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Politics

In Post-Jeb Bush Education Era, Uncertainty, Urgency

August 12, 2013 - 6:00pm

When Jeb Bush took office as governor of Florida in 1999, he made education his top priority. He began the process of revamping the Sunshine States education system, vowing that Floridas children would live up to their God-given potential.

He developed and steered education reform so that schools would receive "A" to "F" grades based on testing performance. Students were required to meet testing performance standards before advancing to the next grade, teachers began getting paid based on student performance, and parents were given more choices of where to send their children to school through charter school and private school vouchers.

Floridas schools, which once sat at the bottom of the pack in testing performance, began rapidly improving.

Bush kept it all together. In many ways, he build the reform to tower above his other accomplishments in office. He had created a national example. He had created a legacy.

Floridas students made gains by leaps and bounds, and the education system once deemed one of the lowest-performing in the country became the shining example of progress for states across the nation.

Fourteen years later, the Florida Department of Education is making headlines for other reasons, casting a shadow over the education system Bush put into place so many years ago.

After Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett resigned nearly two weeks ago amid a report that he changed the grade of a charter school in his home state of Indiana from a C to an A, one of the reforms has been seriously called into question by critics. The report called into question Bushs "A" to "F" grading system, which some critics are calling a fatal weakness in the system.

The grading system is easily manipulated, and even in Florida its seen tweaks and changes. Just this year, Bennett and the State Board of Education implemented a safety net feature for Floridas schools, so they wouldnt drop more than one letter grade. Yet, despite the protection, many schools still saw their grades fall -- the number of D schools increased 50 percent and the number of A schools dropped.

Frank Brogan, who represented a pinnacle of achievement for the State University System of Florida, left his post as chancellor and took his talents to Pennsylvania.

With two major positions in Floridas education system empty, the castle of progress Bush built up now stands on a precipice of uncertainty.

Although the State Board of Education vowed that the show must go on and members said they would continue to persevere beyond Bennetts resignation, even more changes are coming to Floridas education system with the onset of Common Core.

Common Core will take Floridas education system onto another path with which many are unfamiliar, and the education initiative has parents, the public and some legislators getting cold feet and calling for a complete stop of Common Core-aligned exams like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.

"Too many questions remain unanswered with PARCC [the Common Core testing group Florida leads] regarding implementation, administration, technology readiness, timeliness and utility of results, security infrastructure, data collection and undetermined cost," wrote Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, in a letter to Tony Bennett in July. "We cannot jeopardize 15 years of education accountability reform by relying on PARCC to define a fundamental component of our accountability system."

As a new academic year begins, FDOE has a lot on its plate. Its seen three commissioners come and go over the last three years, has changed the grading formula for its schools twice in the last two years, and has to prepare itself for a national education initiative thats already seeing opposition from all angles.

Bushs reforms made Florida a beacon of hope and an example of progress in education across the country. That light is dimmer now. Whatever direction FDOE heads in, they have to start making moves quickly. Time is not on their side. With the clock ticking until the 2014-2015 school year, the department needs to move forward -- for themselves, for the future of the department, for Floridas schools, and most importantly, for Floridas students.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at allison@sunshinestatenews.com.

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