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THE EDUCATION ROLLER COASTER // Let's be honest about our schools

For A Better Florida is an annual effort by the Times to focus public debate on the work of the Florida Legislature and the challenges this state faces. The series, which has been published prior to every legislative session since 1951, begins today and will continue for three more Sundays leading up to March 5, the opening date of the 1996 session. The series' title expresses the long-held conviction of Times editors that a well-informed citizenry offers the soundest promise of a better future for Florida.

Among the more constructive legislative contributions to Florida public education this year would be simply to speak with candor. So much about schools has gotten caught up in inflamed partisan debate _ on both sides _ that it is easy to forget the 2.2-million students who assemble themselves in classrooms when the bell rings each day in Florida public schools.

Those students deserve our honest educational assessment.

In truth, some of them are doing quite well. In Pinellas County, for example, the International Baccalaureate program continues to produce some of the brightest high school graduates in the nation. In St. Lucie County, elementary students are being treated to a menu of educational opportunities as part of an intriguing public school choice plan.

Some of them are not doing well. The community colleges spend $50-million a year teaching remedial math and English skills to high school graduates who should already have them. Fewer than one in five eighth-grade students score at or above the "proficient" level in national mathematics assessment.

In broadly condemning or blindly supporting public education, legislators don't allow for a sufficiently complex discussion of a vexing problem. How do we best educate our next generation? Schools suffer directly from many of the social forces that grip our communities today _ broken families, poverty, drugs, juvenile crime. So they are being asked to do much more than in the past to promote learning. That burden doesn't necessarily defend their failures but sometimes explains them.

In the Capitol, though, there is always the tendency to cling to political scriptures. With education, they usually get in the way.

When Senate President Jim Scott announced his educational agenda in December, he insisted that "money is not the answer to the education woes of this state." Yet last week, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a fellow Republican, called for a $503-million increase, saying, more realistically, that: "Our reform efforts aimed at improving the quality of education should be coupled with funding to meet the growth."

Cynthia Chestnut, a Gainesville Democrat, has called for increasing the grade-point average required for graduation as a way to push students to improve, which is a good idea. Yet she need only look back to the so-called RAISE (Raise Achievement in Secondary Education) law in 1983 to see how narrowly focused mandates can sometimes achieve uncertain results. The RAISE law increased standards in many of the same ways Chestnut now suggests, but the performance of students, as measured by scores on the High School Competency Test, did not change. The point is not that raising standards is wrong, but that such efforts must address learning in a broad way.

In the 1996 legislative session, lawmakers say they will put education first. To do so, they will have to reject the simple declarations.

Public charter schools, for example, are intriguing and worth trying, but they will likely have little impact on most students (if the freedom from regulation is what will make charter schools succeed, why not free all schools?). Requiring a 2.0 grade point average for high school graduation sends a commendable message about higher standards, but then most of the students who are being forced to take remedial courses in community colleges today already graduate with higher than a 2.0 (establishing statewide assessment criteria for classroom teachers at every grade level might be a better start).

Most telling, the lawmakers who declare that education needs no more money are ignoring budget history and their own ideas. In the past 15 years, the proportion of general tax money going to education has dropped from 62 to 49 percent. In the 1990s, the state support for each university student has dropped from $7,156 to $5,456. At the same time, some lawmakers are now calling for smaller classrooms for teachers and longer school years _ ideas with undeniable merit but which cost more money.

To be honest about our Florida schools, they are trying and not always succeeding. Their struggles, lawmakers must remember, will not soon or easily go away.

Tell it to Tallahassee

Florida legislators return to the state Capitol on March 5 for their annual session of lawmaking, and now is your chance to tell them what you think. On the next three Sundays, the Perspective section will publish stories about the issues facing Florida, including the environment, long-term care, crime, and health care.

We invite you to write the Times and tell state lawmakers what you think they should do _ or not do. Send your letters to Tell it to Tallahassee, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, 33731. They can be sent by E-mail to or they can be sent by fax to 893-8675.