"Colleen Wood on Florida's Education Cuts and Standardized Testing" Transcript

ME: Welcome to The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast, Episode Fifteen, for October 14th, 2014. I'm Mike Eidson. This show delivers news and updates via interviews with activists around the state on the issues that you, the people of Florida, care about.

This time, we return to the issue of education, specifically how the system has been changed by a privatization movement’s destructive agenda, including the high-stakes standardized testing initiative.

As usual, stick around for the end of the podcast to hear a list of actions, groups, and resources discussed on the show that can help you effect positive change.

My guest today is Colleen Wood. She is the founder of 50th No More, a non-partisan, grassroots organization designed to fight back against budget cuts to public schools. She is also a public school parent. Colleen, thanks for joining me on the show today.

CW: Thanks for having me on, Mike.

ME: I really want to get into 50th No More and all the policy stuff that you’re involved in, all the activism work, but first, I just want to start with a little anecdote.

We both attended the Diane Ravitch speaking event in Gainesville not too long ago. She’s a prominent education activist and she was on her book tour for Reign of Error. In the question and answer session, someone challenged Ravitch by listing a large number of quote-unquote “statistics” about how great Florida’s education system really is. Ravitch said it sounded like she was reading from the Jeb Bush playbook, and after she sat down, you were the next person to speak in the Q&A. Can you recall this incident for the listeners and some of the bogus things this one person was saying, and what your response was?

CW: Yeah, that was an interesting night, because the first woman that got up to speak, y’know, she looked like your average college student. She began to question Diane, and when she did it, she started reading off her phone. And the laundry list of the things she was citing as positives in Florida -- our third-graders who were retained, now moving on, and fourth-grade African-American male-achievement gap closing, all of these things -- it was like reading a laundry list from Jeb Bush’s foundation, and it didn’t ring true. And it certainly didn’t ring true as an authentic question from the audience.

And as I looked at her a little bit more, as I was sitting there, I realized that she was in fact a staffer for The Foundation for Florida’s Future.

ME: So you actually recognized her?

CW: I did. It took a little while, because normally she is dressed in business attire. With this she was dressed, y’know, the hair-in-a-ponytail, purse-slung-over-her-shoulder, kind of college-town. And I did recognize her.

I’ll debate anybody on the issues. And I’ll debate anybody from The Foundation on the issues, but don’t pretend to be one of the people sitting in an audience, really concerned, and be there as a paid employee. I think you have to speak for who you are. We have to have truthfulness in our conversation. And what this revealed is what I’ve learned about the Foundation, and Students First, and groups like them, is that they’re great at creating astro-turf. They can come up with fake groups, all the time. They don’t have an authentic groundswell of parents.

ME: Mm-hmm. Well, your response, I felt, really reset the whole speaking engagement. I think someone from outside the hall could have heard the smackdown that you gave the person.

CW: [laughs]

ME: The things that Ravitch is fighting against are the same things you are fighting against, this privatization movement by Jeb Bush and other Republicans, some Democrats, unfortunately.

Can you tell us a little about your impressions, as a public school parent, seeing policy change throughout the years, and how you got started? Before the show started, you were telling me exactly the instance when you said, “Okay, I need to do more activism work, here.”

CW: Yeah, I was a volunteer in my children’s elementary school and pretty actively engaged and tried to be politically aware. And when the budget cuts hit us in 2007, some of the changes came pretty quickly, and we weren’t prepared for them. And one of the things that we were asked, as a PTO, was to help fundraise for a teaching position, and that was it, for me.

It is the paramount duty, according to our Constitution, for the state to provide a high-quality, uniform, public system of education. It’s not up to parents to pay for teachers, because the resources have been cut off from the state.

And that was when I knew we had to do something more. And I wasn’t sure what, so I made a quick phone call to my school board member. I am very fortunate to have a school board that not only listens to parents, but acts on their concerns. And she said, “I’m having a meeting tomorrow with some other parents, with some similar concerns. Come join us.” And I went, and we had about 12 people. The next meeting, we had 20. We had 60, two weeks later. And within two months, we had over 3,000 people from around the state who had joined us.

ME: So, we often hear about people coming together to kind of raise money for school supplies, but in this situation, they were literally asking for donations to help staff the school?

CW: In order for us to have resources that we wanted for the school, we were going to have to pay for the technology teacher. And at a time when all we’re hearing about is STEM and how important it is, and we knew testing was moving towards online testing at that time, we were still having to out-of-pocket pay.

And I think part of what we’re seeing -- y’know, a lot of these privatization efforts have been going on for a long time. And some schools were able to hold off the effects of it by fundraising for themselves. When buses got cut, they had boosters. But the schools that didn’t, felt those cuts first and the hardest. And I think we’ve gotten to the point now where everybody is feeling them, and hopefully that will encourage more people to get engaged in fighting to support all public schools.

