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Democrat Alex Sink unveils her education plan

TALLAHASSEE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink envisions an education system in Florida where at-risk students have incentives to stay in school, better-trained teachers get performance-based raises and school buildings become community centers.

She also wants to use technology to enhance school curriculum and wants FCAT scores to not be the only measure of a school's success.

Those are the core elements of the wide-ranging education reform plan Sink will unveil Wednesday at a campaign event at Miami-Dade College. Her Republican opponent, Rick Scott, has not announced his education plan.

Sink told the Times/Herald that her plan emphasizes returning control of the school system to local communities "instead of the top-down system of micromanagement and unfunded mandates that we have seen for too long from Tallahassee politicians."

"Local school boards and support from parents and teachers at the local level are in the best place to make the education decision for our children," she said. "It's a matter of Tallahassee not assuming total control."

Sink's plan retains much of the foundation of the current school accountability system — a hallmark of Republican governors for the past 12 years. But she proposes significant changes that include considering other factors that influence a child's learning when grading schools, using test scores as a road map to help prepare students, and allowing parents to see detailed test results.

Sink, a former banking executive, said the cornerstone of her reform plan is to reduce Florida's "abysmal'' graduation rate, in which one in four high school students drop out, and "work backwards from that."

"Education is at the core of getting people back to work," she said. "If we don't have a firm education system, I'm not going to be able to take Florida where we need to go."

Sink acknowledges her proposals will cost money, but she's not ready to raise taxes to do it.

"We need to be more creative in funding for education," Sink said. Her plan assumes there is duplication and unnecessary expenses in every school system, and proposes an oversight and review team to help school districts trim costs.

Sink, who graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in mathematics, touts her experience in education. She taught math for three years and served on the late Gov. Lawton Chiles' blue-ribbon Commission on Education. As a parent, she was a member of her daughter's high school PTA. Sink's two children graduated from Florida public schools.

She has been endorsed by the Florida teachers' union, but not all of her proposals have the union's support. Her support of a constitutional amendment to offer flexibility for the class-size amendment and teacher pay incentives tied to performance are at odds with the union, said Kyra Jennings, Sink's spokeswoman.

Sink will make her announcement on the Miami-Dade College campus that houses the New World School of the Arts, the Miami performing arts high school, which Sink helped establish when she was based in Miami for NationsBank.

Among other highlights of her reform plan:

Pre-kindergarten. In an attempt to reduce the $300 million spent each year on children repeating pre-K through third grade, Sink proposes creating a standard curriculum for all pre-K programs. She also wants to put a teacher in every pre-K classroom with at least a bachelor's degree and revamp the school readiness exam.

Drop-outs. Sink proposes revamping school curriculum to encourage kids to stay in school, including specialized high school diplomas that recognize technical and vocational skills and offer associate's degree credits. She wants to create a statewide data system for tracing students at risk of dropping out and develop community-based prevention plans. College counselors would work with high school students on career options, and peer mentors would work with struggling students in high school, in exchange for credit and scholarship opportunities.

Curriculum. Sink wants schools to focus more attention on science, technology, engineering, math, economics, civics and the arts. It would extend to after-school and summer programs as schools become year-round community centers.

Funding. As the economy improves, Sink wants to increase the state share of the education budget from the current 53 percent to the pre-Lottery levels of about 61 percent. She does not explain how to pay for this, but relies on an improved economy.

She proposes greater use of technology, such as linking schools and classrooms via teleconferencing. "Let's go back and rethink things. Do we need to buy seven new textbooks every year, or is it available for students to carry around in a Kindle, like I do?"

Teachers. Using innovations from other states and countries, Sink wants to develop training programs and mentors aimed at improving teachers' classroom skills to make them more effective.

The training programs would be paid for with still-to-be-identified private, federal and philanthropic dollars. High-performing college students who commit to teaching in Florida schools for five years should receive forgiveness on some of their student loans.

Teachers would also be paid based on performance, and the additional demands of teachers working in under-performing schools or with poorer-performing students would be recognized.

FCAT. Sink wants to grade schools on student progress throughout the year, not on ''high-stakes'' test scores.

Community centers. Sink wants to transform schools into after-hours neighborhood activity centers that include after-school programs, parenting classes, adult GED instruction, financial literacy, job skills and wellness programs. She would try the idea with pilot projects.

Financial literacy. Sink wants to require high school students to complete a course in financial literacy to graduate from high school.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Democrat Alex Sink unveils her education plan 09/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 11:42am]

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