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Florida's Education Forward! Summit: Moving the Dialogue a Step Forward

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"January is a time of beginnings," my grandmother from County Cork would say. "We're given another chance to get things right when the clock strikes 12." I couldn't help but recall her wise words when Senator Maria Sachs discussed organizing an education summit in January amid one of the most volatile times in history for public education.

Florida's public education challenges are approaching us now with hurricane force. In fact, those in the education profession might describe it as a Category 5 storm.

January, I thought to myself, is a time for new beginnings, new ideas, new cooperation. Central in my mind was the thought that we simply cannot begin a new year re-hashing old reform ideas (i.e. Senate Bill 6) which sent us into a tailspin last year.

I hadn't yet thought through the challenging task of attempting to schedule nationally recognized experts for a specific January date with a short lead time falling over the Christmas/New Year's holidays. Nor, had I thought through how I would coordinate that with legislators' hearing schedules. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss!

I won't chronicle all the obstacles which intentionally and unintentionally presented themselves right up through the day of the summit. Doing so would result in a much longer and not politically astute article. I'll save that someday for a "Wine Summit" of my own! Suffice it to say, everyone from lobbyists, businessmen, elected officials, former elected officials, DOE officials, union members, educators and parents felt a need to weigh in on what the senator's summit should and should not include. On one hand, I was pleased that such commotion surrounding this summit clearly indicated a high level of enthusiasm. Yet, on the other hand, I realized I faced an unattainable task of attempting to please everyone, many of whom had their own agendas conflicting with the senator's vision. Either way, this was not going to place me as a finalist in the Miss Congeniality contest!

On January 26, 2011, the Education Forward! summit not only opened the dialogue, but truly advanced the discussion on proposed education reforms. The format selected was that of a keynote speech first to summarize the state of education reform in our nation. There was, frankly, no one better suited than Dr. Diane Ravitch, an historian having been appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents, to clearly and diplomatically outline the issues.

In her uniquely brilliant, bipartisan manner, Dr. Ravitch knowledgeably described the research behind each of Florida's proposed education reform initiatives. See video of her keynote.

Immediately following the keynote, three consecutive panels followed on: 1) High Stakes Testing and Curriculum; 2) Race to the Top and Funding Issues; and 3) School Choice: Charters and Vouchers.

Policy makers, historians, scholars, union and educational leaders engaged in genuine discussion in response to legislator's questions sent in advance, tweeted from the Tallahassee Capitol complex, or submitted from the audience on site.

Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of this event was for everyone to see the obvious respect, attentiveness, and camaraderie the panelists demonstrated for each other. The back and forth banter between the two Assistant Secretaries of Education in the "green room" was hilarious and heart-warming to witness. I only wished that could have been captured on film. Together, Diane Ravitch and Pete Cunningham set the tone for this event as one of mutual respect.

A ground-breaking moment occurred when the panelists reached common ground with regards to charter school performance studies. Pete Cunningham, Assistant Secretary of Education, acknowledged that he agreed with all of Diane Ravitch's previous comments.

Further, Mr. Cunningham agreed with charter performance results and he stated, "It's true, 83 percent of charters are no better or, are worse, than public schools today." Nevertheless, he stated that despite that evidence, he believed we must continue to pursue charters because we needed to pursue all options.

One of the most powerful messages to Florida legislators repeatedly reinforced by Dr. Ravitch was her warning to be fiscally responsible. She mentioned before they jumped on the merit pay train, for instance, legislators should be fully aware they were assigning funds to a proven failure of an initiative. A failed initiative which has been studied over decades and researched by highly respected institutes. A temporary solution was offered, that at the very least, for legislators to wait to see how Hillsborough County's merit pay pilot test results were, implemented using the Gates Grant money, prior to launching an expensive, state wide program which all studies demonstrated failed everywhere else.

Ravitch's remarks about the devastatingly failed attempts with school Vouchers in Milwaukee over 20 years served as yet another reminder not to transfer winnowing education dollars into known failures of initiatives. The panelists' discussion on charter schools, of course, where all panelists agreed that 83 percent are no better or worse than public schools, was the icing on the "fiscally-irresponsible cake." This was the "aha" moment for many at this summit and continues to be discussed among those who attended or who watched the video.

Why does Florida continue to allocate more public dollars to private entrepreneurs when the results are no better or worse? (But, I digress!)

The bottom line is this. Florida legislators heard the facts and have access to the facts via this video. They heard the research-based evidence behind these initiatives. Legislators asked questions and listened to discussions from all perspectives. Their constituents heard the same research presented at the same time. Legislators will make decisions in the weeks ahead knowing their constituents have access to this information. Legislators must articulate reasons why they choose, if they do, to irresponsibly spend our tax dollars on failed initiatives. For many of these legislators, this is the first they have heard of this evidence, so I have hope.

Did we move education forward on January 26, 2011? I believe we did. We moved it forward with a discussion of facts vs. rhetoric. The beginning of true wisdom is to know what we don't know. Not only did this mature, balanced conversation open up genuine conversation, I believe it added to the wisdom of the panelists and laid the groundwork for a positive discussion in the days and weeks ahead.

A personal note of thanks to every panelist who took the risk, participated and gave it their all. None of the panelists were paid speaking fees. I thank them all for their generosity of time and spirit. Diane Ravitch generously and graciously interrupted her vacation to participate in this summit on behalf of public education and to assist her Florida friends. Thank you so very much. Diane is the most remarkably courageous and astoundingly brilliant intellectual of our time. Thank you for sharing your intellect, energy, time, and relentless advocacy for all children.

A heartfelt thank you to a dedicated professional, Pete Cunningham, whose pleasant demeanor and wonderful sense of humor calmed my nerves within seconds of shaking hands. And, special thanks to two participants who planned to participate, but experienced unforeseen emergencies. We missed you both, Mona Davids and Valerie Strauss.

Here's hoping we'll continue to move education forward!