St. Johns School Board urges changes to high-stakes testing

The St. Johns County School Board joined a growing trend Tuesday of school boards across the state by calling for a revision of the state’s “high-stakes testing” system. Superintendent Joe Joyner presented the formal resolution asking Gov. Rick Scott, the State Board of Education and legislators to change a system that makes high stakes tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test the main factor in evaluating districts, schools, teachers and students. The board unanimously approved sending the resolution, but outgoing District 5 member Carla Wright added a note of practicality. “Will it do any good? Will they read it?” she wanted to know. Chairman Bev Slough, District 1, expects legislators will pay attention. “We do not fear accountability. After all, for four years under the system we’ve been number one,” Slough said. “However, we feel there probably is a better way than one test on one day, which means, say, whether a child graduates or goes on to fourth grade. It has strong ramifications,” she said. About half of the state’s 67 schools districts have passed the high-stakes testing resolution in one version or the other, Slough said. The resolution began at the national school district level. The Florida School Board Association crafted it to meet state needs and St. Johns County customized one to meet the district’s specific needs. “Obviously if there are concerns about high-stakes testing then a board needs to express themselves. … If you don’t comment at all then policymakers would assume all is well,” Joyner said. He said the board doesn’t disagree with teacher and student evaluations, but added that they want to see a “common-sense approach” that has a logical implementation plan. “It’s not a lack of desire to utilize testing in student achievement. We’re asking them to take an approach that’s a more well thought out, methodical, research-based phase in,” Joyner said. School districts have had to make multiple changes to the accountability system during the past school year and mistakes occurred, he said. “It’s very serious on both children and teachers,” Joyner said. St. Johns Education Association President Dawn Chapman thanked the board members for the stand they took, saying the sole reliance on FCAT for evaluations and having some teachers being evaluated on schoolwide grades has “had a negative impact on a lot of our teachers. It really has hurt their spirit. We want to make sure what they’re implementing (for evaluations) is fair and reliable,” said Chapman. “We all agree there needs to be accountability, but the way they’re doing it is not correct and is not a direct correlation to teacher performance. There has to be a better way to evaluate teachers.” The state’s Value Added Model formula is flawed, she said. “Teachers have been negatively impacted,” said Chapman, noting some teachers who normally rank as “highly effective” have seen their evaluations drop to “effective” as a result of being evaluated through schoolwide scores. Educators including guidance counselors, literacy coaches, peer evaluators, occupational therapists and some ESE teachers get their score based on the school’s overall grade. Some classroom teachers have reported the state has included children they did not teach while leaving off ones they did teach. Beginning in 2014 the evaluations will be used for both teacher pay and retention.


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New speaker will push for state pension changes

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford said Tuesday that rapidly mounting public pension obligations are "a ticking time bomb" for Florida government, so he will ask the 2013 Legislature to make all new state employees join market-driven investment plans rather than the traditional monthly retirement systems. "It's something that, if we leave it unaddressed, eventually, will come back to bite us," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. At his first news conference as speaker, Weatherford said he and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are also interested in reining in health insurance costs for state workers. That's sure to be a big-ticket budget issue when lawmakers convene March 6, because state employees have not had a raise in six years and last year's Legislature lopped 3 percent off their paychecks to put into the previously employer-paid pension pot. Weatherford estimated about 90 percent of employee pensions in the private sector are 401(k)-style "defined contribution" plans, in which workers can direct investment of their funds -- which may gain or lose over time. The Florida Retirement System has an "investment plan" but only about one in six employees chooses it over the traditional "defined benefit" pension plan. In the old system, regular monthly contributions mount up to fund the FRS and, when employees retire, they get a defined amount calculated by a percentage of their peak earnings, multiplied by years of service. Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said AFSCME will work with the Republican-run Legislature to address pension needs in the 2013 session. But he said making new employees join the investment plan would mean a steady decline of active workers paying into the FRS, while more and more retirees -- many of them living longer -- will be drawing money out. "Closing the pension plan to new hires would destabilize it and add billions in costs over the next couple of decades," Martin said. "It would create a spiraling unfunded liability."

The Florida Educational Association has remained a lead plaintiff in the case and has long-maintained that the pension plan is one of the healthiest in the nation. In contrast, the investment plan comes with too many drawbacks for public employees. “They’re very difficult to manage, they’re very fee-intensive, and they’re more sensitive to the vagaries of the stock market,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow, who added that Weatherford’s approach would hurt the pension system because it survives on the number of members contributing to it. “It has to be looked at from everybody’s standpoint, not just cost savings for this budget year.”


Florida privatization runs off the rails again

Another state agency, another privatization scheme off the rails. The account of how the Florida Division of Blind Services has failed to monitor the agency's private vendors is just one more example for Republican Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who has been trying to bring sensible reform to the state's privatization spree. Privatization only works well when the agency doing the hiring writes strong, service-oriented contracts and state employees provide effective oversight. Anything less is just government misfeasance. Ever since then-Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999, state government has been moving more toward hiring private vendors to do state business -- from handling state park reservations to opening private prisons. And Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive, has only accelerated that push, for instance by making it easier for charter school companies to qualify for money that used to be dedicated to public schools. Nearly 60 percent of the state's budget now flows to private coffers. Republican leaders' premise is that private business -- and not a largely unionized government workforce -- is better at spotting efficiencies, saving money and improving service, particularly if government contracts have incentives for doing so. But the reality is far less clear. Government agencies can be outmaneuvered by private vendors or their attorneys. State staff frequently lack the expertise or resources to negotiate solid contracts that detail specific requirements, ultimately impeding contract oversight. And too frequently, state employees doing the monitoring become too cozy with private vendors. The latest case of privatization gone awry was disclosed by Brittany Alana Davis of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau on Monday. She found employees for the state's blind services division inspected only one out of 16 private vendors on site last year; and they wrote such poor contracts that vendors were paid based on their number of clients -- not on the amount of services they actually delivered -- sometimes resulting in a vendor receiving $2,000 for placing a single phone call.


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