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Commission gives state schools a failing grade

The state is not meeting a constitutional requirement, a bipartisan commission says.

Published September 14, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Florida is failing to meet a constitutional requirement to provide its children with "high quality" education, and the proof can be found in its poor rankings on graduation rates, teacher pay and per-pupil spending, a bipartisan commission said Tuesday.

The Constitutional Accountability Commission was created by the Florida School Boards Association to take a look at a 1998 amendment to the state Constitution that established the unique standard for public schools.

Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, and former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican, chaired the commission and were on hand Tuesday to suggest that more money be spent on schools. They also urged creation of a system that compares Florida's performance to other states.

If Florida does nothing, it will remain vulnerable to a court challenge, the commission suggests.

"The last thing we want to have happen is for the educational system of this state to be put under court order or declared unconstitutional as it has in some other states," Butterworth said.

The response from Gov. Jeb Bush's office: "Florida's education system is on the right track," said Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss. "Under the governor, funding for public schools has increased by $6.1-billion and Florida students are reading and performing math at higher levels than ever before."

Bush has made the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test the centerpiece of his education agenda, but the FCAT does not measure Florida's achievement against other states. By other measures, Florida continues to rank in the lowest quartile of states on seven of 10 key performance indicators and in the lower half on three out of four funding factors, the commission concluded after a 14-month study.

"We applaud the efforts in Florida, but when you compare against yourself it doesn't tell you much," Milligan said.

Among other comparisons:

Florida ranks 48th on per-pupil spending, ahead of only Nevada and Mississippi, according to the latest analysis by Education Week magazine.

--It ranks 30th on teacher pay, at $40,604, more than $5,000 behind Georgia, $6,000 behind the national average and $17,000 behind the leader, California, according to the National Education Association.

--It ranks 48th on graduation rates, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In lower grades, Florida students have made strides in recent years, judging by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card." In 2003 - the last year for which test scores have been reported - Florida was the only state in which fourth-graders were deemed to have made true progress in reading.

But even then, Florida ranked 33rd in the country and, in the South, behind Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.

The rankings don't matter, said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chair of the House Education Council.

"I want to do well, but I'm rejecting this whole idea of rankings as validating where we want to be," he said. "We don't need to have a beauty contest."

Florida is the only state in the nation where voters have approved a constitutional amendment that requires a "high quality system of free public schools," and makes education "a fundamental value of the state," the commission noted.

A 1998 change in the Constitution abandoned an old standard requiring "adequate provision" for a "uniform system of free public schools."

Florida should adopt a list of 14 indicators and measure its success against other states, the commission determined. The state should set a goal of reaching the top 25 on at least half of those indicators and make annual reports on its progress, the commission said.

Florida has some unique challenges, Butterworth and Milligan admit. It has 15 school districts with majority minority populations and gets more than 65,000 new students every year.

Butterworth and Milligan plan to present a report to Bush and lawmakers that pushes for adoption of new standards for monitoring school performance.

--The Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 14, 2005, 07:03:02]

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