The Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation had a story to tell last week about education improvement. Like politicians, they don’t let facts get in the way when making their case.
In its new “From Excuses to Excellence” report, the Chamber urges businesses to stick with education reforms that it says have led to “extraordinary accomplishments” in Florida education. “We simply cannot rest until we close the talent gap our education system creates,” the Chamber says.
It congratulates itself for much of the progress of the last two decades: “The Florida story of education improvement begins here,” it says, referring to a 1994 Chamber Foundation report.
But to achieve progress, it says, the Chamber Foundation has had to overcome the forces of evil and ignorance intent on sabotaging efforts to provide well-educated workers for businesses. “If we have learned one thing in 21 years, it is that many groups seek to oppose accountability and are seemingly unaware of global competition. Every reform, large or small, was opposed by either unions or superintendents, or both, undermining our future workforce.”
Those statements ignore the facts, as does much of the rest of the report. For example, the Florida Education Association, representing the state’s teachers, led the charge for the constitutional amendment limiting class sizes and strongly supported creation of the voluntary pre-kindergarten system. Both have accomplished more to improve student learning than most of the policies advocated in the Chamber report.
The report says that further education improvement will result from high standards, rigorous assessments, “competent and inspired teachers,” challenging curricula and tough accountability tools. Nowhere does it mention adequately funding schools. This omission conveniently forgets the Chamber’s own 2003 “New Cornerstone” report that urged the state “to bring education funding per student at all levels – pre-kindergarten through graduate programs – closer in line with national standards.”
The latest Chamber report fails to note that Florida’s prekindergarten per-student funding is among the lowest in the nation, leading not surprisingly to pre-K programs that are inferior to those in most other states.
Nor does the report mention that education funding in Florida still ranks near the bottom of the states, far from the national standard their own report advocated. Florida remains 42nd in per-student funding for elementary and secondary education. And the average salary of a teacher in Florida public schools ranks 39th in the nation – low compensation for the “inspired” teachers the Chamber advocates.
Despite the story the report tells, the Chamber has in fact focused on two education issues in its lobbying of the Legislature over the last few years. Both are in conflict with what they claim are their priorities.
First, they continue to advocate undermining the Florida Retirement System. The changes they support would jeopardize the retirement benefits earned by more than 600,000 Floridians, most of them school employees. Those benefits are relatively low – an average of less than $20,000 per person per year – but combined total almost $7 billion each year.
That money is spent here in Florida for food, clothing, housing and other necessities, supporting thousands of jobs. Undermining their retirement benefits, like paying low salaries, is a bad way to inspire teachers.
The second Chamber education lobbying priority has been support of private school vouchers through the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This program allows corporations to not pay their state taxes that support public schools, but instead to direct that money to private schools. This voucher scheme has already cost the state about $1.8 billion, and the price is increasing by more than $100 million each year.
Even worse, the program is set up to avoid the education policies the Chamber supports: high standards, rigorous assessments, good teachers, challenging curricula and accountability tools.
In fact, the 1,500 private schools in the voucher program are not accountable to the state at all. They do not have to be accredited. They can teach any curriculum they want. Their teachers do not have to be certified. They receive no school grades. Their 70,000 students are not required to take the statewide tests given to public school students, making it impossible to know what they actually are learning.
That’s not accountability. It’s a giveaway of corporations’ taxes to subsidize private schools.
Public schools in Florida can always be better. But their improvement will be led in the future, as in the past, by Florida teachers – not by the rhetoric of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Joanne McCall is the president of the Florida Education Association. Column courtesy of Context Florida.