Former Mayor Responds to Sarasota County School Board Raising Taxes

David Merrill, businessman and the former Mayor of the City of Sarasota, Florida, sent the below email to all Sarasota County School Board members.

School Board Members,

I urge you to reject the proposed increase in property taxes for schools. You can eliminate the need for the extra taxes by cutting wasteful policies and programs, and you have failed to make the case that the money will actually improve the education of our children.

Instead of looking to more taxes, you can find more than enough savings to eliminate the need for the taxes by replacing your credential-based compensation system for teachers.  Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, and Bill Gates have said we need to find the money to improve our schools by eliminating the waste and inefficiency from the type of compensation system that you use. Yet, other than perhaps for some new-hires, Sarasota’s teachers’ salaries are set from a salary table with two variables: advanced degrees and years of teaching.

In 2010 Arne Duncan said, ”There is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers.” Despite this information, Sarasota pays for more advanced and special degrees than any other district in Florida. A full 67% of Sarasota’s teachers have a degree above a bachelor’s degree.  While some advanced degrees may be appropriate, does giving two-thirds of the teachers at Phillipi Shores Elementary School higher salaries because they have advanced degrees really do anything to help our children learn the alphabet and the multiplication tables?

When it comes to teacher longevity, Sarasota’s teachers have the 7th highest average longevity out of the state’s 67 school districts. However Harvard Professor Paul E Peterson’s study titled “It’s Easier to Pick a Good Teacher than to Train One: Familiar and New Results on the Correlates on Teacher Effectiveness” reports that there is little increase in a teacher’s effectiveness after the first three years of teaching.  But you continue to increase teachers’ salaries based solely upon the number of years that they’ve been teaching, when, instead, we should pay them based on a performance evaluation like other professionals.

Some of you may say that you know these arguments, but politically you can’t cut teachers’ pay.  Therefore, in the absence of courage to confront the teachers union, your argument is that you have no choice but to increase taxes.  But, based on FCAT and EOC Assessment scores, you can’t show that you have been good stewards of the half-billion dollars you have collected from the referendum-initiated school tax since 2002.

Looking at our FCAT history, Sarasota’s ranking among Florida’s school districts on the high-school Reading FCAT and Math FCAT are lower today than they were a dozen years ago.  For the first three years of the high-school Math FCAT back in 2000, 2001, and 2002, Sarasota’s score was either the second or the third highest in the state. Likewise, for the first two years of the high school Reading FCAT in 2000 and 2001, Sarasota’s scores were either second or third in the state.  When the school-tax referendum passed in 2002, everyone looked forward to new and innovative educational strategies to build on our excellent school district, but, instead, the school district immediately went into an inexplicable funk, from which you’ve not yet recovered.

(I use the FCAT scores from the highest grade in high school that the test is given because they include the cumulative learning from lower grades, and they are the closest measure of the performance of your finished product, the high school graduate.)

Sarasota’s Ranking on High School FCAT among 67 Districts

2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
Math
3
2
3
10
11
12
9
10
11
12
6
6
Reading
2
3
6
16
12
16
9
13
12
12
6
9
Science
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
11
8
11
12
10
11
9

 

Fortunately, we’ve begun to regain some of our former glory.  On the recent Algebra EOC Assessment, Sarasota had the second highest score, which may be the beginning of getting back to where we were 11 years ago.

Unfortunately, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of supplemental taxes that taxpayers have given you since 2002, Sarasota’s high school student’s FCAT scores are still determined more by Sarasota’s favorable demographics than the school district’s extra efforts.  As you know, demographic factors such as adult personal income, percentage of free and reduced lunch, adult educational levels, and student racial composition are good predictors of a district’s FCAT scores when considered together.  In fact, there is a good argument that our county and city commissioners are more responsible for Sarasota’s FCAT scores than the school board since the commissioners’ policies have had the most influence on our demographics.

If you were to chart these demographic factors for Florida’s school districts, most school districts’ FCAT scores would fall within a narrow band of where one would expect to find them based on their demographics.  However, when districts deviate from their demographic prediction, it’s possible that their school district is doing something different from the other districts.

