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Cut merit plan, not classrooms
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published August 19, 2007
The easiest $147.5-million that lawmakers could cut from public school spending this year is the one item Florida's headstrong Board of Education wants off the table. The board's resistance reflects its obsession with teacher performance pay and speaks to the kind of ideological trap lawmakers need to avoid next month.
Public education is the one part of the state budget that lawmakers have insisted they will shield from financial harm, but that pledge is nearly impossible to fulfill if participants follow their old political scripts. The Legislature is heading into special session on Sept. 18 because of a $1.5-billion revenue shortfall that may be only the beginning of bad financial news, no matter how many times Gov. Charlie Crist offers a sunnier view of the future. Yet lawmakers still act as though more tax cuts are the answer, even as a January constitutional amendment could cost schools another $7-billion over the next few years.
Any fair-minded assessment of the budget picture would have to begin by acknowledging the need for both spending cuts and more sources of revenue. Legislative leaders at times seem willfully blind to that simple math, and the Board of Education now seems blinded by its commitment to the education legacy of Gov. Jeb Bush.
The merit pay program is an obvious example. The board is still smarting from the political licks it took from teachers and lawmakers in its unilateral attempts to base teacher bonuses mainly on how well students score on standardized tests. But the compromise plan produced by the Legislature is less than five months old. It is so new that many districts have yet to devise performance standards, which is why an increasing number of school boards and education groups have called for a delay.
As if to underscore their contempt for those educators, state board members on Tuesday approved a list of possible budget cuts that takes as much as $644-million from classrooms and not a dime from the $147.5-million merit plan. They went further, too, insisting on a formal statement instructing lawmakers to keep their hands off performance pay.
Regardless of whether the new "Merit Award Program" will work as intended to reward great teaching, it is clearly new and untested in a budget year where new and untested is now a tough sell. Interim education commissioner Jeanine Blomberg, who can be commended for putting deep state agency cuts ahead of classrooms, made that point herself when introducing the subject.
"They really wanted each agency to look at their budgets very closely," she told board members, "to identify programs or maybe new programs that were being started that perhaps you could delay or cut back for the one year to soften the cutbacks in other areas."
That description fits merit pay like a glove, but board members have another agenda. They fight for the pay plan in the same way they cling to the $157.6-million "school recognition" plan, another Bush-era creation. The recognition plan hands out bonuses by a formula so disconnected from actual school performance that some teachers have refused to take the money, but the board considers it, too, to be sacrosanct.
None of the decisions that lawmakers face next month with school funding will be easy, but tough budgetary times require them to challenge the sacred cows. Cutting merit pay and withholding school recognition money could greatly reduce the general cuts proposed for public schools. Why should protecting political legacies be more important than kids in classrooms?