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Sunday, January 16, 2011

School Danger Will Robinson

From the St. Petersburg Times

By Betty Castor

As we begin a new year and a new administration in Florida, the education of our children remains a foremost responsibility of our state. It must be. The public understands the relationship between educational attainment, high-wage jobs and ultimately the global economy. • Educators in Florida have an enormous responsibility. In the fourth-largest state in the country, enrollment now tops 2,644,000 students. Our Constitution holds education as "a fundamental value," and the state's responsibility as one to provide "high-quality education" for all children. It is indeed a difficult task.

I write this commentary as someone who believes fervently that our system of free public schools has helped to make our democracy strong. Although our public schools impart knowledge, they also pass on traditions of a democratic society and our cultural heritage. They work in an open, transparent arena — accepting all students — and must answer to parents and the public at large.

Now we are learning about proposals to dramatically change the fundamental constitutional mandate and the direction of reforms that have already produced positive results. Proponents of "universal vouchers," ignoring the obvious constitutional issues and the lessons learned from flawed plans of the past, want public dollars to flow directly to parents.

Parental choice seems like a reasonable idea. However, Florida is providing increasing opportunities under an umbrella of fiscal responsibility. Simply giving our tax money to individuals and wishing them well is a system designed to fail. Productive changes to help all students are within reach without putting our fundamental system at risk.

Florida's citizens should be proud of their public schools. Recently, Education Week, which tracks state policies and performance across areas of education, ranked Florida fifth in the nation, reflecting improvements on national tests in math and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. This ranking results also from the significant progress by minority students, whose gains continue to outpace students in other states.

In addition, student performance is soaring in more rigorous coursework, such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and certain industry certifications. Last year the number of AP exams administered to Florida's public school students increased 20 percent and the passing score jumped 14.5 percent. Participation in dual enrollment increased 18 percent, with 12 percent earning college credit in those courses.

Greater accountability in Florida schools has worked. In spite of the criticism of FCAT, shining a light on low-performing schools has created momentum for change and a demand for improvement. The achievement and momentum in our state is coming within the currently evolving system of reform. With all this progress at hand, do we want to risk it all on an untried system, one that could potentially upend public schools as we know them and demoralize the very education communities that are working so hard?

The challenge

Competing successfully in the global marketplace is critical, and international comparisons are important. The latest international study indicates that 15-year-olds in the United States lag behind other industrialized nations in math, science and reading. Although some of Florida's state gains have been impressive, we unfortunately rank 30th in eighth-grade reading and 44th in graduation rate. Reading at the high school level is even more discouraging, with fewer than half our students reading at a successful level.

As a nation, we have embarked on an ambitious reform, the "Race to the Top" to encourage states to adopt more rigorous global standards and assessments. Florida is participating in that effort and has committed to substantial changes, including developing merit pay plans for teachers.

The urgency of our task comes at a time when state revenues are in substantial decline and local property tax values are falling. In spite of the dismal fiscal picture, Florida educators face more pressure and students will be required to meet higher graduation requirements.

Savings accounts

Gov. Rick Scott's Education Transition Team has suggested several credible ideas. However, one of the most surprising proposals is a recommendation to establish Education Savings Accounts. This idea creates grave concerns because it strongly resembles the tuition voucher concept that was soundly rejected by the Florida Supreme Court.

In 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that the state's Constitution providing for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure system of free public schools" had been violated and the voucher statute was unconstitutional. The court found that tax dollars could not be used to finance a private school education even when directed to students in failing schools.

Because there have been no public discussions of the universal voucher, school superintendents, school boards and parent organizations are concerned about the fiscal impact on existing revenue.

Would limits be placed on those who could potentially receive public funds? Would students currently enrolled in private schools be eligible for public money? How can school districts afford another loss of dollars except by taking needed funds from even successful programs? Would there be a requirement for testing students to ensure they are receiving comparable instruction? What guarantee is there for taxpayers that parents with a check in hand will exercise due diligence?

The compelling argument against vouchers is lack of accountability. Even advocates are beginning to question the lack of oversight. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., that is usually supportive of the voucher concept, has opened the door to considering public oversight. "We think the time has come to come to terms with the idea of accountability for participating schools," Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president, said in an interview last spring.

Whether the proposal will be embraced by the new administration or the Legislature is unknown. However, during this period of diminishing revenues and new pressures associated with meeting Race to the Top goals, it would be unfortunate to get bogged down in a controversy that deflects attention from the primary and immediate goal of school improvement. The litigation alone that is certain to occur would keep this program in limbo for years.

Public school choice

Parents should have more choices. And school districts have built opportunities for parents to select individual programs for their students. An easy search of the state website reveals hundreds of choices throughout the state. In Hillsborough County, for instance, 37,000 students (out of 190,000) are being educated in programs selected by parents and students, the largest being magnet schools, followed by career centers, vocational academies and charter schools.

School districts increasingly take advantage of electronic and virtual instruction, too. Through state funding, the Florida Virtual School provides courses at no cost, enabling many students to work at their own pace or to access coursework such as AP and foreign language unavailable in the home district.

Top-performing students have outstanding choices, including Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

Charter schools, many of which had a difficult start, now perform better because they operate under public school accountability. Without oversight, many had spending problems and faced deficits. More than 150 charter schools have been closed. However, others are proving successful, especially those serving students in small settings.

They operate in an environment without the burden of the bureaucratic rules imposed on their public school partners.

The success of the charter schools is ammunition for deregulating public schools. With the improved performance of many charters, why not unshackle public schools from outdated, costly regulations?

Change that matters

While dedicated educators embrace new practices and rededicate their lives to teaching, state policymakers should look at ideas that will make a profound difference for all students, not only those who would avail themselves of a voucher.

Change the calendar/change the funding. Florida leaders should abandon the outmoded school calendar. The countries with high performing students require longer school days, weeks and year. More time on task and individualized instruction makes a difference in learning.

Address reading performance of high school students. Even with gains in fourth- and eighth-grade reading, our student performance in high school reading is shockingly stagnant. Only 40 percent of our students are performing at an acceptable level in this fundamental life-changing skill.

Eliminate the digital divide and provide access to technology. We must eliminate disparities and provide technology resources for all children. We accept the obligation in free public schools to provide textbooks and classrooms, but have done little to ensure that all students have access to important technology tools.

Fully support high-quality pre-kindergarten. We have consensus that high-quality early childhood education is critical, but we need extended hours and credentialed teachers.

Every public official and every citizen has a responsibility to participate in the discussion about how to improve our public schools. We should continue the path to improvement that already demonstrates success. Our schools are far from perfect, but we can make them better. They are our responsibility. A healthy dialogue and a healthy respect for all points of view will benefit everyone in the years ahead.

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