Florida's public schools have returned to the top 10 in a national ranking at sixth place due to high marks for coordinating kindergarten through 12th grade education with early learning, post-secondary education and the state's workforce.
Education Week on Thursday gave Florida an A for transitions and alignment, one of six categories that make up the publication's annual "Quality Counts" rankings for the 50 states and District of Columbia.
Florida's overall grade went up from C-plus to B-minus. This year's national average is C-plus.
The state had dropped from fifth to 11th last year largely due to weaker student performance and spending cuts. Last year's decline interrupted a rapid climb from 31st to fifth place in just four years.
"We obviously are very proud of the fact that we have made this rapid move up over the last number of years," said interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who also serves as public schools chancellor.
Stewart also criticized the methodology that resulted in Florida's lower school finance grade of D-plus and predicted its C-minus for student achievement would improve next year.
Gov. Rick Scott, business leaders, lawmakers and State Board of Education members also hailed Florida's ranking as evidence the state's efforts to set high standards and hold schools accountable for reaching those goals are working. Florida's improvement in the rankings has coincided with those efforts spearheaded by former Gov. Jeb Bush as well as class size limits that were ordered by voters but opposed by Bush and most other Republican politicians.
Education Week updates three of the six categories every year. Florida's C-minus for student achievement , another A for standards assessments and accountability and a B for the quality of the state's teaching profession were carried over from 2012.
Florida this year improved its grade for transitions and alignment from B-minus and 14th nationally to A and fourth place.
The state's grades in the other two categories revised this year, though, remain unchanged with a C for chance of success - 34th nationally - and a D-plus for finance - 39th.
Florida's school spending had been in steady decline for several years including a $1.3 billion cut in the 2011-12 budget year, which ended on June 30.
Scott, who had sought an even bigger reduction, has since reversed course. Lawmakers approved his request to restore $1 billion to public schools for the current budget year.
"For the upcoming session, we'll continue working with the Legislature to enhance Florida's education system," Scott said in a statement.
Florida ranks 49th in the number of students funded at or above the $11,824 national average and 40th in per student funding at $9,572. The dollar figures are adjusted to account for regional cost differences.
While the state gets high marks for equity in school spending, another drag on Florida's finance grade is that it devotes only 3 percent of its taxable resources to K-12 education - 42nd nationally.
Stewart, though, noted 17.3 percent of Florida's population was 65 or older in the 2010 census, the highest in the nation.
"That statistic alone could explain why Florida might spend a smaller proportion of state taxable revenues on the K-12 age population than other states do," Stewart said.
She also said Florida squeezes more out of the dollars it does spend on education.
"This is in large part a reflection of Florida's philosophy that what matters most is not how much we spend but how we spend the dollars we allocate," Stewart said. "A high per pupil expenditure does not automatically produce high achieving pupils."
Stewart suggested Education Week take that into account by adding an efficiency index to its finance grading formula.
Florida's C-minus for student achievement was still good enough to rank 12th nationally. The achievement grades are based on previously announced National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math scores, Advanced Placement exams and high school graduation rates for the class of 2008.
That year, Florida had only a 63.9 percent graduation rate - 44th nationally - compared to a 71.7 percent national average, but it still was a 14 percent improvement since 2000 - the second biggest increase in the nation.
Stewart said additional improvement in Florida's graduation rate and the addition of a requirement for social studies and history assessments should bring the state's achievement grade up next year.
"The Florida College System is pleased with the results of the 2013 Quality Counts report released today. The rankings show that Florida’s education policies are aligned to work together in preparing students for success in higher education," said St. Johns River State College President Joe Pickens, who chairs the Council of Presidents for the Florida College System.