Accordingly, there are three districts on the high school FCATs who have challenged Sarasota’s scores, but who shouldn’t be able to based on their demographics alone. These districts, Sumter, Gilchrist, and Wakulla, all have less attractive demographics for adult income and educational levels compared to Sarasota, and their free and reduced lunch percentages are either similar to or higher than Sarasota’s.  Even with these unfavorable demographic characteristics, and along with having less money per student, fewer teachers with advanced degrees, less teacher experience, and lower teacher pay than Sarasota, these lower-income districts have achieved some impressive FCAT scores. They are obviously doing something right given what they have to work with.

District
County Adult Data
2011 11th Grade Science FCAT Students
Teacher Data
2011 High School FCAT Scores
Personal Income
% College
% High School
% Free-Lunch
% White
Advanced Degrees
Median Salary
Science
Math
Reading
GILCHRIST
$29,682
15%
72%
48%
92%
33%
$42,829
322
339
324
SARASOTA
$52,331
34%
87%
38%
72%
67%
$55,264
317
339
322
WAKULLA
$28,711
22%
78%
35%
82%
37%
$37,042
317
338
322
SUMTER
$24,836
17%
77%
45%
71%
33%
$42,365
320
334
317
FLORIDA
$38,210
23%
76%
45%
47%
41%
$45,723
307
329
309

 

If you could show a similar pattern of consistently having higher test scores than our demographics alone would predict, you could make an argument that you are efficiently and effectively using your resources, and that giving you more resources could lead to even higher test scores. However, you can’t make the argument because our high school students don’t consistently outscore the districts with similar or more favorable demographics.

On the 2011 FCAT tests, there were six districts that outscored Sarasota’s combined test scores and who also have demographics at least as favorable as Sarasota’s.  (I’ve excluded Gilchrist, which is shown above.) The districts are St. Johns, Okaloosa, Brevard, Seminole, Martin, and Santa Rosa. Each district has its favorable and unfavorable demographic factors, but they would all be considered similar.

Some key characteristics for these districts are shown on the table below.

District
County Adult Data
2011 11th Grade Science FCAT Students
District Data
2011 High School FCAT Scores
Personal Income
% College & Prof. Degree
% Free-Lunch
% White
Teacher Advanced Degrees
Teacher Median Salary
All Gov. Revenue Per Student
Science
Math
Reading
ST. JOHNS
$ 48,640
40%
13%
84%
41%
$44,370
$        9,360
324
344
332
OKALOOSA
$ 41,024
33%
23%
74%
42%
$48,779
$        9,245
328
342
330
BREVARD
$ 37,284
33%
25%
67%
43%
$42,421
$        9,226
326
341
326
SEMINOLE
$ 40,133
40%
31%
60%
48%
$43,301
$        8,910
318
343
327
MARTIN
$ 51,723
33%
25%
71%
41%
$43,677
$      10,739
321
340
326
SANTA ROSA
$ 34,838
32%
28%
80%
37%
$42,729
$        8,791
317
338
331
SARASOTA
$ 52,331
34%
38%
72%
67%
$55,264
$      11,961
317
339
322

 

Although the demographics are similar, as the chart shows, the Sarasota’s median teacher pay is 25% higher than the average of the other districts, and Sarasota takes in 28% more tax revenue per student than the other districts on average, or about $2,500 per student.  And, yet, with more lower-paid teachers and far fewer financial resources, these other districts have typically outscored us.

To put a better perspective on the magnitude of this disparity in revenues between districts, Sarasota has about 40,000 students, so a difference of $2,500 per student amounts to $100,000,000.  That’s how much Sarasota could save each and every year if we matched the average budget of the other six districts above.  Or, said another way, that’s how much money we could save if our school district were as efficient and effective in delivering high-scoring high-school graduates as other top districts – like we used to be a decade ago.

The table below summarizes the calculation for the extra tax burden that Sarasota taxpayers must fund annually above what the other top districts on average must pay.

