A weekend interview with state Rep. Bill Heller, ranking Democrat on the House Education Policy Council
Florida Republican lawmakers have laid out their game plan for "major changes" to the state's public education policy. The key initiatives involve scaling back class size rules, increasing high school graduation standards including end-of-course exams, and revamping teacher pay and evaluation guidelines. The Democrats are not completely on board. Longtime educator Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, spoke with Jeff Solochek about his take on what needs to happen during the legislative session regarding education.
I'm curious what you've heard about their bills and what you see happening.
I do know the one on class size, of course.
So let's start there. Do you think they have a plan that could work?
I'm all for the flexibility that they're trying to get in that amendment. But a couple of years ago we passed the Simmons bill, which does exactly by statute what they're trying to do. I believe that's a better way to go than to go through the cost of an amendment and so forth. I think the people have already expressed their will that they are interested in class sizes. I think what the Simmons bill did was say we are willing and also being responsive by giving the schools the flexibility to deal with that so-called 19th student that they are always saying is going to come in right after school started, and how to deal with him or her. I thought we did that very well, and we passed it unanimously. It didn't go over in the Senate. All that amendment seems to be doing is doing the same kind of thing. ... So I really question why that has to be done that way instead of being done statutorily, where it had all that support including Rep. Weatherford. ... I share that flexibility interest with them but I do not see the need for an amendment.
I wonder how making a statute change would make a difference in how you could afford the class size amendment. Because you would still have to meet the rules on one given day, wouldn't you? So you would still have to spend the same amount of money to have all the teachers and classrooms in place.
Well, of course, part of it is that at the bottom line, the issue comes down to money. But one of the things the class size amendment has accomplished is getting better funding to the schools. But also, if you at Quality Counts or where they're rating Florida, much of the accomplishment that Florida has achieved has come as a consequence of class size and not the FCAT and some of the other kinds of measures that they are trying to say.And again, I go back a long way in education. I was talking class size right after I started teaching in the classroom. It's a quality dimension. You get down into what's a dollar? I consider that investment in improving the quality of education that a child receives in the classroom an investment that's in the right direction, and that's money very well spent to keep that class size small. People pay a lot of money to have the benefit of a class size if they go to Shorecrest or they go to Canterbury or they go to Wellington. Those folks know what class size really means and they're willing to pay the difference. And I think we in the public schools ought to also say it is a quality measure, let's pay for it....
You know, the research behind this ... found without any question that class size really does make a difference. Now they looked just at the primary grades. But they could show that if a child had small class sizes in first, second and third grade, those gains and everything stayed with them ... all the way through the eighth grade.
So do we need to be changing the class size amendment to just K-3?
No. I don't think so. I really think we ought to see what we can do statutorily and put that flexibility in there. And then if that isn't proving to accomplish what the school systems and my colleague legislators want, then we ought to take the issue to go out to the public again. But I really do think the people will again support class size.
The next issue that I've heard a lot about is the end of course exams, changing the FCAT, the rigor and relevance stuff. ... Are you all in favor of that?
Well, I think we are really interested in looking at the end of course thing as opposed to FCAT. I think Rep. Legg is looking at that, especially at the secondary level. Several years ago we made an adjustment in looking at the FCAT at the secondary level and only counting it 50 percent ... Quite frankly, I think if we did away with the FCAT completely or only used it as one of a number of variable measures, we would be fine.
What Rep. Legg is doing is looking in the right direction. I really do think end of course ... exams are the way to go. ... You've gone through a university. I've gone through a university. What we do is have students take the course, they either pass it or they don't. At the end we give them that test. And cumulatively if they pass all of their classes we give them a diploma, and they earn a degree. For some reason, we think we ought to give a comprehensive test. ... That's one of the problems I have with the FCAT. Because it doesn't measure what is learned in a particular course. And it's not really again close to the time when the person finishes the course, so you can use it diagnostically. ...
The way the scores are reported, that child is long gone from third grade, or he's retained in third grade, without the results really being helpful to him.
Do you think that as the FCAT gives way to this next level of testing that it's also time to increase the rigor of the classes that the students are taking?
