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Interim ed commish responds to strategic plan dustup, doesn’t rule out keeping job

Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart went on the defensive today, saying she needed to clear up misconceptions about the five-year strategic plan approved by the Florida Board of Education earlier this week. The plan includes academic goals based on ethnicities and race through 2018.

Education leaders around the state pounced on the numbers, saying the varied goals allowed disparities, and therefore the achievement gap, to perpetuate. Even state House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston weighed in, urging the Board of Education to reverse course.

“An appropriate vision should focus on improving student performance across the board instead of one based on race and ethnicity," he said in a news release. "It is inappropriate to suggest, as the Board of Education has implied, that one race is academically inferior to another."

Stewart defended the targets, saying that the Board of Education believes all students can achieve academic proficiency and is setting yearly goals toward that end.

“We feel that it’s very, very important to have these goals so that we can draw attention to where our students are now, where each of our subgroups are so that schools and parents and teachers can all focus on where we are and where we need to be eventually,” she said.

If the subgroups achieve the goals outlined in the strategic plan, each will reach 100 percent proficiency levels by the 2022-2023 academic year, she said. People may not have understood that the current strategic plan is just one part of a longer journey, Stewart added.

“If we were to carry it all the way out that certainly will happen if we look at that trajectory,” Stewart said.

During a brief media availability, Stewart also expressed support for Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement today that he will include $2 million in his budget for teacher training grants. She said the money, and the opportunities it provides, will be welcomed by schools as they implement new initiatives.

Stewart then addressed the Department of Education’s proposed 2013-2014 budget, which includes $442 million for technology. The bulk of that money would help pay for laptops, tablet computers and other electronics in order to create a 2 -to-1 student-to-device ratio in schools, Stewart said.

Finally, the Herald/Times asked her about the growing elephant in the room: whether Stewart was willing to lose the “interim” in her title and become the state’s official education commissioner. Scott and the head of the teacher’s union have both expressed support for Stewart and indicated they wouldn’t mind if she stayed on the job.

Stewart gave a very measured response to the question: “I stand at the ready to serve in Florida in whatever way I can.”

“That’s not a ‘no,’” we pointed out. She smiled politely but said nothing further.