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House spars on student standards

Published Oct. 1, 2005

A big day for education in the state House turned into a bad day for Republicans _ in the majority but not yet in control of a chamber filled with rowdy Democrats.

In the end, a high-priority education bill to raise standards for high school students got lost in chaos.

No action was taken on the legislation, and lawmakers will return today to try to resolve their differences.

It will be a challenge in the chamber of 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats.

Democrats questioned Republicans all day Wednesday. They pressed them to explain why they seem to be creating more mandates in an era of less government. And they asked Republicans why they seem to be overlooking the financial consequences of legislation as they brag about cutting state spending.

Even House Speaker Daniel Webster, normally easygoing, got testy.

When state Rep. Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota, asked why two education bills never were sent to a House fiscal committee for consideration, Webster responded like a fed-up parent.

"I think it's because the speaker didn't want to send it there. How's that?"

Democrats acknowledged that as speaker, Webster has wide discretion on where bills are assigned for a hearing. But they still said they'd like some idea of what his policy will be on bills with fiscal implications.

A bill to give pay increases based on teacher performance prompted debate on whether the Legislature would be forcing school districts to set up a merit pay plan without providing the money for it.

The bill on standards got caught up in an emotional debate about a section on posting certain historical documents, writings or speeches in classrooms.

Democrats said the provision would open the door to religious writings in public schools and material that puts down minorities and women.

"This should be called the Racist and Sexist Protection Act," said state Rep. Barry Silver, D-Boca Raton.

Members also complained that they were struggling with last-minute amendments. Things were moving too quickly in a chamber where Webster promised to slow down the process and make lawmaking more understandable, they said.

Webster finally gave up.

He postponed action on the standards bill and told lawmakers to try to compromise before the bill comes back up for discussion today.

The Senate has passed its standards bill, which requires students to take algebra and get a 2.0 grade point average to graduate, among other reforms.