Friday, October 19, 2018

Good Old "Grassroots" Power Politics

I was listening to a radio advertisement sponsored by the interest group that is advocating for citizens to give up their right to elect their superintendent this morning and I was intrigued by the strong words in the ad:  "52nd isn't going to cut it," "We will take the politics out of education," and so on.

They're running that ad, they're putting that kind of language in their internet material, and they're flooding our mailboxes with flyers with that kind of commentary in it.  But the striking thing about the group's messaging is the fact that even as they're absolutely savaging the current superintendent's and school board's record, they're very careful to say that they LOVE our superintendent and the school board members and think that they have just done such a great job.  They just LOVE the job they have done, but then they distort their record so they can put it in a negative light in order to make political points.  So much for "We will take the politics out of education."

Escambia County citizens who have been following the debate on this issue are aware that the group that is behind this marketing material KNOWS that the data they're citing has a flip side that tells a different - or at least a more balanced - story.  This group also KNOWS that there is absolutely no proof that changing the way we select our superintendent has a bearing on student or school district performance, but they jam that data at the citizens and call it "proof" anyway, as if it does.

I've said it before; let me say it again. Whether the superintendent is appointed or elected is NOT a predictor of student or school district performance.  Studies that have been conducted by more esteemed and resourced people and institutions than I have made that point.  There are many other factors that ARE predictors, but the way we select our superintendent isn't one of them.

Consider this data to see how far they're going in order to give citizens the wrong impression about this issue:

  • While they point out the school district's ranking, they ignore the fact that 12 of the top 20 Florida school districts (60%) - all "A" school districts - have school superintendents who were elected by the citizens (FDOE data).  Again, this data doesn't tell us whether electing or appointing a superintendent is the best way to go, but it does show how skewed the data is behind the effort to convince citizens to give up their right to vote.
  • Here's another Florida Department of Education data point that proponents of the appointed superintendent format don't acknowledge: 40% of Florida's "A" school districts have appointed superintendents.  However, that percentage was much higher just 8 years ago.  In 2010, 55% of Florida's "A" schools had appointed superintendents, but by 2015, that percentage fell to 48%, then it fell again to 40% in 2018.  Therefore, over that same period, the percentage of "A" Florida school districts in which the citizens elect their superintendent rose from 45% in 2010 to 52% in 2015, then again to 60% in 2018.
  • Then, when we look at average Florida school district grades on a 5-point grade scale ("A" = 5; "F" = 1), we see that the average school district grade in 2018 for school districts that have ELECTED superintendents is 4.0.  The average school district grade for school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents is 4.1.  One-tenth of a point separates the two approaches to selecting a superintendent!
  • We know where the Escambia County School District ranks in terms of state standardized test score performance, but what we aren't being told in these ads is that most Florida school districts have improved in their state standardized test performance since the 2015-16 school year by an average of 8.6%.  Escambia County has improved its score over that period by 10%.  That is a larger improvement than 20 of the 26 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents have made.  Only 4 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents made a more substantial improvement during that period.
  • What about the Escambia County graduation rate?  Since the 2012-13 school year, the graduation rate in the Escambia County School District has risen from 64.2% to 79.5%.  There is every indication that the most recent graduation rate for Escambia County is over 80%; watch for it.  That's extraordinary.
  • The group also knows that while they say that moving to an appointed superintendent format allows us to cast a wider net for candidates, 17 of the 26 appointed Florida superintendents - almost two-thirds of them - were hired from within their school district staffs, not from somewhere else.  Why?  Florida school districts are among the largest and most complex in the country, and they like to have a superintendent who knows Florida and local education-related issues and nuances.  This isn't Wisconsin where the average ratio of school districts to counties is 6:1; the ratio in Florida is 1:1.
  • And here is one more data point that throws off every myth about how the people feel about the state of education leadership in Escambia County.  The Pensacola Young Professionals' 2018 Quality of Life Community Report includes the results of a survey of 800 registered Pensacola voters.  The survey results show that the Escambia County governmental figure or entity that has the highest favorable rating (Excellent to Good rating) is the Escambia County School District Superintendent (55%). The second highest favorable rating was awarded to the Escambia County School Board (49%).  Again, the polling included only Pensacola residents so we suspect the favorable numbers would be even higher outside of the city limits.  What body is near the bottom of the list?  The Escambia County Commission.  It has a 39% Excellent to Good rating. (They might be able to boost their rating by funding sidewalks and lighting in the neighborhoods where our students live!)

People must be wondering why the activists who are supporting the change in the way we select our superintendent say that they LOVE the way the superintendent and the school board have done their jobs, but then they rattle off a litany of one-sided data points in order to tell citizens that they and the district aren't getting the job done.  The answer is simple.  They want a specific outcome and they want us to believe that the data that they cite is proof of the need for change, but they don't want to alienate the superintendent, the school board, or the citizens of Escambia County who know the kind of job they have done.  They have said repeatedly and in a number of different ways that citizens should not elect the superintendent because we're not engaged enough to make that choice.  Maybe they really believe that, and maybe they also believe that we're not engaged enough to know the other side of the story.

For a group that says it's a grassroots organization that wants to take the politics out of our schools, their strategy is a very political one, pushed out in a very expensive advertising campaign, and funded and backed by a very powerful bundle of interest groups. (But they just LOVE the job the current school district superintendent and school board have done!)