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Monday, August 15, 2011

The destruction of Florida's public schools begins

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

Another new school year has arrived in Central Florida, and in many ways, the ritual and rhythm of the season — school shopping and meet-the-teacher events — are the same as ever.

But the 2011-12 school year will be anything but routine, with seismic shifts for those who work and study in Florida's public schools.

New laws will alter teacher pay and evaluation plans, expand students' school choices and likely put more kids in many classes. And the deepest education cuts in decades from the Florida Legislature will be felt across the region.

"It is not business as usual when we start this new school year," said Orange Superintendent Ron Blocker. "We don't have the resources."

School starts Monday in Seminole County and a week later in Lake, Orange, Osceola and Volusia counties. Here are some key changes this year:


Public schools will have about $542 less to spend per child this year after the Florida Legislature slashed funding by an average of nearly 8 percent. That makes the state's contribution to public education the smallest since 2003.

The impact of the cuts varies by district — some such as Orange have local taxes that offset state reductions — but many have reduced expenses by eliminating bus services, electives and administrative staff. Many worry there is little money to fix leaky roofs or balky air-conditioning systems and fewer dollars to upgrade school technology.

In Seminole, among the hardest hit locally, Longwood Elementary has been closed, with its students on Monday scattered to four other campuses.

Teacher pay

The state this year will begin to ramp up a far-reaching, and fiercely controversial, merit-pay plan that overhauls how teachers and principals are evaluated and paid.

The law wipes out tenure for new teachers and relies on student growth on standardized tests to judge teacher quality and, ultimately, determine who gets paid the most. It will be phased in during the next three years, but its impact will be felt this year.

The state will use a new system at the end of the year to evaluate teachers based on how much their students improve on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The system will crunch FCAT data while taking into account factors outside a teacher's control, such as a student's absentee rate.

By July, the state will report what percentage of teachers in each district were highly effective, effective, needed improvement/developing or ineffective based on the new system.

New salary plans that use the test-score data are to be in place by 2014. Plans for how to judge teachers who do not teach so-called FCAT subjects are to be finalized that year, too.

Class size

Lawmakers relaxed the law limiting class sizes that voters approved in 2002. The change will be most noticeable in high schools, where all foreign-language classes and most advanced courses — from Advanced Placement offerings to pre-calculus and American literature — can now exceed the law's original enrollment caps.

The new law shrinks by more than 500 the number of classes that must meet those original caps — no more than 18 students in pre-K-to-third-grade classes, 22 in the middle grades and 25 in high school.

The caps remain in place for about 300 "core" classes. But even those classes can be exceeded by three to five children after October, if creating a new class is not possible.

Virtual schools

Students starting ninth grade this year must take one online course to earn high-school diplomas, thanks to a law that seeks to expand digital or virtual learning. The law also allows the state-funded Florida Virtual School to expand its offerings to elementary-school kids. It had been serving middle and high schools.

School districts and charter schools, and other private virtual operations, can also increase their virtual-course offerings, giving Florida students more ways to learn outside the traditional teacher-in-a-classroom setting.

More tests

Florida will continue its push for computer-based testing this school year, with more students taking FCAT and new standardized final exams online.

This spring, sixth- and 10th-graders will take their FCAT reading tests online, though students in other grades and those taking FCAT math, science and writing exams will continue to take paper-and-pencil versions.

The state also will expand its arsenal of end-of-course exams for middle- and high-school students by adding biology and geometry tests. Last year, end-of-course exams debuted in Florida with an Algebra 1 test. Like the algebra exam, the new exams also will be taken on computer. An end-of-course exam in U.S. history will be field-tested this spring as well.

Saggy pants

Six years after Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, first proposed it, state lawmakers this year outlawed "saggy pants" on school kids. The law says students cannot wear their pants in a way that "exposes underwear or body parts." Students caught with sagging pants could, on the third offense, be given a three-day, in-school suspension. They also could be banned from extracurricular activities.

School vouchers

Florida's private-school-voucher program for students with disabilities is expanding this year to include more youngsters.

The current program, known as the McKay scholarship, is a tuition voucher that families can use to help pay for private schools if they want to opt out of public institutions.

It had been an option only for students in the state's "exceptional-education" program. But now students with 504 plans can apply, too.

Students with these plans have a disability as defined under federal law but do not typically need the kind of interventions or accommodations that students in the state's exceptional-education program need. More than 51,000 Florida students have 504 plans, so the legislation could significantly expand the McKay program, which last year served about 21,000 youngsters.

Student transfers

Students at public schools deemed "failing" under an expanded school-choice law can transfer to better-performing schools this year. Statewide, 159 schools, including 11 in Orange, two in Lake and two in Volusia counties, have to offer transfers for the coming year. That is up from 24 last year. Nearly 1,100 families in Central Florida have applied to have their children switch schools, though some might not take the transfers.


The enrollment in public schools across Florida is expected to grow, but very modestly, with perhaps about 12,000 new students entering the system. The total should remain fewer than 2.7 million. or 407-420-5273.,0,5940862,full.story

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