Florida's policymakers regularly promise to provide our children with a "world class" K-12 education. But that's not yet happening. Florida lawmakers need to make a commitment to education that is both comprehensive and bold. The choice should not be between reforms or funding. The commitment must be to make transformational reforms and to provide significant funding.
Florida's children have been improving in reading, writing and mathematics skills each year. This is confirmed by national comparisons including the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP. But Florida — and all the United States — has a long way to go when compared to the rest of the world.
Recent comparisons by the Program for International Student Assessment developed by the Organization for Economic Organization and Development place the performance of U.S. students at the bottom of the rankings worldwide:
• 24 out of 29 in mathematics;
• 24 out of 29 in problem solving;
• 15 out of 29 in reading; and
• 14 out of 16 in high school graduation.
These statistics, showing our children at a disadvantage worldwide, should create an urgent obligation for our state to take dramatic action to improve our system of education.
Our children are performing at or above the national average, when measured by the NAEP scores. But the state's funding per pupil, as documented by Florida's Department of Education, has been at approximately 85 percent of the national average. What this means is that Florida is productive in its use of taxpayer funds to advance student achievement. Although Florida's system of financing education is not without its wasteful expenditures, and further reforms are still needed, Florida does not just "throw money at the problem" when it comes to student learning. National experts have told the state Board of Education that Florida is recognized as a national leader in instituting well-researched and rigorous reforms with a proven track record of success in advancing student achievement.
The question, then, is: If Florida is productive with its use of taxpayer funds in education, and significant gains are needed to reach the worldwide standard, why is Florida not investing more funds to allow our children to reach and surpass the worldwide standard?
Unfortunately, the deep cuts in education funding already have had significant adverse consequences in the day-to-day operation of many schools throughout the state. A number of districts are at near fiscal emergency levels that may require the state's intervention.
It is very common to find classrooms in just about every school in Florida with limited or nonexistent supplies and instructional materials and with teachers regularly spending their own money for nonreimbursed expenses — mostly on books, lesson materials, supplies and incentives for students.
Even high-performing schools are seeing worthwhile programs and positions cut back due to the funding shortage. The effects of these cutbacks are being felt now on our children, to their detriment.
Florida's education system needs innovative public education reforms, as well as thriving choice and charter school programs. The approach must be diverse and comprehensive, as each child is unique and we should offer different approaches to learning. However, none of these initiatives that work well will be successful if they are not fully funded over time so that their gains are sustained and made accessible to all.
Fortunately, for the most part, we know by now which programs work; and we know that high-quality teachers and principals, of which our state has many, have the greatest impact on student learning. The state should do all it can to support them, including investing sufficient funds, sustained over time, to compensate them well and to provide them with sufficient resources and support.
At the same time, funds should never be spent on educational programs or ineffective teachers that fail to meet high-quality standards. We must remove failed programs and ineffective teachers and principals, as well as those bureaucratic and legal impediments that prevent our superintendents and principals from ensuring that only effective professionals are educating our children.
Florida can attain a "world class" system of K-12 education, but that only will happen when it makes a genuine commitment to provide significant funding and transformational reforms. It needs to do both, and to do them boldly.
Roberto Martinez is a parent of children in public and private schools and a member of the Florida Board of Education. A Coral Gables attorney, he is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.