Flori-duh? Florida public schools rising

Ron Matus

A few months ago, the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the gold standard of standardized tests – showed Florida, again, made a national splash. This time, it notched the biggest gains in America.

Florida now ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8 on the four core tests on The Nation’s Report Card, after adjusting for demographics.

You’d think the biggest gains in America would prompt applause from school boards, superintendents, teacher unions, and allied lawmakers. But no. In Florida, good news about public schools is increasingly ignored by public school groups; media coverage is mostly crickets (recent exception here); and alternative facts seed conspiracy theories.

No wonder, then, that plenty of candidates for political office are again vying to see who can flog the system the most. One gubernatorial candidate says “we are experiencing a true state of education emergency,” citing a single, obscure (at least in education circles) ranking, based on an especially crude set of indicators. Another says “Florida’s education reform has been a failure” while citing no evidence at all.

Deny and distort. Refuse to acknowledge progress. Demonize anybody who does. This is what “debate” over Florida education has come to.

Measures like NAEP scores continue to show the system is not only better than ever, but, in some ways, among the best in America. Yet to many, it’s still Flori-duh.

The tragic result is Florida teachers don’t get credit they deserve. And every day Floridians have no idea their public schools are on the rise.


All this, even though Florida has one of the highest rates of low-income students, with roughly 60 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. In fact, it’s progress among the most disadvantaged students that’s driving Florida’s rise.

Take the explosion in AP success.

For decades, AP classrooms in Florida and beyond were dominated by affluent white students. But in the late 1990s, Florida policy makers rightly cracked open the doors so low-income, black and Hispanic students could join them. Those “non-traditional” AP students quickly proved they belonged all along. Between 2006 and 2016 alone, the number of low-income students in Florida passing AP exams grew 500 percent, from less than 3,000 a year to more than 16,000.

To be sure, these measures of success should be taken with many grains of salt. Each one (and others that could be considered) comes with gaps, caveats, tensions, trade offs. We should realize their limitations in defining quality. We should acknowledge thoughtful concerns (and there are many). We also shouldn’t be deluded. Even with recent progress in some areas, public education in Florida (and everywhere) faces daunting challenges on the long road to customization.

But Flori-duh? Come on.

So why the disconnect?

Groups seeking more money for Florida schools filed an “adequacy” suit nine years ago, spurring a heap of publicity. So far, the courts have rejected their arguments – because those common indicators of education quality keep getting in the way.

It’s true Florida doesn’t spend as much money on its schools as most states. It ranks 40th, at $9,113 per pupil, according to the most recent federal data that allows comparisons. Most people assume a strong correlation between education spending and quality, even if evidence is iffy.

New York is No. 1 in spending, at $20,744 per pupil. On the four core NAEP tests, adjusted for demographics, it ranks No. 8, No. 11, No. 18 and No. 30. Alaska is No. 2, at $20,191 per pupil. On the adjusted NAEP, its students clock in at No. 43, No. 46, No. 49 and No. 49.

So many other factors affect perceptions of public education in Florida, including a system mired in perpetual conflict. As long as accountability for educational quality is primarily enforced through regulations, rather than enabled by empowered parents and educators, polarization is inevitable.

Traditional public school supporters have resisted nearly every major change in Florida education policy over the last 20 years. I sympathize with some of the concerns, now more than ever. But apocalyptic predictions didn’t pan out.

The same goes for the relentless fire aimed at educational choice. It would seem impossible to sustain the charge that charter schools and private school choice scholarships are decimating public education when results keep showing Florida schools getting better. So deny, deny, deny.

I guess it works. But saying Florida’s education system is awful over and over again still doesn’t make it true.

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1 comment

Mrs. Marion Bruce July 29, 2018 - 6:16 am

Unfortunately, Florida saves much money by underpaying and overworking teachers. Also, by providing inadequate resources for exceptional ed students.

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