Primary education: Accountability is hard without money

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008

[Issues facing the 2008 Legislature]

For A Better Florida

In January, die-hard supporters of Florida's accountability system finally got the validation for which they'd been waiting.

Education Week, the national paper of record for education news - widely respected for its smart, nuanced coverage - ranked Florida No.14 in the country in its annual Quality Counts report.

The report gave Florida high marks for boosting national scores in reading and math, increasing the number of students passing rigorous Advanced Placement exams and narrowing the achievement gap for poor kids.

It also blunted one of the last, best hammers critics have for whacking away at accountability. Yes, Florida's graduation rates are shameful - and they have been for a long, long time - but according to Education Week's formula, those rates are improving faster than any state but one.

Finally, something other than a right-wing think tank had concluded that Florida schools were not scraping the bottom of the national barrel, but were in fact headed in the right direction at an impressive clip.

Too bad for supporters, then, that the report didn't get much traction.

They are partly to blame.

The Quality Counts report was preceded in the fall by a spate of stories about a rollback in education spending a reduction of 1.4 percent, then swamped by stories about how Amendment 1 would hurt schools ($1.5-billion less over five years). Now it stands a good chance of being buried for good this spring, when the Legislature considers cutting education again (perhaps by hundreds of millions).

"This is not going to be a year for the faint of heart," said Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

"This could be a year where even good legislation is put on hold," said Rep. Joe Pickens, a Palatka Republican who is chairman of the House Education Council.

This didn't have to happen.

The reluctance of Florida's political leaders to address tax reform in a meaningful way is coming back, again, to haunt them. And this time, it's going to hit them where it hurts.

Led by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the accountability crowd always stressed the need for urgency when it came to installing unpopular policies like school grades and third-grade retention. Kids first, they'd say. A growing body of evidence suggests they were more right than wrong.

And yet, when opportunities arose to stabilize revenues for education - something that would also help the cause of accountability - the same true believers put on the brakes. It's a glaring disconnect - and one that not only plays into the hands of critics, but potentially hurts the kids accountability was designed to help.

Narrow tax base

The facts play like a broken record: During Bush's two terms in office, the Republican-dominated Legislature shifted more of the tax burden for schools to property taxes levied by local school districts and, at the same time, gave away billions of dollars (some say $15-billion to $20-billion) in corporate tax breaks.

Meanwhile, Florida continued to rank near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending. And meanwhile, Bush and lawmakers either ignored or rebuffed efforts to broaden Florida's tax base so it would be better insulated from the kind of roller-coaster revenue dips we're riding again now.

Apparently, Tallahassee likes the ride. In this year's proposed budget, Gov. Charlie Crist optimistically rolls out a $1-billion increase in pre-K-12 spending. But he only gets there by tapping reserves, expanding the Lottery (including more terminals in poor neighborhoods) and again forcing local school districts to contribute more.

In other words: Here we go, again.

To be fair, ducking tax reform is a time-honored, bipartisan tradition. Budget crises came and went in 1991, in 1997 and in 2001, generating real headlines like this one: "Schools have heard this before: The state wants cuts, cuts, cuts."

The difference this time is, it's the education system that Bush built and Crist supports that could suffer.

Another bad budget year will make accountability an even more bitter pill.

It will distract from bigger issues, like high school reform. It will fuel the perception that Florida schools are dirt-poor and subpar. It will demoralize teachers who are responding to demands to work harder and smarter.

Parents, already sick of the FCAT, will think about those budget cuts every time they're asked to buy a glue stick, or bring in a roll of paper towels, because their kid's school can't afford those things.

"Generally speaking, spending price is a proxy for quality. It's why people want to drive Range Rovers rather than Hyundais," said Andrew Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Clinton and a proponent of strong accountability models like Florida's. "So to the extent that money becomes a political issue, then it becomes an easy one to undermine accountability."

A similar dynamic is eroding what used to be bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind.

Critics repeat, often, that President Bush and Congress underfunded No Child, and the evidence suggests they've got a case. But the amount in question is a few billion dollars a year. Considering a $3-trillion federal budget, and all the pork that goes with it, you have to wonder: Did Republicans taint the most sweeping education law in decades by being chintzy?

"One of the smart things reformers can do is take one of the easy issues off the table, and that's money," Rotherham said. "They add a challenge to themselves if they leave the funding piece out there to get clubbed over the head with."

Smart money

Even accountability needs money.

Some might even say more money, though money spent in a smarter, more focused way. More and more, Florida schools are doing the kinds of things they should to get their hardest-to-reach kids over the hump - things like targeted class-size reductions, targeted increases in teaching time, targeted incentives to find and keep better teachers.

To date, they've been able to do those things with modest increases in their budgets. But can they keep doing them if spending is stagnant? Can they do them if spending is cut?

In the long run, can they really do them as well as they need to - at the urgent pace we all want them to - if the bars on the revenue charts keep bouncing like pogo sticks?

Accountability supporters are in so much of a pickle this year, even their programs might get nicked.

Pickens, the House Education Council chair, pointed to the "recognition money" that's used to reward schools with good FCAT scores, and to the state's fledgling merit-pay program for teachers. "I don't think anyone's considering the elimination of those," Pickens said. "But those are certainly the types of things we'll look at first."

In the meantime, lawmakers will further darken public perception by attempting, again, to make the 2002 class-size amendment more flexible. Their reasons might make sense, but all parents will hear is how their schools are being shortchanged, again. That's what led to the amendment in the first place.

Ironically, lawmakers are poised to make real changes to Florida's accountability system.

They're talking about expanding the formula for school grades, so grades don't hinge on FCAT scores alone. They'll probably move the ball on end-of-course exams, standardized tests that (unlike the FCAT) actually test subjects high school students are taking. And it's likely they'll take steps to make charter schools - which grew by leaps and bounds under Bush - more academically and financially sound.

All these things point to an evolving, maturing, more responsive system.

But don't expect cheers. As long as lawmakers are cutting education, again, parents and teachers will never believe that our schools really are getting better.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.