Class (size) warfare
By JON EAST, Times Perspective Editor
Four years after a new governor redefined success and failure in Florida public schools, the grades are in. Of 2,515 schools in 67 counties, a third are deemed excellent. Another half are rated average or above. Only 68 schools, or 2.7 percent, are failing.
The portrait that emerges from the high-stakes testing and grading system Gov. Jeb Bush put into effect in 1999 may surprise those who listen to the politicians in the state Capitol who deride public education as a failure. If the grades and test results are to be believed, the mission is nearly accomplished. Schools are doing fine.
Unfortunately, it isn't that easy.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has always presented a distorted view of how students and schools are performing. This year, facing a constitutional mandate to reduce class size and competing demands for scarce money, the state Legislature is about to experience the limitations.
The state has built an accountability system based primarily on testing as an incentive for performance, yet tests don't teach. Tests don't hire new teachers and, increasingly, they alienate the good ones the state already employs.
"Florida now has all these accountability measures," says Cathy Kelly, governmental relations director for the Florida Education Association. "It really is time, now that we have accomplished that, to step up to a higher level. Now that we know how we're going to measure those things, how are we going to make sure that they get done?"
To Kelly and other education advocates, getting things done means recruiting and keeping good teachers, creating specialized reading programs for elementary grades and giving remedial help to struggling students.
Those are things that cost money, which is in exceedingly short supply this year. The governor and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd continue to make tax reduction a priority, even though the state ranks 49th in per capita spending on education, and the impact on public schools could be severe. The governor's own budget plan offers only a 4.6 percent increase in per-student funding, which is not enough to cover inflation and modest teacher raises, let alone the voter-mandated class-size reduction. And he pays for that increase by taking money from universities and child welfare agencies, and pretending that $1.5-billion is available from legally restricted trust funds.
"The governor's budget is ugly and inadequate," says Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "The people who voted for the class-size amendment believed that that would come on top of the normal budget, not in place of it. We're going backwards if we are going to fund the class-size amendment at the expense of everything else."
As Gov. Bush begins his second term, he finds his own philosophies in budgetary conflict. In his January inaugural, he said there could be "no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers, silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role." Yet he again promised to make education his highest priority.
Contradictions are also evident in the governor's approach to Amendment 9, the constitutional initiative to reduce class size. Bush and most legislative leaders fought the initiative when it was on the ballot last fall, saying it would be so costly as to "block out the sun" in education spending. Yet his budget plan for the first year includes about as much money in new tax breaks, $600-million, as it does for class-size reduction.
"Now is when we find out what happens when the exact people who didn't want this to pass are the stewards of making it work," says Damien Filer, a spokesman for the Coalition to Reduce Class Size. "The local districts and the universities are through the roof with this budget proposal, because what he is doing is exactly what the amendment said the Legislature can't do -- which is to pass the buck. I think he still looks at this very much as a political campaign, that it is his job to turn public opinion against the class-size amendment."
The coalition is pushing the Legislature to remove unwarranted sales tax exemptions to pay for class-size reduction. The projected first-year operational cost for smaller class sizes is $628-million. By comparison, the state currently exempts roughly $23-billion of products and services from the sales tax. Former Republican Senate President John McKay fought for a review of those exemptions, which include such items as a $2-million exemption for the Golf Hall of Fame, but lost to a furious lobbying effort by the affected businesses. Byrd wants no part of the review, though the new Senate president, Jim King, has shown some interest.
The other question is how to distribute the class-reduction money fairly to school districts and make sure they meet the goals. The amendment says that, by 2010, classrooms in kindergarten through third grade should have no more than 18 students, that grades 4 through 8 should have no more than 22, and that high schools should have no more than 25.
Those are daunting goals statewide, but one preliminary legislative analysis demonstrates the different impacts on each school district. Franklin and Gadsden counties, for example, may already meet the class size goals. Miami-Dade and Broward aren't even close. The correlation between class size and teacher pay is striking. Of the 67 school districts, for example, Miami-Dade is ranked seventh largest in elementary class size, first in middle schools, and fifth in high schools. On the other hand, its average teacher salary, $44,964, is the highest in the state. Gadsden, which has the smallest elementary classrooms in the state, has the 64th highest teacher pay.
A variety of education groups, including school superintendents, are pushing for the state to distribute any new money through the existing formula that is used to apportion money, per student, to each district. That way, districts with smaller class sizes won't be shut out of additional funding; they can spend the money on teacher pay.
Bush and Byrd seem eager to use the class-size debate as yet another entry point for school vouchers. They would offer vouchers to students in overcrowded schools, yet neither has explained how that approach squares with Opportunity Scholarships, which are awarded as part of the governor's A-Plus Plan to effectively punish schools that fail the FCAT. Their intent in offering the vouchers may be as much vengeful as educational: They know vouchers will anger the very groups that pushed the class-size amendment.
The political combat on education keeps escalating, and that push and shove is being felt in the classrooms. The A-Plus Plan is driven by a belief that teachers won't get the job done unless the state looks over their shoulder. To make matters worse, Education Commissioner Jim Horne and the Board of Education have provided little buffer between the politicians and the teachers. Horne and the board have served, thus far, as undiscerning disciples of -- some would say apologists for -- the governor.
Of Bush's $17-billion budget for public schools this year, for example, Horne told educators: "It is overly generous to education knowing the fiscal times we are in." Of the current state of affairs in public schools: "Morale is high, leadership is good." Of the department's use of computer technology: "We're truly at a point now where we're going where no school system has ever gone. It's kind of like Star Trek -- we're on that last frontier."
Classroom teachers and school district administrators are not nearly so sanguine. To them, the state is becoming the Big Brother of education. It now grades the performance of every school, conducts audits on school districts, establishes administrative spending guidelines, and is even considering a statewide teacher salary structure. The state board can approve a new charter school in a county where the elected school board has voted against it. Performance on one state test, FCAT, determines whether a school gets cash bonuses or can be shut down. And this year, for the first time, students cannot graduate high school or be promoted from third to fourth grade without passing the FCAT.
"A key issue for us is flexibility," says David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Superintendents Association. "We have had so many rules and regulations piled on school districts over the last several years. As we deal with class-size reduction, we need to eliminate a lot of things that don't have a lot of impact on student achievement."
Don't look for that to happen. Bush himself sets the tone, castigating educators who disagree with his policies as "the protectors of the status quo." He appointed a commissioner and an education board that view public schools with skepticism and sometimes contempt. A recent board debate on third-grade promotion policy is illustrative. The Legislature has decided that no third-grade student should be promoted unless he or she passes the FCAT reading test. When presented with rules that would give classroom teachers a narrowly defined ability to promote some third-grade students who fail FCAT reading, several board members reacted angrily. Sally Bradshaw, the governor's former chief of staff, questioned whether the rules would allow too many students who failed the test to be promoted anyway.
Charles Garcia, a Boca Raton investment banker, was more blunt. "It seems to me," Garcia said, "that we're sitting here creating ... more loopholes to give to people in the field to make students feel better about themselves."
The "people in the field" are classroom teachers, and they are still the ones who drive education. The test scores and the school grades may produce press conferences and the illusion of accountability, but they don't teach a 9-year-old how to read. Teachers do. Until the state can begin to place more trust in those teachers and give them more tools to do their jobs, the task will never be complete.
-- Jon East is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.
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