An Education Department decision that favored Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, weakened a key accountability goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on behalf of minorities, a former department official said.
The decision in May to reduce the number of Florida students counted to measure reading and mathematics achievement “pushed the system back to the way it used to be, when these children were basically invisible,” said Michael J. Petrilli, former associate assistant deputy education secretary.
Mr. Petrilli, who recently left the department’s office of innovation and improvement to push for school reforms as vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said low achievers and their families in Florida suburbs would be hurt by the administration’s easing of federal requirements.
Last year, 77 percent of Florida schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, although more than two-thirds of the state’s 3,526 schools were judged to be “excellent” under separate Florida standards.
Affluent suburban parents and homeowners who comprise the bulk of Florida’s Republican voter base were unhappy that the federal act’s primary mechanisms of “sunshine and shame” showed that most of their schools were in need of improvement, Mr. Petrilli said.
“Perhaps it was inevitable that the administration would have to bend to political reality,” he said.
The department changed the rules regarding the number of students in various subgroups who must pass yearly reading and math tests. The rule change applied only to Florida students.
The Florida Department of Education and Mr. Bush had requested that the U.S. Department of Education not hold schools accountable for achievement of subgroups — such as blacks, Hispanics, special-education students and those whose primary language is not English — that make up less than 15 percent of a school’s population or constitute fewer than 100 pupils.
“There is no public policy rationale for this. An opportunity has been squandered” to hold schools accountable for the academic progress of suburban low achievers, Mr. Petrilli said, adding that the decision primarily affects schools in largely white suburban and rural areas with fewer minorities than urban school systems.
The federal law would have required Florida schools to show 48 percent of its students were proficient in reading and 53 percent were proficient in math this year to attain adequate yearly progress.
But under the flexibility agreement approved by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Florida’s proficiency targets this year for its 2.5 million students were changed to 37 percent in reading and 44 percent in math.
“There were absolutely no special considerations given to Florida that wouldn’t have been granted to any other state,” said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. “The law gives states the option of making changes to their accountability plans, and in the entire three years of implementation, this was the first time that Florida had requested any changes.”
Mrs. Spellings joined Mr. Bush in Tallahassee on May 16 to announce her approval of Florida’s request to ease federal requirements.
She credited the governor’s A+ Plan for Education, which assigns each school an A through F grade based on overall student performance and improvement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Miss Aspey said Mrs. Spellings went to Florida to lead a community college round table six weeks after Florida filed its written request for the change April 1.
“It happened that a decision was made on the Florida amendment request as the final details were being set for the community college event, and so we just combined the two. We granted this particular request consistent with the law.”