May 25, 2024

Sue Kingery Woltanski: Florida: We’re Number 1! But We Are Also Number 50… What Gives?

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Florida has proudly announced some of its rankings, and not others. Sue Kingery Woltanski explains why. Reposted with permission.

SPOILER ALERT: It’s Accountabaloney.

On May 8, 2024, Florida’s Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz, Jr., held a press conference announcing Florida’s back-to-back number one rankings by both U.S. News and World Reports and The Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power! Index. You can watch his presser here.

Diaz said the rankings were “a culmination of the policies of the leadership of Governor DeSantis,” claiming “We’ve gotten back to the business under Governor DeSantis of keeping to our core of education and not indoctrination, of making sure we’re paying attention to reading, to math, and getting our students in the classroom to get a quality, world-class education here in Florida.”

Along with this year’s rankings, U.S. News and World Reports (USNWR) published “Yes, Florida Is No. 1 in the Country for Education. Here’s Why” which noted that controversial education policies promoted by Gov. DeSantis (notably book removals, anti-LGBTQ policies like “Don’t Say Gay’ and interfering in local school board elections) have “fueled a firestorm of debate and criticism around education in Florida.” They suggested that those moves could have lasting effects that are not reflected in current metrics:

“The effects may or may not show up in our traditional metrics but I do think there are consequences to what he is doing,” says Jon Valant, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. “Florida is for many students as harsh an environment as we have anywhere.”

Diaz’s responded to those concerns saying “And so while even in the writing of it (the USNWR report), they may have taken some shots at Florida policies, if you look at the metrics, the proof is in the pudding…”

Let’s look at those reports and the metrics they focus on.

U.S. News and World Reports

U.S. News and World Reports (USNWR) ranked Florida number one for Education – primarily based on the number one ranking of Florida for Higher Ed.

USNWR’s Higher Ed rankings have essentially nothing to do with academic excellence or reputation, but focus heavily on the ability to achieve a low cost college education in a reasonable amount of time. Florida ranked #1 because in-state tuition is low (rank #1) and students graduate within 3 years for 2 year AA degrees (rank #2) and 6 years for a 4 year Bachelor’s degree (rank #2). Florida’s higher ed rank for Educational Attainment (rank #25, number of people 25 and older in a state who have an associate degree or higher) and “Low Debt at Graduation” (rank #26, The average amount of federal student loan debt held by those 24 years and younger) were fairly average.

While DeSantis has kept tuition steady during his tenure resulting in relatively low tuition and fees, much of the credit for the current Higher Ed rankings should be shared with former Senate President Joe Negron, who focused on Higher Ed during his senate presidency (2016-2018, prior to DeSantis’ election). Negron championed the policies that held Florida universities to higher performance standards, including incentivizing undergraduates that finish in four years and providing more financial support for students. To those of us watching at the time, it was clear Negron’s initiatives were focused on USNWR metrics and designed specifically to boost USNWR rankings. Negron’s plan worked. Every year since his Senate presidency, USNWR has ranked Florida number one for Higher Ed.

This year, USNWR ranked Florida 10th for PreK-12. Florida scored highest for preschool participation (Florida has had free, voluntary preK since 2005) and high school seniors scoring “college ready” on college entrance exams (more on that in a moment). Florida’s graduation rates, math and reading scores were fairly average. Here are the details:

  • #5 College ReadinessThe approximate percentage of 12th-graders who scored in the 75th percentile on the SAT, the ACT or both, defined as 1200 or more on the SAT and 25 or more on the ACT. (College Board, ACT, U.S. Census Bureau; 2022)
  • #19 High School Graduation RateThe four-year adjusted cohort high school graduation rate for public schools. (National Center for Education Statistics; 2021-2022)
  • #32 NAEP Math ScoresThe average composite-scale score on mathematics achievement tests taken by eighth-grade students. (U.S. Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress; 2022)
  • #21 NAEP Reading ScoresThe average composite-scale score on reading achievement tests taken by eighth-grade students. (U.S. Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress; 2022)
  • #12 Preschool EnrollmentThe percentage of children ages 3 to 4 enrolled in a nursery or preschool program. (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 1-year estimates; 2022)

