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THE EDUCATIONAL ROLLER COASTER // Higher standards for public schools

Larry Hutcheson was a witness in 1983, the last time the Legislature took a big stand on standards.

Then chief of curriculum for public schools, Hutcheson watched as lawmakers made it tougher to get through high school. They demanded more credits for graduation. Better grades to play sports. A 1.5 grade point average to get a diploma.

Hutcheson is still at the education department _ and he's about to watch a rerun.

Thirteen years after the Legislature passed the RAISE bill that changed the lives of high school students, lawmakers are once again talking about raising standards. They want kids to take more challenging classes, such as algebra, get better grades to play sports, earn a higher grade point average to get a diploma. As Florida moves into the 21st century, "Basic Skills Math 101 won't cut it anymore," Hutcheson says.

A 1.5 grade point average for graduation _ a D-plus _ is no longer acceptable.

"It's embarrassing to say someone can graduate from Florida schools with a 1.5," says Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, chairwoman of the House Education Committee. Her committee has passed a bill that would, among other things, push the grade point average required for graduation to 2.0, effective for the class of 2000. And Chestnut still isn't satisfied.

"A C average is really just that, average. "It's nothing to jump up and down about," she says.

Support for higher standards is coming from the House and Senate, from Democrats and Republicans, from Florida's highest education officer, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan.

But Florida needs to do more than just raise a grade point average, says Senate Education Committee chairman Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg. "That is a symbolic type of thing; it is a message," he says.

Florida also has to change the way it educates kids.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature is pursuing controversial plans that blur the lines between public and private schools.

Sullivan's committee has already passed a bill that would set up "charter schools" that use taxpayer money but operate without government interference. Teachers, parents or other groups would be given a chance to run schools better than the bureaucrats. Some lawmakers are proposing "voucher" programs that give kids public money to attend private schools. Others want "open enrollment" plans that give parents the right to choose which public school their child attends.

These reforms and more will have to be accomplished cheaply if they pass the Legislature and are approved by the governor. The reason is that no one expects an avalanche of education dollars. The governor's budget is considered modest, with a $50 increase in money spent per student.

Brogan wants more than the governor has proposed, but he also says pouring money into the same old education system isn't the answer.

"We are saying that reform has to be tied to dollars," Brogan says.

Paper standards and inflated grades

Embarrassing test scores. Unkind comparisons with students in other states and countries. Kids unable to master basic skills in reading and writing.

Sounds like the complaints about today's public schools.

But they are the same complaints that led lawmakers to crack down on schools and students back in 1983, says Catherine Fleeger, then a school principal and now an assistant superintendent for Pinellas schools.

The RAISE bill _ it stands for Raise Achievement in Secondary Education _ created a statewide standard for graduation. Before, districts were doing as they pleased. One county might require 17 credits to graduate, another 15. Course requirements, grading scales and grade point averages for graduation varied.

RAISE required 24 credits in specific courses and a 1.5 grade point average to graduate, effective for the class of 1987.

The standards may have made great material for legislative news releases, but they didn't seem to make much difference. Some educators suspect that the primary result from RAISE was grade inflation: Teachers simply raised student grades to make sure they passed, even though their work was the same.

Standardized test scores appear to support such a claim. Test scores on the High School Competency Test required for graduation barely changed in the years after RAISE and, in fact, went down in some years. The test measures ninth and 10th grade reading and math skills.

"I think the problem is, you can raise expectations, but unless you put in place student support mechanisms, then you're merely raising standards on paper," says Fleeger.

Among other things, students need better academic advising, more tutoring, more challenging courses that prepare them for the real world.

"We would love to have funding to accomplish that," she says.

The FTP-NEA teacher's union is concerned about how the higher standards might affect kids having trouble.

"I think there is always a frequent neglect of those who may not be able to reach the 2.0," says union president Aaron Wallace.

A legislative analysis reports that 24,613 students in ninth grade last year _ 15.2 percent of all ninth-graders _ had grade point averages between 1.5 and 1.99. That means if they continue to perform poorly and grading patterns don't change, they won't graduate. Minority students would be most affected, according to the analysis.