Calculation of Sarasota’s Extra Tax Burden Relative to Top-Scoring Districts
Sarasota’s Per-Student Tax Revenues
Avg. Tax Revenue of 6 Higher-Scoring Districts
Higher Tax Burden for Sarasota Per Student
Sarasota’s Student Enrollment
Sarasota’s Total Extra Tax Burden
$11,961
$9,379
$2,583
41,076
$106,078,770

 

So, the questions before us are whether or not Sarasota has the potential to be the top school district in Florida, and whether we need to collect an extra $100,000,000 in taxes to do it.  And I’ll answer the first question with an unequivocal “Yes!”  And I’ll answer the second question with a “Hopefully not”.

The first question is easy to answer because we right there at the cusp a decade ago.  Back then, before the extra taxes started gushing in, our high school kids were just shy of having the highest scores on the FCAT.  In fact, it was the promise of being the top school district that got the voters to rally behind the property-tax increase in 2002 after having voted down a similar referendum in 2000.  Our recent 2nd-place score on the Algebra EOCA shows that we still have the potential, and it’s not unusual in the lower grades for us to have top FCAT scores.  By effectively using the financial resources that the public has given you, you can overcome any demographic advantages that even a district like St. Johns enjoys, and our high school students can be the very best in the state.

However, the reason I don’t support a continuation of the extra $100,000,000 in taxes is because the need for it is purely remedial. There are only two reasons that the extra taxes are needed.  One possibility is that you have failed to develop a school district that is as efficient and effective the school districts that are currently at the top of the FCAT rankings.  The other possibility is that our city and county commissioners have failed to create an economy that provides enough jobs for high income, college educated workers.  After all, it’s their children who get the top scores.

But continuing the extra $100,000,000 in taxes drains our economy of productive resources and makes our community-development plans more difficult. Other districts that don’t have to pay it are gaining a competitive advantage over Sarasota.  Over a decade, the cumulative impact of draining this much money from our economy is huge.

In less than two years you will have another vote to extend the property tax for schools.  (It only provides about half of the extra $100,000,000 in taxes that you collect.)  I predict that you will fail unless you do two things.  First, you must develop a compensation system that rewards our many excellent teachers and eliminates the bad ones.  (Ever read RateMyTeachers.com?  We still have bad teachers.  My 7th grade son just got one of the worst ones at his school.  Why is Ms. Friedland still allowed to teach?)  Secondly, you must restore Sarasota’s high-school test scores to their rightful place at the top of all districts.  Unlike a decade ago when we were Number 2, with all your extra resources, we need to be Number 1.

Finally, with $100,000,000 more than the average of the other top districts, you don’t need more money.  You need a better plan.  Arne Duncan has said that schools need to do more with less.  I suggest you show your understanding of the new reality by voting down your proposed tax increase.

Best regards,

David Merrill
Arox Land Development, Inc
700 Bell Road
Sarasota, Fl  34240

Romney Applauded 27 Times at NAACP Convention

Major media wires are reporting that Mitt Romney was booed once during his speech at the NAACP Convention. This is a classic case of “man bites dog” reporting. What the news wires did not report is that during his twenty-five minute speech Governor Romney was how many times he was actually applauded. Reverend Wayne Perryman in an email notes, “The media did it again. They focused on the fact that Romney got booed at the NAACP Convention, but they didn’t say how many times they applauded him. I charted the speech and each time they applauded him during his speech. They Applauded Total of 27 times in 25 Minutes.” Following time sequence prepared by Reverend Perryman:

1:56 He would represent every race

2:58 He will help the middle class

3:58 He complimented the NAACP

6:39 You are entitled to an answer

7:27 A quote from Frederick Douglass

8:27 Blacks have waited long enough

9:53 He support strong families & traditional marriages

11:15 He will help the middle class

11:58 Bring Jobs back to the United States

12:24 He will clamp down on cheaters like China who steal our jobs

12:52 He will stop spending

13:02-13:18 He was booed regarding overturning Obama Care

14:22 He would protect social Security and Medicare with higher benefits for those with lower income and lower for higher income

