Duval County School Board Chairman W. C. Gentry applied June 6 to be Commissioner for the Florida Department of Education. Gentry made headlines earlier this year when he characterized the immediate past commissioner, Eric Smith, as “unreliable” and “untrustworthy.” He used those words when Smith—and ultimately the state board of education–rejected the Duval Board’s original plan for its four failing schools. An attorney who helped take down Big Tobacco, delivering billions of dollars to Florida’s healthcare coffers, Gentry is likely less well-known outside of Jacksonville for his extensive research and policy work in education. That should change, however, once his application for Commissioner hits the airwaves.
Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson may be emerging as the front-runner among the list of applicants, which grew from 19 names to 26 when the application deadline was extended from May 25 to June 6. Reports say that Florida courted Robinson for the position, and that he advocates more charter schools and an emphasis on merit pay for teachers, two reform planks that advanced via legislative action in Florida this year.
Gentry’s application letter, by contrast, does not mention charter schools even once within its 21 pages. Instead, it takes the Florida Department of Education to task for its “prescriptive policies” that favor “predetermined rote methodology” for teachers, fail to provide tools and adequate supports for teachers, and then blame them for undesirable outcomes. In his 14-page application letter, which he submitted along with a 7-page addendum of his observations on K-12 education, Gentry criticizes the agency on several other fronts, as well. He notes that for the past several years, the Florida Department of Education “has shown a steadfast resistance to critical assessment of its policies and procedures. Even when petitioned by all of the Superintendents of the state to revisit clearly flawed policies and procedures, the D.O.E. has resisted or ignored the guidance of those who best understand the impact and must live and operate under flawed mandates.”
From his perspective as local board chairman, Gentry asserts that there has been a “breakdown of trust and collaboration” between local districts and the state DOE. He laments, as an example, the “hundreds and hundreds of millions [of dollars] statewide” spent by districts on unfunded mandates—everything from textbook purchases to class size penalties to reporting requirements—that handcuff up to 15% of a district’s budget. He concludes that “The one-size fits all, prescriptive, punitive and inflexible approach presently existing is not conducive to the sort of healthy, collaborative, and locally directed education system that is consistent with our constitution and necessary to assure a quality education.”
“It would seem axiomatic,” he writes, “that in order to assure the delivery of a high quality education system, [as called for in Article IX, Section 1 of Florida’s constitution,] that one would first define the key elements of such a system. That function is not realized through high stakes testing.” Gentry goes on to outline his concerns about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, including what he deems as an unfair “curving” of the state’s new “FCAT 2.0” to last year’s test, which, he says, will make it harder for struggling schools to improve unless successful schools’ performance scores also decline. He questions the validity of a test which appears to be all over the map relative to norm-referenced tests, and charges that the state is now saddled with “artificial creations of failure.”
It is more likely than not that Gentry’s statements will be seen as blasphemy to the state education philosophy du jour. Currently, our high stakes testing scheme seems designed to ensure failure in order to peddle the false panacea of “choice and competition,” and its companion, public school defunding. A voice other than Gentry’s, one more consonant with prevailing ideology—no matter how ill-advised—will likely be selected for the Commissioner slot. But for voters who would like the state board of education and lawmakers to actually get about the business of effectively educating our children, Gentry’s application materials serve as an excellent primer on what needs fixing first in Florida. Let the dialogue begin—and let it carry us through next year, a legislative election year.