Schools still rank near the bottom

Despite six years of major changes, Florida's schools lag behind other states' in many areas - including spending.

Published March 6, 2005

On teacher pay, we trail Georgia.

On graduation rates, Alabama is better.

On eighth-grade reading scores, South Carolina just moved ahead.

Despite six years of major changes by Gov. Jeb Bush and a Republican-dominated Legislature, Florida still ranks with its Southern neighbors near the bottom of the education rankings.

In the legislative session that begins Tuesday, lawmakers will debate even more changes, including an expansion of vouchers, more independence for charter schools and the end of social promotion.

All are large, sweeping issues.

But they won't be accompanied by what some education experts and a former governor say is just as necessary: large, sweeping increases in money.

Florida is behind almost every other state in the nation when it comes to education spending.

Bush's proposed budget calls for a 5 percent increase in per-pupil spending - a modest bump in line with the other budgets Bush has backed since he was elected in 1998. It's also in synch with the philosophical approach Florida Republicans have taken to public education: Money isn't key to better quality.

"Money always has something to do with it, but money does not buy the finest of educations," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Is Lynn right?

Five of the 10 states with the highest fourth-grade reading scores also rank in the Top 10 in per-pupil spending: New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and Maine. All but two are in the top 25 for spending, with the exceptions being New Hampshire (No. 29) and Colorado (No. 40).

None are in the South.

Florida is hoping to be the exception to the rule.

* * *

Instead of large infusions of money, Bush's education platform has stressed higher standards, high-stakes testing, more school choice and targeted investments in areas such as reading.

Whether that approach will pay off remains to be seen. Six years is not a lot of time to revamp something as complex and entrenched as a state education system. And supporters are quick to note that Florida was firmly mired in the bottom tier of national rankings when Bush arrived.

But so far, the results of his revolution are mixed.

In 1998, when Bush took office, Florida's fourth-graders ranked 33rd out of 39 states on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which measures student performance nationwide. That year, 53 percent of the state's fourth-graders rated at basic or better in reading.

In 2003, 63 percent of Florida's fourth-graders tested at that level.

Those gains were second best in the nation and enough to move Florida from ninth to fourth place in the South.

But nationally, Florida still ranked 33rd, though this time among 50 states.

Meanwhile, Florida's eighth-graders wobbled in at 40th nationally in reading and eighth among 11 Southern states, down from seventh in 1998.

Florida's scores are "middling to barely middling," said Mark Musick, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which seeks to push the South toward better national rankings and counts Florida as a member.

The South has historically lagged behind the rest of the United States in education. But even in the land of boiled peanuts and fried catfish, Florida is not considered a pace setter.

In January, the well-respected Education Week magazine gave Florida an A for standards and accountability, making it one of only 12 states to earn a top grade. But it also handed Florida C's for school climate and efforts to improve teacher quality.

Meanwhile, the conservative-leaning Fordham Foundation gave Florida a C for its English standards and an F for its math curriculum.

Georgia got B's.

"I'm disappointed," said recently retired Sen. Bob Graham, who used tax increases to boost education spending when he was Florida's governor from 1979 to 1987. "I think we demonstrated that there wasn't anything inherent that required Florida to be less than a superior education system.

"It appears as if we've chosen to be the middle of the pack or less."

* * *

On some education indicators, there is no denying Florida's progress.

In 1999, 43,000 Florida high school students took the PSAT, a precursor to the SAT and a sign of college aspirations.

In 2004, 116,000 did.

Over the same period, the number of Florida high school students taking Advanced Placement tests doubled, to 68,000, with the jump among black students even more dramatic, from 2,600 to more than 6,000.

"We're definitely going in the right direction," said Education Commissioner John Winn. "No one says we're there yet."

Winn knows other indicators are less flattering.

Musick singled out Florida's graduation rates, calling them "awful."

According to national figures, Florida's graduation rate was 55.7 percent in 2002, putting it at No. 48 nationally, ahead of only Georgia and South Carolina.

(The Florida Department of Education cites a higher graduation rate, but its formula includes those who pass the GED test and special diplomas awarded to students with certain disabilities. Its rate for last year: 71 percent.)

Florida's numbers are the "canary in the coal mine," Musick said. "When I look at that, I say, "We need to be doing some things we're not doing.' "

Florida's rickety national standings often do not jibe with the hearty congratulations coming from Tallahassee. That infuriates critics.

But the state does face unique obstacles: Enrollment continues to surge. Half of its students are minorities, who often struggle academically. And more than 8 percent are in limited-English programs - almost double the rate of any other Southern state.

Then again, Florida is second in the South in per capita income, which means money is there if politicians are willing to tap it.

Winn thinks state comparisons are overrated.

"There are plenty of tradeoffs whenever you do comparative data," he said. The bottom line is "you're either looking at the glass half full or half empty, depending on what your agenda is."

* * *

Money aside, Bush's legislative agenda is as ambitious as ever:

He wants to allow students who flunk the state's reading test three years in a row - about 170,000 students - to attend private school with a state-paid voucher.

He is pushing a new constitutional amendment that would give school districts flexibility in meeting class-size goals and, as a tradeoff, give a small boost to teacher pay.

He is asking lawmakers to give the state Department of Education a green light to eliminate social promotion in all grades - something that now applies only to third-graders.

Higher standards. More choice. Targeted funding.

Bush's supporters are convinced that's the formula for improvement. And given the current political climate, they say, it will have to be.

"I have people who say to me, "Raise taxes,' " said Lynn, the Education Committee chairwoman. But "my constituents say, "Don't do that.' "

Other Southern states are finding the money.

After adjusting for inflation, Georgia and South Carolina increased per-pupil spending more than 20 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to an analysis by the Rockefeller Institute. Florida's increase during that period: 3.7 percent.

In Florida, Bush and the Legislature have cut taxes $10.7-billion in the past five years. They're aiming to cut $285-million more this year.

Some education advocates in Florida are raising a novel argument: that failing to do more for education might be unconstitutional.

An upcoming report from the bipartisan Constitutional Accountability Commission says Florida must regularly compare itself to other states to determine whether it's providing the "high quality" education voters demanded when they approved a revamped education clause to the Florida Constitution in 1998.

Florida's poor national rankings are "at odds with a constitution that has a mandate for the state ... to be doing better than this," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative affairs for the Florida School Board Association, which is co-sponsoring the commission with Florida TaxWatch.

The commission recommends that Florida adopt a list of 14 indicators to measure itself against other states, including test scores, teacher salaries, graduation rates and per-pupil spending.

It also recommends a goal: that Florida reach the Top 25 in half of the indicators and wallow in the bottom quartile in no more than one.

The state has tried this before.

In the late 1980s, after Graham led an effort to move Florida into the top 12 state education systems, the state got as high as No. 16 in per-pupil spending.

Now it's 47th.

In the South, only Mississippi spends less.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com