Common Core – For Our Kids

Note: This column ran in the August 16, 2013 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

What do economic development, better jobs, and our kids’ future all have in common? Good schools.

In a few days schools will be back in session. But are those schools good enough? The education our kids get will determine how well they can compete in today’s global economy. It will also determine whether businesses will be able to find the skilled employees they need right here at home – without moving and leaving pockets of unemployment behind. Good schools mean better jobs.

Unfortunately, far from being the best in the word, a recent study showed that America’s students rank only 25th in math and 17th in science among OECD countries. Our kids represent the future of our country, and if their skills are not up to par, not only will they suffer, but our nation will suffer.

The “Common Core state standards” initiative is designed to bring our schools – all our schools – up to par. It sets minimum standards for what every school must teach. Although the Common Core is a nationwide effort, it is not a federal initiative. But political leaders in Washington, in Tallahassee, and locally must step up to the plate, support this concept, and provide the funding to assure our kids are not cheated out of the future they deserve.

In today’s highly charged political environment, the Common Core standards have already come under attack. For example, there are organized groups who for religious reasons oppose teaching children about science, the scientific method, and critical thinking. If they were to win the political argument about what should be taught in our schools, our children could be forever disadvantaged.

Other opponents include those who oppose any outside influence or standards for local schools. In fact some even think the Common Core is a United Nations plot! However, the patchwork approach they favor can only lead to greater inequality, as students in some schools and some states get a head start, while others undermine student opportunities by not teaching the skills needed today.

We live in a mobile society, and young people must be able to compete for jobs in other states. If Florida students fall behind those in other states, they may miss out on opportunities elsewhere.

We must hold our elected officials feet to the fire to support Common Core standards and provide adequate funding for schools, for teacher training, and for our children.

We cannot afford to allow Florida to fester with growing pockets of poverty and unskilled, unemployed youth. It is our job to see that our young people are taught the skills they need. That is the least our children deserve.

Arc Special Update: Restructuring Federal STEM Funding

Under President Obama’s FY2014 funding request, federal STEM funding could be substantially restructured and streamlined, part of a broader goal to create a “cohesive national STEM education strategy” at every level – K-12, undergraduate, graduate and informal education. The $3.1 billion total request for STEM education is 6.7 percent increase from the FY2012 funded level.

Currently falling under several science-focused agencies, the proposal consolidates STEM funding under three agencies: K-12 programs under the Department of Education ($814 million – a 53.9 percent increase from FY2012’s $529 million); undergraduate and graduate programs under the National Science Foundation ($1,243 million – a 7.7 percent increase from FY2012’s $1,154 million) and community outreach/informal education under the Smithsonian Institution ($25 million; this is the first year the Smithsonian Institution has had STEM education funding).

The proposal also eliminates or reorganizes more than half of current programs, bringing the total number of federal STEM programs to 112 from 226 and significantly reducing funding for STEM programs under several agencies, including NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, and Transportation.

Significant areas of investment include:

STEM-Focused K-12 Education

  • $150 million to create STEM Innovation Networks, a competitive grant program linking school districts with STEM resources  to bolster student engagement and support teacher professional development
  • $300 million for High School Redesign Grants supporting STEM partnerships between high schools and colleges and employers
  • $1.1 billion to better align high school curriculum with STEM workforce needs and postsecondary opportunities
  • $1 billion for Race to the Top grants
  • $215 million for the Investing in Innovation (i3) program designed to scale-up evidence-based STEM education resources. This funding will also support ARPA-ED, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED); this agency, modeled after similar programs in the Departments of Energy and Defense, was initially proposed in the President’s FY 2012 request and is aimed at developing educational technology and related resources

Teacher Training and Recruitment

  • $80 million to train 100,000 STEM teachers
  • $35 million for a pilot STEM Master Teacher Corps program
  • $149.7 million for the Effective Teaching and Learning STEM program, aimed at implementing strategies to promote high-quality STEM instruction

Undergraduate and Graduate STEM Education

  • $495.3 million for undergraduate programs, including $123.1 million for the new CAUSE (Catalyzing Advances in Undergraduate STEM Education) grant program to increase retention of undergraduate STEM students and improve undergraduate STEM teaching
  • $453.2 million for graduate and professional programs, a substantial 21 percent increase over the $373.6 million FY 2012 enacted level aimed at better preparing US engineers and scientists. The request includes $325 million for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship program

While all the requested expenditures may not make it through the budget process, the Administration’s budget does make clear the growing emphasis on STEM education and the focus at the federal level on both streamlining and increasing funding for STEM programs. If your company is looking for a guide in navigating the government funding landscape, don’t hesitate to contact me (rita [at] for more information.

