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    A Times Editorial

    Rewriting the code

    Florida needs a revised education code, but this week's special legislative session won't deal with the more substantial issues facing the state's schools.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 31, 2002

    Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne is understandably frustrated that lawmakers failed during their regular session to approve a rewrite of the state's massive education code. The rewrite is necessary largely because the Legislature overhauled the K-12 and university systems, and Horne's office worked diligently with a diverse group of education interests to arrive at a consensus product.

    The code rewrite came in the form of an 1,800-page bill that didn't reach the Senate until the last week of the session. Though Senate President John McKay no doubt intervened in ways that made honest debate impossible, he did have one fair point. In a legislative body that often takes years to consider individual changes in education policy, making such a dramatic overhaul in a matter of days is generally unwise.

    Indeed, the code rewrite, which was billed as largely technical in nature, picked up a number of side issues. House Speaker Tom Feeney and his lieutenants want to embarrass county school boards, so they attached an amendment to try to eliminate school board pay. That provision has been changed now to require that such boards vote for their own pay raises in public. Incoming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, put a $40-million appropriation for Alzheimer's research in the bill. Those who push charter schools, including many lawmakers who repeatedly insist on local control, stuck a provision in the bill to allow the State Board of Education to approve -- over the objection of county school boards -- applications for publicly funded charter schools. Horne, whose boss once urged lawmakers to "let state government trust Florida's communities to confront their everyday challenges," likens elected school boards in this case to "foxes guarding the henhouse."

    In making the code the focus of a special legislative session this week, Gov. Jeb Bush is only reinforcing the message of his Senate critics. The governor, they say, pushes wholesale change with irresponsible haste and seems more eager, in the educational arena, to promote form over substance.

    Here's the case they make. During the 60 scheduled days of lawmaking that preceded this week's special call, Bush rejected every attempt to consider a more responsible and enduring funding base for public schools and universities. He has provided no plan to reduce the number of students in each classroom, no plan to make teacher pay competitive in a shrinking market, no plan to help the thousands of struggling students who have lost the extra help once provided by summer school classes. Instead, the governor wants a new code to reflect the new administrative structure he put in place -- a structure that puts one board, whose chairman was Bush's campaign fundraiser, in charge of all schools. Is this truly reform?

    As the school year approaches its end, students and parents already have seen what lies ahead. Summer school has been eliminated in many counties, instructional periods have been reduced in number, some teachers and support staff have been laid off or furloughed, universities are being asked to save money by forcing scholarship students to take fewer courses. Florida now ranks 50th -- dead last -- among states in the money it invests, per capita, on higher education.

    Yes, the Legislature this week needs to approve a rewrite of the education code, minus the mischievous additions from the House. But let no one pretend a new code means a better education.

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