ME: Well, one of the things I was looking at, at 50th No More, which is the group that you founded, was the speech that you gave back in 2011, at a rally next to the Capitol. One of the things you mentioned, was how budget cuts were often used as the excuse. Or, excuse me, “the economy.”

CW: Right.

ME: So, this really -- y’know, you live in St. Johns County, and at the time I was living in Duval County. And that really does get to people. Like, “We all need to save money together.” And I was talking to teachers in the break room [as a substitute teacher], at that time, and they were like, “Well, y’know, it’s too bad we can’t do P.E. and Music and Art, and all this, but I guess we have to,” and I was shocked that they weren’t fighting for public education.

CW: Yeah, I think the budget cuts, some of them were orchestrated. So before we were even in a recession, they were making cuts.

We are still not at the levels of funding we were at in 2007 and 2008, and actually, at that time, that’s where our name came from, 50th No More. The 2007 and 2008 funding levels, we were 50th in the country in how much of our personal wealth we put into education. So our state has always funded education on the cheap. And even though it’s a large portion of our budget, what I think people need to understand is, by the time the money gets to the districts, almost 40% of our budgets is in something called categoricals. So it’s already determined by the state how that money will be spent.

And what happens, every year, is that a legislator or two gets what they consider to be a brilliant idea, and they push it through without funding. And if you’ve ever read an education bill, they always have to have a financial analysis, and inevitably, it says there will be no negative financial consequences to the district.

The legislature notoriously passes bills that aren’t funded. And that lack of funding gets passed on to the district. And so you’re able to orchestrate a funding crisis pretty effectively, if you continue to pass bills that you mandate districts carry out and you don’t give them money to do it.

ME: Mm-hmm. That’s another thing you mentioned in that speech -- the video is on the website -- was the unfunded mandates in schools. Not only are they taking money away for the stuff we used to have, they have new requirements on top of that. Do you want to speak to any of those new requirements, that you’ve seen as a public school parent, over the years?

CW: Well, I think the one that everyone is going to see right now is Senate Bill 736, which they love to call the Student Success Act, requiring teacher evaluation be tied to students’ test scores. Also, it covered the end-of-course exams. But there was not funding for the development of the end-of-course exams. And each district had to do that. And the thing that we said at that time was that they don’t have the money to cover this, but they’re making it happen anyway. And one of our concerns, at that time, was that classes would be cut, because end-of-course exams had not been developed for them. And we were assured that would not happen.

And, low and behold, we’re getting ready for this school year, and Orange County has announced that their classes’ electives will not be offered this year, because they have not developed end-of-course exams to offer.

ME: So, let’s go back to that day in 2011. I don’t know how big the audience was; I couldn’t tell from the video.

CW: That was the PTA of Florida’s first rally in several years, at the Capitol. And there were several thousand people there.

ME: And there were a lot of speakers there that day?

CW: There were. It was a good number. And I was honored that the PTA asked me. I’m not a member of the PTA, because my district has PTOs that are independent organizations, but they were very gracious and thought, “This is the time we all needed to come together.” So they asked me to come speak.

ME: Mm-hmm. So, the PTA you work alongside with, at 50th No More. Do you want to speak to any of the other organizations you work with? It looks like you collaborate with a few more.

CW: We do. I think any grassroots organization that wants to work together, we have an obligation to do that, the best that we can. And to try to bring in new organizations. Not everyone is -- I think at the beginning it was organizations that were only focused on education. And what we have found now, over time, is that education affects almost every group. And so, you’ll see, on the parent-trigger legislation, when we fought that, there was a wider alliance. And there were members of the NAACP and The League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] that joined in. The League of Women Voters has been very vocal on their concerns over charter schools and that’s not their primary focus, but they’re realizing that a lot of these privatization efforts are having negative consequences on our communities.

ME: Parent-trigger, for people that don’t know, was the twice-failed-in-the-legislature, by-a-close-vote [bill that would have] a public school converting to a charter school, if the school was failing and there were enough signatures by parents. So the people pushing this would call it the “Parent Empowerment” bill, right?

CW: Correct. And that was the biggest misnomer, because the only power the parents had was when they pulled the trigger. If 51% or more of parents at a struggling school, and that’s important to note, because “struggling” in Florida is a D or an F. They were trying to pass this at a time when they also said the standards were going to lower our grades and we were going to see a surge of D schools. All of those schools would be open to this.

