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On Florida school reforms, lawmakers just getting warmed up

TALLAHASSEE — It's not over yet.

After overhauling teacher pay, evaluations and contracts, state lawmakers are just getting started on bringing major changes to education.

In the pipeline: expanding charter schools and school-voucher programs, and rewriting wide-ranging rules that could require middle school students to pass civics and give schools with poor reading-test scores automatic F grades. There's also pension reform, a looming move that would require tens of thousands of schools employees to pay a portion of their retirement.

The far-reaching legislation would build on Florida's reputation for dramatic education reforms embraced more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Yet now the changes come as the state grapples with the loss of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars for education, a hole that translates to classroom cuts. The Florida House and Senate are mulling a cut of about 7 percent of the school budget — a loss of between $423 and $463 per student. Separately, the pensions shakeup would, in effect, cut state workers' pay by 3 percent to help fund their retirement plans.

Passing sweeping reforms as state dollars dry up has prompted sharp criticism from Democrats and teachers who have decried the changes as part of a broad Republican agenda to benefit the private sector at the expense of public services.

"I characterize them as an assault on public education in the state of Florida," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Miami-Dade Democrat and former high school teacher. "Not everybody's rich."

Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislators have called the latest education proposals a priority — and touted the bipartisan support for some of them, at least on the national level. The Obama administration has opposed vouchers yet encouraged teacher performance pay and lifting restrictions on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Scott told reporters last week that charter schools give parents more options.

"And as we know, parents have a better idea of where their children ought to go to school," he said.

Bills moving swiftly in the state Legislature would make it easier for charter schools to receive approval, increase enrollment and set up new schools.

The Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, would force school districts to accept charters that contract with universities and community colleges, eroding districts' power to deny new schools.

Districts would also have to grant 15-year contracts to "high-performing" charter schools to give them "more certainty," said Rep. Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican backing a similar bill in the House.

That provision sounds like a double standard to Democrats, who railed against the teacher bill for not giving highly effective teachers contracts for longer than one year.

"We reward a high-performing charter school with a long-term contract, but we won't do the same for our teachers," said Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg.

Democrats are divided on measures that allow more school vouchers.

Most of them have opposed removing a ban on public money going to religious institutions, which could open the door to vouchers for parochial-school tuition.

They have supported broadening the criteria to qualify for the McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities. More than 50,000 previously ineligible students would be able to use public money to pay for private-school tuition.

But Democrats have had mixed feelings on labeling more schools as failing, which would allow 110,000 students to qualify to move to better-rated public schools.

And they have also been split on giving a bigger tax break — and access to confidential tax information — to companies that fund vouchers for students in public schools to attend private ones.

Companies would get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit — instead of the 75 percent discount they get now — for money donated to Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship program.

To help raise dollars for the program, the state would provide Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit agency and single largest operator of the program, a list of the 100 companies with the greatest tax burden.

"I think that sets a very, very bad precedent," said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said that information should also be available to the public.

Yet some Democrats voted for the changes.

"I think of the choices that I'm providing to parents," said Rep. Hazelle Rogers of Lauderdale Lakes.

Lawmakers have had less discussion so far on other proposals that are part of a catch-all bill pending in both chambers.

Tucked in the measure are provisions that would require middle schoolers to pass civics to move on to high school, and to make middle school students in technical programs eligible for industry certification, which is only available now to high schoolers.

Most striking is a change that would give schools an automatic F grade if students' test scores don't meet reading proficiency requirements — regardless of how students do in other subjects or how the school ranks in other areas, like graduation rates.

It's unclear how much that bill, which is backed by the state Department of Education, could change as it moves forward. A Senate panel advanced the proposal with little debate Thursday.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

On Florida school reforms, lawmakers just getting warmed up 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 8:09pm]

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