Florida District Reverses Decision to Opt Out of State Testing

By Catherine Gewertz — September 02, 2014 2 min read
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The Lee County, Fla., school system was a national leader in the anti-testing movement for six days. Then it changed its mind.

In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the school board reversed its Aug. 27 decision to opt out of all state-mandated testing. The reversal came at the behest of one member, Mary Fischer, who was a somewhat reluctant tiebreaker in the 3-2 vote to opt out. In the days after the original vote, Fischer said she hadn’t been fully informed of the consequences the district could face—such as loss of a chunk of its funding—if it chose not to administer Florida’s FCAT and other required tests. She requested an emergency meeting on Tuesday morning for board reconsideration.

Board members Don Armstrong and Tom Scott, the same two members who supported the original vote to opt out, did so again. Jeanne Dozier and Catherine O’Daniel Morgan, who had opposed the opt-out, cast their votes the same way again as well. But this time, Fischer voted with the anti-opt-out members, producing the 3-2 vote necessary to reverse the board’s earlier decision. As a heated public comment period drew to a close and the board prepared to vote, she said, “I will not be bullied by any segment of the population,” according to Fort Myers News-Press reporter Emily Atteberry.

The 85,000-student school district made national headlines with its first vote, so it came under the hot glare of a national audience with its second one. As board members gathered and audience members packed the board meeting room, the #LeeOptOut hashtag on Twitter lit up. The News-Press ran a live feed from the meeting, along with a running poll of public sentiment on whether the board should rescind its vote. By 9 a.m., the vote was running 2 to 1 for a reversal, although an earlier News-Press reader poll showed 84 percent support for the opt-out. An hour later in the live poll, support for reversing the opt-out vote had slipped to 50-50.

National advocacy groups took to Twitter, pressing for their desired outcomes.

Signups for public comment were instantly packed, with the maximum allotment of 60 speakers, each of whom was given one minute to speak. Opt-out supporters, wearing red shirts, raised their hands in the air and rubbed their fingers together in a silent applause gesture so they wouldn’t be scolded for disrupting the meeting with noise.

During the public comment session, one parent lashed out at Superintendent Nancy Graham, saying she had engaged in “fear mongering” by detailing the consequences the district faced by opting out of tests. Another parent described her daughter’s fear of testing, saying that the girl vomited daily during testing time. Another mother, weeping, urged the board to “think of the children,” the News-Press reported.

One opt-out opponent had harsh words for those who believe state-mandated testing should be halted, commenting in the News-Press live feed that the room “was apparently packed again with the luddites,” and adding that Florida is one of the worst-performing states on the ACT. Part way through the meeting, someone started a #RecallMaryFischer hashtag on Twitter.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.