Might is not right: A petty war on the Court

The Florida Legislature has declared a petty and unseemly war on the state’s Supreme Court. In retaliation for rulings they disagreed with, the Legislature is proposing massive overhauls of the court, intended to make the judicial branch both weaker and less independent.

One proposal would require Justices receive a 60% vote in a general election in order to retain their seat. Requiring a super-majority to be retained is intended to create political pressure on judges to make popular decisions rather than independent ones. A judiciary needs to be free of that kind of pressure. Of course the primary instigator of this bill and others – House Speaker Dean Cannon – ironically won his last election well short of the 60% threshold he would impose on judges.

Another proposal is to take away the procedural rules that have been traditionally the court’s province to write and give that task to the Legislature. That’s a stick in the eye to the court. Another measure would make sure the commissions that nominate judges are only appointed by the Governor. Currently the Bar appoints a few commissioners. That would narrow the field of acceptable candidates – anyone not passing the Governor’s rigid litmus test need not apply.

Much more offensive is Speaker Cannon’s proposal to actually do away with the court entirely and create two courts – a criminal and a civil supreme court. Most of the justices the Legislature doesn’t like would be put on the criminal court – and Governor Scott would be able to appoint new justices to create a court in his own image.

The Legislature’s tantrum stems from the Court’s decision to toss a couple constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature off the November ballot because they were confusing or simply improperly drafted. Of course the legislature crafted the amendments with the intention to confuse – but that doesn’t matter.

Might is right in the eyes of the Florida Legislature.

The ironic truth is that Florida’s Supreme Court was appointed mostly by Republicans and is considered a center-right court. While they have tossed legislatively supported items off the ballot, they have also tossed citizen-crafted initiatives that the Legislature did not support. In short, they have been fair umpires.

The legislature’s frontal attack on the court is as wrongheaded as it is small minded. And like any schoolyard bully, they picked someone who cannot fight back. The court has to remain silent and comport itself in precisely the manner you would expect of justices – while the legislature is acting, unfortunately, like the middle-school bullies they have sadly become.

Our nation, and our state, was founded on the notion that we must honor the rule of law, and the principle that a healthy and independent judiciary is a welcomed check on the unconstrained ambitions of the legislative and executive branches. It would be a sad day for my friend Dean Cannon if his legacy turns out to be something so petty and injurious to the principles that I always believed he cherished.

Florida’s Mad Dash to Mediocrity

I’ll be pretty happy when FCAT week is over. My oldest is in an advanced math class, and for some time now the class stopped teaching its normal curriculum in order to reteach the FCAT math they learned a year or two ago. So they are preparing for the FCAT, even if it means neglecting their advanced studies. I shouldn’t be so selfish about my child’s education, right? Why should my child’s potential stand in the way of Florida’s race to have the most mediocre school system in the nation? (insert dripping sarcasm and parental outrage here!)

Florida’s emphasis on testing is insane. We have become a school system whose entire purpose seems to be to prepare kids for minimal competence tests that rate their schools. Education Week ranks Florida as having more tests and measurements than nearly any state in the union. Of course, you can weigh a malnourished dog every day – that doesn’t improve its health.

Here, testing has become teaching. If you think the FCAT is overemphasized now wait until teacher salaries and job security are indexed to it.

Florida made a huge mistake when it adopted a grading instrument that only measures how well schools move kids to minimal competence in a few subjects. While parents love to hear their school is an “A” school – all that means is that their school is more successful in moving children to grade level in basic math and reading (and sometimes science). Is that really all you wanted for your kids? It also means that courses not covered by the FCAT — history, foreign languages, high level math and English, art, music – don’t matter and are, therefore, terribly neglected. That is especially so when the Governor and legislature insist on cutting already anemic school funding. Is it any wonder that Florida schools have become so uninteresting that we host one of the worst graduation rates in the nation?

Other states – like New York’s Regent’s exams – don’t overemphasize the exams but rather measure minimal and maximum performance in many subject areas. Public school students motivated in New York to perform exceptionally on their exams become “Regents Scholars” – and that accomplishment has great cache with colleges. Ever heard of an FCAT Scholar? I tried to convince the state to adopt Regent’s style tests years ago – but they have moved slowly and won’t let go of the FCAT.

In fairness to the architects of the FCAT, I realize it’s hard to measure whether a child has reached his or her potential. But Florida seems to have decided since we can’t measure maximum performance, let’s just measure minimal competence. Let’s make our floor also our ceiling, and declare success when we reach this low water mark. It’s almost as if the creators of Florida’s grading system cynically believe that public schools are for the masses who should be happy with mediocrity, and anything more should be found in private schools. I couldn’t disagree more and, in fact, Florida’s Constitution guarantees “high quality” public education.

Well, next week Sophie’s advanced math teacher will work feverishly to catch up or she will just have to leave things out. But at least Sophie will know she played an integral part in Florida’s mad dash to mediocrity. As for me, I’m so mad I could spit.

A shot of reality about high school performance

I just finished reading a second Department of Education press release in so many weeks touting how terrific Florida’s High Schools are performing. The press statements rely on graduation rate statistics (that only Florida is using), and a new “self-test” that is being given to high schools under recently enacted legislative guidelines. While I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, as a parent with three kids headed in the direction of Florida’s high schools, I think it’s counterproductive to mask deficiencies with illusory successes.

