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Strive for excellence, not percentages

A few weeks ago, Florida’s Board of Education passed a six-year strategic plan that included race-based benchmarks for various subgroups of people. Almost immediately a fiery debate over this plan ensued.
Critics claimed that measures such as these suggest that racial subgroups placed at lower benchmarks than others are not as capable to succeed. For example, by school year 2017-18, the plan calls for Asian students to be at 90 percent reading proficiency on statewide assessments, up from the current 76 percent.
The proficiency benchmark margin for black students is substantially higher. Asian students are expected to increase proficiency by 14 percent over a six-year span. Black students are expected to increase by 36 percent, from 38 percent to 74 percent.
This has been a difficult issue for me to grapple with as I see both sides of the argument.
Proponents of the plan include Florida Board of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who said “(the plan does) not set lower standards for any subgroup.” She later added, “It sets higher expectations for those subgroups who are behind.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said, “By what calculation do you speed up learning by lowering expectations?” Bush later noted the “devastating message” the plan would be sending to blacks, Hispanics and low-income children.
While I commend the state of Florida for taking somewhat proactive steps to address the racial achievement gap that exists in Florida, as it does around the country, I am troubled by the reason they had to take such drastic measures.
Why is Florida just now addressing the fact that only 38 percent of its black students are at or above grade level in reading? Or the fact that only 55 percent of its Hispanic students are at or above grade level in math? A problem similar to the achievement gap does not simply appear overnight.
For example, Mississippi’s racial achievement gap is present due to the vestiges of Jim Crow and the inequality in school funding compounded with multi-generational poverty. I am not as informed about the history of Florida’s public schools, but I do not think that it is a stretch to assume that racism and poverty each play an immense role in creating the racial disparities that are evident in Florida.
I honestly do not believe that those responsible for this strategic plan created it with the intent to say that a certain race cannot achieve at the same level as others. However, they indeed failed to close any window that would lead to that assumption.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is “calling upon the board to rework the education plan so it clearly states that all students can perform well regardless of their race or background.”
Good job, Gov. Scott.
Honestly, I applaud Florida’s efforts of not repudiating the racial achievement gap. Personally, I would have added some sort of statement saying the board does not believe in the inferiority of any student. The lightning rod effect this story has had further demonstrates that race relations are still difficult to address.
A quality education is something that will last a lifetime and no one can ever take away what you have learned. That is why I believe it is very important to set benchmarks of excellence, not percentages, for all of our kids, regardless of race.

Tim Abram is a junior public policy major from Horn Lake. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Abram.