14:51 He reference to minimum wage jobs and the need for skilled workers

15:52 Wages will rise again

16:28 His goal as President it to create jobs for American people

16:39 If you want a president to make things better for the African American Community, you’re looking at him

18:12 The 4 year Scholarships program that he created while governor

19:58 He joined with the Black Legislative Caucus in Mass to promote Charter Schools

20:36 He won’t let special interest groups stand in the way of education reform

21:03 Money for education will be linked to the student for true choice

21:49 The hospitality that they (NAACP) will be returned and he will seek their counsel

22:12 If they invite him back next year as President he will say “Yes”

22:57 He talks about his father as a man that he admired for equality and justice

23:14 His father was a man of faith that knew that everyone was God’s children

24:01 He said God’s Mercy endureth forever

24:55 NAACP and their past victories and their victories in the future

25:15 Ended his speech

The full text of Mitt Romney’s speech follows:

Thank you, Bishop Graves, for your generous introduction. Thanks also to President Ben Jealous and Chairman Roslyn Brock for the opportunity to be here this morning, and for your hospitality. It is an honor to address you.

I appreciate the chance to speak first – even before Vice President Biden gets his turn tomorrow. I just hope the Obama campaign won’t think you’re playing favorites.

You all know something of my background, and maybe you’ve wondered how any Republican ever becomes governor of Massachusetts in the first place. Well, in a state with 11 percent Republican registration, you don’t get there by just talking to Republicans. We have to make our case to every voter. We don’t count anybody out, and we sure don’t make a habit of presuming anyone’s support. Support is asked for and earned – and that’s why I’m here today.

With 90 percent of African-Americans voting for Democrats, some of you may wonder why a Republican would bother to campaign in the African American community, and to address the NAACP. Of course, one reason is that I hope to represent all Americans, of every race, creed or sexual orientation, from the poorest to the richest and everyone in between.

But there is another reason: I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African American families, you would vote for me for president. I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color — and families of any color — more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president.

The opposition charges that I and people in my party are running for office to help the rich. Nonsense. The rich will do just fine whether I am elected or not. The President wants to make this a campaign about blaming the rich. I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class.

I am running for president because I know that my policies and vision will help hundreds of millions of middle class Americans of all races, will lift people from poverty, and will help prevent people from becoming poor. My campaign is about helping the people who need help. The course the President has set has not done that – and will not do that. My course will.

When President Obama called to congratulate me on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he said that he, “looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America’s future.” To date, I’m afraid that his campaign has taken a different course than that.

But, in campaigns at their best, voters can expect a clear choice, and candidates can expect a fair hearing – only more so from a venerable organization like this one. So, it is that healthy debate about the course of the nation that I want to discuss with you today.

If someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised. Picturing that day, we might have assumed that the American presidency would be the very last door of opportunity to be opened. Before that came to pass, every other barrier on the path to equal opportunity would surely have come down.

Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way. Many barriers remain. Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before. And across America — and even within your own ranks — there are serious, honest debates about the way forward.

If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.
Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover – and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.

If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life. Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept. Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide – but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.

Our society sends them into mediocre schools and expects them to perform with excellence, and that is not fair. Frederick Douglass observed that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Yet, instead of preparing these children for life, too many schools set them up for failure. Everyone in this room knows that we owe them better than that.

The path of inequality often leads to lost opportunity. College, graduate school, and first jobs should be milestones marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. But for too many disadvantaged young people, these goals seem unattainable – and their lives take a tragic turn.

Many live in neighborhoods filled with violence and fear, and empty of opportunity. Their impatience for real change is understandable. They are entitled to feel that life in America should be better than this. They are told even now to wait for improvements in our economy and in our schools, but it seems to me that these Americans have waited long enough.

The point is that when decades of the same promises keep producing the same failures, then it’s reasonable to rethink our approach – and consider a new plan.

