Some of the state's leading business organizations are stepping up their efforts to persuade the Legislature to raise the standards for public education. That is commendable. But for all the commonsense recommendations in the Council of 100's new report, "Closing the Talent Gap," there is a major omission typical of the business lobby's approach in Tallahassee. While they talk a good game about investing in education, they fail to offer up any sources of funding.
The report, a collaborative effort between the council and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, proposes many thoughtful ideas:
• Adopt rigorous standards that compare the achievement of Florida students with those in other states.
• Tie teacher pay to student performance.
• Make it easier to get weak teachers out of the classroom; don't just transfer them from school to school.
• Create end-of-course exams.
• At the college level, raise the standards for Bright Futures scholarships so that they are truly merit-based, then use the resulting savings on need-based aid.
The council is clear on the importance of education to create an attractive pool of smart, capable workers who will entice businesses to move to the state. But some of the recommendations are off the mark. For example, the report recommends limiting full-value Bright Futures awards only to those pursuing degrees in science technology and engineering. That is shortsighted. High-achieving students who have earned the Bright Futures can contribute to the state's intellectual life and livelihood in many ways, not just in those fields.
Without a steady, sure flow of revenue, none of these reforms will be enough to lift public education. Only federal stimulus dollars have kept thousands of teachers in the classroom, and the federal money will disappear soon. A day of reckoning is coming, and Florida business has a responsibility to help find ways to pay for the educational excellence they are embracing. Yet the Florida Chamber of Commerce has regularly stood in the way of overhauling the state's outdated tax structure, which is the key to paying for better schools and spawning that new economy. It has not embraced taxing Internet sales in a meaningful way or extending the sales tax to services. The report recommends a one-time infusion of $1.75 billion for higher education over the next five years, but it does not suggest where the money would come from.
It is an exciting time for education. Florida has submitted a solid application for more than $700 million in federal Race to the Top money. Hills- borough's school system, with the benefit of a $100 million Gates Foundation grant, will be a great laboratory for how to make schools better. But as both of these examples show, it often takes money to make fundamental, meaningful changes. When business groups talk about reforming education, they need to explain how they would pay for it. Otherwise, they're just all talk.