Minda Corso

Frivolous litigation earns dunce cap

In Outcome-Based Funding, Standards and Accountability on October 11, 2012 at 8:05 pm

By: Mike Thomas

Florida will be the first state to litigate the effectiveness of education reform.

State Board of Education member Roberto Martinez calls it “an exercise in futility and madness and a waste of funds.”

All of which might disqualify it from other arenas, but certainly not a court of law.

Opponents of education reform filed a 2009 lawsuit accusing the state of violating a state constitutional amendment by not adequately funding a “high-quality’’ school system.

The Florida Supreme Court recently gave them the go-ahead to proceed.

Their attorney is Jon Mills, a former Democratic Speaker of the Florida House.

Plaintiffs include two youngsters from Rutledge Pearson Elementary School in Jacksonville. The lawsuit claims they are being denied a “high-quality education as mandated by the Florida Constitution.’’

Jon might want to revisit this one. Rutledge has now received three A’s in a row in the state’s grading system.

I will let the Florida Times Union elaborate:

There is a one-word description for the impressive achievements at Rutledge Pearson Elementary School: “Wow.”

That is what Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals said recently before a library full of Pearson staff members.

He also used these adjectives: Stupendous, miraculous and amazing.

I’m no lawyer. But if I were representing the state, I think I’d be calling Supt. Pratt-Dannals to the witness stand. In fact, Pearson Elementary is so stupendous, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stopped by about a year after Mills filed his lawsuit to laud the school’s accomplishments.

Mills also might have trouble with other claims.

He says Florida has not maintained a qualified teacher work force.

First of all, our teachers should be insulted, even if their union is not.

Second, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report in January in which it evaluated the states on five metrics: Delivering well-prepared teachers, expanding the teaching pool, identifying effective teachers, retaining effective teachers and eliminating poor teachers.

And Florida ranked first in the country.

Oops.

Mills claims the FCAT is causing an increase in retained students and is lowering graduation rates. Actually, the number of third-grade retentions has dropped significantly because schools responded to the needs of their students and are doing a much better job teaching them to read. And graduation is at an all-time modern high, with strong gains by minority students.

Mills claims the state punishes schools with a grading system based on FCAT results. In 2010, 74 percent of Florida schools received an A or B.

I would hardly call that punishment.

As for Florida dumbing down education, as is alleged in the lawsuit, the state ranks first in the country in the percent of 2011 graduates who took an AP exam, sixth in the percent of graduates passing at least one AP exam, and fourth in improving the passing percentage since 2001.

An in-depth analysis by ProPublica last year praised Florida as being a leader in giving low-income students the same access to AP classes as affluent kids.

And while the state’s NAEP scores took a dip in 2011, it ranks second nationally in gains on the national assessments dating back to the 1990s.

In fact, by any measure, the state’s education system is light years ahead of the system that was in operation when Mills helped run Tallahassee. And the biggest beneficiaries have been the students who were routinely ignored back then.

This is not to question Mills’ commitment to education. I just think he’s wed to an old model that equates education quality with education funding.

So should Florida spend more on education? Absolutely, if the money is targeted at programs that we know will help students learn more.

Does Florida offer a “high-quality education.’’ I suppose that will be a chew toy for the lawyers. I think my kids are getting a high-quality education in their Florida public schools.

Does Florida offer a heck of a lot higher education than it did 15 years ago? Of that there is no doubt.

In fact, I imagine if Florida had achieved these gains by simply spending an extra $100 billion, there would be no lawsuit.

Mike Thomas (@MikeThomasTweet) serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at mike@excelined.org

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