I’m hopeful that together we can set a new direction in federal policy, starting where many of our problems do – with the family. A study from the Brookings Institution has shown that for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until 21 before they marry and then have their first child, the probability of being poor is two percent. And if those factors are absent, the probability of being poor is 76 percent.

Here at the NAACP, you understand the deep and lasting difference the family makes. Your former executive director, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, had it exactly right. The family, he said, “remains the bulwark and the mainstay of the black community. That great truth must not be overlooked.”

Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal. As President, I will promote strong families – and I will defend traditional marriage.

As you may have heard from my opponent, I am also a believer in the free-enterprise system. I believe it can bring change where so many well-meaning government programs have failed. I’ve never heard anyone look around an impoverished neighborhood and say, “You know, there’s too much free enterprise around here. Too many shops, too many jobs, too many people putting money in the bank.”

What you hear, of course, is how do we bring in jobs? How do we make good, honest employers want to move in and stay? And with the shape this economy is in, we’re asking that more than ever.

Free enterprise is still the greatest force for upward mobility, economic security, and the expansion of the middle class. We have seen in recent years what it’s like to have less free enterprise. As President, I will show the good things that can happen when we have more – more business activity, more jobs, more opportunity, more paychecks, more savings accounts.

On Day One, I will begin turning this economy around with a plan for the middle class. And I don’t mean just those who are middle class now – I also mean those who have waited so long for their chance to join the middle class.

I know what it will take to put people back to work, to bring more jobs and better wages. My jobs plan is based on 25 years of success in business. It has five key steps.

First, I will take full advantage of our energy resources, and I will approve the Keystone pipeline from Canada. Low cost, plentiful coal, natural gas, oil, and renewables will bring over a million manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

Second, I will open up new markets for American products. We are the most productive major economy in the world, so trade means good jobs for Americans. But trade must be free and fair, so I’ll clamp down on cheaters like China and make sure that they finally play by the rules.

Third, I will reduce government spending. Our high level of debt slows GDP growth and that means fewer jobs. If our goal is jobs, we must, must stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we earn. To do this, I will eliminate expensive non-essential programs like Obamacare, and I will work to reform and save Medicare and Social Security, in part by means-testing their benefits.

Fourth, I will focus on nurturing and developing the skilled workers our economy so desperately needs and the future demands. This is the human capital with which tomorrow’s bright future will be built. Too many homes and too many schools are failing to provide our children with the skills and education that are essential for anything other than a minimum-wage job.

And finally and perhaps most importantly, I will restore economic freedom. This nation’s economy runs on freedom, on opportunity, on entrepreneurs, on dreamers who innovate and build businesses. These entrepreneurs are being crushed by high taxation, burdensome regulation, hostile regulators, excessive healthcare costs, and destructive labor policies. I will work to make America the best place in the world for innovators and entrepreneurs and businesses small and large.

Do these five things – open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, focus on better educating tomorrow’s workers today, and restore economic freedom – and jobs will come back to America, and wages will rise again. The President will say he will do those things, but he will not, he cannot, and his record of the last four years proves it.

If I am president, job one for me will be creating jobs. I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.

Finally, I will address the institutionalized inequality in our education system. And I know something about this from my time as governor.

In the years before I took office our state’s leaders had come together to pass bipartisan measures that were making a difference. In reading and in math, our students were already among the best in the nation – and during my term, they took over the top spot.

Those results revealed what good teachers can do if the system will only let them. The problem was, this success wasn’t shared. A significant achievement gap between students of different races remained. So we set out to close it.

I urged faster interventions in failing schools, and the funding to go along with it. I promoted math and science excellence in schools, and proposed paying bonuses to our best teachers.

I refused to weaken testing standards, and instead raised them. To graduate from high school, students had to pass an exam in math and English – I added a science requirement as well. And I put in place a merit scholarship for those students who excelled: the top 25 percent of students in each high school were awarded a John and Abigail Adams Scholarship – which meant four years tuition-free at any Massachusetts public institution of higher learning.

When I was governor, not only did test scores improve – we also narrowed the achievement gap.

