‘Education reform’ needs to be redefined
By John Louis Meeks, Jr.
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (George Orwell)
“We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.” (Governor Rick Scott)
While George Orwell was adept at instilling terror in the hearts and minds of his readers, his fictional dystopia pales in comparison to the real-life dystopia that public education has become.
The common thread between both worlds is the doublespeak that is designed to convince the public that down is up and up is down.
In 2011, Governor Scott signed the ‘Student Success Act’ into law. It’s not the first time that lawmakers, federal or state, dressed up bad laws under the clever guise of platitudes. And it’s not the first time that education reformers messed up public education with legislation that sounded charming enough; ‘No Child Left Behind’ still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of liberals and conservatives alike.
Alas, this is the magic of legislating by dogma and propaganda. For nearly two decades, Florida politics have been dominated by conservatives whose agenda has included a never-ending war with public schools and their ability to define the terms of their battles through controlling the message.
It began with Jeb Bush. While I heard snickering over ‘low energy’ Bush being shellacked in primaries by our current president, I knew that the man asking an audience – out loud – to applaud was a shadow of his former self. In a previous life, John Ellis Bush was the man who replaced Claude Kirk as public enemy number one in the eyes of public education advocates. He openly declared war on teachers unions and molded an entire state’s education policy to fit his flawed vision.
In the beginning of the Bush years, it was about ‘accountability.’ It was a popular concept to have a way to quantify the quality of public schools. Standardized testing and school grades, however, created harmful situations for schools that were deemed ‘failing.’ The new accountability regime under Bush was more eager to punish schools than they were to address any of the factors behind those test scores and school grades.
It was also during the Bush years that ‘choice’ became a central theme of public education policy. The state’s focus (and funding) shifted away from its traditional public schools toward what Bush believed to be more capable providers of quality education – private, parochial, and charter schools.
Bush cannot be completely to blame over the current situation in which we find ourselves. The political scene shifted significantly since Bush’s second term ended. The Republicans consolidated power in the legislature along with keeping the governor’s mansion in their hands with Charlie Crist.
An unholy alliance soon formed. Not all bad education ideas were from Republicans. President Barrack Obama’s bad education idea began with his choice for Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan was a reformer whose ‘Race to the Top Grant’ created a mad dash among states for federal education funds under the condition they adopt education reformers’ ideas such as linking student performance to teacher evaluations, placing a heavy emphasis on student scores. And, included as part of the grant, greater involvement for charter schools.
With such a broad coalition of support, Florida put on its running shoes to grab this federal money. It was radical, permanent change that was being funded by a one-time grant. Bear in mind that the state will not expand Medicaid because they say that it is not self-sustaining in the long term). The absurdity of the federal government’s education policy made many public education advocates wonder if they had any friends in power. And it’s no wonder that many ‘undecided’ voters say that they cannot tell a dime’s worth of difference between the two major political parties. The Republicans, when in power, know to defer to the education industrial complex (testing companies, charter schools) and the Democrats, when in power, seem to find ways to alienate their base (teachers unions) to reach out to the ‘middle’.
The education reformers continued to win every debate, though, because they were able to frame the dialogue as them versus the teachers unions who don’t want children to succeed. And every succeeding legislative session included a laundry list of new reforms meant to improve public education, but were open efforts to settle scores with teachers unions.
The Student Success Act of 2011 required all school districts to put their teachers on a new merit pay system. Teacher pay would be determined in part by their student test scores. Teachers who were rated ‘highly effective’ would receive a larger pay raise than those who were rated ‘effective.’ It would replace the traditional seniority-based pay ladder.
I knew, however, that something was rotten in the state of Florida. Since the Bush years, much of education reform was tossing cooked pasta on the wall. Each legislative session was rife with new laws and mandates for public schools that came with little to no funding. Tallahassee got to have their cake and eat it, as well. They were able to say that they were transforming education while passing the buck to the school districts to pocket the expense. For example, state-mandated exams to measure student performance and teacher pay are unfunded by the state, forcing the districts to foot the bill.
I still was not sure how the latest round of legislative action would help student success, but I decided to play along because I was ‘grandfathered’ in and remained on the traditional pay schedule and because I was a bit envious of the annual raise that new teachers would get should they be highly effective. Some districts agreed to make their highly effective raise as much as $2,000 a year.
Unfortunately, we are learning that one should not govern by rhetoric. The Orwellian mantra of ‘Student success’ may have gotten votes; it was the execution that is a betrayal of one of its key talking points -recruiting and retaining new teachers.
As of now, there is a teaching shortage in Florida. The shrinking pre-intern pool at local colleges of education is one indicator, as is the number of ‘permanent substitutes’ who are filling vacancies in schools across the state. And, with student success in mind, think of the resignations that are being submitted during the school year.
And it should be no surprise that the workforce in Florida is becoming less stable. Teachers who are rated ‘highly effective’ or ‘effective’ have to wait until the spring of the following school year to receive the raise that they earned the previous school year. As of the end of November, these teachers have not received the merit pay – along with educators from around the state. As accountability is central to public education, when will the state’s elected and appointed leaders be held accountable for this situation?
Instead of throwing a life preserver to school districts that are struggling to pay the performance pay that was mandated by Tallahassee, the legislature threw an anchor at school districts. Funding (e.g. Title I) that could traditionally support pay increases has been diverted to charter schools thanks to recently passed House Bill 7069. I detect a pattern here. The state’s education policy now consists of passing reform after reform but not stopping to make sure that they are actually working. It seems the only law that is working with regard to public education in Florida is the law of unintended consequences.
Please don’t just take the word of this fifteen-year veteran educator. It’s a once in a blue moon event to see parent organizations, teachers unions, school boards, and superintendents joining in a common cause against HB 7069. There is damage being done in the name of ‘reform’ and it is becoming too real for our children, our educators, and our education staff professionals.
While much of my disappointment is aimed at our state’s leadership, I have to ask that school districts (including Duval County) ratify new contracts. Two wrongs do not make a right. Because the state failed in its obligation to properly fund our public schools does not mean that we get to back away from our obligation to properly compensate educators and education staff professionals.
Going forward, this is our chance to ensure that ‘education reform’ is not just words.