How the Florida education revolution began

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The Democrats that helped build the foundation of the Florida education revolution. From left: Govs. Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, and Buddy MacKay; State Sens. Jack Gordon and Phil Lewis; Commissioners of Education Betty Castor and Doug Jamerson

Editor’s note: March 2 marked the 20th anniversary of the legislative session in which Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched a number of K-12 reforms that transformed education throughout the state. With the start of the 2019 legislative session earlier this month, redefinED embarked upon a series of articles that examine aspects of Bush’s K-12 education revolution and how it continues to reverberate. Today’s piece lays the historical foundation that made the landmark changes possible.    

Much of the foundation for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s K-12 improvement initiatives was built by Democrats such as Florida governors Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay; state senators Jack Gordon and Phil Lewis; and education commissioners Betty Castor and Doug Jamerson. Bush and his Democratic predecessors believed that Florida’s public education system was failing the state’s neediest children and that state government needed to intervene. They also felt more state regulatory control was necessary to push school districts to better serve disadvantaged students.

Where Bush differed from the Democrats was in his belief that giving more power to disempowered families via education choice was necessary to create systemic, sustainable improvement. Although the political and legal climate during his tenure limited his success in expanding parental choice beyond school districts, his advocacy then is why Florida today leads the nation in the number of families and teachers exercising education choice.

One of the primary lessons we’ve learned over the last 50 years is that we can’t regulate our way to educational excellence and equity. A great public education system requires the proper balance of regulation and consumer choice.

Selecting a moment in time when the ramp-up to Bush’s reforms began is a bit arbitrary, but I’m going to choose the Florida Legislature’s passage of the Educational Accountability Act of 1976. This law was designed to ensure that every Florida student received a quality education. It required school districts to establish graduation standards, and in 1978 the law was amended to require that students pass a basic literacy test to graduate with a standard diploma.

The failure rate of black students was so high the first three years of testing that a class action lawsuit was filed against the state claiming that black students were being tested on literacy skills they were not being properly taught. On Sept. 4, 1981, a U.S. Court of Appeals decided in favor of the plaintiffs in Debra P. v. Turlington. The court ruled that state government, which was controlled by Democrats, violated the due process and equal protection clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment. By 1983, the state had regained the legal authority to make passing a basic literacy test a graduation requirement, but state leaders knew Florida’s public school system had severe problems.

Sen. Jack Gordon

Democrats responded by looking for ways to increase state control over public school classrooms. The Gordon Rule was the most prominent example of the state micromanaging classroom instruction in the 1980s. Named for its bill sponsor, Sen. Jack Gordon, a Democrat from Miami, the Gordon Rule mandated how many papers high school students were required to write each semester. I recall my English teacher colleagues at St. Petersburg High School in the ‘80s having to document and catalogue all their students’ papers for district and state auditors.

The Gordon Rule addressed the quantity of student writing but not its quality. To control for quality, Florida implemented in the late ‘80s a statewide writing assessment in fourth, eighth, and 10th grades called Florida Writes. Florida Writes used a structured scoring rubric that pushed teachers to teach students a formulaic writing style.

Gov. Bob Graham

Gov. Bob Graham’s preferred solution for improving public school instruction in the ‘80s was merit pay for teachers, which also was a policy favorite of Democratic Gov. LeRoy Collins in the 1950s. Graham convinced the Democratic Legislature in 1983 to create a merit pay plan for teachers, which infuriated the state teachers unions. In 1986, Graham spent one of his workdays at St. Petersburg High, where I was teaching. We spent my 50-minute planning period discussing merit pay versus other systemic improvement strategies, and he was classy enough to send his top policy adviser back a few weeks later to continue the discussion. I appreciated his desire to help teachers and disadvantaged students, but a one-size-fits-all statewide merit pay plan for teachers has never worked, and never will. Many charter and private schools have effective merit pay plans, but those plans are customized to the needs of each school.

At the time of Graham’s visit, St. Petersburg High was part of a National Education Association (NEA) experiment in teacher empowerment/site-based decision making. My colleagues and I told Graham and his staff that less state regulation and more school-based decision-making was the key to improving public education. St. Petersburg High was home to a large magnet school, which gave us more freedom to innovate than district schools without education choice programs.

Gov. Lawton Chiles

The teacher empowerment/site-based decision-making movement gained a lot of momentum in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, nationally and in Florida. One of the weaknesses of the movement was the lack of good academic performance standards and data to judge the effectiveness of schools and school-based changes. To build on this momentum and address these weaknesses, Education Commissioner Castor, Gov. Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay convinced Florida’s Democratic Legislature to pass the Education Reform and Accountability Act of 1991, known as Blueprint 2000. Blueprint 2000 was Florida’s most significant education reform legislation since the 1976 Accountability Act.

