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State's failings blamed on education system

Ten years ago, Florida could use warm weather, low taxes and an expanding labor pool to compete economically.

Those days are gone forever, state business leaders said Wednesday.

Until Florida drastically upgrades its education system, which by any standard is among the nation's worst, Florida will never attract the high-paying, high-tech jobs it needs to compete with other states.

"We are in danger of creating a vicious cycle," said John Kaliski, who helped author a study for the Florida Chamber of Commerce detailing the state's education woes.

The study shows that fewer than half of the state's high school graduates go on to college, a performance that ranks Florida 43rd among the 50 states. Only 23 percent of the adult population has a college degree, putting Florida 36th. The state ranks last in the percentage of Ph.D scientists and engineers in its work force.

"We are not where we need to be," said Joe Richardson, the former president of Florida Power Corp. and chairman of the chamber committee that sponsored the study.

Lonnie Bell knows that all too well.

Bell is the senior operations manager at Agere Systems, an Orlando-based semiconductor company that tried to fill several hundred entry-level jobs between 1995 and 1997. Applicants needed only a high school diploma and to pass a test of eighth-grade English and math.

Four out of five flunked.

"You just can't find the workers you need," Bell said.

Finding solutions for that problem was the focus of Wednesday's daylong "education summit," which attracted 250 educators, employers and government officials.

They listened as speakers detailed Florida's precipitous decline during the 1990s in relation to other states _ a slide detailed in stories published Wednesday in the St. Petersburg Times.

Florida fell from 24th to 38th in spending per student; from 33rd to 40th in median household income; from 29th to 33rd for the percentage of its residents living in poverty.

And this was during the state's most prosperous decade since at least World War II.

Former Senate President Toni Jennings said there was plenty of blame for Florida's failure, pointing to both lawmakers and the business community.

"Education is the crux of it," said Jennings, who chairs Workforce Florida Inc., the oversight body for the state's labor agency. "What we need is a commitment from the business community. That's what will drive the train."

The chamber study urges Florida to become a "crossroads economy," one less dependent on tourism and agriculture and more closely tied to emerging markets in Latin America and the Caribbean.

That may take some time.

Exports count for just 7 percent of Florida's gross product, a proportionately smaller share than for the nation and many competing states, the study shows. Direct foreign investment equals just 8 percent of the state's gross product, which is far behind the national average.

Some of the speakers talked of Florida's propensity for being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

David Lawrence Jr., the former publisher of the Miami Herald who now heads the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, noted that for every $1 spent on early childhood programs, the state saves $7 down the line in law enforcement and social welfare costs.

He pointed out that 75,000 children in Florida were born to unwed mothers last year. Public school officials reported 3,964 incidents of weapons possession, he said, and 66,000 fights.

"We need to invest in the future," said Lawrence, who said too many business leaders complain about the failures of the education system without trying to fix them.