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Change for public schools

State Education Commissioner Betty Castor has offered a thoughtful and measured plan for how to improve public schools next year, and the Legislature needs to hear its message.

The message is that Florida schools are ready to change. The education commissioner is ready to assure they meet new standards of performance, and the schools need help to do so. Castor's proposed public schools budget for 1993-94 offers such help.

The Castor budget proposal, which was approved by the state Cabinet on Tuesday, is modest. It would allocate less money per student next year than was spent in 1987-88, when adjusted for inflation. It asks for a spending increase of less than $1-billion, and most of that money goes simply to cover the cost of increased enrollment. Florida expects another 99,000 school students next year, and $696-million of the proposed budget increase goes just to cover those costs.

More important, though, the Castor plan begins to take public schools toward a new system of accountability. Blueprint 2000, as the plan is called, was mandated by the state Legislature and designed by the appointed Commission on Education Reform Accountability. The plan establishes seven broad goals for education, and directsschools across Florida to set up advisory councils that will in turn write plans for school improvement. The idea is that each school will have more control over its own educational destiny, and that educators and parents will work together to establish the priorities.

As part of that philosophy, the state will have to loosen its purse strings on education money, and Castor's proposed budget signals that change. The plan includes $111-million that will go directly to schools, at a rate of $48 per student, to help school councils implement their own education plans.

In the past two years, public schools have suffered at the hands of the Legislature, and she is trying to reverse that trend. The educational reform movement is also gaining momentum, and many educators are welcoming it. But the complaints that surfaced at the Cabinet meeting Tuesday, especially those from a few school representatives, indicate the change will not come easily.

As Castor said: "I think that it's hard to ever get unanimity, especially on something which has such far-reaching implications."

Blueprint 2000 and the Castor plan are a good beginning, and they deserve the embrace of all Floridians.

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