As Florida Submits Fourth ESSA Draft, Governor Urges Fair Treatment From Feds

By Daarel Burnette II — September 12, 2018 3 min read
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After more than a year of negotiations with the federal government, Florida has yet again revised the way it wants to revise its school accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act—and this time Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott has weighed in.

“The Every Student Succeeds Act was hailed as the ushering in of a new era of state flexibility,” Scott said in a Aug. 24 letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “As with all federal partnerships, Florida’s expectations is that our state is treated fairly and given full flexibility to provide the greatest return to our students.”

Other states, such as North Dakota and Utah, have complained about the fairness and consistency of DeVos’ ESSA-approval process. But while 49 other states’ plans have been approved, the spat between Florida and the federal department over the dynamics of its plan has gone on for more than a year and spanned three previous state proposals.

The federal law went into full effect this school year. If the federal department rejects the state’s latest plan, Florida stands to lose more than $1.1 billion in federal dollars. Department spokeswoman Meghan Collins said schools’ funding has not been effected by the ongoing dispute between the federal and state departments.

In its most recent draft, submitted Aug. 24, the state, along with some other tweaks, made changes to the way some middle school students who take advanced courses are tested.

But the state still plans to spin off a separate federal accountability system from its state accountability system in order to meet federal requirements that the state hold schools accountable for the performance of historically disadvantaged groups of students and how well English-language learners perform on proficiency exams.

This has infuriated the advocates for the state’s large body of immigrant, Latino, and black students, who warn that Florida could set a dangerous precedent among states. Having two separate rankings for schools, they say, would require lots more paperwork for district officials to fill out and would confuse the public over how schools are performing.

“Congressional intent with ESSA was to focus attention on struggling student subgroups and thereby stimulate corrective action,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a Florida civil rights activist and scholar who has protested the state’s many submitted ESSA plans, including its most recent one. “A separate federal index is merely a reporting mechanism. It is not part of the ESSA-required single statewide system for differentiating schools ... the federal index simply identifies schools and seems to offer no more than the same low-intensity assistance already available online to all schools.”

In his letter, Scott cites praise the state’s public schools have received in recent years for their academic outcomes, including from DeVos herself. The state made some of the nation’s highest gains in NAEP scores and, most recently, placed fourth in Education Week’s Quality Counts analysis of academic achievement.

“We’re proud that you have regularly touted Florida’s results and suggested to other states that they should follow Florida’s lead,” Scott said. “Our record of educational excellence and strong performance should serve as a testament that our system is working and that our state understands how to best serve our students.”

An Education Week analysis of the Florida’s state standardized tests since 2015 show no significant reduction in the performance gaps between the state’s wealthier white students and their more-disadvantaged peers.

Civil rights activists have also complained that the drafting of the state’s plan and the state department’s subsequent negotiations with the federal department have taken place behind closed doors with little input from the public.

Collins denied that accusation.

“We certainly did take feedback into account,” said Collins. “Residents and organizations are welcome to provide input at any time.”

Update: On Wednesday evening, the federal department sent Florida’s department of education a memo asking for further clarification on how the state planned to create two separate accountability systems. Florida’s department of education has until Oct. 4 to respond to the feedback.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.