Thursday, May 22, 2008

Class War Disguised As Demands For Accountability

The day of the 2008 release of the third-grader'

s Florida
Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores is a good time to step
back and take stock of what has simply come to be known as the test in
the Sunshine State.

Looking back, the FCAT appeared in the public schools for the first
time in the final year of Governor Lawton Chiles' term in office. But
Jeb Bush is married to the FCAT in the minds of most Floridians. And
he seems to embrace that idea. Bush often cites the test as the
cornerstone of his legacy as the self-proclaimed "education governor"
and he did raise the FCAT stakes to point that it now hangs over the
state's public school landscape like a dense fog.

The now former Governor Jeb Bush is the scion of a dynastic American
family of incomparable political power and great wealth. The Bush
family boasts two President's of the United States! The family enjoys
a huge fortune based on its dealings across the financial spectrum
from the Rockefellers to the Saudi royal family. There can be no
argument, an extremely powerful man made the FCAT his baby and guided
the State of Florida to this focus on public school accountability.

For those unfamiliar with the FCAT, it makes children accountable for
tested reading skills when they reach the age of eight or 9-years-old.
If a child fails to meet the test standards—that child is severely
punished. The child is publically humiliated! The child is forced to
repeat the third grade while classmates move ahead to the forth grade.
The architects of the FCAT believe that holding these children up to
shame and ridicule will become an incentive to master the tested
reading skills and there is little doubt the approach does increase
the pressure on the little ones. There are widespread reports of
children becoming physically sick on test days—throwing up on the
test, urinating on themselves.

Several years now of administering the test indicate that children
living in poverty feel the lion's share of the FCAT `s punitive force.
Because a disproportionate number of poor children are
African-American and Hispanic and recent immigrants, something the
educational bureaucracy calls "the achievement gap" is now all the
rage. However, those bureaucrats are adamant that poverty will not be
used as an excuse. The children must be punished, they must be held
accountable! It is worth noting here that Florida's white children
living in poverty, in rural Jefferson County for instance, do not fare
well with the FCAT either.

For a while, a couple of years ago, South Florida had a precious
little FCAT success story named Sherdavia Jenkins. She came from the
heart of Miami-Dade's Liberty City and gave the test a whuppin' worthy
of Muhammad Ali in his prime. Ali was someone, by the way, who would
have found the FCAT nearly impossible as a dyslexic child. Later
though students at Harvard and Howard and other prestigious American
universities flocked to his lectures and he did record some success in
life. Anyway, Sherdavia earned the best FCAT score at Lillie C. Evans
Elementary. The justifiable pride Sherdavia must have felt lasted just
a few weeks before the violence endemic in her depressed neighborhood
claimed her life. She was shot and killed outside her home.

The whole tragedy raises certain questions. Who was ready to step up
and be accountable for the all too brief life and violent death of the
FCAT whiz? Should Sherdavia have packed up and gotten out of Liberty
City? Maybe, but it's hard out there for a nine-year-old on your own.
FCAT supporters often mention the importance of parental
accountability. And we may have to settle for blaming Sherdavia's
mother and father for allowing her onto the front porch to play with
her dolls. Because not one of Florida's most powerful and influential
public figures even acknowledged that Sherdavia Jenkins' death was a
problem that needed their attention.

Although the level of public school funding and graduation rates in
Florida rest at or near the bottom of the national barrel, another
layer of FCAT accountability lands on youngsters if they survive into
and through high school. This year 26,997 high school seniors who
dutifully completed their coursework, did their community service, and
fought off all the negative influences toward dropping out will be
punished for the sake of FCAT skills. At their upcoming graduation
ceremonies, some of these students will pretend to their classmates to
be receiving a diploma. But they will walk across that stage to be
lashed by their FCAT masters and handed a worthless piece of paper.

At the conclusion of the movie Spiderman, Peter Parker comes to terms
with his superhero status and he remembers his uncle saying, "With
great power, comes great responsibility." The creators and the
administrators of the FCAT live by another rule. For them it seems to
come down to, "With great power, comes great impunity." Under the FCAT
regimen, all the accountability is heaped on the shoulders of children
living in deprivation and adults living in comfort accept none.

Jeb Bush had the means to keep his own children in private schools and
he always did. The private schools are a haven from incessant testing
because parents like Jeb and Columba Bush want their children truly
educated and prepared for the future. Yet Gov. Bush, as a matter of
public policy, always held that the FCAT was good for the public
schools. And to prove it Bush used his power to retain tens of
thousands of children in the third grade, he withheld high school
diplomas from thousands more, he used the test to stigmatize the
schools that serve children living in poverty as failing schools.

But while he was governor, Jeb Bush never ever held himself
accountable for anything. In 2002, the state's short-term investment
and pension funds lost $334 million as Enron collapsed, three times
the loss of any other fund in the nation. Jeb Bush invested Florida in
Edison charter schools when the stock was valued at $37 and got out
when it was worth 14 cents. Another $500 million of the public's money
was lost to enable his other corporate adventures.

Former Gov. Bush still doesn't believe in accountability except for
public school children. It has been reported that after leaving office
Bush got a new job with Lehman Brothers. The Wall Street investment
banking firm paid him over $400,000 to take a seat on their board of
directors. Shortly thereafter, Florida's Local Government Investment
Pool and the Florida Retirement System purchased $842 million in bad
investments from Lehman Brothers.

At ceremonies as Rep. Marco Rubio was ascending to Speaker of the
Florida House of Representatives, Jeb Bush gave Rubio a sword. The
gift was a sign that Rubio was pledged to defend the Bush legacy,
including the FCAT. And Speaker Rubio has been faithful to his
mentor's charge, seeing to it that the burdens of accountability
remain squarely and exclusively on children and off powerful men like
him. A recent news report has Speaker Rubio's Miami-Dade home
inexplicably increasing in value a month after he bought it. Another
story describes a home equity loan to Rubio from a bank run by
politically connected allies. Then Rubio was accused of slipping
language into legislation that allowed Max Alvarez, who describes
Rubio as "like a son", to keep a multi-million dollar turnpike fuel

Even with Marco Rubio presiding in the House, the Florida Legislature
did make changes to the FCAT. Sadly these changes turned out to be
among the most cravenly self-serving "FCAT reforms" imaginable. This
powerful governing body left untouched all the FCAT punishments for
children after gutting public school funding by $2.3 billion. They
went on to reduce the weight given to FCAT test scores when assessing
the schools, likely raising grades that have reflected badly on
Legislators and the Florida Department of Education. The harsh
treatment of children along with the abdication of responsibility by
public official is coming to levels almost impossible to fathom.

Paul A. Moore
Miami Carol City High School

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