So, as they say in the sports world, let’s go to the telestrator. Attached are a few pages from the recently released 2010 – 2011 Congressional Quarterly Education State Rankings . CQ is a respected, nonpartisan publication that puts together empirical data collected from reliable organizations including government sources. The stats are not a self-test, or a “home-cooked”
slice of data that gives Florida the best look possible. Rather it is data that treats all states equally. Apples to apples, oranges to oranges. Here is the tale of the tape:

What we spend (our 2010 estimated per capita expenditure for public education): Florida ranks 46th (we each spend $1272 on education)

How well we graduate (our 2010 estimated public high school graduation rate): Florida ranks 45th (with a rate of 61%)

Our composite ACT score: Florida ranks 48th (with a 19.5 score)

Our average math SAT score: Florida ranks 45th (with a 498 score)

Our average writing SAT score: Florida ranks 41st (with a 480)

And if you were wondering whether we are overpaying our teachers, our average schoolteacher salary in 2010: Florida ranks 37th ($46,912)

So quit uncorking champagne. Florida schools are struggling and anyone who says otherwise is living in an alternative universe and, clearly, has no children in a public school.

FCAT chaos and why heads ought to roll

Here are my thoughts on Pearson’s failure to deliver the state FCAT grades on time (note: I absolutely hate the way the FCAT is overemphasized – but if you pay a company $250 million and they fail to do the only thing they are paid to do, heads ought to roll!):

Pearson’s failure and the resulting mess are what happens when you substitute testing for teaching, and make testing companies the high priests of public education. Commissioner Smith should conduct a full investigation with a view toward firing the company. The Board of Education should also investigate the Department which obviously failed to hire a company with the core competencies necessary, or manage and oversee the contract adequately. As thousands of teachers are being laid off, we are spending $250 million on a contract that is causing chaos in our public schools. So to Pearson and the Department of Education, a pox on both your houses. Our children deserve so much better!

Fighting Public Corruption

It’s no wonder that Floridians are losing faith in their government. More public officials in Florida are charged with corruption than in any other state. But the problem isn’t simply criminal wrongdoing. The truth is much of what is wrong isn’t even illegal. We have a state government that operates largely in the shadows; a campaign finance system that gives special interests way too much power; and too many of our public institutions seem totally beholden to everyone but everyday citizens. I spent the better part of a decade fighting corruption in Florida as a federal prosecutor, so I have seen this malignancy up close. There will always be those that find a way to skirt the law or engage in sleezy behavior, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t adopt measures intended to bring greater accountability and oversight to the operations of government. Today I introduced a handful of measures that if adopted would go a long way toward that goal. Here they are:

  • Bring more sunshine to the Legislature. Currently, the legislature does not have to comply with the same open government requirements as city and county government. We need to amend the Constitution to force legislators to open up their proceedings. Sunshine is a great antiseptic, and frankly Tallahassee could use a good scrubbing.
  • Give government investigators more independence. Currently, agency Inspector Generals are appointed by and work for the Secretary of the agency. It makes little sense to have as your boss the person you might be investigating. So I propose to have agency investigators work for the state Auditor General to give them greater independence.
  • Reform campaign contribution laws. Florida law limits individual campaign contributions to $500 and bans gifts from lobbyists. However, a massive loophole allows public officials to take unlimited contributions for political committees they totally control. Some legislators have legally received checks in excess of $25,000. Legislators should be barred from raising money for or controlling any of these entities.
  • Give state prosecutors more tools to fight corruption. We should expand the sweep of bribery statutes, adopt tougher prohibitions in government procurement and bidding, and most importantly adopt a state version of the federal “Theft of Honest Services Law” that allows for the prosecution of individuals who are guilty of defrauding the public of its right to honest government.
  • Provide greater oversight and scrutiny over our state pension fund. Presently, the pension fund is governed by a Board comprised of the Governor, CFO and Attorney General, making it impossible for the Attorney General to conduct truly independent reviews. We should amend the constitution to replace the Attorney General with the Agriculture Commissioner (who already has a consumer mission), freeing up the AG to assume an oversight mission of the pension fund, as states like New York have done.
  • Make the Public Service Commission more independent.  Make the PSC operate act more like a judicial body where all communications are in public and any written or electronic communications are recordable, preserved and available to the public much like any court proceeding requires.

A Call Out to Palm Beach Parents and Teachers – Testing is not Teaching!

A call out to my Palm Beach friends from “testing is not teaching,” and the CTA — good luck today. Your issues over testing and education policy are not unique to your county and many parents of public school kids, like me, all over Florida will be rooting for you. Florida has gone test crazy and it’s gotten to the point where our children are being treated like widgets. The FCAT narrows the curriculum by forcing schools and teachers to ignore anything that isn’t part of the grading criteria. It has created a school system where the floor is the ceiling, minimal competence is the only goal, and where teaching to the test has become a sad, sad recipe for faux success.

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the latest incarnation of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has combined to create even more problems. The fact that 90% of all schools in Florida have failed to comply with the Act is sending administrators into panic to the point where they are performing triage on school kids – directing teachers to devote special attention and create individualized strategies for selected students who are deemed tantalizingly close to passing the FCAT while ignoring those that are either too far behind or comfortably ahead. All well and good, but what about the kids who aren’t on the “bubble?” Don’t those kids who have failed FCAT by a larger margin deserve special attention too? Or how about the ones that could achieve higher than the norm. What happened to a school system whose job was to make sure every kid reached their potential?

Public education is suppose to be the great equalizer – but testing strategies that force all students to dwell at minimal competence is not any way to equalize.