Next Generation Science Standards Released

Turning somewhat away from politics, I wanted to share some thoughts on some recent education news. The final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released on Tuesday, April 9th and they call for some dramatic changes to the way science is taught in the United States.

Rita celebrated girls learning science by making shark hats for a fundraiser with Girls Inc.

The NGSS guidelines are rigorous:  they are intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, provide a set of internationally benchmarked standards for K-12 science education and stipulates what science and engineering concepts should be mastered for college and career readiness.  In many states, science education only begins in high school, missing the opportunity to ignite interest and build knowledge in science at earlier ages.

The new standards were built from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, published by the National Academies National Research Council in 2011.  Twenty-six states, industry partners and a 41-member writing team worked for two years on the guidelines.

While states are not required to adopt the standards, the 26 states involved in their development have committed to seriously consider adoption. This includes Arizona, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kansas and New York, as well as Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

The final version of the standards have contracted the content a bit, and educators at last week’s National Science Teacher Association annual conference in San Antonio expressed excitement that the guidelines will have them covering fewer subject but digging more deeply into the ones they do cover.

Like all major educational reform efforts, the Next Generation Science Standards, like the other Common Core standards projects in language arts and mathematics, are as much about politics as they are about policy. While there will be backlash against a national set of standards in science, from a science curriculum developer’s point of view, they could prove to be an invaluable tool in strengthening science education across the country.

For too long, science curriculum has been vulnerable to the whims of non-educator political groups and movements, as exemplified by efforts made on state levels to include religious theory alongside scientific theory in the creationism vs. evolution debate. National standards will put much of this to rest. Less dramatically, but still importantly, having a common set of standards will allow curriculum companies to spend their time investing in how science is taught as opposed to what is taught – strengthening pedagogical approaches and tools. This is particularly important for elementary science because so many elementary teachers are undereducated in science and lack confidence in teaching it.

It will be interesting to watch how these standards take their place in the American educational landscape. With any luck, they will help to move the US forward in its quest to become a STEM-fluent society.

“Raising the Bar: Reviewing STEM Education in America”

On April 10, I attended a Hearing of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), where they reviewed the need to evaluate the federal government’s STEM investment to ensure it is helping students complete for jobs in these high-demand STEM fields.

By 2018 the United States will have more than 1.2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations. Yet there is growing concern employers will be unable to fill these high paying jobs because too few students graduate high school prepared to pursue STEM-related opportunities.

Many believe the United States will be at a competitive disadvantage if today’s students to not have skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill the 9.2 million STEM jobs expected in the next ten years.

“There is a widespread concern that our nation’s preeminence in science and innovation is eroding,” said Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston. “Only 5 percent of U.S. college graduates major in engineering, compared with 12 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia.”

The hearing provided committee members a chance to examine federal STEM programs and discuss ways to help improve ways for students to acquire these critical STEM skills.

You can find an archived webcast of the hearing here, or visit to read witness testimony or opening statements.

A Commitment to Civil Rights

The struggle for civil rights is not over, and I am thrilled to have lifelong civil rights leader and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. as the featured speaker at the Sarasota County Democratic Party’s Kennedy-King dinner on February 24th.

While in Washington for the inauguration, I had the pleasure of meeting Congresswoman Holmes Norton at her Capitol office

While in Washington for the inauguration, I had the pleasure of meeting Congresswoman Holmes Norton at her Capitol office

Civil rights and equal opportunity for all has long been at the core of what it means to be a Democrat. But here we are in 2013, and we are still fighting for equal pay for women, fighting for our reproductive rights, for a fair shot for Americans of all races, and for the right of people to love whom they choose.

While we have made progress, there are those in Washington and in Tallahassee who would turn back the clock, take rights away, limit opportunities, and make it more difficult for some to succeed, or even be in control of their own lives. That’s why the struggle for civil rights continues.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has been on the front lines since the 1960s when she travelled to Mississippi and worked with civil rights stalwarts like Medgar Evers — and where she bore witness to the intensity of violence and Jim Crow repression in the South. Later, as the head of the New York City Human Rights Commission, she held the first hearings in the country on discrimination against women as a civil rights issue – something she has worked on for the many years since.

If you’ll be in the Sarasota area on February 24, I hope you’ll join us and Congresswoman Norton for  the Kennedy-King dinner. For more information call 941-330-9400 or email

An Inaugural Celebration

On Monday, President Barack Obama will be inaugurated into his second term. As one of the 29 Florida electors who cast Florida’s Electoral College votes for President Obama, I received a special invitation from the Joint Congressional Committee for the inauguration, and – along with other electors from across the country — will have a prime seat, right behind Congress.

I have this special opportunity to witness the fruits of our Democratic victory because of all the hard work of volunteers and voters in Sarasota County, in Florida and across the nation. There is still work to be done – Republicans in Congress seem dead set on holding America hostage; and in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and his supporters continue to work against the interests of Florida’s middle class – but this weekend will be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama.

