A weekend interview with Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith
Florida's education system faces dilemmas as it tries to cope with funding declines, meet new federal requirements and reform some of its practices amid demands and expectations from all sides. Education commissioner Eric J. Smith talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about the current state of affairs.
The first thing I want to ask you about is funding. We've heard there might be more cuts coming even this year. I've heard something like $32 per student. Do you know what is happening?
What you're referring to is a possible impact of proration. The budget is built on an anticipated projected student enrollment. If it comes in above what funding level has been established, there are adjustments made. We don't have firm numbers yet, but it looks like because we originally had projections for a reduction in enrollment but it turns out we're going to be up about 1,000 or 2,000 kids for the entire state. That would equate to an estimate of $80 million statewide. That would be equal to about a $30, $35 per FTE adjustment that would have to be made. It's early in the process still. But those are some things we are looking at.
I know funding in general is a huge problem right now. I am curious what you see districts having as options. They have this proration, and property values going down, and federal funding is supplementing lost state funding. What can districts actually be doing right now?
It is a difficult time. If there is any way that we can provide relief on the proration it will be a wonderful thing. I can't say that will happen. Because the whole state is like the whole country, and the economy is what it is. Budgets and funding is a challenge. Any kind of relief we can offer to our districts is welcome relief. But saying that, certainly the State Board of Education adopted a budget that I tell everybody was an extraordinarily large budget - an unrealistically large budget - and also an extraordinarily conservative budget. You have both of those in the same proposal. It was there.But it is lean in terms of consumer price index increase of 2.7 percent, really just maintaining what we have with adjustments for two major elements. One is class size. We plugged in a figure ... in the neighborhood of $350 million to bring us to the next step in class size. And the other big piece, and a major challenge for the districts, is about $470 million allocation that would deal with lost local revenue. Those are the two big drivers. We had a total education request that was up $1.4 billion. But $700 million or $800 million of that was because of constitutional requirements or lost local revenue.
That sounds like the wish list. How do districts deal with the reality when it comes down and there's just not enough money there? Are there things that have to go? I know you've been talking about science and technology. Is there the ability to do that? Or the end-of-course exams. I know that Race to the Top has taken end-of-course-exams out of the picture. How do you pay for those types of things? Well, kind of the backdrop to all this right now is, with the stabilization funds we received last year from the federal government, there are some fairly significant strings attached to that. The Legislature very wisely divided that money into basically half for this year, half for next year. ... The federal government has as a requirement to access the second half ... certain kinds of compliance. Part of that is to keep the percent of state funding to education constant. ... That certainly is good news for our districts, that the percent of funding for education needs to be constant or the state would not be eligible or might have to pay back what it had already received. So huge incentive to keep that percent of money at the level where it is. But saying that, we certainly are facing rough times.
My best recommendation to superintendents and boards is to be very conservative in their district budgets, avoid building in increases in expenditures in the out years through purchases or whatever might be, and try to really keep close tabs and make sure you have some reserve. The other issues, the Race tothe Top and another piece of money that the federal government has, $350 million for assessment development, have the potential of being very important to us. Race to the Top gives us in a time where there is no new money an opportunity to do some very creative and very bold action in education and an opportunity to move the efforts of the state of Florida forward. ... I've been in the business for 38 years and I've never been afforded this kind of latitude in trying to really improve the quality of education in this country.
Do you have any more details about what Florida is looking for in Race to the Top?
It's still a bit early on that, but it's not too early. A lot of the stuff is still in flux, but we did get some clarification. There was a rumor last week, that there were a lot of requests to extend the deadline for application. ... There's not going to be any extension of the deadline. ... I stress it this way about Race to the Top. The application to be successful ... really needs to be something that this state believes in and wants to pursue. The federal government is really looking for two things. First and foremost, states that make a proposal that is really bold in its approach and tries to dramatically move the nation forward in its ability to educate all chidlren with highly skilled teachers ... and not have any tolerance for schools that are failing. ...The second thing that is very important ... is they are looking for states that have the capacity to act on that boldness. In large part the way they measure that capacity is ... quite often we spend time arguing the adult issues among ourselves, the adult needs of education and unfortunately don't spend time arguing about the needs of our children. This really requires the adults to come together around the needs of our children. ...
What are districts' role in all of this? Do they apply for pieces of it? Do they have to do the whole thing? Is it a mandate from on high?
A little bit of all of the above. They play a critical role in all of this because that's where all the work takes place. To finish out this part about capacity of the state, we need to issue an MOU to districts about their willingness to participate in the Race to the TOp program. Which would mean for a district if there are contractual issues that they need to go back and renegotiate, they would agree that they're going to sit at the table and negotiate. ...
