As reform looms over Florida’s education system, almost all the participants in an education summit organized on Wednesday in Boca Raton by state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, supported investing in public education, better pay for teachers, and limiting the scope of standardized testing.

Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislators, none of whom attended the summit, favor privatization by giving charter schools and private schools public money, merit pay for teachers, and student performance measured through standardized testing.

Keynote speaker Diane Ravitch — U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, education historian and policy analyst — told participants it is not time to invest taxpayer money in plans that have failed elsewhere.

For Ravitch, a former supporter of charter schools, what is currently called education reform focuses on school choice, competition, and accountability. And the real driving force behind school choice today is privatization.

She agrees innovation is needed but adds that privatization does not guarantee improvement: “We need a vibrant public sector because public schools educate 90 percent of our children.”

Robert Dow, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, said it is not necessary to go out of the public school system to find innovation.

“[We need] to improve every single school, find out what they need, give the teachers the training they need,” Dow said.

Dow’s hesitation about vouchers and charter schools stems from his participation in a 2008 Excellence in Education forum hosted by former Gov. Jeb Bush, at which most attendees were charter school owners — not teachers.

“How can you have excellence without teachers?” Dow asked.

Peter Cunningham, the current assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education,  said the federal government only wants to see good charters.

“We are only trying to go beyond the status quo,” he said. “Kids are getting hurt, kids are dropping out, we need to try something. Do we think the private sector is the whole answer? Certainly not.”

Ravitch said Gov. Scott supports competition and would like to see education run like a business. She added that “For at least 50 years, advocates of choice have said competition will improve the situation. But the evidence does not work as advertised.”

For Ravitch, the corporate privatization approach “pits parents against parents, and teachers against teachers. Everybody is fighting, and not coalescing in what benefits the children.”

Participants also addressed standardized testing as part of school reform.

Robert Schaeffer, director of Fair Test, said Florida has a phony test system. He added that the goal of education is not to rank students but to help them reach their full potential, and outside checks and balances are needed to make sure teachers are judging all kids fairly.

Schaeffer said states need an assessment test at the baseline, but it is necessary to do away with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (aka the FCAT), which impacts funding, salaries, etc.

“Testing has always been a part of education,” said Barney Bishop, president, and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida. “There is a debate about FCAT but you have to test students. We need to measure success with China, Shanghai… that is the world economy.”

Bishop, the one participant who supported school choice, said that the Florida business community needs people who can handle the elementary skills of reading, writing, and basic math.

Ravitch spoke of the experiences of Renaissance 2010 Chicago, which relied on standardized tests and privatization, adding that despite its lack of success, it is now a model.

She said there are currently 5,000 government-funded, privately managed charter schools in the U.S. whose students have never outperformed students in traditional public schools. About 5 percent of Florida students attend charter schools.

The Florida Independent reported in December on how proficiency levels of Florida charter school students are not much higher than those attending traditional public schools.

According to Ravitch, studies show student scores are influenced more by students and families than teachers. The single most important indicator for student performance is income.

When talking about Race to the Top, “a competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform,” Frederick Ingram Secretary of United Teachers of Dade said teachers have not been fairly treated by the federal government.

“Teachers are grossly underpaid,” he said. “The federal government assumes base pay is adequate. They talk about merit pay as a bonus. Teachers are not afraid of accountability. We just need the accountability tools and the resources to teach students adequately.”

For Ingram, parents should be in schools four hours a month. He said many parents are doing the best they can but they need support, adding that Gov. Scott should give companies tax breaks to allow parents to leave work so they can get involved with kids in schools.

Peter Cunningham said the federal government knows teachers are underpaid, but its ability to affect teacher pay is limited.

He added that changes on how to recruit and train teachers are underway and that under No Child Left Behind the goal is to move to a system that uses multiple measures like peer review and student feedback, not just a single test score to define high-performing teachers.

All participants agreed reform must nurture a strong, better-paid teaching force because without teachers and principals any reform will fail. Reform must also support early development for children and parent education, prepare people for the workforce, improve curriculum and teachers, and have schools function as community centers.

They also agreed that Gov. Scott should ennoble teachers, stop the rhetoric of failing schools and offer free public higher education for people who want to be teachers.

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