It is important to note that USNWR ranks states based on eighth-grade scores. While Florida has long celebrated its 4th grade NAEP Reading scores (which are likely artificially elevated by mandatory 3rd grade retention laws), performance declines dramatically by 8th grade, especially in Math (read more about that here). When Commissioner Diaz was asked whether his department was concerned, he once again ignored Florida’s declining 8th grade performance, instead highlighting details from 4th grade scores and crediting DeSantis’ COVID policies:

“We always want to improve. But if you look at the NAEP report that came out and the results that Florida had across all categories, closing the achievement gap, our Hispanic students or African-American students, where we are in proficiency compared to other states, I think it speaks volumes of the work that’s being done in Florida and the fact that Governor DeSantis stood up and kept our schools open for students to continue to learn.”

SAT and ACT Scores and “College Readiness”

USNWR’s #5 ranking for Florida’s “College Readiness” is “interesting” because in World Population Review‘s (WPR) ranking of average SAT scores by state in 2022, Florida ranked 45th out of 51, just behind Washington D.C.. Florida’s average score in 2022 was reported to be 983, well below the “College Readiness” threshold of 1200. WPR did note that variations in participation rates can affect state rankings (Florida, which has embraced the School Day SAT, has a very high – approximately 90%- participation rate).

ACT scores in Florida are not much better. In Florida, the average composite ACT score in 2022 was 19.0 out of a possible 36 (significantly below the “College Readiness” threshold of 25), the ranking 37th among states. Of the four test components that go into the overall ACT composite score, Florida tied Wyoming for 35th in Reading, English scores ranked 34th, Science scores tied were with North Carolina for 40th and Florida’s average math scores ranked 43rd in the country.

It is difficult to understand how such dismal SAT and ACT scores resulted in a #5 ranking in College Readiness. The rest of USNWR’s Pre-K-12 rankings are fairly mediocre.

Parent Power! Index

Commissioner Diaz also celebrated Florida’s back-to-back #1 ranking by The Center For Education Reform’s Parent Power! Index. The Center For Education Reform (CER) proclaims its Parent Power! Index to be “the most authoritative guide and up-to-date assessment of learning opportunities and how to utilize them beyond those currently available in traditional public education.” Their Index has three categories contributing to an overall score: Opportunity, Innovation and Policy Environment. Here’s how they ranked Florida:

Opportunity: “States can ensure that they are providing maximum opportunities for kids, teachers and families by ensuring that money is available to fund students wherever they are, regardless of the kind of school they attend.” This is the privatizers’ old “money should follow the child” category. Florida ranked #1 for both Charter Schools and Private School Voucher policies. “Teacher Quality” was a part of the ranking in the past, specifically “use of student data in evaluating teacher prep,” but was dropped this year.

Innovation: “States are measured on their increasing commitment to and practice of innovative approaches to education that include digital learning models and pathways, full or in part, encouraging personalized learning through focus on competency and mastery.” Florida was ranked #1 because it “provides resources for technology integration in schools…”

Policy Environment: In this section, Florida scored both its highest and lowest marks.

  • Leadership: Florida scores 100% because CER loves Governor DeSantis. “Governor DeSantis’ leadership has resulted in major expansions of programs that accelerate and expand parent power in The Sunshine State. While he’s taken heat for other efforts, most parents are thrilled by the millions of new opportunities his efforts have” created… I wonder where that “most parents” data comes from…
  • Constitutional Issues: Florida scored the lowest here (25%) due to its Blaine Amendment which was used twice to strike down early voucher programs.
  • Transparency: Per CER, “Every parent needs and deserves full transparency of school-level data to allow them to make informed decisions” and Florida scores a 100% here (which is funny because Florida’s voucher schools have essential no transparency when it comes to their student data).

