For ever and ever, Florida lawmakers have dodged tax reform. Not the kind of reform that necessarily means more money in state coffers, but the kind that at least leads to more stable money. Is it really possible to build and sustain the world-class education system that Gov. Charlie Crist has promised on wildly fluctuating sales taxes? What's happening right now tells us no. • Layoffs. Pay cuts. Teachers being ordered to unplug coffee pots. • Now things are so scrambled, we can't even spend the money wisely if we had it. Florida voters, angered by crowded classrooms and the state's reputation for short-changing schools, unleashed the class-size storm in 2002 with an amendment that requires strict caps on the number of students in each classroom.
Research tells us it's a good idea, to a point. And we've reached that point. To date, we've spent $13 billion on the amendment. Our classes are now small enough that on average they meet the amendment's goals.
But the amendment compels us to keep spending and spending — more than $1.7 billion more in new money over the next two years (not to mention up to $6 billion in recurring costs). That $1.7 billion is more than the state has cut in core K-12 spending since state cuts began in October 2007. And for little or no additional gains in learning.
We could do a lot more good with $1.7 billion than blowing it on tiny reductions in class size. We could, for instance, lower class sizes a lot for the struggling kids who really need it — and would actually benefit from it. Amendment supporters may be justified in their anger about the Legislature's spendthrift ways. But for the sake of poor and minority students, they should take a deep breath.
The kinder, gentler accountability types who still rule the Capitol in Jeb Bush's absence have their hackles up, too. They've long said school improvement isn't just a matter of money. They've grumped that critics are ignoring real progress.
They're right. Last month, Education Week gave high marks to Florida's education system for the second year in a row. It's hard to believe, given Florida's pitiful rankings in school spending. But the truth is, Florida kids are scoring better than ever on key national tests, and Florida's policymakers have been doing more things right than they get credit for.
That's not to say it's enough. Our kids still aren't anywhere near where they need to be, and policy alone won't get them there. Lawmakers need to keep pushing innovative ideas and making targeted investments. Trying longer school days. Trying differential pay for teachers. Trying new tests that are more relevant than the FCAT.
Plenty of smart, caring people — and yes, there are lawmakers among them — are thinking about those things and then some. But this session, word has gone out: Great ideas won't fly if they cost anything.
How sad. Programs that work for our kids, or that are worth trying, shouldn't rise or fall on the vagaries of an outdated tax system. They shouldn't be cannibalized by a constitutional amendment that goes too far.
It's possible the federal stimulus will take the edge off. But Florida's revenue hole is big and getting bigger. Lawmakers will still have to make tough choices.
Those prone to cliches about belt-tightening should read responses to a recent Florida Association of School Administrators survey. They detail what happens when schools are left to scrounge under cushions.
When paper is rationed, students waste time copying notes. When teachers shoulder extra classes, some make tests easier so they still have time to grade. When summer school is canceled, struggling students can't make up credits — and wind up in the same classes the next year.
Only, they're older. And more likely to drop out. And more likely to drag Florida down with them.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.
What we won't hear about
The Legislature has cut $1.4 billion in core K-12 education spending since October 2007 and may face a shortfall of up to $2 billion more during the session. All over Florida, we hear the repercussions. School districts have eliminated positions, frozen teacher pay and found places to pinch pennies. But in Tallahassee, we can also gauge the magnitude of the cuts by what we're not hearing. Plenty of good ideas — the kind that help kids a lot without costing a ton of money — are being scaled back or postponed. Here's a sampler:
They're a big reason Florida students have made big gains on national tests. And supporters, including Gov. Crist, were hoping to see a lot more of them. At roughly $65,000 a pop, they're a bargain.
But due to state and federal budget cuts, the number of reading coaches statewide dropped for the first time last year, from 2,560 to 2,382. Expect the ranks to grow thinner this year.
More time to learn
When four Central Florida elementary schools got the money to lengthen their school day by a single hour, they flourished. In a single year, all four improved their letter grades, and one leapfrogged from an F to an A.
The former state representative who pushed that pilot project, David Simmons, says the program could be expanded to every D and F school in the state for $33 million — 2.9 percent of what's been proposed in new spending for class-size next year. Is anybody listening?
Last year, the state Legislature ordered every school district to establish its own virtual K-8 schools by August 2009. Online teaching and learning are widely embraced as a way to customize education, and do it cheaper to boot. But now districts are asking the Legislature to postpone the mandate, because some are balking at start-up costs. Pasco estimates its start-up costs could be as much as $1 million — not much in the big scheme, and yet, in a district where teachers didn't get a raise this year, too much.
Teacher combat pay
Many good teachers don't stay in high-poverty schools any longer than they have to, because they can make the same amount of money for a fraction of the hassle elsewhere. For the kids left behind, the impacts are brutal.
Paying those teachers more is part of the fix. And the Legislature was poised to consider doing that this year, at the urging of state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa school superintendent. But with budget woes sucking up so much oxygen, his idea is gasping for air.
The high cost of cutting class size
The constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2002 mandates that by the 2010-11 school year, all classrooms have no more than 18 students in grades K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8, and 25 students in grades 9-12. This chart shows the cost of the phase-in, a cost that would spike during the next two years as the rules require that every class meet the standards. So far districts have been able to use a school-by-school average, an easier, more flexible standard.
Examples of cuts around the state ...
Bonuses for high-performing schools have been reduced from $100 per student to $85 per student.
Mentoring bonuses for national board certified teachers have been eliminated ($5,322 per teacher last year). So was a subsidy that paid 90 percent of the $2,500 application fee for teachers seeking that certification.
The FCAT norm-referenced test has been eliminated. It allowed the state to compare performance of Florida students to other students across the nation.
... As well as some penny-pinching
Sarasota County: Officials took the light bulbs out of the front of vending machines.
Hillsborough County: Bumped thermostat up by two degrees, to 76 degrees.
Volusia County: The superintendent told teachers they could no longer keep coffee pots, microwaves and other personal appliances at work.