The teachers unions were not happy with a number of these reforms. They especially did not like our emphasis on choice through charter schools, particularly for our inner city kids. Accordingly, the legislature passed a moratorium on any new charter schools.

As you know, in Boston, in Harlem, in Los Angeles, and all across the country, charter schools are giving children a chance, children that otherwise could be locked in failing schools. I was inspired just a few weeks ago by the students in one of Kenny Gamble’s charter schools in Philadelphia. Right here in Houston is another success story: the Knowledge Is Power Program, which has set the standard, thanks to the groundbreaking work of the late Harriet Ball.

These charter schools are doing a lot more than closing the achievement gap. They are bringing hope and opportunity to places where for years there has been none.

Charter schools are so successful that almost every politician can find something good to say about them. But, as we saw in Massachusetts, true reform requires more than talk. As Governor, I vetoed the bill blocking charter schools. But our legislature was 87 percent Democrat, and my veto could have been easily over-ridden. So I joined with the Black Legislative Caucus, and their votes helped preserve my veto, which meant that new charter schools, including some in urban neighborhoods, would be opened.

When it comes to education reform, candidates cannot have it both ways – talking up education reform, while indulging the same groups that are blocking reform. You can be the voice of disadvantaged public-school students, or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers unions, but you can’t be both. I have made my choice: As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way.

I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that a true choice by ensuring there are good options available to all.

Should I be elected President, I’ll lead as I did when I was governor. I am pleased today to be joined today by Reverend Jeffrey Brown, who was a member of my kitchen cabinet in Massachusetts that helped guide my policy and actions that affected the African American community. I will look for support wherever there is good will and shared conviction. I will work with you to help our children attend better schools and help our economy create good jobs with better wages.

I can’t promise that you and I will agree on every issue. But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned. We will know one another, and work to common purposes. I will seek your counsel. And if I am elected president, and you invite me to next year’s convention, I would count it as a privilege, and my answer will be yes.

The Republican Party’s record, by the measures you rightly apply, is not perfect. Any party that claims a perfect record doesn’t know history the way you know it.

Yet always, in both parties, there have been men and women of integrity, decency, and humility who called injustice by its name. For every one of us a particular person comes to mind, someone who set a standard of conduct and made us better by their example. For me, that man is my father, George Romney.

It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did. It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit – though he did those things, too.

More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.

I’m grateful to him for so many things, and above all for the knowledge of God, whose ways are not always our ways, but whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever.

Every good cause on this earth relies in the end on a plan bigger than ours. “Without dependence on God,” as Dr. King said, “our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G. K. Chesterton called ‘cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.’”

Of all that you bring to the work of today’s civil rights cause, no advantage counts for more than this abiding confidence in the name above every name. Against cruelty, arrogance, and all the foolishness of man, this spirit has carried the NAACP to many victories. More still are up ahead, and with each one we will be a better nation.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Gov. Scott: Raising the Public Education Bar Works

Governor Rick Scott issued a statement today on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test grades for Elementary and Middle Schools. Test standards were raised by the Florida legislature and student grades fell significantly.

Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson said in announcing the school grades, “This has been a year of tremendous change for Florida’s students, teachers and schools. The high standards we have in place today will help our students prepare for college, the workforce and life.” Robinson added that he was “confident we are on the right path.”

Governor Scott noted, “Florida is raising education standards because we know from past experience that students and teachers consistently rise to occasion when challenged. In just two years, Florida will move to a new testing standard that significantly reduces our reliance on the FCAT and moves to Common Core State Standards. This new system will allow us to compare our students with those in other states so that we can benchmark results, measure progress, and adjust curriculum to better prepare students for college and the workforce, so that they are better able to compete in the global marketplace.”

Governor Scott states, “As part of our ongoing accountability efforts, we’re constantly reviewing the level of and kinds of testing occurring in our classrooms. Our goal is to make sure we’re not testing for testing’s sake, but working to ensure our students are prepared for college and the workforce. Common Core assessments are an example of that kind of tool.”