I’ll be sharing more from Washington, DC about all the excitement of this weekend – and then  getting back to work making Florida a better state and America a better nation.

A Laser-Focus on Defeating Rick Scott

The Sarasota County Democratic Party exceeded every expectation in President Obama’s victory in Florida this year, and we have emerged from the 2012 election stronger and more motivated than ever. So I was thrilled to be re-elected as Chair to lead the Party forward.

Our focus for the next two years couldn’t be clearer. We intend to defeat Governor Rick Scott. He has put Florida on the wrong track, and has shown us over and over that he has the wrong priorities and is out of touch with Florida’s values.
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One of 29 Votes

In Tallahassee this week I had the great honor of casting one of Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes to re-elect Barack Obama as President of the United States.

Casting one of Florida's 29 electoral college votes

Casting one of Florida’s 29 electoral college votes

It was a simple procedure – almost mundane – as we signed our names to the ballots. But my thoughts were not mundane, and they echoed what others said that day.

“As I cast my vote for the president of the United States of America, I do so with memories of many Floridians waiting in long lines to cast their vote during early voting and on Election Day,” Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee said in his statement.

I too, thought with gratitude of the many thousands of committed voters who had made my electoral vote for Barack Obama possible.

Another elector, Florida Democratic Party Chair Rod Smith, said, “There is a certain solemnity to this occasion — an affirmation of the great traditions of our people. [One purpose of this ceremony is to] remind ourselves that there are people who have stood up, sat in and laid down their lives to make sure this continues.”

He is right that even this simple ceremony must not be taken for granted because it symbolizes the smooth transition of power that defines our democracy and that so many countries envy. The experience of casting an electoral vote is just one of many that I will treasure from the excitement of the 2012 election.

Gearing Up for 2014

Sarasota DEC Election 2012Even though the 2012 elections are just behind us, I’m already looking toward 2014.  Earlier this month,  I was honored to be re-elected without opposition as Chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party at the Democratic Executive Committee of Sarasota County organizational meeting.

I am thrilled for this opportunity to work with a great team to lead the Party forward. We can be proud of our diversity and the huge turnout tonight. The Sarasota County Democratic Party is clearly stronger and more motivated than ever to defeat Rick Scott in 2014, elect Democrats, and grow our influence and effectiveness.

Other officers elected at the meeting included Ed Henne as Vice-Chair, Valerie Smith as Secretary, and Mark Klingel, CPA, as Treasurer. Keith Fitzgerald was elected State Committeeman, and JoAnne Devries was elected as State Committeewoman. I look forward to serving with them and working with all the members of the Sarasota County Democratic Party between now and Election Day 2014!

What an Election!

I’m just now starting to catch my breath, now two weeks after the election. Sarasota (and I) were certainly at the center of this national election, playing host to a diverse array of elected and former elected officials, guests,

Rita and Vice President Biden at a rally a week before Election Day.

events and activities. The last few weeks of the election alone brought visits from Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), former Florida governors Charlie Crist and Bob Graham and Vice President Joe Biden. This is in addition to the other elected officials who came through Sarasota County during the course of the election, including DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-20), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD),  Kasim Reed (Mayor of Atlanta) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD).

In addition to the visits from elected officials, we also hosted a wide range of media professionals, activists and celebrities in Sarasota, including Cynthia Nixon, Anita Dunn, Sandra Fluke, Lucie Arnaz, Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, Emily’s list founder Ellen Moran and current president Stephanie Schriock, and Nadine Smith of Equality Florida. And as you know, money talks in politics, which is why I served on four host committees for Senator Bill Nelson (FL), six host committees for FL-16 congressional candidate Keith Fitzgerald and one for First Lady Michelle Obama.

Other election season highlights for me included serving as the Florida delegation whip at the Democratic National Convention, along with appearing on ABC 7’s Black Almanac, radio shows on La Nueva Radio, WSRQ and WSLR, and as a guest panelist several times on WEDU’s Florida This Week, including the regional Emmy Award-nominated presidential primary episode.

However, I’m most proud of working with the more than 1,800 volunteers who gave so much time and effort toward this election in Sarasota County. We worked in lock step with Organizing for America’s data-driven operation.  Almost all of our office and precinct captain phone banking was done via computer. We consistently logged over 6,000 phone calls per day over four weeks. And our aggressive Vote By Mail campaign paid off as we increased requested ballots by 28% and had an 89% return rate.

Though this election is done, the political activity won’t stop. I’ll be sure to update you in December, when I serve as one of Florida’s 29 electors in the Electoral College, and again in January, when I head to Washington for the inauguration, so please stay tuned. Until then, thanks for joining me for all the ups and downs of the 2012 election here in Florida!