THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 23, 2012 -
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
As the Florida Department of Education tries to handle the fallout of the collapse in FCAT writing scores, the office of Gov. Rick Scott has been intimately involved in efforts to roll out the test scores, according to staff emails.
Showing an interest often reserved for issues like economic development, one of the governor's priorities, Scott's top staff has played a key role in coordinating the state's response after a dramatic drop in test scores prompted a scramble by officials to temporarily lower the passing grade on the writing portion of the assessment.
After a first year in which creating jobs was his stated main priority, Scott has added education to his agenda in the past several months.
The test crisis began when passing scores on the writing test plummeted from 81 percent to 27 percent for fourth graders and showed similar drop in eighth and 10th grades. The Florida Board of Education eventually met in emergency session to lower the passing grade from 4.0 to 3.0 while they develop a longer-term answer.
In the meantime, Scott's office has been closely involved in helping to craft the public-relations effort in the wake of the renewed focus by the governor on public education, including a successful push for $1 billion in new state education funding during the last legislative session.
At one point, the governor's communications team and Carrie O'Rourke, a deputy chief of staff who handles education issues, made extensive comments and suggestions about a press release announcing reading and math scores.
"MORE IMPORTANTLY – what is the takeaway you want the media to have?" wrote Scott communications director Brian Burgess in one email in response to a draft of the press release. "From reading this, it appears you just want the media to know that FCAT results have been released. But why squander an opportunity to point out that we are raising standards? I don’t see that until the second paragraph."
By then, the writing scores were already sparking questions about the move to boost performance and how it might affect schools. The governor's office approved a draft of the press release announcing the change in cut scores for the writing test.
The agency had also sent a plan to Scott's office for handling the FCAT results, a three-page document entitled "Higher Standards: The Right Thing to Do."
The purpose of the plan is "[t]o win support and understanding for higher standards in our state as we move through a volatile period of rolling out the results of new, more rigorous assessments (FCAT 2.0) and higher achievement levels (cut scores)," DOE said in one email.
The department envisioned a "Full-Court Press," including everything from efforts to get letters to the editor written by organizations allied with the governor and DOE, like the Florida Chamber and the Council of 100, to having Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson record on-hold phone messages. The plan also suggested a hash-tag on Twitter.
The blueprint caught the attention of outgoing Chief of Staff Steve MacNamara, who wrote a simple and typically cryptic response to O'Rourke: "Let's discuss..."
Scott's office was also working to head off questions about the job security of Robinson, who got the job after Scott reportedly pushed out former Education Commissioner Eric Smith. The governor's office issued a statement to the Miami Herald in response to a question about whether Robinson was under pressure to resign.
“The Florida Board of Education selected Gerard Robinson after conducting a nationwide search for a commissioner who would bring a reform-based agenda, who is committed to raising Florida’s education standards and the expectations of our students, and I believe Commissioner Robinson is working to do those things,” said the statement, emailed by Burgess.
Other state officials have also expressed support for Robinson, and Senate Education Chairman Steve Wise, who has spoken to some board members, said he also believes the commissioner is okay.
"I think that he's bright and he's knowledgeable and he's got connections, and he ought to be okay," Wise, R-Jacksonville, told the News Service.