A weekend interview with...
... Maureen Dinnen, founder of Floridians for Quality Education. Dinnen, a Broward School Board member, also is a former state president of the Florida Education Association. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her group's efforts to improve education in Florida.
Didn't you all begin as opponents to the amendments?
We did. The Broward County School Board took a position in opposition. I believe we were the first to do so, to amendments 5, 7 and 9. Then when those were struck from the ballot by the Supreme Court ... we decided that we didn't want to be caught unaware again, so why didn't we kind of transform ourselves into building a broad base of support for public education, to find out if the population supported it and what we could tell them about it.
We started out centering on our own county, but during the opposition period ... we sent out some materials to other counties because they were very interested in what we were doing.
Which ones were those?
Let's see. There's a coalition of school boards that meets in central Florida. It meets in Orlando. ... And I went up to a meeting of theirs. There's also a consortium of greater Florida school boards. Broward is a part of that. It basically runs from Pinellas County all the way around the coastline of the state all the way up to Indian River on the east coast. ... And what we tried to do during this opposition period, and what we continued to do, is keep it very separate. Because there are certain things you can do as a school board which are informational only. And as an outside group we wanted to start a political committee that could raise money and could actually take advocacy positions. And we started that back during the opposition to the amendment time and we've continued it. ...
What are you advocating right now?
What we're advocating is, we've recruited volunteers to go to the polls during early voting to take advantage of the crowds, and just give them a little handout about public education. This is mostly in Broward County. Public education, what are the achievements we've had and also the concerns we have about budget cuts and also our concerns about new voucher initiatives that might be put on the ballot. Because we realize that the court struck those amendments because of the lack of clarity, not because they objected to the content. And so they may come back via the Legislature or via people petition. So we just want to build an information base and support structure, so if those things happen, we are prepared and not caught blindsided like we sort of were.
Are you working with the other groups that are out there?
We are. It's kind of tentative. There's a group up in St. Johns County called 50th No More, and they're going to have a meeting on the 20th of November. I'm going to be there. The coalition is having a meeting on the 10th of November at the Orange County School Board building in Orlando, and I'm going to be going to that meeting. Another thing we've been doing is, we've been having a noon Friday conference call with representatives from what we call the Big Five - the PTA, the school superintendents association, the school boards association, the school administrators and the Florida Education teacher union. ...
We started the conference call during the opposition to the amendment period, and we've continued it because we think it's a good thing for us all to keep in communication. It's not really a coalition. It's more a communication network. I can see down the road, in my mind what I would like to see is a real coalition that's almost like a federal system, so to speak, where local groups can retain some autonomy, but there would be a central place in the state for information. And if some kind of statewide effort is needed it would be a place for communication and the building of that statewide effort. Because this is just the beginning. We have the election is our first effort here in Broward, but that week after the election we're going to meet and say, 'What next?'
Do you think the legislative session and the special session will be where you really have to focus your effort?
I believe so. ... Because we were in a recession in education funding before the United States went into its recession. Our funds have been slipping steadily for the past decade. ... The state percentage as opposed to the local percentage of school funding, the state has declined and the local has picked up the slack. But they really haven't increased overall. So we didn't get to be in the lower echelons overnight. what we're trying to do is build the support before the legislative session. Because we're afraid that the Legislature is going to look at the big pot of money that education is and say, 'Hey, we'll just balance the budget here.'
Do you think that the answer is to get more money from the state? Or to tell them that if they're not going to be providing money, then they should just keep their hands off the way local school boards run their business?
I think it's both of those things. I don't think there's enough money in the system. But I also think there are more of what we call unfunded mandates than I've ever seen before. You know, I taught school for 35 years before I got into this job, and I also was president of the Florida Education Association for five years in Tallahassee. So I know the lobbying mechanism. And I have just seen the overall amount of money be spread more thinly. But I have also seen local control be slowly eroded, so I worry about the local control situation. And that's part of the issue as well. And unfunded mandates are particularly difficult. You get a directive, but no money to fulfill that directive.
I was reading that one of the School Board members in Pinellas is urging the large school districts in Florida to challenge the state on the class size amendment as the most costly elephant in the room.
I've heard that. That's Jane Gallucci. And I've heard that. I have kind of mixed feelings there. Because it seems to be that that has taken an awful lot of money, but as a classroom teacher I do not buy the idea that class size has nothing to do with student achievement. Because I know as a classroom teacher if I had more time to pay attention to my students individually, they were more successful. ...
Having said that, I do understand as a School Board member the strains of going from district averages to school averages and then going to classroom averages. That has been a tremendous strain on a system that is not well funded. It bothers me that we go after something that I believe does help student achievement. Why don't we go after some of the other things we do? For example, the state has taken the transportation money and thrown it in the FEFP rather than it being a categorical, and they don't fully fund it, yet they have very stringent requirements about how far a student lives away that you have to transport. And they put money into this pay for performance thing that was a fiasco last year. ...
I guess because those are in the hundreds of millions rather than the hundreds of billions of dollars.
I know. I would like to see perhaps some kind of accommodation to the class size amendment. Several proposals have been put out there. I can't see why they can't pursue those avenues. I know what it is to put a ballot initiative on the ballot. It's very expensive. And I don't know, do we want that kind of turmoil right now? And is that going to address the problem in the long run? Because we had poor funding before the class size amendment.
As you're looking at quality education for Florida ... what would be the key things that members of the public ... should be looking for and asking about?
Well, we're asking them to consider the benefits of public education. And we're kind of taking a sounding board to the public. And we're finding out that overall the public is extremely supportive of public education. But we think it's our duty to educate them exactly how public education is being funded. They do not know where Florida ranks in per capita spending in public schools. We are 50th. ... We're 38th in teacher salaries, but if you just look at plain per capita funding, we should not be that low. We should not be in the bottom quartile, to tell you the truth, because this state is not that poor. The public needs to know what spending takes place, where the money comes from.
When they look at their tax bill, they don't understand the bulk of that school tax is set by Tallahassee even though it appears on the local tax bill. Because the percentage that Broward County, or Pinellas County, or Pasco County is allowed to charge is a legislative decision. And they don't understand that. They think it's just the school board deciding how much local tax they're to take. So I think there's a real education campaign that we're going to do. And also to make them aware that the cuts were so severe this year, .., and Broward County was sent word that at the very least we're going to have a $35-million cut in January. If that's Broward County, it must be the same all over the state proportionately.
I think people need to know now that we have cut and cut and cut, we're going to begin to do some very drastic things. We're going to have to begin to curtail sports. We're going to have to begin to look whether we can bus kids to magnet schools. We're going to have to look and see whether we have to lay people off that are in maybe non-instructional positions. ...
Is there a way people can follow your work?
Yes. We have set up a Web site. It's simple to access. It's makeeducationapriority.org.