“It is never easy to raise the standards for excellence in education. This year is no exception. But every time we raise the expectations of our students and teachers, they ultimately get better in later years. Simply put, raising the bar works,” Governor Scott said.

The Florida Board of Education voted to lower the school passing scores for the 2012 tests. This led to many saying lowering of the public education bar is harmful to future student achievement. According to Dave Weber of the Orlando Sentinel:

“Statewide, 46 elementary and middle schools earned Fs, compared to 32 last year, and 238 earned Ds, more than doubling last year’s 117. The totals of As, Bs and Cs slipped, too, with A schools showing a marked slip from 1,480 statewide last year to 1,112 this year.

To cushion the blow, the State Board of Education agreed several months ago that no school would be dropped more than one letter grade from last year’s score, regardless of how its students performed. That likely has saved some schools from slipping to Ds or Fs.”

FL Educators’ Reaction to Low Student Writing Scores: Kill the Messenger

The 2012 Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) results are out for writing. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “Preliminary results released Monday indicate that just 27 percent of fourth-graders earned a passing score of 4.0 or better (out of 6) on the writing test. A year ago, 81 percent scored 4.0 or better. The outcomes were similar for eighth- and 10th-graders.”

So what do Florida’s professional educators say about these preliminary results? 

The attacks are nearly unanimous that the testing company got it wrong and that tests are harmful and should be disregarded. Governor Rick Scott’s newly appointed Commissioner of Education wants to lower the standards for passing the test. The Tampa Bay Times reports, “On Monday, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson proposed reducing the FCAT writing passing score from 4.0 to 3.5. Under that standard, 48 percent of fourth-graders would have passed the test with a 3.5 or better, along with 52 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 10th-graders.” The FCAT passing score has since been lowered “temporarily”.

Governor Scott released this statement about the dismal writing test scores: “Our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals. The significant contrast in this year’s writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results.” I hope Governor Scott understands that lowering the standards does not improve student performance in reading, math or writing.

Some say this is akin to saying that because most airline pilots cannot pass the annual flight exam it is good policy to lower the standards so that more pilots pass. 

Community leaders such as former Sarasota City Mayor David Merrill have been saying Florida students are not performing well on standardized tests. One of the best tools for measuring performance is a standardized test. Tests are used in every aspect of daily lives be it in education, professional development, business or medicine. Standardized tests, when properly developed and implemented, measure subject matter knowledge and performance. To not measure performance can be harmful to the individual and eventually to their prosperity.

David Merrill, former Mayor of Sarasota and Harvard Business School graduate, looked at FCAT scores for Sarasota County, Florida. David, in a July 2011 letter to the Sarasota County School Board, stated:

“I have recently provided several analyses that compared the Sarasota School District’s performance on FCAT tests to other school districts in Florida, and these analyses formed the basis of my conclusion that Sarasota’s school district has performed poorly over the past 9 years of FCAT data, especially when we consider the hundreds of millions dollars in extra taxes that we have paid in order to have a top district. Our school district has been near the very top of the ladder for spending, and yet the test scores for our black and Hispanic students are near the bottom of the scores for their racial subgroups, and during that time our white students have scored only a little better than the average for all white students in Florida.” [Emphasis mine]

So what is the response of Superintendent Lori White to the release of lower writing scores? The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports, “Districts were notified in a memo last summer to expect more emphasis on grammar, punctuation and spelling. But teachers were not told how much weight that would receive, said Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Lori White. ‘I don’t understand how the scoring could be done in such a way to cause such a decline in proficiency levels,’ she said.”

Sample of FCAT student writing.

Superintendent White knew about the change in standards, has more money than any other district in Florida due to passage of a $1 million tax providing the district with over $35 million more each year since 2002 and says she does not understand the problem.

Grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and conventions have not been a priority in education for decades and now we are seeing the results – students who cannot write with any coherence. Just look at the writing example contained in this column to understand just how bad the situation really is. If I were a parent and read this essay from my son or daughter I would be outraged. This cannot continue. Blaming the test is not the answer. It is time for serious introspection. It is time for teachers to be given the full ability and responsibility to teach. Time to empower parents to pick what their children learn, not education bureaucrats in some distant state capitol or ivy covered university.