The Center for Education Reform is funded by and/or associated with a veritable “Who’s Who” of public education privatizers, including American Federation for Children (DeVos funded), Charles Koch Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Walton Family Foundation, Heritage Foundation, etc. Jonathan Hage, founder of Charter Schools USA, one of Florida’s largest or-profit education management organizations, serves on CER’s Board of Directors. The Parent Power! Index rewards states for moving towards the dismantling of public schools and, sadly, in that regard Florida IS #1.

Other Recent Rankings

Where Florida ranks on any given comparison clearly depends on the metrics chosen for the ranking. Other organizations rank state education systms on different factors and come to different conclusions.

Network for Public Education: F, Last place

Network for Public Education (NPE), a pro-public education organization that is definitely not funded by the Kochs or Betsy DeVos, annually ranks states based on their “commitment to democratically governed schools.” Florida was in last place in its 2024 report entitled “Public Schooling in America.” NPE’s categories were very different from CER’s:

  • Privatization Laws: the guardrails and limits on charter and voucher programs to ensure that taxpayers and students are protected from discrimination, corruption, and fraud.
  • Homeschooling Laws: laws to ensure that instruction is provided safely and responsibly.
  • Financial Support for Public Schools: sufficient and equitable funding of public schools.
  • Freedom to Teach and Learn: whether state laws allow all students to feel safe and thrive at school and receive honest instruction free of political intrusion.

In NPE’s report, Florida earned an “F” and was called out for its “terrible policies across the board” saying:

In every category, it was at the bottom or near the bottom, achieving only 17 percent of possible points. Years of hostile policies have taken their toll, with only about 72 percent of K-12 students attending public school. Arizona is only marginally better.”

Wallet Hub: 9th

2024 data from WalletHub ranked each state’s public schools for “Quality” and “Safety,” using 33 relevant metrics, including high school graduation rate among low-income students, math and reading scores, median SAT and ACT scores, pupil-teacher ratio, the number of school shootings between 2000 and June 2020, bullying incidence rate, and more. Florida ranked 9th overall, 10th in Quality and 10th in Safety.

Scholaroo : 42nd

In 2023, Scholaroo ranked the best and worst public school systems in the nation based on three factors – Student Success, Student Safety, and School Quality. Florida ranked #42 – 43rd in School Quality, 27th in School Safety and 42nd in Student Success. Details are here.

Quality Counts: C+, 31st and 43rd

On the last (2021) Quality Counts report, from EdWeek Research Center, Florida earned a C+ with 78% of the points, ranking 31st amongst the states for “Chance for Success” and 43rd in the nation for School Finance.

  • Chance for Success: Florida earned a C+, earning a B- for Early Foundations and School Years and a C- for Adult Outcomes. Compared to other states, these outcomes are very mediocre.
  • School Finance: Florida earned a D+, scoring very low for Spending (F) and high for Equity (A). In Florida, the problem is the size of the pie more than it is how the pie is divided.

Teacher Pay

At the end of the 5/8/24 press conference (at 10:00), a journalist noted that Florida’s teacher pay ranks among the lowest in the nation and asked “Is there any more appetite to address that or boost on this?” Diaz responded:

Well, number one, let’s look at that study that was created by the NEA, it’s self-serving. They’re coming up with numbers to bolster their membership in other states and try to dump on Florida. You’ve seen $4 billion invested in teacher pay directly by this governor since the beginning of his first term. Our initial teacher pay has gone from $40,000 to $48,000. My question to this teachers union is, what are you doing to find efficiencies in working with districts? Because those salaries, at the end of the day, are collectively barged at the local level. What are they doing with all this money that we keep sending down from the state that’s supposed to improve teacher salaries?

