THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 18, 2012......Gov. Rick Scott has spent the past several months talking about two big issues: adding jobs and bolstering the public-education system.
So Scott could preen a little Friday when new figures showed the state's unemployment rate had dropped to 8.7 percent in April, down 0.3 percentage points from March and 1.9 points from April 2011.
But the picture in the education system wasn't so upbeat. The state Board of Education called an emergency meeting Tuesday to lower the passing score on statewide writing tests after results showed that most students wouldn't meet more-rigorous standards.
After more than a decade of Republican leaders emphasizing the need for higher standards and accountability, some state board members reluctantly approved the change. At the same time, the move added fuel to the arguments of Democrats and the Florida Education Association that the state's focus on standardized tests has run amok.
CLAWING BACK THE FCAT
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has been the backbone of the state's controversial efforts to measure the performances of students, teachers and schools.
With this year's tests, the state ratcheted up the standards for passing the writing portion of the FCAT in fourth, eighth and 10th grades. In part, students needed to score a 4.0 or better on a 6-point grading scale, up from 3.0 last year.
Also, the state made other changes, including placing more emphasis on writing basics such as punctuation, capitalization and grammar.
But the test results showed a huge drop in the number of students meeting the standards. In fourth grade, the passing rate dropped from 81 percent to 27 percent; in eighth grade, it dropped from 82 percent to 33 percent; and in 10th grade, it dropped from 80 percent to 38 percent.
With FCAT scores affecting such sensitive issues as school grades, the state Board of Education moved quickly to call Tuesday's emergency meeting. Board members agreed to dial back the passing score to 3.0 this year, despite some reluctance.
"The change from 4.0 to 3.0 looks like we are lowering standards,'' said board member John Padget, of Key West. "I'm only voting on this so we can hold (schools) harmless for this year only."
But other board members rejected the idea that they were lowering standards.
"This is absolutely not a retreat, said Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez, of Coral Gables. "It is maintaining the equivalence with last year, we're just using a much more rigorous application of the scoring rubric."
Regardless, the change caused the Department of Education to say it did not adequately prepare schools and teachers for the tougher standards.
"This conversation should have come up earlier,'' Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said. "We'll do better going forward."
The change also reignited long-simmering arguments about whether the state's heavy reliance on the FCAT is wise.
"Florida's overemphasis on testing is insane,'' said former Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "We have become a school system whose entire purpose seems to be to prepare kids for minimal competence tests."
For his part, Scott issued a rather-nebulous statement Monday.
"Our students must know how to read and write, and our education system must be able to measure and benchmark their progress so we can set clear education goals,'' Scott said in the statement. "The significant contrast in this year's writing scores is an obvious indication that the Department of Education needs to review the issue and recommend an action plan so that our schools, parents, teachers and students have a clear understanding of the results."
GETTING TO WORK
Scott, who won the governor's office in 2010 on a theme of "Let's Get to Work," was far from nebulous Friday after the April unemployment numbers came out.
"Florida?s jobless rate moved to its lowest point in more than three years and is a clear sign we are moving Florida in a direction that gives businesses and job creators the confidence they need to grow and expand,'' he said in a statement.
The jobs report, released by the Department of Economic Opportunity, also included other positive signs. As an example, the number of jobs in Florida was 7,325,300 in April, up 52,600 from last year. Also, the number of counties with double-digit unemployment rates fell from 10 in March to five in April.
But other indicators showed that Florida's job problems continue. For instance, one factor in the lower unemployment rate is that the civilian labor force dropped by 28,000 people.
"Having the unemployment rate fall because people have given up looking for a job is not an improvement,'' University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said.
The April numbers came just days after Florida TaxWatch issued a report showing that a government entity is the largest employer in 51 of 67 counties. Scott argues that the key to Florida's economic growth is private-sector jobs.
"While this analysis does not consider the total size of government employment compared to total private employment, it is certainly clear that the government has a massive direct effect on local economies throughout the state through employment and payroll practices, in addition to the indirect effects that government actions, such as regulation, have on the economy," TaxWatch said in the report. "Moreover, for many counties the potential closure of a military base or correctional facility, or large layoffs due to federal, state, or local budget shortfalls, poses a significant economic threat."
NO EMPLOYMENT HELP NEEDED HERE
While many Florida workers and businesses might be scraping by, Tallahassee's lobbying industry appears to be doing just fine.
Lobbyists this week had to file compensation reports for the first three months of the year, which included the 2012 legislative session. Those reports showed that 16 lobbying firms each raked in more than $500,000 in fees during the quarter.
Four firms collected more than $1 million. Those firms were Ballard Partners, GrayRobinson, Ronald L. Book PA and Southern Strategy Group.
Among the issues generating large amounts of lobbying fees was the big-money fight about allowing resort casinos in the state. The casino proposal died, but it could re-emerge --- with the possibility of another big payday for lobbyists --- --- in the future.
HEADED FOR THE DOOR
Steve MacNamara probably won't wind up in any unemployment line. But after a flurry of critical news reports, the hard-charging MacNamara submitted his resignation last weekend as Scott's chief of staff.
Adam Hollingsworth, who served as chief of staff to former Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, will replace MacNamara as of July 1.
MacNamara had planned to leave the Scott administration by the end of the year, but the critical reports about his handling of such things as government contracts sped up the move.
"It has been a pleasure and an honor serving you, but the recent media attention I have been receiving has begun to interfere with the day-to-day operations of this office," MacNamara said in his resignation letter. "I feel now is the time to plan for me to depart, for you to name my replacement and for us to work on a smooth transition."
STORY OF THE WEEK: The state Board of Education lowers the passing score on FCAT writing tests.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Hey governor, it's Jim. I'm sure you know our friendship has ended, is over, and I'm just very saddened by that. But I wanted you to know personally from me that in the future there's probably going to be things coming out that are going to be very hurtful to both you and Carole (Crist). But I'll be honest with you, I don't care anymore because I did everything that I could for you." --- part of a 2011 voice mail message that former state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer left for former Gov. Charlie Crist. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Crist thought Greer was trying to extort money from him.