Gov. Rick Scott on Monday issued an executive order pulling Florida out of the national partnership created in 2010 to test the new and stronger Common Core standards starting in 2014-15. But Scott pointedly noted that he remained committed to Common Core itself, and what he described as “the highest academic standards that could move our students and teachers away from ‘teaching to the test’ and toward a more independent, analytical approach to reading, writing and math.”
Scott is opposed what he perceives as federal intrusion into state and local educational policy, he wrote, saying that the testing partnership for Common Core—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers better known by its acronym, PARCC—“has become a primary entry point for the involvement of the federal government in many of these state and local decisions.” But he’s opposed neither to Common Core’s aims, which he finds esssential if Florida is to remain competitive, nor to its implementation.
Scott paired his executive order with a letter to Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, and to Gary Chartrand, chairman of the state Board of Education. In the two letters he outlined his distinction between his opposition to the testing system Florida was set to follow under Common Core and his support for the actual standards that will be tested for, beginning in 2014-15.
Scott’s decision could have led to confusion and misplaced celebration among Common Core’s opponents, whose base in tea parties across the state, including Flagler—which dovetails with Scott’s base—have been urging the governor to pull out of Common Core altogether. Scott, facing a difficult re-election campaign in 2014, depends on that base to remain competitive. But he has also been committed to raising Florida’s educational standards. By withdrawing from the testing partnership (as a few other states have done), Scott’s decision Monday was more of a political balancing act than either a radical departure from state education policy adopted in 2010 or a repudiation of the tougher standards that have been rolling out in schools through FCAT 2.0 for the past three years.
At the district level, don’t expect any changes at all this year. Common Core standards have been implemented in Flagler County schools in grades K-2, the three grades where FCAT testing was not in play, and elements of Common Core standards have been injected in higher grades. But there had never been a Common Core test in place, nor was there going to be one this school year.
“The whole purpose of FCAT 2.0 was to increase the standards so we could make the jump to Common Core more seamless,” Shawn Schmidli, who’s in charge of the Flagler district’s testing and accountability, said Monday. “We’ve already been implementing higher standards here for the past two or three years. I would expect that trend to continue.” Meanwhile, he said, “we continue to emphasize with our teachers that they need to remain focused on their FCAT 2.0 standards, for this year.”
Scott’s order does create some confusion for the 2014-15 school year, when Flagler, like other local school districts, were preparing to implement PARCC’s testing system. Scott is essentially ordering that Florida bid for a new testing company, leaving the door open to PARCC to be among the bidders. But other testing concerns neither abound, nor can they easily prepare a test as elaborate as the one PARCC was developing, through two vendors and with a lucrative grant, with what will amount to a year or less to prepare.
In his criticism of PARCC, Scott was overstating the issue in a key regard: PARCC is neither a federal organization nor a federal “entry point” of policy. It is a voluntary 18-state partnership, with Florida as its fiscal agent (a relationship Scott is also severing), which four years ago won a $186 million federal grant to develop the test. The test itself may more accurately be compared, say, to the SAT or the ACT, the college-testing exams that are still widely used in all states, than to anything resembling a federal mandate, or a federal product. The federal government has no hand in actually designing the test or implementing it, and the federal government has no Common Core office–nor is Common Core itself directed by a single central office. It is a diffuse consortium that leaves its implementation to the states and to local districts, though the consortium’s aims have been the subject of extensive misunderstanding and in many cases misinformation.
But the political intentions of Scott’s executive order explain the strong language aimed at federal “intrusion” and “overreach.”
But even Scott, in the letters he wrote today, acknowledged that the Common Core debate had often verged away from reality even as Floridians seem to agree that standards are too low, and stronger standards are welcome. But even Scott fed into some of the very misconceptions he says have derailed the debate.
“In recent months however, the debate over how to best accomplish this,” Scott wrote Chartrand, “has devolved into whether Floridians are simply ‘for Common Core’ or ‘against Common Core.’ Unfortunately, what ‘Common Core’ has come to mean in the minds of many in our state is less about a set of high academic standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics and more about an effort to institute federal control of the policy decisions of state and local governments. To be clear, as Governor, I support Florida’s high academic standards and strongly reject overreach into those standards and other areas of our education system by the federal government, including state assessments, curriculum and instructional materials. The State Board of Education must ensure that these issues are and continue to be the Constitutional purview of Florida’s state and local governments — not the federal government.”
The governor strained to disassociate himself from having to make a categorical pronouncement about Common Core that could cost him the support of more moderate Republicans and independents, without whose votes he cannot win in 2014, and whose ideas align with those of Jeb Bush, who has been a champion of Common Core in Florida and nationally: “However, preparing our students to succeed in college and careers while competing with their peers from around the world will require much more than simply drawing a line in the sand between ‘for’ and ‘against,'” Scott wrote.
“What Floridians need to know is not whether our leaders are ‘for Common Core’ or ‘against Common Core.’ Instead, they need to know that we are going to provide our students the highest academic standards and reject the intrusion from the federal government that does not serve students, parents or our teachers well. To do this we must do two things: First, we have to demonstrate that we remain absolutely committed to providing our students the highest academic standards, which our teachers are already working hard to implement; and second, we must make clear that implementing those standards cannot come at the expense of Florida maintaining our independent control over those standards or protecting local control over decisions on curriculum and instruction.”