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State confident school plan meets federal rules

By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003

While many states worry that new federal education laws will label scores of schools as failures, Florida submitted its plan to Washington on Friday saying it is unlikely to result in widespread failure.

Florida's plan relies on the FCAT and Gov. Jeb Bush's school-grading system, which last school year resulted in 68 schools receiving F's from the state. That system will remain largely untouched.

But like other states, Florida had to devise some new wrinkles to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. For instance, the federal rules hold schools accountable for the performance of racial and ethnic groups within schools -- something Florida has not done. Because the federal rules are slightly different from Florida's, it is possible that a school that avoids an F under Gov. Bush's system might still fail under President Bush's system.

"We think that would be unlikely," said Deputy Education Commissioner John Winn, the primary architect of the Florida plan. But he added that the state isn't sure what impact the federal rules will have on individual schools.

Winn said school districts might soon embark on school rezonings to comply with Florida's new class-size reduction mandate, and that reconfiguring school populations could have a big impact on school grades and results from the federal accountability laws.

"With that student population shift," Winn said, "who knows what you're going to get."

Though many states have had to start virtually from scratch in creating testing and accountability systems to meet the federal requirements, Florida is considered ahead of the pack. In many ways, Florida's system is more comprehensive and includes tougher sanctions than the federal rules. But Florida wanted to keep its current system intact while satisfying federal rules.

"Florida and a few other states already have tough standards," said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for state services with the Education Commission of States. "The challenge is to incorporate the federal rules while not confusing parents who are used to your state system."

Several states, including some that have been lauded as models of school accountability, fear the federal rules will cause many of their schools to be designated failures. States set their own standards, and that has led to inconsistent plans.

Now that Florida is adding new features to its system, parents will learn a few new things about their schools. For instance, Florida will have to identify "persistently dangerous schools." The state also will develop a new "return on investment" index, showing the relationship between a school's cost and results.

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