Education in Florida
When it comes to education reform, Gov. Rick Scott and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are on the same page.
"Our digital learning bill will really change the way our school districts think about and hire teachers."
— Patricia Levesque, chairwoman,
Scott's decision to tap Patricia Levesque to chair his educational transition team makes clear his commitment to the school reform trail blazed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Levesque is executive director of the national Foundation for Excellence in Education and the statewide Foundation for Florida's Future, both created by Bush after he left the governor's office.
The national think tank has brought sweeping educational policy changes to state capitols across the country. The state group lobbies to continue building reform here in Florida. The reforms are based on greater competition and choice for parents. But they have proven polarizing for many public-school educators.
Scott is enthusiastic about many of the proposals forwarded by his transition team and the Foundation for Florida's Future, from teacher-tenure reform to expansion of charter schools. Here are two of them to keep an eye on this session:
Parents of a public school child could receive an "education savings account" worth 85% of the average amount the state spends per public school pupil. Parents could use the money, worth about $6,000, on a private school, virtual school or dual enrollment on a college campus. If the child is home-schooled, the money could go into a college savings account. Supporters and opponents alike say Florida's Constitution could be a roadblock. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down what was the nation's first statewide voucher program, ruling that it violated the Constitution's call for a free and uniform system of public schools.
Advocates say so-called "virtual learning" is too limited for public school students, who have access to courses within the Florida Virtual School but should be able to choose the best approved digital curriculum anywhere in the nation. High schoolers can take Chinese language I, II and III at Florida Virtual School, "but what if they want to take AP Chinese? What if they wanted to take engineering and Pinellas County could contract with a laid-off Kennedy Space Center scientist to teach it?" asks Levesque. "Why shouldn't we?"
In December, Bush and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, joined in a national call for digital learning in a report that urged states to open competition for online content that could become as effective and user-friendly as Amazon.com is for shopping. They also urge replacement of textbooks with digital devices that are cheaper for taxpayers and more relevant to today's students.
Despite Scott's support, a virtual-learning overhaul faces hurdles, including opposition from textbook companies and the state's teachers union. Virtual-learning bills sponsored by state Sen. John Thrasher and Rep. Erik Fresen, both Republicans, died in last year's session.
At the Florida Education Association, spokesman Mark Pudlow says many of Florida's 180,000 teachers "are very, very interested in technology" and have helped make the state known for digital learning.
"But there hasn't been a lot of opportunity for practitioners to offer their good ideas and insights," he says. "You don't want a take-it-or-leave-it plan. You want to reach out to these folks, and if you're going to pursue a more digital plan, to get them involved and give them buy-in."