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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A look back at Florida education in 2010

From the St. Petersberg Times Grade Book

A look back gives insight for future of Florida education news
Some say the past is preview and prologue for the future. That seems likely the case for Florida's biggest education stories of 2010, all of which have tendrils into 2011.

Look no further than Senate Bill 6. The legislation, which emerged quietly in March, aimed to dramatically change the way Florida contracts, hires, fires, evaluates and certifies its public school teachers. It itself was the offshoot of an unsuccessful 2009 House bill with the moniker "Quality Teachers For All Students Act."

Once word of SB 6 hit, it generated a furious backlash. Not the usual FCAT-hating, Jeb Bush-bashing variety. No, this was a real grassroots effort, from Facebook to street corner, that joined parents and teachers in opposition to an effort that seemed to ignore input from those who had a key stake in the matter as state leaders pushed to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding. (Who wouldn't want a nearly $1 billion infusion during tough times, after all?)

Only a last minute veto by Gov. Charlie Crist killed the initiative. But only for the moment. Crist won't be governor anymore, and governor-elect Rick Scott looks more favorably upon the teacher "tenure" proposals expected to come from a veto-proof GOP majority in 2011.

Also on the Tallahassee front, the Legislature began the end of the high school FCAT, authorizing the creation of end-of-course exams more closely aligned to individual course curricula. Those exams begin in 2011 with Algebra I. Lawmakers expanded the number of corporate tax credit scholarships (vouchers to some) available to Florida students, perhaps paving the way for a 2011 discussion on vouchers for all that Scott kicked off in the final days of the year to a frenzy of national commentary.

And lawmakers took yet another shot at scaling back the 2002 class size amendment, asking voters to ease the restrictions that otherwise would take effect with the 2010-11 academic year. The November referendum didn't cross the 60 percent threshold needed for approval, leaving the issue of implementation in tough budget times open for yet another year of debate. Already the Pasco School Board has approved more restrictive school choice rules to align more closely to the class size mandate, while also redrawing attendance zones to make it easier to comply.

Speaking of tough budget times, 2010 marked yet another year of school board spending cuts across Florida and the Tampa Bay region. Teachers saw their pay continue to stagnate while also being required to do more work and, in some instances, pay more for shrinking benefits. Districts tried to avoid layoffs and program cuts with varying degrees of success. With revenue estimates looking bleak and federal stimulus funding coming to an end, budget cuts promise to remain with us in 2011.

Still, the Hillsborough school district was able to find money to match its Gates Foundation grant for changing its teacher evaluation system. The effort, still in its infancy, has received enough teacher support without major public infighting to win national attention as the kinder, gentler way to approach teacher quality reform.

Contrast that with Pinellas County's attempt to overhaul its academic programs through a series of moves and mergers. As each idea gained a public airing (or sometimes because it didn't), parents, educators and even students came out to blast the concepts and press the School Board to kill it. Two new members elected in November joined the majority to adopt some of the concepts, such as a new International Baccalaureate program. But overall the new majority approved only a shell of superintendent Julie Janssen's recommendation.

All the area school districts saw major improvement in their graduation rates and high school grades from the state, as the Department of Education adopted new standards for each. Yet even within that good news lay the seeds of future problems, as the new definitions included measures that appeared to obscure reality. (One example is giving Advanced Placement participation greater weight than performance for school grades. The ratio will change over two years.) Calls for fixes began the day after the press releases hit.

Still, Florida's school grading system remained the envy of many other states, where leaders brought in former governor Bush or his team of supporters to explain the Florida model. The ideas began to take hold in several places, including New Mexico, where former Florida deputy education commissioner Hanna Skandera was appointed to become education secretary, as well as Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma and a host of others. That's yet another Florida education story that promises to take root in 2011.

Stay tuned.

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