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Budget deficit stands in way of several Florida education proposals

TALLAHASSEE — In the shadow of a monstrous budget deficit, lawmakers proposed big ideas for Florida's schools this session.

Loosen the class-size mandate. Raise high school graduation standards. Scale back teacher tenure. Pay teachers first.

Each enjoyed huge support from some group, be it teachers, administrators or former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.

But not one is going to happen, at least not this year.

"Most of the education policy, because of the fear that somehow any change was going to somehow affect budgets, was completely held hostage,'' said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who pushed the new graduation standards. "I think they just wanted to stay at status quo, when it came to curriculum and when it came to everything else."

The biggest nonbudget education measures to pass: one that will require students to pay the full cost of losing a textbook, without an add-on that would have mandated civics class in middle school, and a contentious bill to expand participation in a voucher program that gives low-income students money to attend private schools.

"To tell you the truth, we were trying not to do any major piece of legislation,'' said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Sarasota Republican. "When you can't offer any money, it's hard to make them change anything."

The focus on the budget kept controversial ideas, like allowing religious "inspirational messages" at some public school events, from going anywhere.

Some high-profile bills, however, were thought to have a shot. Loosening Florida's class-size requirements looked particularly promising, with an outcry from school districts that relaxing the mandates voters approved in 2002 would help them save money.

Republican leadership, school boards, superintendents and administrators threw their support behind halting class-size compliance at the current school-wide average, while raising the maximum number of students allowed per classroom. Teachers unions fought them fiercely.

Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and chairman of the pre-K-12 budget, wanted to tie the changes to a permanent penny sales tax to benefit education, putting the combination of proposals to voters as soon as this fall.

But the penny tax was a nonstarter with House Republican leaders, and class size on its own didn't have the votes in the Senate. So neither is headed to a ballot.

"It really is frivolous in the sense that if they're not going to tie something to it, why sit it around, you know, just go ahead and put it next year," Wise said.

The strict class-size restrictions are not set to kick in until the 2010-11 school year.

'Caught up in hysteria'

Bush's education foundation supported Fresen's graduation standards bill, which would have phased in algebra II, geometry, biology I and chemistry as required classes, along with increasing the required graduation score on the 10th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test from 2 to 3.

It passed the House, but concerns over how much it would cost, the FCAT provision and a lack of vetting time derailed it in the Senate.

"I really do think it was future policy, smart policy that got caught up in hysteria of the budget," Fresen said.

As for the Pay Teachers First bill, which would have forbidden school districts from not fulfilling their contracts with teachers to balance their budgets, it barely got off the ground. It had been unveiled to some fanfare in January by Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach.

Still, the intent of some of its provisions, like attaching strings to salaries of school board members, superintendents and district administrators, made it into the compromise education budget .

A proposal to make it easier to fire teachers will probably come back next year, after a much watered-down version of the plan passed the House but got nowhere in the Senate. The original bill, also promoted by Bush's organization, would have replaced contracts that provide teachers with some protections from being fired, commonly known as tenure, with shorter contracts.

That faced opposition from teacher unions, which argued that existing contracts draw young people into teaching and save them from getting fired for reasons like not getting along with a principal. Lawmakers generally agreed that a budget-crisis year did not give them enough time to flesh out a thorny overhaul of teacher tenure.

"You don't just, you know, ram the thing through," said Wise, who endorsed the proposal. "It's sort of like mating of elephants — it takes two years and lots of noise."

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Budget deficit stands in way of several Florida education proposals 05/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 3, 2009 11:56pm]
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