Florida schools: cheaper, faster, better?

Published Feb. 28, 2014

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have made quite a pair over the last two years, mostly smiling as they shared the reins of Florida's legislative branch. They are men of different generations but one mind. Hearing them talk, you get to know their priorities. And you learn that, this year, their favorite place on the planet is at the intersection of Education and Jobs.

As Weatherford puts it: "The best jobs agenda is an education agenda."

In their view, the state's education system is clogged with barriers that block the routes to quality employment for millions of young, often poor, Floridians. And they intend to clear the way.

If only state universities and colleges were less expensive and more focused on the "real" job market — and if only high schools started preparing kids earlier for the workforce — students would move faster into better-paying jobs. If only poor families had the same access as wealthier ones to education beyond their zoned schools, opportunity would follow.

Agree or not, these ideas are the beating heart of the "work plan" Gaetz and Weatherford have sketched out for the session that begins this week.

Along the way, legislators plan to have a say on other big issues facing Florida education — from fixing the discredited school grading system, to deciding who should approve textbooks, to whether school employees and volunteers should be allowed to carry guns on campuses.

According to the Florida School Boards Association, only 10 percent of 300-plus education bills filed every session ever get passed. Most of Tallahassee would agree that that's a good thing — including Gaetz, a former school superintendent, who admits with a tinge of regret that he once had a hand in the legislative tinkering that helped throw the grading system off the rails.

Here's a look at a few ideas that stand a good chance of making the cut. They'll also be getting a lot of attention and debate over the next six weeks:

Performance funding

Under a proposal submitted by the Board of Governors, state universities would submit to annual performance evaluations based on 10 metrics, including graduation rates, the percentage of bachelor's graduates employed a year after getting their degrees and how much those graduates earn. The schools would compete for extra money provided by the state, but also for funds considered rightfully theirs — their usual "base allocation" tied to enrollment. A portion of every school's base allocation would be redistributed based on how well they meet their metrics.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed budgeting $40 million in new performance money for universities, with an equal amount to be redistributed — a total of $80 million. But Gaetz and Weatherford say they are prepared to push that to $200 million.

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State colleges would face a similar rating system with seven metrics, including "Time to degree completion." If the Legislature approves, Florida colleges and universities would be motivated like never before to focus on the job market and move students through their college years as quickly as possible. This is sure to rile critics who envision the traditional college experience turning into trade school. But Gaetz sees schools being smarter about course offerings, more interested in struggling students and more engaged in the career counseling office. The Board of Governors says schools also could be motivated to find more internships for students.

The cost of college

Of the many bills that seek to control tuition, one would roll back the crippling price increase in 2009 for the Florida Prepaid College Program. A plan purchased for a newborn last year costs $332 a month. Senate Bill 732 would drop that to $255, a game-changer for many families. In addition, 26,000 families who have been paying the higher rates since 2009 would get refunds.

Another measure would reduce the fee that universities can tack onto undergraduate tuition bills to enhance programs. Now capped at 15 percent, the so-called "tuition differential" would shrink to a 6 percent maximum.

A number of other bills seek to offer in-state tuition to students who otherwise would not qualify for the break — veterans, foster children and children of illegal immigrants who have come up through Florida's public school system.

Weatherford is a strong proponent of giving the break to the latter group, as is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Weatherford says it's an injustice for children of illegal immigrants who grew up in Florida to be denied in-state tuition. In a rare moment of disagreement with the speaker, Gaetz is opposed, saying the bill might not have the votes in the Senate and acknowledging that it wouldn't go over well in his conservative Panhandle district.

School choice

Two bills would significantly expand access to schools outside the traditional public system.

One would loosen limits on how fast the Tax Credit Scholarship program can grow. Immensely popular, the program gives private school scholarships to 60,000 low-income students in grades K-12. Tens of thousands are on the waiting list, but the bill would allow 6,000 more kids into the program.

Another bill standardizes and streamlines applications from charter schools, giving districts less power to negotiate terms. It also would require districts to make their unused buildings available to charter schools.

The expansion of charters "is beginning to raise a lot of constitutional issues," says Wayne Blanton, executive director the school boards association. "At some point you start saying at what point do school boards give up the authority to operate and supervise all public schools?"

Thomas C. Tobin is the education editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He can be reached at