And really, what it did was it allowed those parents to think they had power, and once a school in Florida is converted to a charter school, that charter board has the ultimate authority. They don’t have to meet with parents, they don’t have to live in the state of Florida, and they can turn over the operations to a for-profit management company. And parents get cut out.

ME: There’s been study after study about all this wasteful spending and not enough qualifications for the people at these charter schools -- not that every kind of charter school is bad, it’s that this certain kind of mold of charter schools. The League of Women Voters just had a study that came out about that; I’ll link to that at the end of the show, but it’s bad for Florida, it’s bad for public education, in general.

CW: Mm-hmm.

ME: Okay, let’s move on to other issues recently in the news. Here’s another one that 50th No More took a stand on. Back in April, there was a huge crash of computer problems during FCAT. What did 50th No More advocate for, after this incident?

CW: What we’re seeing very clearing is that the state of Florida is not ready to administer all these tests on computer. And there’s a couple of questions with that. One, if we’re not ready, why are we pushing it? Two, why isn’t it funded to be ready? And three, do we really need all of these tests?

And what we saw with the computer-crashing is, there were computers crashing, there were problems with Pearson’s end of the system, there were problems with internet providers. All of those are excuses, because, at the end of the day, it’s a student sitting in front of a computer that has their testing interrupted. And for some students, that interruption can affect their performance on the test, and that test score is used to determine their class placement, and, for some grades, whether they’re promoted. It evaluates teachers, schools, and communities. And we cannot sit back and say, “It’s okay that the computer crashed midway through and they had to restart the test.” We have to demand that things be ready, and we have to question whether the testing we’re doing is appropriate.

I think we’re doing far too much standardized testing. The testing window in Florida, for my children’s school next year, will be almost the entire fourth quarter, because we have so many tests to deliver, and not enough computers on which do it.

ME: Mm-hmm. And another way that 50th No More looks at education in general is through different lenses. Like, you mentioned that Republicans and Democrats both care about education, you mention that childless adults and parents both care.

CW: Right.

ME: And then you also speak about how it’s not just about education, but other factors as well. Do you want to talk about that? Like, for example, you have real estate property values on here, crime rates, and a sense of community pride?

CW: What I discovered in my work with 50th No More is that public education is a community value, in most communities. And it isn’t always reflected in our legislators’ actions. But at the local level, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents, the parents whose children are in public school are engaged with those schools. And it matters to them that they have good schools for their kids. And what’s important is for the community-at-large to be a part of that as well.

Because even if you don’t have children in public schools, these are the people that will be our community later. They’ll be the leaders, the workers, they’ll be the people taking care of us someday. And, if for no other reason, they’re a child. We owe them. We have a responsibility to every child in this state to ensure that they have access to a high-quality education and that we give them every tool so that they can have the best possible start in life, and we have failed to do that in this state. And, continually, we have privatization efforts that try to undermine that.

And it’s one of those things. We do make an investment in schools. But we can invest now or we can pay later, because every child deserves this opportunity. And when our schools are not equitable, when they are not well-funded, when they don’t have resources, when we see a lack of professional development, we see higher dropout rates. We see a school-to-prison pipeline. We can change that, if, as a community, we say, “We value public education. We’re going to listen to the educators. And we’re going to support them in setting the policy, and not let anybody’s ideology, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, guide the educational practices of our schools.”

ME: I’d like to think the people that disagree with us are well-intentioned. Like, sometimes I think people are just wrong about… I mean the only argument I can really see is the economic argument, and if you read certain economists, they say, if you starve education, that’s bad for our economic future, too, y’know? So, it just seems like all the arguments fall apart.

CW: I think you’re right. I think they do, and one of the… What was interesting, when we were having this debate about school grades and what the cutoffs for the grades would be, one of the people most concerned were our realtors, because low school grades do contribute to communities that people don’t want to move to, necessarily. And that’s why, for me, it’s critical that we have an accurate reflection of what’s happening in our schools, because when you label a school, you label a community. And that school, those children, those teachers, that community, is more than a school grade.

ME: When I was working in Duval, you could really see the disparity between the poor neighborhood schools and the more affluent neighborhood schools. And I do think that those letter grades can be a scarlet letter. When you are trying to take away the funding for a school that most desperately needs it [due to the school grade], it can be really difficult to climb out of that situation.

CW: Absolutely. There’s a pretty direct link between school grades and our “free and reduced lunch” percentages in schools. And it absolutely doesn’t mean that children who are from poorer socioeconomic levels can’t learn. It means there are greater resources required to make up the gap of experiences between children who have had books read to them daily and those who have not.

When we have an FCAT writing question that talks about the ocean, and we have children in our own city who have never been on the 25-minute-drive to the beach.

ME: Mm-hmm.

