Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Message from Andrea Rediske

It's a tough contest these days to determine which state legislature is most hostile to public education, but Florida legislators (motto "Finding New Ways To Make Things Worse") has been giving it the old college and career ready try.

Nobody knows that better than the family of Ethan Rediske. His mother Andrea has been working tirelessly to insure that extraordinarily challenged children and their families will not in the future be subjected to the kind of abuse and bureaucratic harassment that her family went through, all in the name of The Almighty Test.

At a time when she could excused for simply staying home and mourning her recently-deceased child, Andrea has been standing up to all manner of indignities, from a bullying letter penned by the state education head, to stripping her son's name from the legislation proposed in his memory. In retrospect, the latter is predictable-- while legislators usually like to name bills after the victims of abuse, it seems less likely they'd do it when they themselves were the victimizers. The "We Used To Torture Sick and Dying Children As a Matter of Policy, But Now We're Going To Knock It Off" Bill is not one lawmakers would like to sign off on.

So things are ugly, messy, and stalled. I'm passing on Andrea Rediske's message here to you. Read it all the way through, please, and then note the call for help.

Early in February 2014, Orange County Public Schools and the Florida Department of Education harassed our family by requiring documentation that my son was dying and in hospice care to prove that he was unable to take state-mandated standardized tests.  In order to receive the waiver for testing the previous year, I had to submit a mountain of paperwork, including details of his medical history, and a letter from his doctor.  We were assured at his IEP meeting this school year that the waiver would be granted without problems.  Obviously, this wasn’t the case.  Shortly after I came forward with our story, State Representative Karen Castor-Dentel proposed HB 895 entitled the Ethan Rediske Act, that would make it easier for severely disabled and medically fragile children to receive waivers for standardized testing.  According to the language of HB 895, the process to receive a waiver for standardized testing would go through the local district superintendent rather than requiring approval from the State Commissioner of Education.  I felt so humbled, grateful, and delighted to see that my son’s struggles with standardized testing were not in vain and that he would leave a legacy for other students like him in Florida.  I was so hopeful that families like ours would be relieved of a very small part of the burden that they carry every day.  I felt at the time that the Florida legislature would see the need for this type of legislation, and that its passage would sail through the House and the Senate.  Ethan passed away on February 7, 2014.  We were overwhelmed with the love and support of so many in the wake of our son’s death, and Ethan’s story has been broadcast around the country. 

Sadly, the Ethan Rediske Act has become the center of an ugly political battle, and HB 895 as it was written will not be passed.  Shortly after Ethan’s funeral, I addressed the Florida Department of Education and the Commissioner of Education at a local meeting here in Orlando, explaining what we had been through and urging them to support this legislation.  A few days after I spoke to the FLDOE, Pam Stewart, the Commissioner of Education wrote a letter that was sent to every teacher in the state of Florida, tacitly accusing me of using our personal tragedy to fulfill my “political agenda.”  She also stated in her letter that she approved 16 out of only 30 requests for waivers that had been requested – a little more than a 50% approval rate.

Senator Andy Gardiner submitted a competing bill (SB 1512), which, in addition to providing legislation supporting vouchers for charter schools, provides permanent waivers for all standardized testing of disabled children, but which requires the approval of the Commissioner of Education, who has a track record of only approving 50% of these requests.  He has a child with Down Syndrome who has been mainstreamed into public school – I completely understand why he is invested in seeing this legislation pass.  However, Senator Gardiner is completely against the Ethan Rediske act, and was instrumental in stopping the bill from ever making it onto the K-12 subcommittee agenda for discussion.  Representative Karen Castor-Dental had to negotiate verbiage of the Ethan’s Act being attached to another bill – HB 7117 that includes legislation for school accountability – most of which does not receive support from parents, teachers, or schools.  Sadly, because Ethan’s Act has so much support, the other parts of this bill will get passed along with it.  Ethan’s name has been removed from the bill entirely – many legislators do not want his name associated with the legislation because it shows that there were measures in place in the legislature that hurt disabled children.

Even if HB 7117 passes the Florida House, it is in danger of being gutted or stopped by Senator Gardiner.  Without being completely privy to all of the political machinations at play right now, it seems that both Senator Andy Gardiner and Commissioner Pam Stewart are holding all the cards.  They have powerful allies and are protected on many fronts and have the power to stop this legislation.  Pam Stewart is an appointee of Governor Rick Scott and was not elected to her position.  Senator Andy Gardiner, according to his Wikipedia entry has been voted by Orlando Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful people in Florida for 5 years.  These two individuals hold tremendous political power and seem to be very determined to stop this legislation from passing.

I can’t fully convey the depth of my anguish over this.  I had such high hopes that Florida legislators would see what my sweet son has been through, they would understand the need to protect children like him and support families like ours, and do the right thing by passing the Ethan Rediske Act.  My only hope now is that the immense support we have received over the original bill can be channeled into influencing these individuals in positions of incredible political power to somehow change their minds and their hearts and support this legislation. 

If you feel moved to write to them, please be articulate and civil.  Anything that they perceive as an attack will likely be met with more resistance.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your help and support.

Senator Andy Gardiner:

Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart:

An online petition against SB 1512 that includes a boilerplate message that will be sent to all Florida legislators on the Education Committee considering this bill:

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