Yeah. We passed that, when Rep. Flores was chair of the committee. We looked at the fact that our students are part of the global economy. They must compete internationally. And we really do have to look at what our standards are in our curriculum. What Florida is doing is revising its Sunshine State Standards to again reflect this global economy and the society we now live in. The other aspect of that is, we ought to be adding courses I think that subject students to a higher rigor in order to get that diploma.
In saying that, we also ought to look at that not all students need to be going to college. And we ought to be sure that we have available to students curricula that are oriented to the skills and high tech that may be more related to a student's career path other than going to college.
I guess the big controversial one that is going to come out ... is the teacher tenure, teacher pay, teacher performance bill.
I think tenure, or what they call a continuing contract kind of issue, that issue has been in education a long, long time. Now, I happen to be in a university. We value tenure. We work hard to achieve it. Because it does say we've been successful ... and also we've been productive in certain criteria. But I think in a teacher situation, if you have two or three years in a probationary period and the teacher has performed very well, I think a continuing contract is relevant and is something we should continue to retain. ...Tenure is, I suspect, going to be an issue. The issue is going to be how you get rid of unsatisfactory teachers. I think we ought to look at that process and see how it might be improved, or again be more efficient if we have teachers who are not performing. But the thing that bothers me a lot, and it came up here last year, is that everybody knows one teacher who is bad. And therefore we're going to kill the gnat with a brick. ... And the other thing that happened is the older teachers were the ones who were going to be vulnerable. For some reason, older teachers shouldn't be in the classroom anymore. And yet experience is one dimension in the classroom that makes a difference for children. What I think we have to find is a way to deal with teachers who are not performing, however the best way we can measure that, and move them out of the classroom. It may not take the elimination of tenure, so-called, to get that accomplished.
Well, what about the other things that go with it - performance pay, teachers evaluations based on student results, things like that? Are those up for grabs, too?
Again, we talked about the FCAT. I think if you take away the FCAT and you have end of course exams, you can look at what the student was learning. We have Sunshine State Standards that say what the benchmarks are that are supposed to be taught in each course ... I think if you have end of the course exams and you look at whether or not the students are performing on those, yeah, you have an opportunity to go back to the teacher and say, 'Here's the content that should be taught in this class and here's what it looks like your students are learning over a period of time. We need to talk about whether you're performing well in that classroom.' You don't put the performance all on one test, which we've been doing with the FCAT. That's why many of the merit plans and so forth that have been put forth by the Legislature have failed. It's a one-shot kind of thing. And the FCAT really isn't in my judgment, or in most other teachers', measuring teaching. It's not measuring instructional capability at all. And I think that's what you've got to get to if you're going to have a performance-based kind of compensation.
I'm not against performance-based if it's done right and it's got the right components and teachers are a part of setting the criteria for that. We have it in the university. I have to perform when merit is available and it's not for everyone. ... I think performanc e does bring about an effort to improve ...
I know that those are the issues that the Republican leadership is pushing. Are there things that they are not looking at that they need to be?
Well, I really would like to see them look at the pre-k program and really begin funding that pre-k at a level that provides quality early childhood education. There's not a person in developmental education anywhere in the world that would tell you that early childhood education is not probably the best kind of thing we can do to predict ultimate success in students. And yet in this state when we had a chance to really fund and set up pre-k in a major way, we really didn't do it. It's not well funded. It should be a high priority program. People with money make every effort they can to get their children in preschool. And they get them in quality preschools. Because most individuals in developmental psych and others will tell you the first five years of a child's life are the most important five years that he or she can have. And that's where we should put a lot more of our resources than we are doing.
I have a colleague, Janet Long, who is trying hard to get teachers certified -- fully certified -- to be in early childhood programs, preschool. That's a goal we should shoot for, but there ought to be a career ladder to get there. But the overall funding for early childhood, if I was going to have a high priority here ... we ought to give great priority to early childhood education.That's what the Florida Council of 100 said, as well. It seems that fits right in with the plan that is out there.
