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The sad goings-on in Tallahassee

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Taping what she didn't know would be her last commentary on Florida Public Radio's Capitol Report, my friend and former colleague Diane Roberts opened thusly: "Like dogs returning to a marked tree, the Legislature has come back to Tallahassee." After some colorful details, sparing not even the governor, she concluded:

"Having fun yet? Valium is available from your doctor. MD 20-20 is available at the 7-Eleven. Democracy is available in Georgia."

Before it was time for another, WFSU-FM, the originating station here, passed the word: No more commentaries. Julie Hauserman, another friend and colleague, got sacked, too.

As they weren't paid for what they considered a public service, they won't come out poorer. But you will. Radio is a superb medium for informed commentary. Public radio stations, like most of Florida's, that don't have local commentary aren't doing their job.

Caroline Austin, WFSU's program director, said Friday the two were dropped because Capitol Report was unable to find conservative commentators to balance them. Other Florida stations were asked for recommendations, said Florida Public Radio's Buzz Conover, but couldn't help.

As that's not a recent problem, I asked Austin whether any recent complaints from politicians might have figured in the timing of the decision.

"That's not at my level, that's at the general manager's level," Austin said, referring me to GM Patrick Keating, who was out of town. Stay tuned.

"At one time, they got a commentator on the right," said Roberts, who used to enjoy matching wits on air with Steve Slepin, a Tallahassee lawyer. (More recently, she wrote editorials and she occasionally writes for the St. Petersburg Times.) "The main thing is, they haven't been able to find anybody who could talk."

If democracy is doing well in Georgia, it's a sadder story here. Real conservatives would gag at some of the goings-on last week.

Only a tie vote kept the House Committee on Education Innovation from treating public supporters of a bill as rudely as Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, had treated opponents of one of his bills the week before.

In this instance, 13 people, including PTA lobbyists and relatives or educators of blind and dyslexic children, were waiting to speak for legislation (HB 659) that among other things would allow those children to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in the same fashion as the SAT and every other nationally standarized test. On those tests, and in their daily studies, students who can't read visually or by braille are permitted to use talking computers or have the material read to them.

But the Department of Education rule disallows such aids for the reading portion of the FCAT. Students who can't read "through visual or tactile means" automatically fail, which denies them a standard diploma and in turn entrance to most colleges. Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, a sponsor of HB 659, says some counsellors are advising students to drop out of high school and earn a GED certificate, which requires no FCAT, to get into college through the back door. Others choose private schools. The department says it has a process for granting special exemptions to the FCAT reading requirement, but that process clearly isn't working and no one seems to know why.

The department opposes the bill on the premise that it is too broad, giving free passes to too many assumed learning disabilities. As for the blind and dyslexic students, it maintains that a reading test is a reading test, and so much for that.

A foolish consistency is not only the hobgoblin of little minds, but of big bureaucracies.

In this case, the narrow focus on reading belies what the test is really about, which is comprehension. To say that a blind student can rely for comprehension on her fingers but not on her ears is, to my mind, as dumb as saying that a paraplegic couldn't write about sports because he couldn't run.

At the committee hearing, the supporters were still waiting to speak when Rep. Frank Atkisson, R-Kissimmee, proposed an amendment that would turn their bill into (sigh) yet another study. Only after that vote -- which would, in effect, kill their bill -- would the parents be heard.

There was some spirited debate over that, including a Democrat's pointed reference to Farkas' stunt of the week before, and the near-riot that followed. Then the committee voted, twice, each time ending in a 7-7 tie that defeated the motion.

So the public got to be heard, and then the bill passed, 14-0. But the time wasted on trying to eviscerate the bill left less time to hear them.

One of the citizens who nearly got stiffed was Marion Hammer, well known to most legislators as the Tallahassee voice and former president of the National Rifle Association. This time, however, she was representing "my grandson, Eric, who's nine and dyslexic" and all the other kids like him "who are working, who are trying, who want to succeed, who want to have a life."

"He reads with his ear," said Jil Lewis of Oviedo, speaking of her dyslexic son, "just as somebody who is blind reads with his fingers."

I'd like to think that what she and others said Tuesday afternoon was so compelling that nobody could still oppose the bill. But that 14-0 vote may have been deceptive. The bill faces two more committees with no hearings scheduled, and the department (which was silent on school bus advertising and vouchers for everyone) is still unhappy with it.

* * *

Learning-disabled children were also the focus of the "Learning Gateways" bill (HB 1435), similar to one that passed last year but vetoed by the governor, that Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, was defending before the House Council on Lifelong Learning Thursday. It proposes pilot programs to identify potential learning difficulties in newborns and toddlers and direct parents to appropriate treatment.

Florida does that worse than poorly now; even the medical professions are often clueless. Hammer's grandson's dyslexia, for example, wasn't diagnosed until he was 8; she said that his school, refusing to test him, predicted that he'd "grow out of" whatever was wrong.

Harrell knew her bill was in trouble because it resembled last year's legislation, which the House had passed only grudgingly. The conservative leadership's knees jerk at anything it suspects of "cradle to grave" government. Harrell needed another week to prepare a "strike everything" amendment that might meet the House's objections. She asked the council for the delay, a courtesy that's normally granted without question.

Chairman Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, refused and got a split vote to back him up. That left Harrell nothing to do but defend her bill and see it killed, 11-6. Then they reconsidered and killed it again, just to make sure it would stay dead.

Some members voiced what sounded like reasonable concerns but there was no attempt to explain why she was denied the delay.

That may be because the real reasons couldn't stand the light of day. Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, sponsors the Senate version of "Learning Gateways." He's also one of Senate President John McKay's key supporters and the official sponsor of McKay's tax reform. What's more, everybody knows that McKay helped originate "Learning Gateways" and strongly supports the bill.

I'd hate to think that learning-disabled children would become collateral casualties in the civil war between John McKay's Senate and Tom Feeney's House. But when you see a legislator treated as shabbily as Harrell was, what else is there to think?

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