It is past the time to teach our children how to learn so they may be prosperous no matter what they decide to do in their lives.

Florida Public Colleges and Universities Get High Marks

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce evaluated public colleges and universities in all 50 states. Florida got an overall grade of “A” for its public institutions of higher learning. The study was done by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW). Unlike other studies that looked at inputs like student acceptance rates and the amount each state spends on higher education, this study looked at outputs such as student graduation rates and graduates turning their degrees into jobs.

ICW reports, “Florida’s four-year institutions are among the nation’s leaders in credentials produced per 100 full-time equivalent undergraduates, the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, and retention rate. The state’s two-year institutions score very high marks in credentials produced per 100 full-time equivalent undergraduates, completion rate, and retention rate, though the state performs much worse in the percentage of Pell recipients.”

In the areas of efficiency and cost effectiveness, “Florida receives a good grade in this area for four-year institutions, with a cost per completion of $46,071, which is the best of all states, and a state and local funding per completion ($41,647) slightly above the national median of $41,198. Florida’s two-year institutions fare even better with a cost per completion ($38,146) and state and local funding per completion ($21,115) in the top five of all states.”

Finally, “The median wage of a Florida bachelor’s degree holder is approximately $17,400 (or 61%) more than the median wage of a high school graduate; the overall unemployment rate for a bachelor’s degree holder is about 5 points lower. The median wage of an associate’s degree holder is approximately $8,900 (or 31%) more than the median wage of a high school graduate; the overall unemployment rate is about 3 points lower,” according to ICW.

The ICW report concludes, “Florida’s 2012–2025 strategic plan for higher education has clear goals with empirical targets including student outcomes and system efficiency. Florida has a small outcomes-based funding policy for two-year institutions but there is not a comparable system for four-year institutions. Finally, the state has an impressive articulation and credit transfer policy, including a statewide course numbering system.”

Sarasota Textbook Challenge Moves to the Florida Commissioner of Education

Just when you thought the challenges to the textbook World History: Patterns of Interaction had gone away, it rises again like a phoenix.

Aya Sewell, a local parent, and the Florida Security Council have both submitted requests to Dr. Eric J. Smith, Florida Commissioner of Education to conduct an investigation into the accuracy of World History. Florida Statute 1006.35 states in part:

(1) In addition to relying on statements of publishers or manufacturers of instructional materials, the commissioner may conduct or cause to be conducted an independent investigation to determine the accuracy of state-adopted instructional materials.

The Florida Security Council sent its request to the Commissioner after exhausting efforts at the Sarasota County School Board level to have it reviewed and corrected.

In the letter to Commissioner Smith the Florida Security Council states:

The Florida Security Council, at the behest of Ms. Sewell and other concerned parents and citizens submitted an appeal to the Sarasota County School Board’s decision to retain World History: Patterns of Interaction on the district approved list of instruction materials.

The appeal was denied by the Sarasota County School Board on July 20, 2010 in large part because the textbook was on the Florida Department of Education approved list and it “is a state problem” and not a local school board issue.

The Florida Security Council has done its part by going through the local process to have World History: Patterns of Interaction reviewed, corrected for inaccuracies and replaced during the 2011-2012 school year when this particular textbook is up for review. Again, that effort was thwarted primarily because the local school board looked at this as a state issue.

It is therefore in good faith and at the recommendation of the Sarasota County School Board that we come to you.

At a July 20, 2010 Sarasota County School Board appeal hearing each school board member recognized the textbook as flawed in one way or another but decided to retain the textbook. Chairwoman Shirley Brown admitted, “Some of the things we teach our students is biased.” Both Frank Kovach and Carolyn Zucker strongly recommended those concerned parents and citizens go the the state to resolve this textbook issue.

Well it looks like Aya and the Florida Security Council took that advice very seriously.