Of Kate Wallace, Paula Dockery, Lakeland Leads, and the value of collaborative and constructive self-criticism

From 2009-2015, the state of Florida had the worst individual test score growth of any state in America, according to an exhaustive study by Stanford University.

If you were a child in Florida’s system during that time, your growth in performance on the state tests over the course of your education was the worst in the country. The image above shows it at the county level. Purple is bad. “Florida is an almost insane basket case,” noted one magazine writer.

As you can see, no Florida county — not one — averaged a full-year of growth per child in that period of time. None. I have written quite a bit about this study, which the Florida state DoE and government has completely ignored, even to try to disprove it. Here’s a link that runs it down in great detail.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the Florida’s test score growth for individual children was any better before 2009 or after 2015. Those periods just haven’t been studied. If you care about test score growth, as the people in power in Florida purport to, it’s impossible to see this state as anything but a catastrophic failure unless you can refute that study. It’s what the data says. Clearly.

Kate Wallace and the Foundation

For part of that 2009-2015 period, a woman named Kate Wallace worked for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and its sister organization the Florida’s for Florida’s Future. She served as State Advocacy Director and Community Engagement Director from April 2012 to January 2017. That made her very powerful in public education in Florida.

Anyone who follows Florida education at all knows that Jeb’s foundations are the real power in Florida education. They dictate to legislators; and legislators obey. Tallahassee then dictates mandates to local districts, generally without funding. It all rolls downhill from the “Foundation,” as these organizations are often known. The Foundation is the real state government when it comes to education. And has been for a generation.

Kate Wallace now lives in Lakeland. She has been commissioned by a group called Lakeland Leads, which is Lakeland Economic Development Council-adjacent, but not really LEDC, as I understand it, to research and produce a report on the state of public education in Polk County. I’ve reached out to the folks I understand to be behind Lakeland Leads to share quite a bit of information for their research; but I haven’t been able to connect in person. So I’m just going to focus on Kate today.

Very different points-of-view

Kate and I have talked quite a bit. She’s knowledgeable and assertive. We’ve had good and thorough discussions that have tended to morph into civil and clarifying debates.

It will not surprise you that Kate and I disagree on the merits of the Florida Model of public education. To paraphrase: she thinks it’s fantastic; and I think it’s an ongoing human and academic disaster.

Kate believes strongly in VAM and vouchers without state oversight and the full “accountability” suite of school grades and high stakes tests that really define Florida. She believes they have made Florida education great; and that whatever problems Polk County may have had over the years and today are entirely of Polk County’s making — and mostly the fault of the people working in its schools and local School Board members. She’s a close ally of Kelli Stargel in education policy. I think that’s all a fair and accurate paraphrase based on our extensive discussions; but if Kate disagrees with it, she will have full opportunity to correct it in this space.

Here’s a good, real-life example of our conflicting points-of-view from the recent state Board of Education meeting in Lakeland, where we spoke back-to-back.

But I’m not really interested in debate here.

I can admire the strength of Kate Wallace’s convictions, while believing them to be disastrously wrong. And I want to talk about the productive value of principled public disagreement and of constructive self-criticism. It’s OK to openly disagree; and it’s OK to be wrong about some things. We can still collaborate.

And if we’re going to make much real progress changing the direction of Polk and Florida education for the better, we have to win over some Kate Wallaces — or at least find areas of common ground. I think the report she’s working on could be very helpful, especially if she and whomever she’s working with embrace the spirit of constructive self-criticism.

Let’s look at self-criticism.

Former Republican state Senator Paula Dockery recently wrote a remarkable column about how abusive the Florida Model is to kids and teachers. It contained this brave and important passage:

As a state legislator for 16 years, I bought into the Republican mantra of shaking up public education and demanding accountability. I went along with many of the early reform efforts. For that, I apologize. I came to understand the detrimental effect it was having on our schools, our teachers and, most importantly, our students.

