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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Florida's public schools, mugged and left for dead

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

In their final week of work, Florida lawmakers passed bills that would allow public-school class sizes to get larger, give charter schools approval to expand and end tenure contracts for teachers who don't have them by July 1.

The Florida Legislature also finalized a state budget that cuts school funding by almost 8 percent, or about $542 per student.

Here are some of the education highlights. Some are awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's expected signature, and others already have it.

Class size

This measure significantly cuts the number of courses that must meet Florida's strict class-size rules. Advocates say it makes the rules, approved by voters in 2002, more "rational" and less costly to cash-strapped school districts, which lobbied for the changes.

But some worry that after years of working to cut class sizes, Florida classrooms will now be packing in a lot more students, particularly in advanced high school courses. The 2002 rules required all "core" classes to be within caps but excused "extracurricular" classes.

The new measure changes the definition so far more classes are classified as "extracurricular."

Under the Legislature's proposal, the number of classes that have to meet class-size caps would drop by more than 500 — from 849 to 304. The caps are 18 students per class in pre-K-to-third-grade, 22 in the middle grades, and 25 in high school.

The classes that could be larger include all foreign language courses, starting with middle school offerings, and all Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. Pre-calculus, trigonometry, American literature, marine science and western civilization are among others that could also exceed the caps.

The "core" classes, including most elementary and middle-school courses, would still remain within the caps. After October, however, districts could put three to five more children in each room, if creating a new class were not possible.

Charter schools

Bills to expand charter schools — public schools run by private groups — were among a number of school choice measures lawmakers approved.

The measure allows "high performing" charters to get longer contracts and to expand more quickly, and it allows them to replicate their programs in other school districts. Charter school advocates say more than 30,000 Florida students are on waiting lists for A-and-B-graded charters, making an expansion necessary.

But some fear these schools will now operate with little oversight.

Other "choice" bills expand virtual or online options and broaden the pool of public schools from which students can transfer, selecting better-performing campuses if theirs is deemed to be "failing."

Teacher contracts

On the heels of passing a far-reaching teacher merit-pay bill, lawmakers also passed a bill that prevents any teacher who does not have tenure-like protections on July 1 to get them.

The measure means teachers already on the job who do not yet have "continuing contracts," what many call tenure, won't be eligible for them.

Florida Constitution's "Blaine amendment"

Voters next year will be asked to decide if they want to delete from the state constitution a sentence that prohibits state aid to religious institutions.

The section, called the "no aid" provision or "Blaine amendment," states that "no revenue of the state" can be given "directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

Lawmakers who pushed for a resolution to go to voters, said the measure named for a 19th Century congressman is rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry and could be used to discriminate against faith-based groups seeking government contracts.

But opponents argue the sentence is a firm statement on the importance of separation of church and state and should remain in Florida's constitution.

Voters get to decide in the November, 2012 election. The proposal needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.


Lawmakers granted a reprieve to almost 40,000 Florida students who, because of complicated mixture of federal testing rules and state law, were slated to take a standardized algebra 1 exam this month.

The students all took algebra — but a year or more ago.

Testing begins Monday, but only for the more than 200,000 students currently enrolled in an algebra 1 classes. or 407-420-5273.,0,1644322.story

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