Florida appears ready to exit a multistate effort to develop new tests to measure student learning, abandoning the initiative amid conservative activists' concerns that it represents federal overreach into the state's education system.
Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Monday ordering the state to end its role in helping handle the financial affairs of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The project, generally known as PARCC, has received a $186 million federal grant to develop tests for the "Common Core Standards" currently being taught in Florida schools.
Abandoning PARCC would not mean the state is ending the use of Common Core, though another action Scott took Monday could open that door. Instead, leaving the tests would mean that Florida officials would have to develop or buy another testing system to measure whether students are learning the new material.
Scott also called for the Florida Department of Education to hold three public hearings around the state on Common Core by Nov. 1. In a letter to State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand, Scott said the hearings and other forms of public input should "identify any opportunities to strengthen or risks for federal intrusion in Florida's standards."
State officials say they're confident that new assessments could be up and running in time for the 2014-15 school year.
Scott's order represents a partial victory for a group of activists who have worried that despite PARCC's evolution as a state-led project, it could become a tool for the U.S. Department of Education to direct education policy nationwide. The governor echoed those concerns in a letter to Chartrand explaining his decision.
"To be clear, as Governor, I support Florida's high academic standards and strongly reject overreach into those standards and other areas of our education system by the federal government, including state assessments, curriculum and instructional materials," Scott wrote.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart did not specifically list a concern that Scott had when asked why he was worried about the federal government's involvement.
"I think that this is the way for us to ensure that there is not federal overreach," she said.
Republican leaders who had already urged Scott to abandon the tests praised him for the executive order. But they suggested they were still on board with Common Core.
"The fact is that we had a system of evaluation that hadn't been invented yet that we were being asked to buy into," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "I don't think that was fair for our students, for our teachers or for our families or our employers."
"But the idea of having high standards -- and I think Florida has helped lead the nation in that -- is an idea that we're not backing up one bit from," he continued.
Stewart said that PARCC could still win a competitive bidding process aimed at coming up with the testing system Florida will used. Given Scott's language about the tests, though, that seemed unlikely. Still, at least one key lawmaker on education issues held out hope.
"I think PARCC is on a respirator, if you will," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. "And so what we have to do is, if it's going to revive, Florida needs to say, 'This is what we want, and if you can do it, fine, and if you can't, fine. We'll try another route.' "
Whatever the decision, the state has to move soon, said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future. That organization, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, has strongly supported Common Core.
"I urge the Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education to move quickly and carefully to make decisions regarding Florida?s assessment. ... In order to effectively field test Common Core-aligned assessments next spring, their decisions must be made soon," Levesque said in a statement issued by the foundation.
The fact that PARCC could return caused some concern for activists who have fought against Common Core generally and the tests specifically. John Hallman, who lobbies for conservative groups like the Florida Campaign for Liberty and Liberty First Network, expressed cautious optimism about Scott's move.
"On the other hand, I'll be honest -- I'm skeptical," he said.
Randy Osborne, who has lobbied against Common Core in the Legislature on behalf of the Florida Eagle Forum, said the state should remain opposed to PARCC.
"I think that, as we move through this process, that the state will do the right thing, the legislators will do the right thing and say that PARCC is something we can't accept," he said.