Gov. Buddy MacKay

Despite the strong support of Chiles, Castor, MacKay, and the Florida affiliate of the NEA, the Florida affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the other state teachers union, almost blocked the legislation from becoming law. Pat Tornillo, the legendary state president of the Florida AFT affiliate who was from Miami-Dade, argued that no systemic improvements should be considered until the public schools were adequately funded. Since no definition of adequate funding exists or ever will, this meant no systemic improvements should ever be considered. Rep. Doug Jamerson, who chaired the House K-12 education committee and would later become commissioner of education, played a key role in ultimately convincing Senate President Gwen Margolis, also from Miami-Dade, to allow Blueprint 2000 to pass.

Education Commissioner Betty Castor

At the request of the Florida NEA, Castor appointed me to be a teacher representative on the Education Reform and Accountability Commission, the group responsible for helping implement Blueprint 2000. Before or since, I’ve never worked with such an impressive group of bipartisan educators, elected officials and community activists.

Blueprint 2000 failed to accomplish its lofty aspirations because its mandate focused exclusively on implementing new government regulations. Education choice was not available to us. Consequently, the commission never considered finding the appropriate balance between regulations and consumer choice.

Blueprint 2000’s original premise was that state government and local school boards would return most decision-making power to each public school in exchange for holding these schools accountable for increasing student learning. Early versions of the legislation envisioned local school councils comprised of parents, educators, and community members having significant decision-making authority. But in response to pressure from school boards and district superintendents, these school councils were made advisory and devoid of any meaningful power prior to the legislation passing.

Blueprint 2000 required the commission to develop new student learning standards and an assessment system to measure these standards. The commission recommended standards based on a 1991 U.S. Department of Labor report on the skills students would need to be successful 21st century citizens and employees. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (the SCANS report) identified the importance of basic literacy skills (reading, writing, and computation), but the report also highlighted skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, planning and resource allocation, time management, information management, systems thinking, intrapersonal management (self-awareness and self-management) and interpersonal management (empathy and relationship management).

To assess these comprehensive real-world skills, the commission recommended a student assessment system similar to the assessments that have long existed in vocational education and other applied subjects such as drivers education. These rely heavily on instructors applying standardized scoring rubrics to student work and having external evaluators audit and validate the instructors’ assessments. We also encouraged the state to examine the International Baccalaureate program, which uses a similar approach for some of its assessments. A key advantage of this method was that in addition to satisfying state oversight needs, it also would provide students, parents, and teachers with real-time feedback on how each student was progressing.

The state assessment director told the commission that because of legal restrictions placed on the state by the Debra P. v. Turlington decision, the state could administer only a traditional, once-a-year paper-and-pencil literacy test. This became known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.  At this point, we had lost site-based decision-making, the SCANS standards, and a more effective and efficient state assessment system.

The final issue the commission grappled with was so difficult it ultimately fell to Bush to resolve several years later: How do we improve the performance of schools with low test scores? Castor hired Sandy McCarroll, a no-nonsense administrator from New Jersey, to help answer this question. McCarroll and John Winn, a Department of Education staff member who later would become Bush’s education commissioner, developed a proposal they called Required Action Levels (RALs), which the commission never supported. RALs were a continuum of state interventions ranging from forcing a school to rewrite its school improvement plan to a state takeover of the school. Had we had a robust, statewide education choice program in the mix, we might have been able to find common ground. In most well-designed markets, consumer choice is how low-performing suppliers are dealt with.

Castor resigned as education commissioner and became president of the University of South Florida in January 1994. (I resigned from the commission a few months later.) Gov. Chiles appointed Doug Jamerson, a black legislator from south St. Petersburg, to replace her.

Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson

Jamerson was a regulatory accountability hawk. His parents had sent him to a Catholic high school in St. Petersburg because they knew black children had been historically underserved by the Pinellas County School District. Jamerson wasn’t going to trust school districts to properly educate black children. His mantra as education commissioner was “trust but verify,” but he also wasn’t able to make any progress on the “what to do about schools with low test scores” issue.

The school improvement tools the Democrats, me included, turned over to Bush when he took office in January 1999 were weak: school advisory councils with no real power, basic literacy standards only, and an old-school assessment system. And yet, Bush was able to use these to help turn Florida’s public education system from one of the country’s weakest to one of the strongest.

Looking forward, the next 20 years appear promising for Florida’s public education system. Education choice programs are enabling teachers to open their own schools and parents to become more engaged in their children’s education. As Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) expand, more low-income and working-class students will have access to some of the out-of-school learning opportunities that more affluent students currently enjoy. Technology is allowing more teachers and parents to provide each child with an education customized to his or her unique needs. And online assessments are merging summative and formative assessments, allowing parents, students, and teachers to have real-time access to valid and reliable data.

The good news is that the best is yet to come.

Editor’s note: March 2 marked the 20th anniversary of the legislative session in which Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched a number of K-12 reforms that transformed education throughout the state. With the start of the 2019 legislative session earlier this month, redefinED embarked upon a series of articles that examine aspects of Bush’s K-12 education revolution and how it continues to reverberate. Today’s piece lays the historical foundation that made the landmark changes possible.