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More money for low dropout rates proposed

If money talks loudly enough, then a proposed Senate bill could hold the key to keeping kids in school.

The bill, approved Wednesday by the state Senate Appropriations Committee, would reward schools with low or improved dropout rates, by giving them more state dollars. Schools and districts that don't perform well, however, would lose money.

"I've been messing around school districts for 19 years, and I've got to tell you . . . there is nothing that a school district responds to quicker than money," said sponsor state Sen. Bud Gardner, D-Titusville, a former school board member.

Other senators said they don't think punishing a school district would be effective, particularly because some students drop out due to social or economic problems unrelated to school. They also pointed out that last year's landmark school reform legislation provides for ways for districts to become more accountable for their performance.

The bill doesn't specify how much money would change hands, or what a school district would have to do to lose or gain. Those details, Gardner said, can be worked out over the next three years; the bill wouldn't take effect until the 1994-95 school year.

But educators are saying that long before then, the current budget crisis likely will have a major impact on the dropout rate.

Several school districts that offer their junior high and high school students a seven-period day are saying that the budget crunch will force them to cut back to six periods. Pasco County already has done that, and Hillsborough and Pinellas may not be far behind.

The seventh period costs Hillsborough an extra $7-million a year, and more than $6-million in Pinellas.

Here's the problem with that little economy measure: Since 1983, when tougher standards were put in place, the state has required students to graduate high school with 24 credit hours. Students who complete six credits each of their four high school years can rack up that figure.

But a student who fails a course or two won't be able to graduate on time unless he attends summer school, something that the Senate budget has severely trimmed. If a student must work summers, he may decide to drop out rather than stay in high school an extra year, said Steve Swartzel, a lobbyist for Pinellas County schools.

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to reduce the graduation requirement from 24 credits to 22. Districts could make tougher requirements, as some already do.

The legislation, which is supported by Pinellas and Hillsborough school officials, has met with limited success. It barely squeaked past one House committee, and has not been heard in the Senate.

Supporters say that reducing credits doesn't necessarily hurt educational quality because the reductions would be made in elective courses, not the basics.

But Pat O'Connell, legislative director for Education Commissioner Betty Castor, said Castor firmly opposes the legislation.