I find the ability to say, “I was wrong,” an extremely rare and valuable quality in people of power or public presence. And Paula Dockery, who is a friend, has been a supporter of teachers and public education for years and years. Her mea culpa relates to policies approved a generation ago, based on a largely bipartisan support structure. The FCAT started under Lawton Chiles; and then Jeb weaponized it, without most people realizing it. Paula long ago figured that out and worked to mitigate the damage harder than almost anyone in the Legislature. But she still, years and years later, still has the decency and honor to discuss an honest mistake that almost everyone else made — and then hid from.

And for me, running for and serving on the Polk School Board is sort of a paid act of contrition. Like many, many people in Polk County’s “leadership” class, my family largely opted out of our community schools for a long time. Especially with our last child, we were fleeing the test-and-punish model as best we could. But we largely stopped paying attention to what was happening to our traditional community schools under the LeRoy/Stargel regime. And bad things happen when nobody with social capital watches or cares. I apologize for my inattention. And I’ve been working pretty hard to make up for it.

I’ve also focused a pretty relentless lens of self-criticism internally on the Polk District itself.

Again, I doubt any public official in the history of Florida has ever done anything quite like this analysis for the organization that he or she helps oversee. Self-criticism is hard. And I’ve taken more direct heat and criticism, as an elected official, for this internal focus than I have for trying to hold Kelli Stargel and DoE accountable.

New, constructive attention on public education in Lakeland

About the time I was leading the revolt against LeRoy in early 2016, Lakeland Economic Development Council President Steve Scruggs floated the notion of Lakeland schools “going charter,” like some of Lake Wales did in 2003.

That’s an impractical idea for many reasons. And I’ll illustrate in a subsequent article why no community should want to emulate what has happened in Lake Wales. There is an ongoing charter/district blood feud out there that harms kids on all sides every day. I haven’t been able to heal it yet. But I’m trying.

However, back in Lakeland, Steve’s voice provided a very useful kick.

I think it helped spur, along with my campaign, a renewed attention to how public education actually works in Lakeland and Polk County. Today we have a new Lakeland City Commission that’s incredibly knowledgeable and collaborative about public education. This is particularly true of the new commissioners Stephanie Madden and Sarah Roberts McCarley and Mayor Bill Mutz (all three of whom are parents of children in district-run public schools).

LEDC’s Lakeland First PAC supported all three pretty heavily in recent elections. And they’ve been truly a pleasure to work with. I’ve attended a number of Lakeland City Commission meetings to update commissioners on issues and take questions. And I’m a member of the Lakeland NAACP, which has great interest in education.  A number of its members and leadership attended the same conference on Florida education that I did a few months back.

Lakeland Chamber of Commerce President Cory Skeates and Lakeland Vision Executive Director Laura Rodriguez are also strong public education allies. And what’s emerging is a Lakeland-based force for providing constructive support and honest feedback about education and equity in Lakeland, within the wider context of a county-based system. It’s not really organized yet; and it needs to be representative of everybody. But momentum has begun. I’m very excited about the possibilities and pleased that everybody seems to have a pretty common direction.

All these forces are thinking hard about how to strengthen and humanize what is already a pretty good “data” story for Lakeland schools on the state’s scoreboard. Lakeland has nine of the top 1o highest scoring zoned schools in Polk County, along with Polk’s highest scoring high schools and its highest scoring choice elementary school. Here’s a full rundown of that, if that scoreboard is what excites you.

Some constructive questions Lakeland Leads could ask

I’m not sure how Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads fits into this; but if they approach their upcoming report with a spirit of constructive self-criticism and introspection, it could be enormously helpful in charting a new path forward that serves all of us.

In fact, I think one of the great ironies of Florida education is that employers are now crying out for so-called “soft skills.” These are precisely the skills that Florida’s FSA based model considers useless because they can’t be quantified. The Florida Model, under direction from Jeb’s Foundation, have largely stamped out those skills as any kind of school-based priority. It’s not surprising that employers find them lacking.

Thus, I think many elements of Florida’s political business class, which tends to focus on easy scoreboard measurements, suffer from powerful cognitive dissonance. Political business people in Florida are quite powerful. They tend to get what they want. In the case of education, the Florida test-punish-“competition”-based governance system they’ve made possible with political support has failed them. I’d love for Lakeland Leads to explore that in an ongoing way — and with some constructive self-criticism.

