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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Florida's unfunded education mandates are strangling education

From the News Herald's editorial board

The state of Florida has 573 pages (single-spaced) of public education rules and regulations that local school districts must follow. It covers topics both large (curriculum) and small (minimum sizes for American flags).

While the thicket of mandates has grown over the years, state funding to local schools recently has declined, making compliance even more costly and difficult. It’s hard for many districts to prioritize spending and make trade-offs when the state gives them so little wiggle room to decide.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed restoring $1 billion in state education funding for 2012. Tallahassee would do well to have a concurrent reduction in the amount of strings it attaches to that money.

Take, for instance, Rep. Larry Metz’s bill (HB 4057) that eliminates the mandate that middle schools provide physical education classes for all students. Metz, a Republican from Yalaha and a former Lake County School Board member, argues that that the current requirement for P.E. comes without funding and that schools should have the choice whether to provide such classes.

That has sparked stiff opposition from those who argue that children are suffering from an "obesity epidemic" and need the exercise to slim down. Overweight kids, though, pick up most of their bad habits — unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles — at home, where they spend most of their time. It’s hard to see how 150 minutes a week in P.E. classes over a 180-day school year can compete with that, let alone reverse it.

Others point to studies that indicate that students who had increased physical activity before, during and after school hours improved their academic performance, test scores and classroom behavior. There’s little doubt that some mid-day exercise would help rejuvenate many young minds and bodies (and some older ones, too). But again, the key is that "before" and "after" time — home life has a much greater impact on the student.

Indeed, it is inarguable that students who come from homes where reading and studying are encouraged by parents who take an active role in their children’s education are much more likely to succeed academically than those who come from families where learning is neglected. And that’s when students spend far more hours in classrooms than they do in gyms and playing fields.

Schools’ primary responsibility is to educate students. The state already ties districts’ hands on the amount of time they can spend teaching, what they can teach, how and when they should test. The FCAT alone has forced officials to construct school calendars solely around testing days. There simply is little room left to maneuver.

Pruning one twig from Tallahassee’s tree of education regulations, as Metz’s bill does, would give districts a little more freedom to concentrate on meeting state and federal academic standards. But Florida should go further and cull more mandates from the education codebook.

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