The Council of 100 is right on target. I think if you want to reduce dropout rates and so forth, you put the effort in pre-k. Then what you do is you make sure the first three or four grades that the children have - because again the research has shown when you really get the gains in pre-k they get washed out by third or fourth grade - so you've got to have that really excellent class size, excellent teaching in the first three or four years as well. It really has to connect ... If we can find a way to put that together, our dropout rates are going to go down, our success rates of children finishing high school are going to go way [up], and I also think we'll have a good opportunity to have students move into college and university ultimately without a lot of remediation.
Do you think then that the class size stuff, again it comes back to being at the lower levels. If you have smaller class sizes and fund that at the lower grade levels, knowing there's not a lot of extra money out there these days, and cut back at the upper grades ..
Well, most of the research that's out there that I'm familiar with is really focused on the lower grades. There's no doubt about that. But again, when you look at middle schools and the nature of what a middle school student is going through in terms of his or her development ... they also I think need to look at that level. A high school, it depends. If you can get more homogeneity in the classroom, you probably can increase class sizes up there. But again, that's something that isn't really likely to happen.
The other thing that I want to bring in here ... my specialty area is working with children with disabilities. And we've worked hard for the last 10, 20 years to get our children with disabilities included in the general education classrooms. And any time you add one of these children with a disability who has certain kinds of needs into a general education classroom, you broaden that particular teacher's heterogeneity considerably. And for her to individualize instruction for that youngster and to really make inclusion effective, she needs a smaller class size and that class size is important for us at the middle school as well as the secondary level. ... And sometimes those special needs may not be a disability. But children who come from low socioeconomic communities or ... where they move from school to school or neighborhood to neighborhood ... they need a lot of individualized attention. And I just think you can't say the first three or four grades are the most important to have it. I think you really have to have it all the way through.
My last question is relating to funding. Because it doesn't seem like there is a lot. So I'm wondering what priorities need to be set with the funding out there. It looks like everybody is still in that 'We can't pay teachers, we can't give raises, we can't afford anything new' mode. But new stuff seems to keep coming up.
Yeah. It's a tough economy. Where do you get the funds? I really do think in a year like this, when we know what the funding is and we know it is not good, what are some of the other things we should look at? I really do think it would give us some time to zero in on tax reform. How do we tax? Is it equitable? We looked at it several years ago and we had various amendments and so forth to look at portability and a whole bunch of other kinds of things. But we need to find a way to equitably fund education and to also make sure that the state becomes more of a partner in the funding of that.
Ten years ago we had 60 percent coming from general revenue and 40 percent locally. Now it's just reversed. So we've really put the burden on the local level. And we didn't take advantage of our lottery funds and some of the other things we should have earmarked for education and put it there. Now, the governor I like what the governor said about the budget. He wanted to increase funds for education, and particularly higher education in addition to K-12. I really commend him for that. We really have to support higher education. Because that's our intellectual capital for the future. You can't bring in St. Pete with our SRI's and Drapers and so forth and not give them the intellectual fuel to help them realize the goals that they have. He was thinking maybe of gambling. I think that's a good source. If we're going to gamble, why not have it go to education and make sure it's earmarked in such a way that there's no way it can go anywhere else. ...
This other idea of coming out of class size, though, I think that's the wrong place to try to get money. I really do think class size is a quality dimension. And I think that ultimately you hurt yourself on the other areas of education by trying to take those moneys and saying that's how we're going to get more money for teacher salaries. At the same time, I really think our teachers are worth so much more than what we're paying them and we ought to work to getting at least to the median national salary. We're at least $6,000 to $8,000 below that. And I think if we had better salaries we could certainly expect and recruit even better candidates into teaching than we do now. I see those things coming. And the revenue streams, I'm a co-sponsor along with Rep. Dwight Bullard suggesting a sales tax increase, which will be a temporary one to get us through this period of time. That may be something the public would support, just on a temporary period of time. A sales tax is not something that everyone wants. You've got to be very careful in askin g the public to tax themselves. But I think that if it's for education, they might consider it.But you're right. How are we going to get the funds to support the increases that the governor seeks in both higher education and K-12? We've already raised tuition rates. And even though I voted for them both on the times they came up, I'm not willing to vote again to increase the tuition burden on students. I think we've got to find another way. But we also need to find a way to adequately fund higher education.