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    Florida still ranks poorly in delayed education study

    The foundation that did the study released it months later than planned after reviewing data from the governor's staff.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 9, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Despite a delay to review new data from Gov. Jeb Bush's staff, a study still ranks Florida near the bottom of the 50 states in education funding.

    The Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation released its study of Florida's schools on Monday, two months after its original February release date.

    Foundation officials did include, at Bush's urging, some updated and rosier information about school funding and graduation rates that wasn't in a November draft.

    But overall, the education chapter remained highly critical of Florida's schools and future work force.

    "Florida shows signs of lapsing into a vicious cycle, where the state's limited number of high-skilled workers inhibit creation of high-value jobs, limit income levels, and weaken the the state's economy," the report said.

    A Bush spokeswoman said the governor wasn't surprised by the study's results, saying it took "a generation and a half" of neglect for Florida's schools to reach that point.

    "A man named Jeb Bush ran for governor" because he thought schools needed help, said Bush spokeswoman Katie Muniz.

    The report is part of a larger study by the foundation, a nonprofit research organization associated with the chamber of commerce. That larger study, called New Cornerstone, will have eight chapters and should be finished by the end of the year.

    The report garnered attention in January when members of the Senate Education Committee expected to receive a final copy. Instead, they got a surprise from the consultant hired by the foundation to conduct the study: He wasn't ready to release it.

    It was the day after consultant John Kaliski met with Bush's staff.

    "We thought it would be prudent to reconsider" the findings, Kaliski said at the time. Bush's staff had given him information that wasn't publicly available in November when the chamber released a draft, he added.

    That sparked accusations that Bush tried to whitewash the report, accusations his staff denied.

    Foundation executive vice president Jane McNabb said the foundation was actively soliciting input from different groups and that the report's release was delayed while her staff verified the information.

    McNabb said her group only added data that was more current than available federal data and that could be verified.

    "We stood our ground," McNabb said. She said her group was surprised to see Bush's marked-up draft copy, in which the governor's staff had underlined and crossed out paragraphs critical of the state.

    One item Bush persuaded the foundation to change is how to calculate state school funding.

    The report's assertion that Florida dropped from 21st in the nation to 42nd in per-pupil funding between 1991 and 2001 didn't change, but the chamber added a paragraph suggesting that, when calculated differently, the drop in actual per-student funding during that time was less than half of 1 percent.

    Much of the almost $1-billion in new education money in Bush's proposed budget for next year comes from local property taxes and savings on school districts' retirement plans.

    Those savings are what account for the mere half-percent change in school funding the report noted, at Bush's urging, in its final draft. The districts get the savings by contributing less to retirement plans, according to the report.

    The report also noted that just two of 10 students who enter high school in Florida today will earn a bachelor's degree. And Florida's high school graduation rate, according to federal data, dropped from 61 percent in 1990 to 56 percent in 1999, although state data provided by Bush showed a graduation rate of 60 percent for 1999.

    -- Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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