Do school ‘reformers’ really believe in accountability? Let’s look at Florida.

(Correction: Fixing status of FSU institute)

Education policymakers today insist that teachers, principals and schools must be “held accountable.” You would assume, then, that they would take every opportunity to ensure that all students who are educated with public money take the all-important standardized  tests that are used as the chief accountability metric and that can determine how much educators are paid and employed.

Well, think again.

The discrepancy between what some reformers say and what they do can been in stark relief right now in Florida, where the test-based accountability movement started under former Gov. Jeb Bush. The legislature is about to vote on a measure that would, if passed, make it easier for children to get Florida’s version of vouchers through what is called the Tax Credit Scholarship Program — but which would continue the practice of  not holding voucher students accountable for standardized test scores in the same way as public school students.

Instead of insisting that students going to private schools with public money take the same standardized tests that public school kids take, the legislation would use public money to pay the Learning System Institute at Florida State University to do annual reports on the performance and learning gains of voucher students. How they would get this information is unclear, given that the voucher students don’t have to take the same tests as other kids.

So voucher students — who are low-income — don’t have to take standardized tests in Florida, but kids with severe disabilities who are in alternative schools or are taught at home by state-funded teachers do.

An attempt earlier this year to actually expand the voucher program in Florida to middle-class students was defeated because some senators didn’t like the lack of accountability measures in the legislation. Somehow, they seem to have gotten over their reluctance. The House and a key Senate committee have approved the new legislation, and the full Senate will vote this week. Major parent and teacher organizations in the state are opposed to the legislation, including the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, as well as the Florida PTA. A coalition of organizations issued this statement:

We are opposed to SB 1512 and any expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Voucher program. This bill is clear evidence that the Florida Legislature is unwilling to impose the same accountability measures on all schools receiving public tax dollars. This is unacceptable to the hundreds of thousands of people who are part of our organizations. We do not accept diverting billions of public tax revenue to pay for private schools that are not required to take the same tests learn the same curriculum or work under the same standards and sanctions as our public schools. We strongly urge the Florida Senate to stop growing the separate, unequal and unfair Corporate Tax Credit Voucher program until Florida taxpayers can be 100% sure that “educational choice leads to educational advancement, ”as stated by Sen. President Don Gaetz in February, 2014.

The new language was included on a bill that also helps parents of disabled children get additional educational services — but it doesn’t do much of anything, if anything — to make it easier for parents of children with severe disabilities to get waivers from the alternative standardized tests forced on these kids. A parent named Andrea Rediske has been trying to persuade the legislature to pass a bill that would ease the lives of these parents and their children, but a bill titled the Ethan Rediske Act, named for her  son, who died this year, was ignominiously killed before it even got to committee. (You can read about that here.) 

One party heard from is Michelle Rhee, head of the reform organization StudentsFirst, who last week sent this letter by e-mail around Florida trying to drum up support for the legislation.

Dear Friend,

Over the next week, the Florida legislature has an opportunity to change the lives of thousands of Florida’s neediest students. But it won’t happen without your help.

HB 7167 amends Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a program that gives low-income students scholarships so they can attend a great school. We support a version of the bill that:

*continues to prioritize low-income students

*increases the individual scholarship amount minimum

HB 875 provides parents and taxpayers with information on how well schools and districts are using their state dollars to increase student achievement. This information will be provided in an easy to understand format to increase transparency and accountability in Florida’s education system.

Needless to say, passage of these bills would be a huge win for Florida’s kids. That’s where you come in.

Over the next week, we will be pushing hard for these issues in Tallahassee. We are looking for people who have a personal interest in these two issues to join us in supporting the bill.

If you or someone you know would be interested in working with us to support this legislation in Tallahassee over the next week to advocate for students across the Sunshine State, please email StudentsFirst Field Coordinator Kelly Garcia at kgarcia@studentsfirst.org.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of Florida’s students. With your continued efforts, we can give all kids the great education they deserve.

Rhee constantly talks about the importance of accountability — except, apparently, when it isn’t that important.

The bottom line comes from  Bob Sikes, a Florida high school teacher who is also the author of the Scathing Purple Musings blog and a former New York Mets assistant athletic director — including for the fabled 1986 World Series champions. He wrote on his blog:

It would have been simple enough to have voucher schools take the same tests that public schools do, and legislative republican have not explained why they didn’t. As their testing policies mandate that terminally ill children take FCAT, their position that vouchers kids don’t have to is neither morally nor intellectually defensible.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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