Weakest schools cheat students
By DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Poor, minority children in Florida's worst schools are being shortchanged in areas crucial to learning and high achievement, according to a new study commissioned by Gov. Jeb Bush.
These children don't have the same opportunities to sign up for advanced classes as students in more affluent schools; they don't use computers as much; they appear to get less guidance from school counselors; and often, they have inadequate textbooks and library materials.
The findings are based on more than 500 interviews of school officials and students in 10 school districts, the sample for a yearlong study by the Equity in Educational Opportunity Task Force created by Bush in November 1999.
The task force of educators, politicians and business people looked not only at possible funding disparities between schools. It also considered more subtle factors -- such as access to higher level courses -- that can lead to a culture of low expectations for students
"Task force members were concerned about findings that showed fewer or no advanced classes were available for students in small school districts and in lower performing schools. Whereas research and experience has shown students in high minority, high poverty schools can excel, students in these categories were denied access," the task force concluded.
The study comes at a time of continued tension between Gov. Bush and African-Americans who oppose his efforts to end state affirmative action programs and blame him for election problems that they say disenfranchised minority voters and helped put Bush's brother, George W. Bush, in the White House.
The study was submitted to Gov. Bush on Jan. 31, according to a cover letter by Dr. Castell Vaughn Bryant, a Miami-Dade Community College official who led the task force. But there has been no news conference or formal release of the document. The governor has not been briefed on the study, his spokeswoman, Katie Baur, said Monday.
Education Commissioner Charlie Crist was unaware of the document until Monday, when the governor's chief education policy aide, John Winn, mentioned some of the findings to a group of state and federal lawmakers holding an education meeting during a federal-state summit held in the state capital.
At the meeting, Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown complained that it is no secret that Florida's highest rated schools are "the ones on the other side of the track, . . . the ones on the other side of the bridge."
State Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, a former school board member, said he struggled to get a more advanced, international baccalaureate program at a predominantly minority school in Tallahassee. He found that schools with low concentrations of poor and minority students tended to have stronger administrators and less turnover among teachers.
Winn told the group that the equity study showed that the worst performing schools -- those getting Ds and Fs in a grading system predominantly based on test scores -- actually get more money from the government than schools with A and B grades.
The study analyzed financial data for five years, dating back to to 1994-95, and concluded that, "The broadly held perception that lower performing schools receive less public financial support than higher performing schools was not substantiated by state data reviewed by the task force."
For example, schools given a D or F grade for the 1998-99 school year got between $334 and $656 more than schools given an A grade.
But the task force was cautious about drawing broad conclusions, saying the data it had access to did not include private sources of money that may be available to schools, such as funds from parent teacher associations, school foundations and booster clubs.
In general, the task force relied largely on interviews from school officials and students in 62 schools and 10 school districts: Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Orange, Collier, Osceola, Polk, Holmes, Levy and Madison. More than 500 interviews were conducted in May and June 2000, including school superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors and students.
An analysis showed that higher performing schools in the study, those given A and B grades, had considerably lower concentrations of minority students and poor students than lower performing schools that got D and F grades.
The differences in responses to interview questions were sometimes stark.
Asked to respond to the statement: "The school's facilities are conducive to higher student achievement," only 66.1 percent of respondents at D and F schools agreed, or strongly agreed. The figure for A and B schools was 89.2 percent.
Only 60.7 percent of respondents at D and F schools believed the school had adequate instructional materials to effectively teach. Nearly 80 percent of respondents at A and B schools agreed with that statement.
Education Commissioner Crist was hesitant to draw conclusions about the study because it focused so much on the interviews that could have come from people who do not support Florida's education reform efforts.
"I think we'd have to see who was interviewed to get a better handle on the credibility to attach (to the responses)," Crist said.
Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, a former education commissioner, said the study shows that money isn't the key to solving all education problems, and the state isn't always to blame.
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