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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some of Florida's top education stories

From the St. Petersburg Times Gradebook by Jeff Solchek

Florida's big education stories of 2011

It's been a big year for Florida education. Here's our list of game changers that took place during 2011. Let us know how ours stacks up with yours.

Contract? What contract? - In one fell swoop, the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature altered the playing field for all state public school teachers. with SB 736, it required new teacher evaluations based on a different set of criteria, tying at least 50 percent of the result to student academic performance. Continuing contracts would no longer exist for new educators, and they became shaky even for current teachers who got mediocre evaluations. Lawmakers mandated performance-based pay, although they provided no money for it. They banned the use of seniority in deciding layoffs. And they did it all in the name of reform based on the Obama administration's Race to the Top. A year earlier, then-Gov. Charlie Crist held off this move. But with Rick Scott in the Governor's Mansion, the opposition had few friends in high places.

Charter schools welcome here - Florida lawmakers open the doors to charter school applicants with less restrictive rules governing their operations. The new "high performing" status, granted to 104 existing charters including those connected to some lawmakers, allows those schools to add students, lengthen their contracts and expand into new locations without much oversight. Lawmakers funneled more money into charter school construction, while the Department of Education created a $30 million startup fund for new charter schools. Not surprisingly, the state had more charter school applications in 2011 than ever before.

FCAT gets harder - Florida school district leaders complained for years that the score to pass the FCAT was too low in elementary school and too high in high school, making it look as if the young kids were excelling only to become dumb once they hit ninth grade. With a new version of the test in hand, the Florida Board of Education increased the passing scores to end December. Not just for elementary school kids, but for every grade level including ninth and tenth, against the recommendation of just about everyone who spent the better part of a year reviewing the scores. Education commissioner Gerard Robinson said he was confident students will rise to the challenge. Superintendents are predicting much higher failure rates come April.

Refresh on leadership - When the Pinellas School Board hired Julie Janssen as superintendent in 2008, board members hoped the veteran district insider would return the system to its former glory. She faced big hurdles, and stumbled over many of them. The board warned Janssen in the summer of 2011 to turn her lackluster performance around. It unanimously dismissed her in late August. The board battled briefly over how to pick a replacement, settling on former Polk superintendent John Stewart after some disagreement over the openness of the process. By November the board was so happy with Stewart, it removed "interim" from his title to give him free reign until he leaves in December 2012. (Notably, Pinellas wasn't alone in seeking new leadership. Palm Beach, Broward, Lee and Collier counties got new CEO's, too, amid controversies for the superintendents who left.)

Do more with less - The Legislature slashed education spending by more than $1 billion, putting per-student funding at levels not seen in years and near the bottom nationally. School districts eliminated hundreds of positions, kept employee pay flat and cut back on services such as bus rides for kids living closest to campus. They closed schools, talked about four-day weeks and opened district-only health clinics - anything they could think of to reduce expenses. Lawmakers, meanwhile, wouldn't even pass a bill allowing districts to sell ads on buses - the only revenue-generating proposal that emerged in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott has talked about restoring $1 billion to the schools in 2012. District officials aren't counting on that being enough to stave off more cuts and layoffs, if it ever comes to pass.

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