Last week, I took my car into the dealership for a minor repair and started working from the waiting room. A young salesman came in, presumably on his break, and started chatting me up. He couldn’t have been older than 25. 

When I told him I worked in education policy he said, “Oh, yeah! Florida has some of the worst schools in the country, right?” 

For those following along at home, the answer is a resounding no! And the news out this week is more evidence of that. 

Every year, Education Week puts out a study highlighting the state of public schools in America. They rank states on a number of categories like closing the academic achievement gap between low-income students and more financially secure peers, or how much students are improving in reading and math and an overall K-12 Achievement category.

If you haven’t seen the news yet, Florida ranks 4th in the nation for K-12 Academic Achievement overall, for the second year in a row. And two years ago we ranked 11th. The only states outperforming ours are Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia. 

Our beloved state may get picked on for a lot of things, but when it comes to education, we don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. Well except for the Boca Raton principal who denied the Holocaust as a matter of school policy. 

It’s true that Florida has struggled in the past. 20 years ago we were scraping the bottom of the ranking barrels. And we can argue about causality, but the truth is there’s been a fairly well-sustained effort to improve our schools since Jeb Bush took up residence in the Governor’s mansion in 1999. 

Since then charter schools have blossomed, giving students in struggling schools a way out. The A-F letter grade system for grading schools and districts has become a national model, and is still used today to give parents easy-to-understand information about how schools are performing and hold schools accountable. 

Just this spring, we learned that the number of schools earning an “A” or “B” grade increased to 63 percent and the number of “F” rated schools dropped down to 15 percent.

We have one of the most robust school choice programs in the country which allow students with disabilities, or from low-income backgrounds to go to private schools if their public school options aren’t serving them well. We also developed high standards (based on the Common Core, true) that set high expectations for our kids. 

After two decades of all that, we’re starting to see fruit. Not only are we ranked 4th in academic achievement, but we’re also helping our most vulnerable students progress. Check out these highlights from the 2019 Quality Counts report:

  • Florida’s overall rank for the K-12 Achievement category remained 4th in the nation.
  • Florida’s achievement gap for low-income 4th grade reading and 8th grade math students is tied for 10th lowest in the nation.
  • Florida is one of only eight states to reduce the achievement gap for both low-income 4th and 8th graders since 2003.
  • Florida is ranked #6 for reducing the achievement gap for low-income students in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics.
  • Florida’s 4th grade students are #2 in the nation for achievement gains in both reading and mathematics.
  • Florida’s 8th grade students are #3 in the nation for achievement gains in reading.

In a press release from the Florida Department of Education, Ron DeSantis said, “Maintaining a top national ranking for student achievement for the second year in a row is a testament to our educators and students. The investments and policy changes we made this year in education will only continue to ensure our students’ success, regardless of income or zip code.”

To be sure, we can do better. Rankings like Quality Counts simply compare us to others, but when you compare us to the standard of having students doing grade-level work, the situation isn’t as rosy. Most of our 4th graders can’t read on grade level, and less than a third of 8th graders are proficient in 8th grade math, according to the most recent scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also known as, the Nation’s Report Card.

Still it’s important to acknowledge progress.  

After all, Florida really is a great place to live. Sure we may have a man who was “Accused of Burning [his] Son to Teach Him Lesson About Fire,” or a couple “Run Over By Patrol Car While Lying in Road to Watch [the] Eclipse” or a man who “Learn[ed] Hard Way He Stole Laxatives, Not Opioids,” but our schools aren’t too shabby! 

(By the way, would it be too gross if I suggested that last guy learned the soft way? I digress.)