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Florida Democrats At Odds Over Standardized Tests

Flickr / Bill Selak

Teacher unions everywhere are mad.

Educators say after 12 years of implementing standardized tests nationwide those assessments are proving impediments to teachers. If they don't get the reforms they’re demanding they say the president should oust his secretary of education, Arne Duncan.

South Florida Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings understands the anger directed towards Washington bureaucrats who, he says, play a limited role in what happens in Florida schools.

“The federal government provides less than 7 percent of all of the funding for education, and we don’t need all the ideas to always come from the federal government," he says, "but we must protect against discrimination and against unfairness when it comes to distribution of funding.”

While No Child Left Behind remains on the books, both parties agree it needs to be revamped, but the question is how. Because there’s been no consensus on how to update the law, Florida and 42 other states were granted waivers from its mandates and they adopted the president’s new Common Core standard, which attempts to set new benchmarks for schools and students.

Hastings says all these conflicting mandates aren’t helping students.

“There’s always confusion, and school teachers don’t like the fact that every time you look up some authorities are giving them a new modality to function with. They know what they’re doing," he says.

There’s another problem, according to Hastings, whether it’s with No Child Left Behind or now with Common Core, “We changed the name, but the problems remain the same. If you don’t fund them, then it really is of no value to school teachers.”

National Vs. Local Standards

Hasting’s stance on federal education policy is more in line with state’s rights conservatives than with most progressives. He says different localities and states need to have their own educational standards because the nation is so diverse.

“I don’t think you put students in Florida against Wyoming students. I think you let Wyoming teachers teach their children and you do the same for Florida," he says. "The national standards would, in my judgment, allow for us to provide adequate funding so that they can do what is necessary.”

In Florida, it’s even more complicated, according to South Florida Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. He says it would be a step in the wrong direction to undo the national standardized tests mandated through No Child Left Behind.

“There’s a minimum standard that all of our children must meet. And when you look at the standard, look at the last 10 years, we’ve been falling," Murphy says. "And no matter who you talk to, if you want to talk about our country and our future and the economy, and the growing divide between rich and poor in our country and the middle class, it always comes back to education.”

When Murphy speaks one-on-one with teachers, many agree with him that a minimum standard is needed in order to compare children, while others say each district knows what's best for their students.

Murphy agrees with the latter point, but he says in a globalized world federal policy makers need to be able to compare U.S. students to, say, Chinese students. When you do that, the nation is far behind in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – referred to as STEM.

The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 52nd for the quality of mathematics and science training. South Florida Democrat Joe Garcia says both local and federal policy makers have dropped the ball when it comes to STEM fields. 

“Florida’s a state that does not do nearly enough to invest in our kids," Garcia says, "as a nation we’re not doing much better in STEM. We’ve just got to put more resources towards it.”

Lawmakers aren’t expected to touch the nation’s education policy ahead of November – in part because of these inter-party disputes over what to do next – so local educators are once again left waiting to see if Washington will throw them a lifeline or just another hurdle to try and jump.

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