Gov. Rick Scott embarks on education ‘listening’ tour

JACKSONVILLE -- After a summer of snafus over the state’s public school testing system, Gov. Rick Scott hit the road Monday on the first day of a week-long education "listening tour" designed, he said, “to hear ideas for improvement."

The governor met with about two dozen teachers and parents at Pinedale Elementary School, a school serving primarily low-income students that went from an F grade in 2010 to an A grade in 2011 and a B grade this year.

On Tuesday, he will travel to Southwest Miami Senior High School and Boca Raton High School, followed by trips to Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers later in the week.

The governor’s tour is the latest feature of his orchestrated effort to focus on education as a backstop to his job creation agenda. He plans to run for reelection in 2014.

In each of his meetings, the governor was frequently questioned about the fairness of the contentious FCAT testing program. Beginning in 2014, student test scores will be linked to teacher pay.

“I’m always a little cynical about things like this because it’s politics, after all,’’ said Joel Luke, the parent of a special-needs student at Pinedale Elementary as he and his wife waited to meet the governor.

Kimberly Williams, the parent of second and fourth graders, said she was encouraged the governor came to listen but hoped he heard what parents had to say.

“I told him I didn’t think it was fair for teachers to be paid based on a test when half of the kids in the class may be doing well and the other half don’t have parents that don’t work with them,’’ she said. “If we had something that’s really fair, we’d get better results.”

Scott heard similar concerns from the dozen teachers he listened to in a closed door meeting with them. Collondra Reese, teacher of 37 years who is now the school’s math coach, said that several teachers told the governor they support measuring student results. But they also said the current FCAT-based system is flawed because it doesn’t adequately measure each student’s learning gains.

“They all pretty much agreed that teachers ought to be paid based on [student] improvement,’’ Scott told reporters after meeting the teachers.

Not clear is how Scott would measure student improvement. In a series of statewide television ads paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, Scott seems to distance himself from the high-stakes FCATs.

“I’ve listened to the frustrations parents and teachers have with the FCAT. Next year, we begin improving our testing system,’’ he says in the ad. "No more teaching to the test.”

Scott hasn’t always been a champion of teachers and schools.

In his first year in office, the governor stripped $1.3 billion in K-12 funding, damaging his image among educators, the business community and others. He also backed the Legislature’s high-profile fight against the state’s 180,000 public school teachers by signing a bill that tied their pay to student test scores and reduced the pay of teachers and others in the Florida Retirement System by 3 percent in order to offset the state’s contribution to the pension fund.

This year, Scott and the Legislature restored roughly $1 billion in K-12 funding, and the governor seemed to go out of his way to promote his shift in education policy.

Alicia Hinson, principal at Pinedale, said she was encouraged the governor came to listen to the people at her school. The message she wants him to hear, she said, is “a test doesn’t define who we are” but instead is “a snapshot in time.”

Scott began the meetings Monday with parents and teachers by reading from a handout that listed his top six principles for education: link everything to preparation for college and careers, fair accountability, purposeful assessments, reward teachers, empower parents and provide competition.

They were an abridged version of a letter Scott sent Monday to members of the Council of 100, which represents the state’s largest businesses, informing them of his new education push.

Andy Ford, head of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said he was encouraged that the governor’s tour will amount to a new shift in attitude for Scott. But he said he expects action, too.

“A one-week media tour to get your picture taken is a first step,’’ he said. “But if you don’t come back and implement changes based on what you hear, it’s useless. We’re spending a lot of money on tests that aren’t going to be able to tell us much. We have time to get this right.”