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Legislature's grades mixed on education

State Rep. Bill Sublette looked worn-out Friday evening, the very picture of victory mixed with defeat.

As chairman of the House education budget committee, the Orlando Republican presided over the best year for public school spending in nearly a decade.

But he failed to get approval for his prized piece of legislation _ special merit raises for the best teachers.

That contrast sums up the Legislature's performance on public education this session.

With a state budget flush with higher-than-expected tax revenues, the Legislature had an easy way to impress constituents and spew out election-year sound bites: increase public school spending by 4.6 percent per pupil, the biggest jump since 1989-90.

Among other things, lawmakers paid $120-million to continue the immensely popular Bright Futures college scholarship program; they spent $180-million to continue a commitment to build more public schools and get children out of portables; they approved $12-million to start an Excellent Teaching program that gives raises to teachers who go through a rigorous national certification process _ a program different from the merit plan Sublette advocated.

At the same time, the Legislature failed to tackle the more difficult problems facing public schools, those that require a lot more study and money.

+ Senate President Toni Jennings opened the session by calling on school districts to enter a "covenant" with the Legislature, parents and teachers and "publicly commit" to reducing class sizes.

But the Legislature failed to seriously address the problem of crowded classes, putting $100-million in the state budget. That's what they've done in previous years, but class-size numbers have barely budged.

Districts are just treading water, said Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association. It would take billions of dollars to really reduce class sizes to 20 students, the Legislature's goal.

Lawmakers did approve a bill to make at least one elementary school in each district allow only 20 students per class in kindergarten through third grades. Schools where students perform poorly on tests _ designated as "critically low-performing" schools by the state _ would have to put 15 children in a class. Then the Department of Education will study how the smaller class sizes affect student performance.

Jennings said she is committed to tackling the class-size issue this summer. "That's going to be the way I spend my summer vacation," she said.

+ Other lawmakers want to analyze the issue of textbooks.

It is common for children to share textbooks in certain classes, so they can't bring them home for homework. Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, made an unsuccessful effort this year to make school districts buy enough books for students to take home. But no one knows how much that really would cost because there has not been a statewide study. The Legislature approved a 17 percent increase in textbook funding this year, based on a recommendation from the Florida Association of District Instructional Materials Administrators. But that group's numbers are based on continued sharing in certain classes.

Lawmakers also did not create a comprehensive plan to better prepare young children for school. A bill that would coordinate early-childhood programs and refocus them on education, rather than babysitting, failed when it got caught up in the volatile political debate over vouchers.

The House pushed a plan to allow parents of children behind on their skills to use public dollars for a private kindergarten. The Senate settled on vouchers for 4-year-olds in pre-kindergarten programs. Public dollars already are used for private pre-K programs, but not for private kindergartens. With no compromise, both the readiness program and the vouchers failed.

But at the last minute, the Legislature did approve a plan to allow more charter schools in Florida. Those schools use public dollars but operate with little government interference. Supporters say they give more choices to parents and free teachers from bureaucracy to concentrate on educating students.

Critics say they are little more than private schools and are so new that it's impossible to tell whether they really work. The legislation allows school districts to double the number of charter schools currently allowed. Districts with more than 100,000 students could have 28 charter schools, up from 14.

The bill also allows public dollars for charter school construction _ an issue that Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed in the state budget this year.

The voucher and charter school debates this session show that the philosophical war over public education is growing and, in some cases, getting more mean-spirited.

The House had attached vouchers to a bill close to Chiles' heart _ expanding health care to thousands more children. So if Chiles had wanted the health program, he would have had to approve vouchers, which he opposes deeply.

In the end, the House separated the issues. Health care passed; vouchers failed.

But lawmakers did something else to the governor. Tucked in a bill to expand experimental charter schools in Florida was the abolishment of the Governor's Commission on Education, formed by Chiles to reform public schools. The House said it duplicated another reform commission. But others suspected politics.

"It's just a little, petty deal," said Alan Stonecipher, spokesman for the governor's commission. The commission was set to expire at the end of the year. The legislation now abolishes it Oct. 31.