At the same time state lawmakers are pressing tens of thousands of high school students to take more advanced placement courses — considered good preparation for college — they're gunning to cut tens of millions of dollars in advanced placement funding.
The state's budget crisis gives them no choice, they say. But supporters are stumped.
"If the policy and philosophy is college ready, then you identify the (funding) source and you keep that source in place, even in tough times," said Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who has pushed advanced placement as much as any school leader in the state. It "cannot be done on the cheap unless you don't want to get the results."
The state sent $66 million to districts this year for advanced placement and International Baccalaureate — another program lauded for its rigor — down from about $100 million last year. In next year's proposed budget, the state Senate wants to cut the program another 50 percent.
The House version does not include the cuts. But if the Senate version prevails, Hillsborough's share would drop from about $5.7 million to $2.8 million; Pinellas' from $2.8 million to $1.4 million.
Adding to district frustration: The proposed cuts come just months before a legislatively mandated change will require that advanced placement participation and passage rates be factored into the grading formula for high schools.
Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, said he knows districts are grumbling. But he said the cuts aren't big enough to hurt.
"Next year, they won't know the difference," Wise said. "We're not here to destroy the program. … We expect it to expand."
Bright students have been taking advanced placement courses in English, history, biology and other subjects for years, but schools nationwide are opening advanced placement doors to more poor, minority and middle-of-the-road students. Supporters say more students will pass the exhaustive exams if given a chance to rise to higher expectations, and students taking those courses are better prepared for college even if they don't pass the tests.
Florida has wholeheartedly bought into that view — and, with modest amounts of targeted funding, found success.
In the past decade, the number of students taking advanced placement tests has risen from 31,758 to 117,698. Last year, Florida ranked No. 4 in participation rates and No. 11 in passage.
The Legislature dangled dollars to get those numbers up. The state funding formula for schools sends extra money to districts for every student who passes an advanced placement test.
The money is used to pay for the tests, which cost more than $80 each, and to give advanced placement teachers small bonuses. It's also used to train teachers and to pay for some books, lab equipment and other materials that such courses require.
"Every time we add more kids, we incur most of those costs," said Bill Lawrence, director of advanced studies for the Pinellas school district.
More cuts would be devastating, said Clifford Wagner, the advanced placement and IB coordinator at Springstead High in Hernando County. If Hernando's share of $238,000 this year gets cut in half, teacher training will likely take a hit, he said.
And advanced placement courses aren't like any others. Each one must be authorized by the College Board before it can carry the advanced placement label. In 2007, the College Board even audited every course to make sure syllabuses and course materials were up to snuff.
To keep up with test changes, teachers need training every few years, Wagner said. Forgoing that "would affect our students' ability to effectively compete," he said.
In a $30-odd billion state education budget, the proposed cuts have not drawn much attention. And the district-by-district amounts are modest enough that Pinellas and Hillsborough officials said they'll find a way to keep the programs intact.
But, they said, the timing could not be worse, given stretched budgets and changes to the school grading formula.
"If (advanced placement and IB) are important, then you got to find a way to fund them," said Kent Vermeer, principal at Tarpon Springs High, which has quadrupled the number of advanced placement tests taken in five years. "If it's not important, then don't put it in the school grade."
The Senate proposal also would reduce the state-required bonuses for advanced placement teachers, from $50 for each student who passes an advanced placement test to $40, and reduce the cap on total bonuses from $2,000 to $1,600.
Wise, the appropriations chairman, said lawmakers aren't the only ones who think advanced placement was ripe for paring. A February report from the Legislature's well-respected research arm concluded the advanced placement incentive funding "greatly exceeds" the required costs.
But the report failed to consider costs for teacher training and instructional materials, which may not be required but are necessary for success, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a written rebuttal.
Smith, a former vice president at the College Board, also said research shows students who take advanced placement classes are much more likely to finish college in four years — bringing savings to Florida's higher education costs.
Cutting advanced placement funds "would be a step in the wrong direction," he wrote.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.