From the Sun Sentinel
By Kathleen Haughney and Leslie Postal,
TALLAHASSEE — After two years of hammering away on a K-12 education agenda designed by conservative think tanks, legislators have checked off a number of goals: merit pay, heightened graduation standards and an expanded voucher program.
But even as they wait for these changes to take full effect, lawmakers are confronted by student standardized-test scores that seem to have hit a wall after a decade of improvement and yet another budget shortfall of close to $2 billion next year. Critics say the schools won’t get better without more money — and are pressing a court case that would require higher funding for education.
Rick Scott Lawmakers are presented with a quandary: Should they make more changes in response to the test results, or do they hold off and wait for their recent changes — such as teacher merit pay — to take effect?
Right now, legislators seem inclined toward a wait-and-see approach in the session that begins Jan. 12. They’re likely to spend far more time on issues such as the budget — which will determine school funding — and redistricting.
And outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Cannon, who has promoted major changes to teacher pay and graduation standards during the past two years, thinks it is time for the Legislature to turn its attention to higher education.
“I’m hoping to begin a conversation that will last beyond my tenure here, and that is in higher-ed reform,” Cannon said.
Gov. Rick Scott has expressed interest in looking at higher-education changes, among them a Texas proposal that includes drastically changing the concept of teacher tenure, and promoting science, technology and math (STEM) programs. Some lawmakers also seem interested.
But Cannon said any far-reaching higher-ed changes will require a multiyear effort, just as the public-school reforms did.
Public-school administrators are hoping for a policy moratorium.
Districts are already working to implement the new merit-pay law (requiring new teacher evaluations); new high-school requirements (including end-of-year exams); and reforms required under Race to the Top, the federal grant program that netted the state $700 million last year. Administrators say that’s enough.
“We’ve got our plate full,” said Volusia Superintendent Margaret Smith.
“We’re asking the Legislature to let us alone a couple of years and let us get our budgets straight, and let us make decisions at the local level,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
What school districts would like is more money to hire more teachers and provide more training and support to their current staff. Instead, cuts are a real possibility.
Cannon said last week he is hopeful that the state can maintain its current spending level of $6,269 per student. But that’s down $857 — 12 percent — from a 2007-08 high of $7,126.
Educators say those budget cuts are why progress the state has made during the past decade in math and reading — especially for black and Hispanic children — may have stagnated. Florida students showed no gains in reading and math in recent tests given by the National Assessment of Education Progress.
Districts have laid off staff, put off teacher raises, closed schools and reduced academic offerings.
“In the education arena right now, everything is revolving around the budget — or lack thereof,” Blanton added. “I think we’re just trying to hold on.”
The statewide teachers’ union is also pressing lawmakers to focus on money, not policy.
The current funding level is not enough, and that’s before implementing recent changes, said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. He noted that there’s no funding to create a merit-pay system — let alone pay good teachers bonuses — nor is there extra money to create new standardized exams.
A merit-pay system does not have to be fully implemented until 2014, but Pudlow said schools are already trying to plan for it.
“Really, it all comes back to money,” he said. “If you keep it at the same level as this year, that’s not good.”
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups, four parents and two students argues that Florida is not meeting a constitutional requirement that it provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”
An appellate court last month rejected a request from state officials to throw out the case and asked the Supreme Court to determine whether the constitution proves sufficient parameters for a court to decide whether the state provides “high quality” education. The high court could dismiss the suit — or send it back to circuit court for a trial.
Cannon, for his part, said he does think the state provides students a good education, even under current budget conditions, citing progress during the past decade in math and reading.
“We’ve risen dramatically in the national rankings, and we should always be pursuing improvements, but I think we’ve absolutely seen dramatic improvements,” he said.
Staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-6214. email@example.com or 407-420-5273.