How and why to avoid Florida’s flaws

It’s not too late to improve state ESSA plans. Approved state ESSA plans can be amended at any time. That’s both good news and bad news.

I fear the premature approval by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) of Florida’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) could have a negative impact on plans from other states whose policy makers may be aware of and seek the same dispensations accorded Florida. The good news is candidates for state office are on the campaign trail in 46 states, listening to voters. Education stakeholders can forestall backsliding and pave the way for improvements by making public their support for, or their disappointment with, their state ESSA plan.

My fundamental objection to Florida’s ESSA plan is that its failure to comply with the letter of the law, respect its civil rights legacy, and honor its goals can harm children. Two examples from Florida’s plan illustrate the problem and suggest its causes.

No effort to provide native language assessments

Using the Official English amendment to the state constitution as a shield, Florida has made no effort at all to comply with this requirement.

However, the amendment never mentions education and includes no prohibitions. While the state indicates “government services in languages other than English ” are ruled out, the truth is a multiplicity of such services are provided or required by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) and described on its web site.

Why would the FLDOE advance an argument so lacking in credibility? Why squander the opportunity for federal funding to get an accurate and valid measure of the content knowledge of 10% of the state’s students? Why would the FDOE abdicate its leadership role in cultivating the treasures multicultural, international, and emerging bilingual students bring to the state?

In 1988, 84% of Florida voters supported the Official English amendment. Language is still a hot button issue. In September, Florida newspapers published two articles on language issues. Readers on both sides of the language divide had reasons to take offense and noted their reactions (and in several instances, their anti-immigrant animus) in the comments sections of the articles.

One out of every four Florida residents is Hispanic, including over a million Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida by 2015. The Pew Research Center reports vast majorities of Hispanics nationally support Spanish language competence for future generations. Candidates for election court the Hispanic vote but don’t want to jeopardize support from other voters. The term-limited Florida Governor is a candidate for the U.S. Senate. A misplaced zeal to sidestep conflict may explain why the state published but never submitted its draft waiver requests. Instead, the initial submission jeopardized the state’s federal funding with a plan written as though waiver requests had been approved.

Florida’s January 15, 2009 implementation plan for the No Child Left Behind Act includes reference to the A+ Plan, signed into law in1999 and crafted by former Governor Jeb Bush and former Commissioner of Education Frank Brogan, now assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in USED. The 2009 report card grade provisions based on the A+ plan are very similar to those in Florida’s approved ESSA plan.

Appendix E of the 2009 document includes the FLDOE’s view that it would be just too much trouble to change what Florida has been doing.

Florida already has a tremendous investment in its A+ Plan for Education, and educators and citizens are familiar with it. To make changes would require amendments to existing statutes, administrative rules, computer programs, administrative infrastructure, and information dissemination to all public schools (p. 102).

Failure to include subgroup performance and progress in gaining English language proficiency (ELP) in calculations for school report card grades

Although down pedaled in the state plan, the FDOE has clarified elsewhere that there will be “No changes to Florida’s state accountability systems” and trivialized ESSA’s civil rights guardrails by stating that the state plan “Adds a Federal calculation to satisfy ESSA requirements”. The matter is ridiculed in an article comparing the review process to ”jumping through hoops”. The Editor-in-Chief of the blog that published the “hoops” article is Brian Burgess, former communications director for the Scott campaign for governor.

The A-F report card grade compels attention. The Florida plan’s detour around ESSA requirements diverts attention from the needs of schools with challenged students. Tier 1 targeted assistance triggered by federal calculations offers little more than access to universal on-line resources already available to all schools. It is likely historically underserved students will continue to be undeserved. As stated by the Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, Executive Director, Florida Council of Churches, “No attention, no correction“.

According to USED, since the law does not require a report card grade the Department has nothing to say about it. That interpretation amounts to license for states to ignore congressional intent.

The Alliance for Excellent Education sets forth the argument for an alternative interpretation. The Alliance concludes that whether or not ESSA requires states to rate each school, if the state does so to comply with the law’s requirements, it must use subgroup performance.

Takeaways

To clarify requirements and promote compliance, the law must be more specific and must direct federal and peer reviewers to fact check state plans.

Determination of whose interests are advanced in the state ESSA plan goes to the heart of the matter. What has priority: the needs of children, the political aspirations of elected policy makers, the districts’ interest in protecting bragging rights, preservation of the legacy of former education leaders, or workload considerations of the public servants who write the state plans? The answer to this question will suggest additional solutions.

ESSA provides resources to schools whose students need help. The distribution of resources is one of the functions of the political system. We can have an impact on that system in a few weeks, and again in 2020, by voting for lawmakers who commit to addressing the needs of all children.

Vote!

Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg, a former teacher and retired faculty member for Florida International  University,  served on the Miami-Dade School Board from 1986 to 1996. She is co-chair of the Government and Media Relations Committee for the Florida Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

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