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Column: Legislature's schools strategy: shock and awe

From 250 miles away, it sure looks like the Republican-led Florida Legislature is mounting a full-scale assault on public schools.

Simultaneously, the Republican leadership is moving quickly on several fronts to blow up decades of conventions: Abolishing tenure, the holy grail for the teacher unions, and tying teacher raises directly to student test results. Creating more vigorous standardized tests for students who already seem tested to death. Asking voters to back off on class-size limits. Diverting more tax money for tuition vouchers at private religious schools.

Then pile all of that on to local school issues, particularly in Pinellas. Schools in south Pinellas are quickly resegregating. The number of arrests of students at some middle schools is staggering, and more than half of the county's high schools have been branded with a D or worse. No wonder teachers feel angry and under siege. No wonder there is such a clamor among engaged parents for more fundamental schools.

So you can expect the next few weeks to be emotional. Teacher unions will mount letter-writing campaigns and fill the Capitol. Republican legislators will respond with demands for accountability, higher standards and prudent spending. Lost in the shouting will be any rational discussion of the merits of the sweeping changes Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature are poised to embrace.

I can get angry about Tallahassee's micromanaging of public education with the best of them. I've watched enough legislative committee meetings to recognize many lawmakers most vocal about "reform'' over the years have little recent experience with kids in public education or spent much time inside schools. My daughters have advanced through the public schools in St. Petersburg, so I've heard plenty of protests from them about the FCAT. And my predecessor in this job had a point when he would say the next reform in public education needed to be a moratorium on more reform.

Yet the Legislature is on the right track with most of these changes. It's just shoving them down our throats without any nuance or collaboration.

Let's start with the more straight-forward issues. This newspaper's editorial page opposed the class-size amendment in 2002. We acknowledged the frustration with overcrowded classes and campuses jammed with portables, but we warned of unintended consequences by using the Constitution to eventually impose limits on every single classroom in every single grade in every single school. Now that 2010 has arrived, classroom specific limits are looming. The state cannot afford to comply, and the cost is not worth the debatable benefits. Asking voters to stick with schoolwide class-size averages and to forgo the stricter requirements is a pragmatic solution.

Similarly, the Legislature's move to change the way high school students are tested also makes sense. High school students eventually would have to pass end-of-year tests in courses such as geometry, algebra, biology and chemistry. These tests would be specific to the curriculum, and they would replace the FCAT — an inartful measuring stick of student performance. Students in International Baccalaureate programs and Advanced Placement classes take end-of-class exams, and this would be no different.

The big enchilada, of course, is the legislation that abolishes tenure. The suspicions about what's driving this are understandable. The prime sponsor is Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, the former House speaker who just happens to also be the state Republican Party chairman. The Republican Party and the teacher unions are not exactly best pals, and this is an election year.

There is nothing subtle about Thrasher's legislation. It would eliminate tenure for new teachers, link half of every salary raise to student test scores and make it easier to fire teachers who don't measure up. It does not reform the system. It blows it up.

The problem is not the concept. There are plenty of good, dedicated teachers who work awfully hard for too little pay. But every parent also knows of teachers who do not belong in the classroom and have no fear of losing their job for failing to deliver. A few years ago, then-Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox was asked at an editorial board meeting how many teachers in the district had been fired in the past year for poor performance.

His answer: 0.

This is not Lake Wobegon, where every teacher is above average.

The concepts of merit pay and holding teachers more accountable for student performance make sense. They are not radical, and they are not devious designs to turn schools into factories that punch out their quota of products.

But the Legislature is going about it in ways certain to create more anger than acceptance. First, Thrasher's legislation goes too far. As it holds teachers more accountable, it also strips them of any job security at all. Second, it moves around existing money instead of providing more money for salaries and training. Third, it does not adequately account for the wide disparities in performance among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

There is a right way to do this — see Hillsborough County and the Gates Foundation, which are working with the teacher union to devise a more nuanced evaluation system and pay scale based on merit. And there is a wrong way to do this even if the concept is right — see the Florida Legislature ramming through a top-down plan with no input from teachers and no regard for constructive criticism.

The governor surprised me by so quickly embracing the Thrasher bill before the House even takes it up. He might consult the teachers in his family and take another look.

Column: Legislature's schools strategy: shock and awe 03/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 7:05pm]
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