OK, let’s look at that report…

Educator Pay Data 2024 : 50 out of 51

Commissioner Diaz seemed irritated by the recent teacher pay report, claiming the NEA was trying to “dump on Florida.” The National Education Association’s (NEA) 2024 Annual Report on Educator Pay was released earlier in the week and showed that, despite Governor DeSantis’ efforts to improve starting teacher salary over the last 5 years, Florida’s average teacher pay ($53,098) has dropped to 50th in the nation (ahead of only West Virginia). While the national average public school teacher salary in 2022-23 increased 4.1% from the previous year, Florida average teacher pay only increased 3.0% (32nd in the nation).

After eliminating the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonuses in 2020, DeSantis has focused on increasing starting teacher salary through a Teacher Salary Increase Allocation in the state funding formula. Florida’s Starting Teacher Salary ($47,178) now ranks 16th in the nation but, unfortunately, the increase barely keeps up with inflation.

In 2018-19, before DeSantis took office, Florida’s Average Starting Teacher Salary was just $37,932Sadly, despite DeSantis’ celebrated investments, when corrected for inflation that 2018-19 starting salary would be $47,180.59 in today’s dollars, just 2 dollars more than the 16th ranked starting salary.

Before DeSantis took office, Florida’s AVERAGE teacher salary was $48,858.26, ranked 47th. Inflation adjustedthat 2018-19 average teacher salary would be $59,527.08 today, almost $6,500 MORE than Florida’s current 50th ranked salary!

It is not surprising that Florida’s teacher pay has not kept up with inflation. Florida’s education funding has not kept up with inflation in more than a decade and was never made whole after cuts made during the Great Recession.

School Finance Indicators Database: 48th (last)

The School Finance Indicators Database (SFID) is “a collection of sophisticated school finance measures that can be used to assess the adequacy and fairness of state and district revenue, spending, and resource allocation.” The SFID is a collaborative effort by Albert Shanker Institute, University of Miami School of Education and Human Development and Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Their most recent annual report “The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems” noted that Florida was one of 39 states that currently devote a smaller share of their economies to their K-12 schools than they did before the 2007-09 recession. Florida was one of a handful of states with enormous proportional “losses” between 2016-2021 (Florida’s was calculated at -24.9 percent), meaning had Florida recovered to their own 2006 effort levels by 2016, our total state and local school funding between 2016 and 2021 would have been 24.9 percent higher! This is the cost of making Florida’s schools “whole” from Governor Scott’s dramatic education cuts during the Great Recession.

In the SFID report, Florida ranked 48th (last, Hawaii and Vermont were not included due to missing data). Florida ranked low for both Fiscal Effort and Statewide Adequacy but did score high for Equal Opportunity (again, the problem is the size of the pie more than how it is divided). Florida is one of three (along with Nevada and North Carolina) considered to be “comparatively low fiscal effort states,” suggesting Florida has the capacity to increase funding to public schools substantially but is not doing so. The report suggests that Florida’s inadequate spending “represents, at least in part, a deliberate choice on the part of policymakers to tolerate poor outcomes despite having the capacity to improve them.”

You can read the entire report here and Florida’s state profile here.


In summary, Florida celebrates the metrics of USNWR while advancing its privatization agenda, earning back-to-back accolades for which they credit DeSantis’ policy agenda. Meanwhile, the legislature continues to ignore their “paramount duty” to make adequate provision for the education of our children and focuses on the expansion of private options outside of traditional public education. Our NAEP, SAT and ACT scores are average at best. It does make one suspicious that Florida’s persistently inadequate spending does “represent, at least in part, a deliberate choice by its policymakers…”

Postscript: Florida’s 2024-25 Education Budget was passed by the Legislature on March 8th but has yet to be presented to the Governor. I want my most loyal reader (you know who you are!) to know that I STILL intend to do a deep dive on the FEFP/Ed Budget when it is finally presented to and signed by the Governor, so please remain patient, if that is possible.

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