PAA Helps Sponsor Education Forward Summit- Jan 26, 2011

Florida Education Forward! Summit – January 26, 2011

The challenges which Florida’s public education faces approach us with hurricane force this year.  After the recent election, those in the education profession might call it a Cat 5 storm, at that.

January, I thought to myself,  is a time for new beginnings, new ideas, new cooperation.  Central in my mind was the thought that we simply cannot begin a new year re-hashing old reform ideas which sent us into a tailspin last year.

I won’t chronicle all the obstacles which intentionally and unintentionally presented themselves right up through the day of the Summit. Doing so would be a longer and politically incorrect article which I’ll save someday for a “Wine Summit” of my own!   Suffice it to say, everyone from lobbyists, businessmen, elected officials, former elected officials, DOE officials, Union members, educators, and parents felt a need to weigh in on what the Summit should and should not include.  On one hand, I was pleased that such commotion surrounding this Summit clearly indicated a high level of enthusiasm or angst.  Yet, on the other hand, I realized it was an impossible task to please everyone, many of whom had their own agendas which differed from the Senator’s vision. Either way, this was not going to place me as a finalist in the Miss Congeniality contest!

On January 26, 2011,  Education Forward! not only opened the dialogue, but truly advanced the discussion on proposed education reforms.  PB Post News Article The format selected was that of a keynote speech to summarize the state of education reform in our nation.  There was, frankly, no one better suited than Dr. Diane Ravitch, an historian having been appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents, to clearly and eloquently describe the issues.

In her uniquely brilliant, bipartisan manner, Dr. Ravitch knowledgeably outlined the research behind each of Florida’s proposed education reform initiatives. Keynote Immediately following the keynote, three consecutive panels followed on:  1) High Stakes Testing and Curriculum;  2) Race to the Top and Funding Issues; and,  3) School Choice:  Charters & Vouchers.

Policy makers, historians, scholars, union and educational leaders engaged in genuine discussion in response to legislator’s questions sent in advance, tweeted from the Tallahassee Capitol complex, or submitted from the audience on site.  Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of this event was for everyone to see the obvious respect, attentiveness, and camaraderie the panelists demonstrated for each other.  The back and forth banter and kidding between the two Assistant Secretaries of Education in the “Green Room” was hilarious and heart-warming to witness. I only wished that could have been captured on film. Together, Diane Ravitch and Pete Cunningham set the tone for this event as one of mutual respect.
A ground-breaking moment occurred when common ground was reached with regards to charter school performance studies. Pete  Cunningham, Assistant Secretary of Education,  acknowledged that he agreed with all of Diane Ravitch’s previous comments.

Further, Mr. Cunningham agreed with charter performance results and he stated, “it’s true, 83% of charters are no better or, are worse, than public schools today.”  Nevertheless, he stated that despite that evidence,  he believed we must continue to pursue charters because we needed to pursue all options.

One of the most powerful messages to Florida legislators Dr. Ravitch repeatedly reinforced, was her warning to be fiscally responsible.  She mentioned before they jumped on the Merit Pay train, for instance, legislators should be fully aware that they were assigning funds to a proven failure of an initiative.  A failed initiative which has been studied over decades and researched by highly respected institutes.  A temporary solution was offered, that at the very least, legislators wait to see how Hillsborough County’s merit pay pilot test results were, implemented using the Gates Grant money, prior to launching an expensive, state wide program proven to fail everywhere else.

Ravitch’s remarks about the devastatingly failed attempts with school Vouchers in Milwaukee over twenty years served as yet another reminder not to transfer winnowing education dollars into known failures of initiatives.  The panelists’ discussion on charter schools, of course, where all panelists agreed that 83% are no better or worse than public schools, was the icing on the ‘fiscally-irresponsible cake.’  This was the aha moment for many at this summit and continues to be discussed.

Florida legislators heard the facts.  They heard the research-based evidence behind these initiatives. Legislators asked questions and listened to discussions from all perspectives.  Their constituents heard the same research presented at the same time.  Legislators will make decisions in the weeks ahead knowing their constituents have access to this information. Legislators must articulate reasons why they choose, if they do, to deposit our tax dollars into failed initiatives irresponsibly.   For many of these legislators this is the first they have heard of this evidence.

Did we move Education Forward on January 26, 2011?  I believe we did.  We moved it forward with a discussion of facts vs. rhetoric. The
beginning of true wisdom is to know what we don’t know.   Not only did this mature, balanced conversation open up genuine dialogue, I believe it added to the wisdom of all the panelists and laid the groundwork for a positive discussion in the days and weeks ahead.

A personal note of thanks to every panelist who took the risk and gave it their all.  To Diane Ravitch who generously and graciously interrupted her vacation to participate in this summit on behalf of public education and to assist her Florida friends, I can never thank you enough. Diane is the most remarkably courageous and astoundingly brilliant intellectual of our time. Thank you for honoring us with your intellect, energy, time, and relentless advocacy for our children.

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