After RAISE, more kids dropped out of school. Florida's drop-out rate went from 6.7 percent in 1986-87, to 6.91 in 1987-88, to 7.54 in 1988-89. The rate fell to 6.47 in 1989-90. After that, it's hard to tell what happened because education officials changed the way the drop-out rate is calculated.

Wallace says the union will push for phasing in higher standards and helping schools with students in danger of dropping out. "I don't think we are going to be in absolute opposition. Our caution is going to be in how they structure the bill," he says.

Chestnut, House Education chairwoman, is convinced that students will rise to the expectations of higher standards, and that a new round of RAISE laws will do more than just create grade inflation. If students and schools don't perform, she says, communities aren't going to invest in education.

Several tax referendums for education failed last fall, she notes. Pasco and Hillsborough were among the counties that voted down a sales tax increase for school construction.

"The public is not willing to give us any more dollars until we can assure them of progress," Chestnut says.

The revival

of the mandate

All the talk about state standards doesn't sound like Florida's education strategy of the 1990s.

This is the decade that gave birth to Blueprint 2000, the reform movement that called on parents and communities to run their schools without interference from bigwigs in Tallahassee.

Mandate has been a bad word.

Now, lawmakers are preparing to pass laws that force students and school districts around the state to perform. Legislation is also in the works to punish schools that keep turning out students who can't pass basic reading and writing tests.

Lawmakers and educators are trying hard not to use the word mandate to describe their actions.

"I think we've increased local control and participation in schools," says House Speaker Peter Wallace, "but we still have a duty as a state Legislature to establish some minimum criteria."

Brogan says there's a difference between a "mandated outcome" and a "mandated prescription." He decribes grade point averages for graduation as "an outcome," and says the state should establish such "outcomes." But he says the schools should be left the flexibility to figure out how to accomplish higher grades _ the "prescription."

More and more, Blueprint 2000 seems to be on the back burner as the Legislature reacts to continuing bad news about test scores and millions of dollars spent on remedial classes for kids who have high school degrees but aren't prepared for college work.

"When I go around the state and I ask people to explain what Blueprint 2000 is, typically they can't," says Brogan, who came into office in 1995 after Blueprint 2000 was enacted.

Brogan was elected on a conservative platform that emphasized teaching the basics and not bogging schools down with social programs.

He has found support in an increasingly conservative Legislature, where Republicans have overtaken the Senate and are catching up in the House. He has had opposition from teacher unions, who consider him a proponent of private schools over public schools.

This session Brogan wants to get rid of laws and rules that burden school districts, use lottery money only for specific programs, and make classrooms safer for teachers and students.

Like last year, he will also push hard for charter schools, which failed in the waning hours of the 1995 Legislative session.

A charter school generally allows teachers, parents and other groups to start their own schools and set up their own educational programs. They have a lot of leeway, but they have to meet goals in their "charter" or they could be shut down.

Critics say the schools will drain public dollars for what amounts to private schools and pave the way for segregation. Teacher unions are opposed to charter school proposals that don't state clearly that charter school teachers will be public employees and will have the right to bargain collectively.

Even supporters acknowledge that no state has had charters long enough to prove they improve student performance.

Even more controversial: Brogan also supports pilot projects that give disadvantaged children "scholarships" to private schools. Again, there will be opposition because critics view the scholarships as vouchers that allow taxpayer money for private school education.

In the House, Speaker Wallace will continue a push that started last year to reduce class sizes for the youngest elementary students, and to provide "open enrollment" plans that give parents a choice of public schools as long as racial balances are maintained. His choice proposal differs from a Senate bill that would allow parents to choose from private as well as public schools.

There will be no shortage of debate on education issues. Last session, the focus was on criminal justice. But a surplus of prison beds and passage of tough-on-crime legislation has taken prisons out of the spotlight.

"I think it will be a good session for education," says Wayne Blanton, of the Florida Schools Boards Association. "I think we're back on the front burner again."

Diane Rado is a Times staff writer based in Tallahassee.