tests all English-language learners, but schools aren’t penalized for the progress of these students until they have received two years of English instruction.

That runs contrary to federal requirements, which call for these students’ test scores to count towards accountability measures from the very first year they are in school.

In Miami-Dade, the number of English-language learners who perform at-grade level increases by 28 percentage points in the second year of instruction, Carvalho said.

“We support unequivocally taking a strong position in restoring reason, respect and what research says about English language instruction and proficiency for our students,” he said.

Scott said Wednesday that Florida will give the U.S. Department of Education about a month to reconsider its stance. If not, he hinted the battle may end up in court.

“It’s not fair to the students, or the schools, or the teachers, or the parents to count the results of these students until after their second year,’’ he said. “Ultimately, federal bureaucrats will punish Florida schools for their diversity.”

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said Florida already leads the nation when it comes to graduation rates and success in Advanced Placement courses among Hispanic students, a demographic that makes up a large percentage of the English-language learners in state schools.

“So it is impossible to think that with a state having this much success with its students, why in the world the federal government would want to micromanage, especially when you consider that this is a policy that is working,” Stewart said.

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