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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Florida renegging on education promises?

From the Sunshine State News

by Kenric Ward

Fading hopes for Christmastime delivery of more than $100 million in "A" school bonus checks were dashed Tuesday as state officials acknowledged that a month-long appeal process will push disbursement into the new year.

Even more troubling, Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson warned that there might not be enough money to fully fund the program.

Following Sunshine State News' story about the delay, Robinson confirmed that his department would hold off on distributing all school "recognition" cash awards until high school grades had been calculated.

Department officials said that some of the data needed to complete the grading had not been available until this fall.

“With high schools receiving their grades in late December and not within a time frame that allows schools and districts to utilize the appropriate appeals process, we simply cannot provide funding to one group of schools and not the others," Robinson said in a statement.

Since the one-month appeal period must also be factored in, the schedule for dispensing "A"-school checks would be pushed into late January, or beyond.

The commissioner then went on to warn that funding levels -- set at $119,596,643 this year -- could be a problem, as well.

"Following the appeals process for high schools, the department will know if the appropriated funds are sufficient to fully fund the awards at $70 per [full-time equivalent] student," Robinson stated.

Asked to elaborate, DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters responded:

"We have no way of knowing at this point how the high school grades will come out. Since the amount of funds appropriated by the Legislature is limited, we want to ensure that each school eligible for school recognition dollars is treated fairly.

"By waiting until all school grades and appeals are completed, we will be able to reward each eligible school in the same way," Etters said.

In previous years, tens of thousands of eligible staffers at "A"-rated schools have received their cash awards before November.

Education advocates and school officials said they hoped the matter would be resolved as quickly as possible.

"That there's this much attention to getting the funding and getting the money to the schools, it's clear that school grades matter and programs matter," said Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida's Future.

"We hope that they would receive it as soon."

Michele White, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of School Administrators, said FASA was confident that "the Department of Education will reach an agreement to support the schools deserving of recognition."

But money -- or the lack thereof -- appears to be a sticking point.

In past years, the Legislature allocated the recognition grants at a ratio of $100 per student. That figure was subsequently reduced to $75, and then to $70 this year.

Meantime, the number of schools earning "A" grades has increased. The ranks of "A" campuses were expected to climb again this year as high schools are graded on what some consider to be a more generous standard.

FCAT scores, which generally decline as grade levels increase, now account for only half of the high school grading formula. Under the new criteria, high school grades are also determined by participation and performance in Advanced Placement classes, graduation rates and "industry certification," as well as FCAT results.

If more high schools earn "A's" this year, the already-downsized recognition-dollar pie will be cut thinner -- possibly smaller than the $70-per-student minimum.

For the previous 2009-2010 year, 305 high schools received a total of $36.1 million in recognition awards, with campus disbursements ranging as high as $295,000.

That year, 1,499 elementary and middle schools received a total of $80.9 million, with the largest allocation being $182,000.

Spokeswomen for House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment on the situation.

The Florida Education Association also did not return Sunshine State News' messages.

Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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