What if they say no?
What we're going to be asking for is, by the time we submit we would like to have a significant number of our districts have the MOU signed by the superintendent, the chairman of the board and the president of the district's union. And if they say no, then if we're successful in getting our grant, half the money that would come in, it's a $700 million grant, half of that would go out to the districts in the Title I formula. If a district that would be eligible didn't want to participate, their share would be allocated to other districts.
Doesn't that undermine the idea of Race to the Top? Because a district that could be one of the lowest performing districts might say they don't want to participate and then they don't get the money and then they don't improve.
Which might point to part of the problem. Because there is the opportunity to work on the solution. I hope we don't see that in Florida. ... The same holds true with states. The states that have the greatest need might not apply. .... There is a lot of money at stake. There is a lot of opportunity at stake.
Let's talk a little bit about class size. It's obviously coming upon us very quickly. Can we do it?
(Laughs) I get into different conversations with people about the class size requirement under the constitution. My first view of it is, I think the districts and the Legislature and the taxpayers have done an incredible job of moving forward on this. It's been a huge financial investment by the state of Florida and the taxpayers to this point. And we are doing very well with class size. The horror stories that might have been discussed ten years ago just, you don't see those today. At least you don't see them very frequently. I think it's going to be a challenge. We have $350 million in our recommended budget to deal with that. Getting that money is going to be a challenge.
But I think more than the money, it's going to be technically a challenge to implement, just as an educator, an administrator. There are going to be many stories in Florida about the student who wanted to take an AP course in a school that wanted the child to take an AP course to help with high school accountability, but was told no because it would have put them over the limit on class size and would have led to a financial penalty for the district and a constitutional violation. As a result the student would have been denied services.
Who says when you have to count? I've never seen that. Where does it say you have to count every day?
Right. Well we have a process where we do count in the fall. But again all those elements are subject to the implementation of the constitutional amendment.
Isn't that up to you?
A combination of the department and the Legislature to make those decisions and interpretation of the true intent of the constitution, what the voters voted on. I think at the end of the day I have a legal and ethical obligation to fulfill the state constitution and will do that, not work to circumvent it along the way. I think the biggest hardship is going to be in the actual application of it, just because it's so hard to do. Small rural districts that don't have other options for service to groups of students and they can't bus them to other locations or divide the classes. These things become a reality. I think that will be difficult. As an educator I am very comfortable where we are. But it doesn't meet the requirements of the state constitution.
Can you do different things for a little district and a big one?
Not according to the constitution. It's one size fits all.
I know there's a lot of talk about performance pay. It ties into a lot of these things. And there is some resistance from teachers. And then there's other teacher groups that say, Let's go in and do this. How can you balance the idea of performance pay, differential pay with the issue of fairness that the teachers are talking about and the idea that, I don't have those kids all the time. How can you hold me responsible when I can't even get them to come to class?
I think Florida has been working hard to fin d these answers, and they're difficult answers to come to. I think with Race to the Top we're focused on the business of connecting the work of teachers and school leaders to the success of the children, and that a dominant portion of how we get evaluated in terms of our performance needs to be based on our ability to be successful with those that we are entrusted with, our children. That's a big piece of where we are headed. And I think it's a big piece of where the nation is headed. We are looking at how well our teachers are prepared in teacher education programs, and evaluating that based on how well these graduates do in working with children. We are certainly examining the actual evaluations of teachers to see how well that matches up with the achievement of our kids. The time has come for educators not to argue the point, should we be evaluated based on how well we succeed with our kids, but how do we do that successfully so it really brings honor to the profession and respect to those teachers that are successful and brings the credibility to those teachers, both financial and career opportunities and promotions and so on.
You've been commissioner now for a little bit.
Two years. I'm a veteran.
I'm wondering how you've seen things progress here in Florida and what your goals are for things progressing while you're still here.
I couldn't be prouder of this state. I start with those out there on the front line, the teachers and school administrators, district leadership. They have aggressively taken on the challenges that have been asked of them, the goals that have been placed before them, and have taken them seriously and have dealt with them professionally. I think Florida is in a wonderful place. We have a uge hardship with our funding right now and that's a larger issue with our economy that the federal government and state government have to wrestle with. But where we are in terms of our commitment to children and our commitment to continue to transform this educational program to meet the kids' needs not for just now when they're in the classroom, but for when they graduate and go on, I've never seen it stronger in any state I've ever worked for.