Leaders of the state of Florida’s public school system are drawing the ire of parents, civil rights group and even other educators over top city officials' controversial decision to institute different proficiency standards for students seemingly purely based on race.
Hailed as a “road map” for all public school students and approved by the Florida State of Education earlier this month, the plan sets goals in reading and math that sharply vary based on ethnic and socio-economic dynamics. By 2018, new standards mandate that 90 percent of all Asian students, 88 percent of whites and 81 percent of Hispanics be proficient in reading, compared to just 74 percent of blacks.
In addition, the plan also sets race-based principles for each district and individual school, again with the bottom-line philosophy being that black youngsters aren’t expected or required to perform as well as their white peers.
“All children should be held to high standards and for them to say that for African-Americans the goal is below other students is unacceptable,” Urban League of Palm Beach County President Patrick Franklin told the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sun Sentinel.
Additionally, in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education, the Orlando-based advocacy group Fund Education Now complained of the plans “overtly racist tone” with organization founder Christine Bramuchi adding “the Board’s plan makes race and data more important than human beings.”
Meanwhile, state officials are defending their program as part of a broader plan aimed at putting all students on a path toward mastering designated key subject matters, adding that they would require a faster pace of improvement from struggling students in an elongated effort to aid them in getting up to speed.
Critics, however, are quick to point out those goals seem conveniently aligned with aiding proponents in satisfying a DOE requirement and gaining a state waiver from the federally-instituted No Child Left Behind law, which is needed for such radical enactment.
“I know some parents are worried,” said Alice Braswell, president of the Central Florida Urban League. “They’re worried does this mean that some people think my child, because of their race, has different abilities?”
While Braswell somewhat agrees with the methodology of breaking down and studying achievement data with race as proponent, she argues the information should be used to aid those who are struggling and not send “you’re not as good” type messages.
“The undertone of setting lower targets for minority students for many feels like a step into a disturbing history,” said Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. “The intent is lost in resounding negative perception.”
In a hastily arranged press conference, Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart again went on the defensive. “This plan does not set lower standards for any student or any subgroup,” she said. “Florida believes every student can learn,” she added, noting that by the 2023 school-year all students are projected to be working at or above grade level.
According to state officials, this year 40 percent of black students were on grade level in math, compared to 82 percent of Asians. Under the new goals, projections estimate that by 2018 that 42 percentage-point gap will be cut to as little as 18 percentage points.
“It’s a sensible, ambitious goal,” argues Amy Wilkins, of The Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy for low-income and minority students. Wilkins added that the much debated 74 percent reading proficiency level targeted for blacks nearly doubles (38 percent) the percentage of all such averages for students last year.
That rapid rate of improvement, Wilkins adds, is far superior to that projected for white students whose current proficiency levels standing at 69 percent and are targeted for 88 percent.
Currently, about 20 states, including Washington D.C. and Virginia, have adopted similar policies. Such guidelines, Wilkins insist, demand “more improvement and faster improvement for kids who are furthest behind. If people focused on that we might get a little further without the fireworks,” she said.
Florida Board of Education member John Padget is all for civility, but there’s just so much about the state’s plans that leaves him feeling uneasy. “I find differentiated race-or ethnicity-related goals very offensive,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They send the wrong signal to Floridians.”
Even Winnie Tang, president of the Asian American Federation of Florida, takes exception with the plan, telling the Sun-Sentinel the Asian community “has a lot of students that are average and below average. Being perceived as a higher achiever really hurts a lot of students.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.