Lawmakers brief, hear out county's educators
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published February 3, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - State Reps. John Legg and Will Weatherford made one point clear Friday: Before heading to Tallahassee, they want to know what Pasco County educators think.
"There is no question we have serious challenges that face us in the education realm," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told a gathering of middle and high school principals. "What I want to do is listen to you guys. ... If we're not armed with good information from back home, we can't make good decisions."
Legg, R-Port Richey, who sits on the House Schools and Learning Council, agreed that teachers and administrators who implement the policies coming out of the Legislature deserve a voice at the front end of lawmaking. He pledged to have regular meetings with the group if members were interested.
Many of the principals said they would come back. It's a positive step to have lawmakers brief them on what's coming up and to have the chance to give some advice, said Dave Estabrook, principal of Pine View Middle School and soon-to-be principal at the new Charles S. Rushe Middle School.
The meeting, at the River Ridge Middle/High School theater, continued newfound openness between lawmakers and educators that emerged with new leadership in Tallahassee. During the Jeb Bush era, many school leaders complained that lawmakers imposed rules on them without even asking questions.
That appeared unlikely to continue.
To open the 2 1/2-hour session, Gene Bottoms from the Southern Regional Education Board talked about reform movements geared toward improving graduation rates and achievement levels. He spoke about the need for schools to better connect with students and to challenge them with a high-level curriculum.
Legg said the presentation dovetailed with many of the education priorities that lawmakers have set for the coming session. These include overhauling the Sunshine State Standards to be more globally competitive, dedicating more money for afterschool programs and creating a special category of funding for gifted education.
With the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Legg said, "you are forced to focus on who? The bottom students. An important concept. But who suffers? I will tell you, as a classroom teacher, you know who is suffering? The child at the top."
Other ideas he and Weatherford spoke about were creating more career training programs for high school students, providing foreign language instruction for elementary students and pushing back the FCAT period to allow teachers more time to prepare their students.
The principals agreed with the importance of some of these concepts but had some questions. Hudson High principal Angie Stone wanted to know why the Legislature would push career training, yet the state eliminated a graduation requirement for such classes.
The lawmakers said they weren't aware of that change and would look into it.
Pasco High principal Pat Reedy noted an emphasis during Bottoms' presentation on summer and afterschool programs, yet a lack of money to do such things in Florida. He suggested that the lawmakers might want to remove some mandates to allow schools to focus on the priorities.
John Long Middle principal Beth Brown asked about the possibility of keeping eighth-grade retention a local rather than a state decision. Legg said there is discussion about making a state rule because of high retention rates in ninth grade.
Brown also suggested scaling back the class-size amendment.
"What we'd like to see is have it stay at the school average," she said. "That would give us still some flexibility."
Weatherford said the House is willing, but it will take a groundswell of public comment to sway the Senate. Added Legg: "This is a political dogfight."
The highly charged issue of teacher performance pay also came up. Land O'Lakes High International Baccalaureate assistant principal Caryn McDermott said she would like to see an achievement bar set, rather than the current rule with which only 25 percent of teachers can qualify for bonuses.
Legg responded that the issue is up for debate in committee next week, and all ideas are up for consideration.