With that in mind, here are a few questions I’d love to see Lakeland Leads consider, either in its report or in future work.


  • Should compulsory education exist? Why or why not?
  • And what are the implications of a choice and competition model in a world where all kids must, by law, attend some school program — and someone has to be the provider of last resort to make that possible?
  • If you believe in compulsory education, how do you provide meaningful, developmental educational experiences at scale?
  • Should we prioritize choice or integration? Can we do both?
  • How can we strengthen the behavioral climate in schools, which is not really considered in their evaluations.
  • What should be done to ensure that ESE children have the resources they need to reach their full potential as citizens?
  • Has there been any research into the quality or oversight of the provider network for Lakeland-based voucher schools?
  • How can we reverse the teacher shortage? How do you recruit teachers to teach in a model built to punish them?
  • Why should we accept the FSA’s definition of “proficiency”? Based on what evidence does the state think it has an accurate measure?
  • For instance, why is the “proficiency” rate for Civics much high higher than the “proficiency” rate for Reading? Can you pass a Civics test if you’re not “proficient” in Reading?
  • Should we prioritize the growth of individual children? Or the aggregation of data for state and local scoreboard branding purposes?
  • What responsibility does the Florida state government have for producing America’s worst individual state-based child test score growth?
  • What role did “Foundation” policies play in this failure on its own obsession with “data”?
  • Does doubling down on state policies that created the worst individual growth on test scores in the country make sense?
  • What role do state funding cuts play in the behavioral environment of schools? ($86 million not available to Polk this year alone, compared to 2001.) What should be done about that?
  • A recent study shows that Florida’s aggressive third grade retention law makes kids less proficient in reading over time. Based on this data, shouldn’t we stop this policy that also damages children as human beings — for no academic benefit?

At the recent Polk Vision annual meeting, which I don’t think Kate Wallace attended, the audience heard that hundreds of Polk business leaders have told Polk Vision that so-called “soft skills” are what Polk employers most desperately need. These “soft” skills are otherwise known as social dexterity, liberal arts reasoning, emotional intelligence, and effective teaming. This same need has been repeatedly discussed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and in every workforce-related meeting I’ve attended, which is a lot.

  • How does that employer need for “soft skills” square with an educational governance model built entirely on rote test score data, which has been shown to be easily manipulatable?
  • How does the FSA develop “soft” skills?
  • Is there any such thing as a “soft skill”? Or are there just skills?

Since the early 1990s, Polk County has always been a leader in “choice” and “competition” between schools and types of schools. From conversion charters to magnet schools to academies, it’s doubtful that any county in Florida has more loyally followed Tallahassee’s choice and competition directives for more than 20 years.

  • If anyone is unhappy with the results, should they question the underlying premises that have shaped their political thinking for a generation?

We recently had a fantastic School Board Roundtable meeting in which college professors and many Polk science and math teachers shared ideas and observations about the equity and authenticity of “STEM” education in Polk. Lakeland City City Commissioner Stephanie Madden and Chamber President Cory Skeates attended and participated eagerly. I invited Kate Wallace; but, unfortunately, she couldn’t attend. I think everybody with Lakeland Leads would do well to invest time in this video of the Roundtable. You will learn a ton about Polk district operations and challenges. This Roundtable was full of constructive self-criticism from hugely engaged educators. That ought to help inform the Lakeland Leads report.

  • In light of this Roundtable, how can Lakeland Leads help push the district in a direction of more meaningful science and math education that better prepares a wider group of kids for college majors like engineering?
  • For instance, Tenoroc High School has done away with virtually all of its high level math and science classes. Does Lakeland Leads consider that an equity problem in the way several School Board members do?
  • How can Lakeland Leads help us encourage senior district leadership to build a meaningful science and math program at Tenoroc, which many kids from undercapitalized Lakland-area communities attend?

We’re at a crossroads for public education. It feels to me like a period of generational change. I’m certainly trying to bring that about. And I’m eager to collaborate with anyone to achieve it.

I hope that Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads — even if we don’t agree on everything — are thinking as hard about the future as many of us in the Lakeland community are. I welcome their ideas; and I look forward to a robust engagement over a long period of time.