CW: There are distinct disadvantages in our education system to children that don’t have those experiences. And so, I think that’s a very important thing, that we look at the link between those two.

There’s this “lovely” catch-phrase that a lot of these education reformers like to use, about the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectation, that we can’t talk about the challenges facing poor communities because it will be used as an excuse for why poor children can’t learn. And I don’t really think anybody believes that. We have to realize that poverty plays a role in student readiness, and it plays a role in our moral responsibility to all children.

ME: Mm-hmm. Whether we’re talking about education or public transportation or any number of things, it’s always good to at least make sure that people have the same kind of starting place as everyone else.

So… okay, let’s shift gears completely, to...

CW: Okay. [laughs]

ME: 50th No More, I do believe, is working with a national group now, called Network for Public Education, is that true?

CW: That is correct, yes.

ME: Okay, so tell me a little bit about the type of work you are doing with them and also what your goals are.

CW: The Network for Public Education was co-founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody in 2013 as a way of uniting people who, across the country, were working to protect, preserve, and defend public education. And all of us fundamentally believe that public education is the critical building block of any functioning democracy. And we knew there were commonalities; there were things happening all across the country.

One of the things that came out of a very successful conference we had in Austin, Texas, was this recognition that the over-testing and the misuse of standardized testing is affecting all of our children. And at the end of our conference, our board of directors issued a call to Congress to hold hearings on the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.

And one of the things we hope to do is expose what many of us have seen happening in the states, these conflicts of interests between legislators and the testing companies. We’re not getting it done at the state level. So, our hope is, if enough people nationally call for it, that we can compel Congress to hold hearings. And let’s talk about whether standardized testing is the right way to evaluate students. We do not believe that it is what should be used to rank, sort, and label children.  

ME: That kind of pressure is really needed, because now that you mention it, out of even my favorite members of Congress, not many talk about this issue at all.  

CW: No, it’s not… y’know, we have one Representative from Florida who sits on the committee that handles education and the work force. And it’s not the committee everybody wants to be on. At the same time, it is the most fundamental building block that we have. If we don’t have a strong system of public education, we as a country are in peril. We hear a lot of talk these days about what’s going to ruin our country, and yet we ignore the very building block that affects over 80% of the children in our country.

And so we’re hoping that when people go to the website at NetworkForPublicEducation.Org, they can download a copy of the letter and send it into us in D.C., and we’re going to deliver them, or they can sign an online version of the letter. And what we would like to do is be able to say to Congress, “We have people from every state in this union, in each one of your districts, who are saying that we need to have public hearings on the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.”

ME: Sounds like a great idea, because it seems like the testing companies and the other lobbyists are pressuring everybody, so, absolutely, there needs to be resistance on the other side, so I’m glad that people like you and Ravitch and many others are doing this type of work.

I would like to ask you, final question, though: What would you like to see for public education, in five or ten years? Restoring the cuts that have happened recently [is one thing], but is there anything else that you can picture: your kind of vision for what schools in St. Johns and Duval, throughout the state, throughout the country, would look like?

CW: Well, I think funding was the first thing that we rallied around, because we were looking at a $4 billion-cut in our face. We had no choice but to fight back against it. But we’ve realized that’s just one piece of all of this.

And, for me, what I would like to see is for education decisions, class placement, is driven by the best interests of the child, how we can best serve each individual student. When my children first started elementary school, we talked a lot about customized learning paths, and it was when teachers were able to customize for students what they needed to succeed that year, how they needed to progress through the class. Children don’t all progress at the same time, and we are now at a place where we’re pushing children when they’re not ready, and we’re holding others back, and what we are doing right now is letting ideology, money, and politics drive educational decision-making. And what I would like to see is a return to educators driving policy, with the input of students and parents.

And I think we would find ourselves in a much better place, and as great as public education is, there has been a change in what we would like to offer children. I think tying teacher evaluations to student test scores has made the stakes on testing so high for everyone that it’s become the paramount focus, instead of the paramount duty of the state to provide a high-quality education.       

ME: Well, thank you, Colleen, for joining me today, and thank you for all the work that you do.

CW: Thanks, Mike.


ME: Visit 50thNoMore.Org to learn more about Colleen’s organization. You’ll find links to many of the things Colleen and I talked about throughout the transcript for this podcast at FloridaProgressives.Com, including the embedded YouTube video of her speaking at the rally in Tallahassee, information on how to join 50th No More, and links to other grassroots education advocacy groups that you can be a part of. Also included is a link to The League of Women Voters’ report on charter schools.


You can find me on Facebook at The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast. You can find me on Twitter at mike eidson, spelled e i d s o n.

This music is by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com . It is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/            

Thanks for listening.

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