Fallout Over Florida's Race-Based Education Goals Continues

Oct 19, 2012

This month the State Board of Education released a plan setting different goals for student achievement based on race and ethnicity. The move has been condemned by some education advocates who say it’s discriminatory and perpetuates stereotypes that some racial and ethnic groups are academically inferior. Others, applaud the goals, and say they’re a needed recognition of the achievement gap that exists and puts Florida on a path to closing it faster. 

But at Ghazvini Learning Center, a second-chance school in Tallahassee, students have mixed opinions on the state plan.

"I was upset about it, because I was like, why are they basing it on race, why does everything have to be about race?” Said 12th grader Moriah Whitworth. She says she heard about the plan through her uncle, who sent her a news story.

“The world is mixed with all different people, not just one race," said Kory Lecea, a Ghazvini student.

"It’s your childhood, what it was like growing up, how you see things, your perspectives on things, your paradigm," said 12th grader William Lincoln.

Ninth grader Kentarkuis Morgan said he felt that, "you shouldn’t judge people on their race and color how they do things."

According to the state, 38 percent of African-American students are reading on grade level, versus 76 percent of Asian students who are the highest performers. That difference in performance is called the achievement gap. And Florida has set a goal of closing it within 10 years. By year five, 74 percent of black students and 90 percent of Asian students are expected to be on grade level.

The group Fund Education Now is requesting a federal review of the proposal. Co-founder Kathleen Oropeza says, “to say these children, who are probably having to work many, many times harder to achieve this goal, and not provide them with any support, is grossly unfair to the future of Florida.”  

The Washington D.C.-based Education Trust came up with the model for Florida and 28 other states that have adopted similar education goals as part of waivers they’ve received to federal education laws. The Ed Trust plan was one of several approved by the U.S. Department of Education for states to use in order to receive the waivers. The Education Trust's Vice President Amy Wilkins says states are heading in the right direction for closing the achievement gap:

“We’re quite frank and blunt about talking about the problem that is the achievement gap and we’re just as frank and blunt about saying the solution to those problems is setting goals by race. But what those goals should provoke is changes in the way schools do business.”  

Under the Board of Education’s proposal, the students who are furthest behind would actually be required to show more growth in learning.  For example: while the state wants Asian students to improve by 16 percentage points over five years, it’s goal for African American students is a 36 point increase. State Minority Leader Representative Perry Thurston opposes to the plan.

“From the standpoint of the cuts to the system, we don’t want to say we want these gains but we’re not doing what’s necessary to accomplish them.”

Thurston says he's not sure it’s realistic to expect gains if the state isn’t budgeting for them.

And back at the Ghazvini Learning Center, 12th grader Anna Permenter says she also disagrees with the pathway—but for different reasons. Anna says by giving more attention to one group of students, others could begin to fall behind.

“I don’t think it a bad idea, because we need to do something to progress the students who aren’t progressing, but what about the people who are mediocre students There’s always going to be someone who is just short of getting in.”   

Florida’s interim education chancellor Pam Stewart is defending the state’s goals. But other top state officials have sent mixed messages. Governor Rick Scott released a statement suggesting he disagreed with the state’s plan, but when question by reporters later on, the Governor refused to say whether it should be revised.

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