Gov. Rick Scott today made a surprise decision to try to remove Florida from a consortium of states working to create unified tests benchmarked to what are known as Common Core standards (background here).
In between Scott's letters and an executive order (below), it's see some of this as helpful to former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose education foundation has made Common Core a top issue and who has gone out of his way to knock back suspicions that the standards amount to federal overreach.
Conservative activists fear, among other things, that the national consortium of 45 Common Core states and the involvement of the U.S. Department of Education amounts to potential federal control. And Scott echoes the concern at the top of his executive order, which begins:
"WHEREAS, the Federal government has no constitutional authority to unilaterally set academic standards for Florida, nor any authority to unilaterally direct local school board decisions on curriculum and instruction; and
"WHEREAS, Floridians will not accept government intrusion into the academic standards that are taught to our students in our classrooms and will not tolerate the Federal government using such standards to coerce policy decisions at the state or local level on the issues of assessments, curriculum, and instructional materials, which are within the Constitutional purview of Florida's state and local governments...."
But while the initial "whereas" clauses certainly don't jibe with Bush's stances, the substance of Scott's order isn't a repudiation of his predecessor.
“Florida’s move to implement higher academic standards, as part of a state-led, voluntary initiative, is paving the way for less regulation and more innovation in and out of the classroom," Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future said in a statement.
Scott says he still supports high standards and didn't want the state to withdraw from using Common Core. He technically wants the state to withdraw as the "fiscal agent" for the Common Core test-making consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. And he wants an open bidding process for the tests.
That's an important distinction: PARCC in and of itself is not Common Core. It's a consortium working to implement it.
Bush doesn't have as much of an interest in PARCC as he does about Common Core, but he has supported the consortium because it was the surest way to make sure all the states could compare tests soon.
By Florida's withdrawing from the consortium and trying to design new tests, it does call into question whether a Common Core-ready test will be available for the 2014-15 school year. PARCC, after all, has been working on this for years. And it would be tough to see how a new company would be able to design a test that would be easily comparable to other tests in other states, which theoretically would make it easier to compare U.S. test scores to the rest of the world's and thereby improve through better testing.
And beyond Scott, legislative leaders have expressed concerns about PARCC's readiness. But PARCC boosters said those issues have been fixed.
But one leader of the Legislature, House Speaker Will Weatherford, just praised Scott for "taking decisive and bold action to affirm Florida’s constitutional role in education....In the Common Core debate, Governor Scott’s actions today strike the perfect balance between states' rights and states' responsibilities. While I support our current standards, I think it is appropriate to undertake a transparent and thorough review with public input. We will not retreat one inch from our ambitious pursuit of the highest quality education system in the nation.”
Senate President Don Gaetz followed suit: “Today our Governor affirmed Florida will maintain our state’s constitutional primacy in establishing education policy, particularly with regard to control over standards, curriculum, instructional materials and student assessments. Florida has risen steadily and dramatically in national education rankings not because of some policy dictated from Washington but because the people of Florida have made education accountability and academic achievement a moral imperative.
Underpinning the controversy over Common Core is another distinction: curriculum vs. standards.
Bush and the foundation have repeatedly stated that the standards (that is, the education goals) are being confused with curriculum (the teaching methods to get to those goals). Common Core critics reject the idea of a clear distinction between curriculum and standards. They say the standards drive the curriculum and kids could wind up reading about smut or Marxism.
Bush, increasingly a target of the far right, dismissed some criticisms last week by suggesting opponents are "comfortable with mediocrity... And I think most Floridians aren't either…The simple fact is no one can defend the lower standards that we have across the country,” Bush said.
“I don’t know anyone that voluntarily says, ‘let’s dumb down the standards even more to make everybody feel good.’ If they say that," Bush said, "they don’t say it in public because it’s totally indefensible.”Scott is still calling for high standards. Scott wants the state to come up with its own tests but still wants Florida compared to other states.
Scott wants out of the mess. Heading into an election where polls show he's unpopular with Democrats and independents, he needs as many Republican and conservative votes as possible. And this is one way to get or maintain their support.
But if this was a complete political shift for Scott, he would have pulled out of Common Core. And he didn't.
To add to the political power plays,former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Gov. Charlie Crist penned a letter in this weekend's Tampa Bay Times in which he reiterated his support for Common Core and called on Scott to take a position.
Crist once called himself a "Jeb Bush Republican." He's no longer a Republican. But he looks more closely aligned with Bush than Scott now over education.
The federal-national-state issue isn't the only controversy. Some are concerned about data mining of kids test scores, and Scott echoes those worries as well.
One separation-of-powers note: Scott's executive order says the Florida Board of Education and the state's education commissioner "shall" follow his lead. But it's unclear if Scott has that direct authority. And in his two accompanying letters, he couches the order by saying "I respectfully request the State Board of Education's assistance."
Technically, perhaps, the board (which recently took a strong position in favor of Common Core) can ignore the request. That would be more remarkable then Scott putting distance between himself and Bush (although two appointees to the board are Bush loyalists).
Chances are, that won't happen now that Gaetz, Weatherford and the foundation have weighed in.
Scott notes in his letter to US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan that PARCC is such a mess that Gaetz and Weatherford expressed major concerns with its readiness. But again, those issues have allegedly been cleared up.
Here are the letters and executive order:
**Note: Headline has been changed to answer the questions. Original: "Read Rick Scott's Common Core letters, order. A Jeb Bush dis? Will Legislature abide?" Also, post updated with comments from Gaetz and Weatherford.